Chimney Rock State Park bigger, more modern

Chimney Rock State Park's main entrance stands next to U.S. 64-74A in Chimney Rock Village.
Chimney Rock State Park's main entrance stands next to U.S. 64-74A in Chimney Rock Village. Photo by Jack Horan

Haven’t visited Chimney Rock State Park in a while? The changes may surprise you.

The state bought the private park for $24 million in 2007. It set about to refurbish the 100-year-old tourist attraction in Western North Carolina, with its 315-foot-high monolith, gift shops and snack bars, and to acquire land for conservation and recreation such as hiking and rock climbing.

The park’s much bigger now. It’s expanded from 1,000 acres overlooking Lake Lure to 6,807 acres, with tracts wrapping around both sides of Hickory Nut Gorge.

The Division of Parks and Recreation has renovated buildings and replaced stairways, closing some trails for construction and safety reasons. But it recently opened a 1.5-mile trail on Rumbling Bald mountain on the northern side of the gorge and Pulpit Rock, Subway, and Grotto sections of the Outcroppings Trail below Chimney Rock.

It’s the only N.C. park with an elevator in a mountain. For decades, the 26-story elevator whisked visitors from the parking lot to the level of Chimney Rock. But it closed for repairs last August and probably won’t reopen until the end of the year.

The only other way to get up to Chimney Rock is to climb the 499-step Outcroppings Trail staircase, as tourists did before the elevator opened in 1949.

Huffing along, a steady stream of visitors last Saturday ascended the natural skybox to soak up the dramatic mountains-to-Piedmont vista as a large American flag snapped in the wind. (The adult admission fee of $15 has been reduced $2 while the elevator is out.)

Some visitors, including first-timers Cindy and Tim Owen of Grand Rapids, Mich., kept treading up another 330 stair steps along the Skyline Trail to Exclamation Point. At 2,480 feet, Exclamation Point looks into the western part of the gorge.

The Owens that day left their recent college-graduate son at Fontana Dam to hike the Appalachian Trail, and wanted to do some hiking of their own. “It’s beautiful. The whole area is gorgeous,” Cindy Owen said. “We will definitely come back again.”

The Skyline Trail once extended to the top of Hickory Nut Falls, a 404-foot-high plunge. In 2008 park officials have closed the trail, along with the lower Cliff Trail.

Park Superintendent James Ledgerwood said a new Skyline Trail has been designed and should be completed by the end of 2016.

Three other hiking trails remain open, including Hickory Nut Falls Trail (0.7 miles), which leads to the base of the waterfall.

Guiding the expansion is a 25-year master plan that calls for a $20-million visitors center, a 110-mile trail network, parking and picnicking at World’s Edge and increased parking and picnicking at Rumbling Bald. But the public can’t use 1,568-acre World’s Edge tract, with a spectacular view into the Piedmont, because the park can’t obtain land needed for access. Ledgerwood said the park buys land only from willing sellers.

The Rumbling Bald section covers 1,100 acres. It’s a popular rock-climbing site. From a parking area off Boys Camp Road, the loop trail goes to the base of soaring cliffs and two boulder fields with car-and-house-sized rocks.

Rumbling Bald caused a panic in the 1870s when locals heard rumbling, felt the earth shake and saw what they believed was smoke coming out of what was then called Bald Mountain. The New York Times and other newspapers reported a volcano was about to erupt. Geologists later concluded the rumbling likely was caused by small earthquakes and aftershocks. The “smoke?” Clouds of dust kicked up by falling rocks.

The state park traces its origins to 1890 when landowner Jerome Freeman built stairs to the top of Chimney Rock, charging a fee, according to “Chimney Rock Park and Hickory Nut Gorge,” by J. Timothy Cole. In 1902, Dr. Lucius Morse, from St. Louis, Mo., along with twin brothers, Asahel and Hiram, purchased the spire and 64 acres. They opened it to the public in 1916.

To mark the centennial, park officials on July 4 plan to temporarily raise an N.C. flag atop Chimney Rock on the same date a century ago that the Morse brothers first raised the ever-flying American flag.

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Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”