North Carolina’s Chilly, Hilly West: Cold Mountain
By Susan Clark
“Inman can see west for scores of miles. Crests and scarp and crags stacked and grey to the long horizon. Catalucci, the Cherokee word was, meaning waves and mountains and fading roads, this day the waves could hardly be different from the raw winter sky that were barred and marbled and same-shades of gray only.
The outlook stretched high and low like a great slab of streaked meat…it was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was the homeland.” – excerpt from Cold Mountain
On bookshelves around the world is Cold Mountain, a best-selling novel by Charles Frazier, whose lyrical prose makes you feel as if you have been to the summit. In the book, Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, leaves his hospital bed and heads home, on foot, to Cold Mountain.
Charles Frazier found inspiration for what he calls his “American Odyssey” in the mountainous backwoods near Asheville and in the area’s local history and unique culture.
Hills of North Carolina is Home
“Whenever I’m back in those mountains, I feel like that’s home, no matter how long I’ve been away,” says Frazier, whose family has lived in the hills of North Carolina for over 200 years.
“That’s the place I know the best, and the place that in my imagination sums up all those things about being rooted and knowing a place and having a place.”
Despite the international success of the book and movie “Cold Mountain,” few people realize that Cold Mountain is a real place that looms well above the horizon southwest of Asheville, an eclectic town nestled in the Western North Carolina mountains.
During the Civil War era, the Land of Sky, as Asheville was once known, was just beginning to transform itself from a thriving hub for livestock drovers to the sophisticated resort that it would soon become. Today, Asheville is just a short scenic drive from the real Cold Mountain.
You’ll find the real Cold Mountain in North Carolina’s Shining Rock Wilderness, which was originally part of the Cherokee Nation until white settlers with a land grant from the state began migrating here in 1796. At 6,030 feet, it is the tallest peak in the wilderness area. Located in government-owned Pisgah National Forest, Cold Mountain hasn’t changed much since the Civil War in which the book is set.
Its pristine state may make it seem lost in time, but it’s only 40 miles from eclectic Asheville and can be viewed easily from the Blue Ridge Parkway. That’s where we’ll start our journey.
Milepost 412.2 on the parkway, about 30 miles from Asheville, brings our first glimpse of the peak. The best views of the mountain’s south face are from the Wagon Gap Road parking area. Thousands of travelers have had their pictures taken beside the Cold Mountain sign with the peak in the background.
Better views are available at Milepost 407. Take the mildly strenuous three-mile roundtrip trail up Mt. Pisgah for your reward: a superb view of the east side of Cold Mountain. This area of the parkway is typically closed November through March for the winter season
If you want an up-close and personal encounter with Cold Mountain, strap on your best hiking boots and pack and plenty of food for the invigorating 10.6-mile hike. Hikers gain 2,800 feet in altitude as they leave the Art Loeb trailhead at the Daniel Boone Scout Camp, heading for Cold Mountain’s summit. You’ll reach plummeting Sorrell Creek about two miles into the hike, a cold, clear mountain stream that passes by some excellent campsites.
The trail ascends to beautifully forested Shining Rock Ledge, past Deep Gap and up the final 1.5 miles to the summit. A tangle of rhododendron can make reaching the top a challenge. Only experienced hikers who have maps and a compass should try this hike since this is a wilderness area with no signs or trail markers.
There is no town named Cold Mountain here at the peak, only the wildlife, the forest, the coves and creeks that Frazier described so vividly in his novel. But on a clear, cool North Carolina autumn afternoon, what could be better than this place of quiet contemplation?
View Cold Mountain
The easiest place to see the actual Cold Mountain is along the Blue Ridge Parkway just past Wagon Road Gap (mentioned in the book). From Asheville, drive south along the Parkway past Mt. Pisgah to milepost 411. There, visitors will find a large, weathered, wooden National Park Service sign, not unlike those found at all of the other Parkway overlooks.
The exception is that this spot is now easily one of the more photographed along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with visitors strategically placing themselves next to the sign with the now-famous mountain looming in the distance.
No Town of Cold Mountain
There is no town of Cold Mountain. A few small hamlets at various points along the base of the mountain might well have been the inspiration for the fictionalized town. From the Parkway, a drive south along U.S. 276 leads to the base of the mountain and Cruso, a small settlement along the East Fork of the Pigeon River.
A little further north, at Bethel, the road intersects with State Road 215 which heads south, providing views of the west side of the mountain and passing by scenic Lake Logan, the Sunburst Trout Farm and a roadside swimming hole and picnic area, before eventually reconnecting to the Parkway.
Hike to the Summit of Cold Mountain
Just as Ada struggles to take on the challenge of a new life, only the most intrepid hikers will want to face the daunting climb to the summit of Cold Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest. The nearly 11-mile round-trip hike is strenuous, with an elevation climb of more than 2,800 feet in a wilderness area with no trail markers. Along the way, late summer hikers will find a nice crop of huckleberries.
The Art Loeb trail to the Cold Mountain summit begins to the left from the parking area just after the last building in the Daniel Boone Scout Camp. Leaving the roadside, the trail switchbacks north to round a ridgeline at 1.1 miles, according to Randy Johnson in his new book “Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
At 2 miles, the trail crosses tumbling Sorrell Creek at the first good campsites. The trail continues to rise across the richly forested flank of the Shining Rock Ledge. At 3.8 miles, take a left at Deep Gap. The peak is 1.5 miles north. Johnson warns that a good map and compass are recommended before embarking on this hike.
Savor Old-time Appalachian Music of the Era
Music is part of the underpinning of the Cold Mountain story just as it was for 19th century Appalachian mountain life. Families and friends gathered on the front porches in coves and hollers, trading ballads and sharing the music of their Celtic roots.
That tradition is played out each summer during Shindig on the Green, an old-time mountain jam session that takes place on City/County Plaza in Asheville most Saturdays between July 4th and Labor Day.
On most Wednesdays and Thursday evenings, the strains of a fiddle or banjo can often be heard at places like Jack of the Wood Pub in downtown Asheville.
Many churches still hold shape-note singing gatherings where old-time melodies such as Angel Band (more recently popularized by Emmylou Harris) are sung in the manner reminiscent of a bygone era.
Step Back in Time to an Appalachian Settlement
Referred to in the story of Cold Mountain as “Catalucci,” this region of the mountains extends into the North Carolina section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park . This isolated valley was the largest and most prosperous settlement in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Once a thriving settlement, the families of Cataloochee sold their homes to the government for the establishment of the Park. Today, several of those structures still stand to offer a glimpse into a simpler way of life.
The region is also home to a growing herd of newly re-introduced elk as well as bear, wild boar, turkey and deer which can often be seen at dusk and dawn in the fields and woodlands bordering the gravel roads. Once known for its farms and orchards, today’s Cataloochee is one of the most picturesque areas of the park.
About 20 minutes from downtown Asheville stands the family pioneer homestead of North Carolina’s Civil War Governor Zebulon Vance. Open to the public, the large two-story structure of hewn pine logs has been reconstructed around the original chimney and contains furnishings and household items from the early 18th century including a few pieces original to the home.
Clustered about the grounds are six log outbuildings: the corn crib, springhouse, smokehouse, loom house, slave house, and toolhouse. Demonstrations of pioneer skills such as soap making, butter churning, and tanning can be seen during special events at various times throughout the year.
Explore Nearby Sites from the Story
Inman encounters the goat woman near Grandfather Mountain (Inman looked at the big grandfather mountain and then he looked beyond it to the lesser mountains as they faded off into the southwest horizon). Today, visitors can explore Grandfather Mountain, hike its many trails, see mountain lions, bears, and other animals in a natural habitat and traverse a mile-high swinging bridge.
Closer to Cold Mountain, the rushing waters of the actual Pigeon River provide thrilling whitewater rafting during the summer months. A variety of rafting companies provide guided trips along the Pigeon.
While you’re exploring the real Cold Mountain and some of the places mentioned in the book and movie, try discovering Asheville’s great literary legacy that includes Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry and Gail Godwin, and Asheville’s unique attractions, culture and restaurants.