The anomalous geologic formations of Chimney Rock have been captivating the inhabitants of North Carolina’s Hickory Nut Gorge for hundreds of years. It is a beacon of supernatural power, according to Cherokee lore, and a site of scenic splendor and aesthetic to European settlers. Today, it is one of North Carolina’s newest state parks, open to all who appreciate natural and historic wonder.
Chimney Rock’s potential as a park was recognized in 1902 when Dr. Lucius B. Morse and his two brothers, Hiram and Asahel, purchased the formations from Jerome Freeman for $5000. Morse had toured Hickory Nut Gorge a couple years prior to treat his chronic tuberculosis and was captivated by Chimney Rock’s prominence and grandeur. The Morse brothers envisioned Chimney Rock as the focal point for an innovative health and nature resort and spent the next decade pursuing the business venture—constructing nature trails, access points, and amenities for the park’s future visitors.
The brothers opened Hickory Nut Gorge Park (as it was originally called) on July 4, 1916, christened by the unfurling of a 15’ x 25’ American flag on top of Chimney Rock. It was certainly a momentous occasion for the surrounding communities as over one thousand people attended the grand opening. However, less than two weeks later, the park was forced into temporary closure following Hurricane Hilda, which flooded the Rocky Broad River and washed away the wooden entrance bridge. Undeterred, the Morse brothers quickly reconstructed a new, sturdier bridge and reopened within a few weeks.
Hickory Nut Gorge Park grew immensely in popularity during its first decade of existence. So much so, that Dr. Morse decided to dam up the river and its accessory creeks to create an artificial lake for the resort. Lake Lure was formally distinguished in 1926 and the community on its shores was consolidated into an incorporated town the following year.
The park soon gained national acclaim, which prompted Morse to build restaurants and the Cliff Dwellers Inn on the mountainside to accommodate overnight guests. Dr. Morse also constructed an elevator system inside the mountain and made Chimney Rock even more accessible to those who couldn’t climb its lofty flights of stairs. This impressive feature—which includes a 198-foot access tunnel and 258-foot elevator shaft—was constructed between 1947 and 1949 and is one of the few systems of its kind in the world.
In addition to its geologic formations, Hickory Nut Gorge Park was the site of an adventurous road race called The Hillclimb. Between 1956 and 1995, amateur and professional racers alike sped their way up the two-mile entrance road, fit with hairpin turns and steep cliffs. Some racers were able to complete the feat in under two minutes…no easy task considering how tortuous the road is. The park has also been featured in numerous film productions, such as Dirt Dancing (1987), A Breed Apart (1984), and The Last of the Mohicans (1992).
In 2007, Hickory Nut Gorge Park was sold by the Morse family to the North Carolina government and renamed Chimney Rock State Park. The area is still a work-in-progress as the state continues to acquire tracts of land surrounding the site. The park currently encompasses over 6,000 acres and is open year-round. There is a $15 fee for entry.
I started my journey on the Outcroppings Trail: a 0.4-mile loop that exhibits some neat geological features before ascending five hundred steps to the top of Chimney Rock. Chimney Rock, the park’s namesake and main attraction, is a 315-foot tall spire of Henderson gneiss granite positioned 2,280 feet above sea level and offers visitors a spectacular 75-mile panoramic view of the valley below. As I made my way up to the peak, I stopped by the Grotto—a rocky overhang, Subway—a low-clearance tunnel through the igneous rock, Gneiss Cave, and Pulpit Rock, all of which are great photo opportunities!
After experiencing the blustery conditions atop Chimney Rock (I made this trip the same day I visited Mount Mitchell), I continued on to the Exclamation Point Trail: a 0.6-mile round trip that takes hikers to the highest elevation in the park, 2,480 feet above sea-level and 1,400 vertical feet from the start point. Along the way to Exclamation Point, I visited the Opera Box (another rocky overhang) and Devil’s Head, a precariously perched boulder that resembles a devilish figure after thousands of years of weathering and erosion.
The terminus of the Exclamation Point Trail links up with the Skyline Trail: a 2.2-mile out-and-back path that takes visitors to the upper cascades of Hickory Nut Falls, a 404-foot waterfall that originates from a natural spring on Chimney Rock Mountain. On the way to the falls, hikers can stop at Peregrine’s Point (about one-third of the way down the trail) which offers arguably the best view of Hickory Nut Gorge.
After over three miles of hiking, there was still one trail left to explore: the Hickory Nut Falls Trail. This 1.5-mile out-and-back path leads hikers to the base of Hickory Nut Falls, the more stunning view of the cascades in my opinion.
I hiked a total of 4.7 miles in my three hours at Chimney Rock. This location has as many exhilarating sights as it does steps, and there are a LOT of steps! It was quite fascinating to visit these formations and learn more about the region’s history and geology. Although the $15 entrance fee may sound a tad steep at first, I assure you it’s well worth it, considering the park is still developing and every donation helps further preserve these astonishing natural landmarks. Trail Rating: 10/10
Visit the Chimney Rock Park Homepage and the North Carolina Parks Page for visitor information!
Read these articles from Romantic Asheville and Chimney Rock Village for more history on Chimney Rock!
Visit AroundLakeLure.com for more info about the park's legacy!
Is Chimney Rock haunted??? Find out by reading this intriguing article from North Carolina Ghosts!
Read this resource from Google Books: Cole, J. Timothy. Images of America: Chimney Rock Park and Hickory Nut Gorge. Arcadia Publishing. 2008