Hikers in the Western North Carolina mountains often have a choice to make: walk by water or have a view. Some trails do offer both, and for this reason, my favorite hike in this end of the state starts at the East Fork of the Pigeon River and goes to the Shining Rock outcropping.
It's a 9-mile roundtrip hike, with about 2,500 feet in elevation gain, so it's not for the casual hiker.
The trailhead is on U.S. 276 between the Blue Ridge Parkway (BluRP) and Waynesville, about 4 miles north of the BluRP. There are actually two trails that start here, one on each side of the Pigeon. I start at the Shining Creek trailhead, on the Waynesville side of the river. There's plenty of parking on both sides of 276.
The trail starts out flat, paralleling the Pigeon for about a fifth of a mile. At .3 miles, there is a fork. The left-hand trail goes to Rocky Cove, a beautiful spot on the Pigeon and an easy hike to do with kids or your out-of-town flatland visitors.
Take the uphill trail to the right. At .7 miles, there is another trail junction, as the torturous Old Butt Knob Trail turns off to the right. Don't go that way. It's a one-mile trek straight uphill without views or other rewards. And no rushing water, which you're about to encounter when you descend to Shining Creek level.
At one mile, there's a small clearing to the left beside the creek where I traditionally stop for my first sip of water. This first view of the mossy rocks and tumbling waters of Shining Creek is sweet. And it gets better the higher you go, with cascades and waterfalls offering a constant crescendo.
At 1.9 miles there is a creek coming out of Daniels Cove. About 30 yards past the creek is a goat-trail to the right that leads to a secluded, spectacular waterfall, a great hike and lunch destination on lazier days.
The trail begins climbing shortly thereafter, leaving Shining Creek and following a smaller stream.
At 3 miles, there is a creek crossing where I stop to fill up my water bottles using my Sawyer Mini water filter. FILTER YOUR WATER! I got giardia being stupid in this area. There are some springs farther up the trail, but in dry weather, you can't count on them to be anything other than mosquito breeding grounds.
The trail sometimes goes straight up the contour lines on the map, sometimes has switchbacks. It also gets rough in places, with lots of jumping from rock to rock as the ground below your feet gets soggy. In summer, there are butterflies galore along this section. The flora changes as you climb. There's a brief walk through a spruce-fir forest.
At 4.2 miles, Shining Creek Trail joins the Art Loeb Trail. Take a right. It's easy walking from there to the Shining Rock, about .3 miles further.
You can't miss it when you get close. It's to the left and it's white. Not just white. WHITE! Like, it will make you snowblind if you look at it in the sun. There's a scramble to the top with a view out over the Little East Fork of the Pigeon Valley and Birdstand Mountain and Fork Mountain and others. It's a great place for a picnic and a rest before heading back down.
You can take the Old Butt Knob Trail to get back, but I don't recommend it. There's no rushing water and the views are minimal.
One word of caution ... I'd hiked 16 years in WNC without seeing a rattlesnake. In an eight-day span on the Shining Creek Trail, I saw two out in the sun on warm days. The rattles can be heard even over the rushing creek, so listen carefully.
You can get to the trailhead by taking U.S. 276 through Waynesville, so even if the BluRP is closed due to weather or government shutdown, you can do this hike.
I highly recommend it.
I recorded the hike on AllTrails.com. You can access it here, if you're willing to forgive the poor quality of my cellphone pics: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/shining-creek-to-shining-rock.