Craggy Gardens is a brilliantly picturesque and adventurous expanse on the Blue Ridge Parkway…full of sweeping mountain vistas, hiking trails, rhododendron, and harsh rocky landscapes. It is definitely a unique environment…and its many blooming plants and trees, contrasted with the rocky crags and cliffs, is credited to giving it its namesake. It is also my favorite section of the Parkway. Let’s explore!
Craggy Gardens can be divided into three parts – the picnic area, the Visitor Center and overlook, and Craggy Pinnacle. Only located about 20 miles from Asheville, Craggy Gardens is a relatively easy day trip to make…and absolutely worth the drive. In this post, we’ll be discussing just the picnic area and the hike to the shelter.
Craggy Gardens picnic area is located at milepost 367.6 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and about a 45 minute drive north of Asheville. It definitely doesn’t feel like a long drive, since there is plenty to look at on the way up. There will be plenty of signage pointing the way to the picnic area from the Parkway, so it’s not hard to find. Once you turn off the Parkway, there will be a short, winding road that takes you up to the picnic area and parking lot.
Once at the top you’ll find ample parking and picnic tables. There are two restroom buildings, one on each side of the parking lot (north and south sides). The one you pass first is the north building and the only handicap accessible restroom in the entire Craggy Gardens area. There are a ton of tables to choose from…most right beside the parking lot, and others more of a walk into the woods to find. There are also two handicap tables close to the north building. There are also grills scattered throughout the area…for those who want a true cookout experience. Be sure to walk around and really explore the space…there are some fun little nooks and crannies to be found. If you do picnic, be sure to pick up all trash and food after you’re finished. The landscape is fragile, and there are bears that patrol for leftovers. And it’s also just good adventuring etiquette to leave things as you found them.
I am partial to this picnic area because this was a favorite place for my family to visit. We’d build a fire, eat chili, explore the little trails, climb on the rocks, roll down the hills…it was the perfect playground for adventuring young me. This unique habitat of trees and plants is extremely fun to explore, but it is also very fragile. There are signs warning to stay in designated areas and trails…and if we want future generations to enjoy this wonderful place, then it’s best we listen and explore cautiously.
As you drive further into the parking lot, you’ll see the south restroom building. This is also where the hiking trail to the shelter and Visitor Center is located. The restrooms in the Craggy Gardens area are only open seasonally, so be aware of that when you’re planning your trip (they all close during winter months, and reopen in early spring).
The Craggy Gardens Trail starts at the south end of the parking lot, and you travel up some stairs and through a little part of the picnic area. From here, the shelter is a little over a half mile hike, and it is up hill most of the way. But there are plenty of opportunities to stop and rest. There are benches, rocks, and a cool gazebo style overlook along the trail. Going at a moderate pace, it should take 25-30 minutes to reach the shelter.
Near the top of the trail, it really starts to become beautiful. Rhododendron line both sides of the path, wildflowers carpet the floor, and the views become exceedingly gorgeous.
Once at the shelter, take a minute to catch you breath. There is bench seating lining the perimeter of the structure. The trail continues through the shelter to the other side, and that will take you a short distance to the Visitor Center. But, the real reason for hiking up here isn’t for the shelter, it’s what you’ll find when you walk around and above it. There is a little trail that veers to the right as you approach the shelter, and that will take you up to explore the vast rhododendron bald. During June and July, this piece of land transforms into a spectacular stage for the Catawba Rhododendron to showcase its blooms. There are also multiple berry plants and twisted trees that make this area such an intriguing and cool place. Once up there, take a moment to reflect on the beauty of the landscape and the gorgeous panoramic views that it offers.
The best time to visit the Craggy Gardens Trail and picnic area is anytime during June and July. The wildflowers are still out, the rhododendron are blooming, and the weather is great for picnics. There really isn’t a “bad” time to visit…the fall is pretty because of the leaves, the spring because of the wildflowers, and winter because of the chance for spectacular icy views. During the summer, there are a lot of people that visit the area…but it’s so large, it’s really hard to feel congested and crowded.
From the shelter, you can make your way back the way you came, or you can continue down the trail to the Visitor Center. I like to head back to the picnic area and drive over to the visitor center, but there really is no wrong way to explore here. Here is a map (and some other helpful and important information from the Blue Ridge Parkway) to make adventuring this area a bit easier and safe.
In the next post, we’ll be discussing the visitor center and overlook.