Flat Rock Self-Guiding Loop Trail (Milepost 308)

Trailhead sign

Difficulty Rating: 3

This is one of my favorite trails, of the Blue Ridge Parkway and beyond. It’s short—O.7 miles round-trip—and the payoff far outweighs the effort. A short and gradual climb to an amazing, nearly panoramic view, and plenty of places to stop and enjoy it, make this trail perfect for a relaxing day in the mountains.

A sign stands at the entrance to the trail, with a short paragraph describing its features. There are 15 or so plaques along this trail, marking the location of various plants and other biological or geological features and providing a short description of each. Though some of these plaques have grown inaccurate or outdated with the changes of the forest, the majority are accurately placed and provide an informative, interesting resource for nature enthusiasts.

One of the desciptive signs along the trail

As you begin the hike, the trail ascends slightly and meanders through a hardwood forest with a floor blanketed in wildflowers, ferns, and other herbaceous plants. The trail splits shortly after you begin; though it doesn’t matter which direction you hike the loop, the trial signs are laid out with the left path as the beginning. Both paths lead to Flat Rock and have a similar, gently sloping gradient.

The dominant flora soon transitions to rhododendron, with galax lining the forest floor. Finally, as you approach Flat Rock, pines and hemlocks take over. From here, the trail curves in a U-shape around the rock and back into the forest. There are yellow arrows painted on the rock surface to guide you.

Flat Rock provides multiple spots with gorgeous mountain views. The trail passes several areas where a break in the trees allows for 180 degree views, and there are many excellent places found by a little exploring (carefully, of course!). In addition to beautiful views, these tucked-away spotsare great for relaxing in solitude or just stopping to take in your surroundings. If you do choose to wander off the trail, however, avoid walking on or disturbing the plants growing here—it’s hard enough growing on a rock as it is!

A young American Chestnut tree, which will never make it to adulthood

Flat Rock has a couple of unique and noteworthy features. It is dotted with hollowed-out pockets, the result of years of rainwater erosion and freeze-thaw cycles. The trees here—the pines especially—are stunted in growth, and have been visibly effected by wind exposure. The branches all grow in the same direction, and the tree itself appears to be in a constant state of leaning or bending with intense wind. I find it mind-blowing that these trees and plants are able to grow in a thin layer of soil over solid rock.

Following the yellow arrows around the rock, the trail enters the woods again and travels through much of the same habitats as the beginning of the path, but in reverse. There are several large boulders and rock formations on the way, before the trail enters a dense area of blueberry, goldenrod, and other herbaceous plants. The end of the trail is marked by a plaque, and a short walk down the path to the left brings you back to your car.

In my opinion, this trail is pretty easy. There are a few roots here and there in the path, but nothing too tricky, and the incline is slight and gradual. There are no creeks to hop across, and I have never encountered any muddy or wet areas to step around. However, if you choose to venture off the trail on Flat Rock, I would be extremely cautious and wear shoes with excellent grip.

View of the valley below Flat Rock

View of the valley below Flat Rock

**I want to note that though this trail usually provides a serene walk through a variety of plants and habitats, my last visit was vastly different.  The forest surrounding this trail had suffered immense damage—probably a result of the harsh ’09-’10 winter—and the trial was littered with downed trees and piles of branches, and many plants that were dead or dying under their weight. It was an incredibly shocking and unpleasant sight. I am unfamiliar with the Parkway’s typical course of action in such a case, so I don’t know if the debris will at some point be removed, or if that is even possible given the nature of the trail and the lack of access for the heavy equipment usually required to do so. I just hope the forest here is able to recover!




~ by theartsynaturalist on October 10, 2010.

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