What happens when you combine the mountains of western Carolina with a retreat from Charlotte city living? You get Montreat, a mountain town whose name is literately derived from the words mountain and retreat.
At the center of this small mountain town is the Montreat Conference Center, a facility affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. The grounds include the conference center, a campground, lodging, and 2,500 acres of natural area.
Montreat and its more than 40 miles of hiking trails are an easy, two-hour drive from Charlotte. A highly recommended option for a day trip is an easy-to-follow, 10-mile loop that offers some interesting local history, a glimpse at a waterfall, and panoramic mountain views.
But most importantly, there's also some great beer and pizza.
1. The Logistics
The loop consists of three trails: Graybeard, West Ridge, and Big Piney. The total distance, including all three, is approximately 10 miles and gains and loses about 56,000 feet of elevation, (or at least that's how your legs will feel after you finish it). The actual elevation gain/loss is more like 2,400 feet.
Parking for this hike is located on Graybeard Trail Road. After passing the famous Montreat Gate, Assembly Road becomes Graybeard Road. Follow this until you see the gravel parking spots and the sign at the trailhead.
Begin the hike by taking a right onto the Graybeard Trail. Continue with a left on the West Ridge Trail and then a left down Big Piney. After exiting the trail, take a left and walk about ¼ of a mile on the quiet mountain road back to the original trailhead. A simple, easy-to-follow map shows all three trails in the loop.
2. Hiking Highlights
There are several large, sideways-Y-shaped, switchbacks on the trek up the Graybeard Trail. The origins of these navigational marks trace back to the early days of train transport. In order to navigate the steep sides of Graybeard Mountain, a train would pull into a short spur, or base of the sideways “Y,” while the conductor switched the track. The locomotive would travel backwards and slightly downhill to the next spur, alternating back and forth until the train reached a more manageable grade.
At the tip of one of these spurs you’ll find Graybeard Falls. The small, flat plateau here is a great place for a breather while watching the falls cascade down the rocks.
Walker's Knob is a little further up the trail and a great place to have lunch. A small spur trail from here leads to Walker's Knob and a southern view of the mountains that make up the natural area. It’s worth a few minutes to have a look.
The high point for the hike is the peak of Graybeard Mountain. At just over 5,400 feet, the summit offers a stunning view looking north toward Mount Mitchell. The peak isn’t an ideal place for a long stay, as it’s a little overgrown, but the view is a worthy payoff for the effort.
3. Post-Hike Refuel
Hiking down the steep West Ridge trail is a challenge for shaky quads, but you’ll find your reward just a few miles south in the town of Black Mountain.
The first stop is Lookout Brewery, which produces small-batch craft beers ranging from IPAs to brown ales. Try the aptly named Lookout Stout, a medium-bodied brew that's a perfect complement to a chilly winter day. The tap room offers occasional live music and is filled with the inviting smell of popcorn popped in coconut oil.
Have a few handfuls (who can resist freshly popped popcorn, anyway?) but make sure you don't ruin your appetite for the real post-hike reward: a meal at Fresh Wood Fired Pizza and Pasta, located just across the street from the brewery. True to its name, the restaurant uses fresh ingredients, most of which are sourced locally, to top a medium/thick crust that bubbles with a slight char from the 800-degree oven.
"Fresh," as it's often referred to by locals, also offers gluten-free crusts and pasta and a good selection of sandwiches and salads. Settle in with your pie and a pint of craft beer to take in the live music. And try to arrive early, as this small and popular place fills up quickly.