Western North Carolina Physical Geography

The Mountains of Western North Carolina

Asheville, WNC's largest city (2020 pop. 93,350) is located in the French Broad River valley, which lies roughly in the center of North Carolina's Mountain region. The area is part of the southern Appalachian mountains, and the mountains in the region are the highest of the Appalachian chain. Although the peak elevations of the southern Appalachians aren't that impressive when compared to other world chains, they are easily 4,000 ft from base to top, and top out at nearly 7000 ft. Steep, rocky peaks are common as are trails that climb over 2000 ft.

In the Southern Appalachians, the area of high relief swells far beyond its average width and height further North. The Blue Ridge is a long, relatively low range of ridges along an escarpment, which separates the highlands from the Piedmont region of Western North Carolina. This ridge stretches from the southern border of NC with SC all the way to the northern border with VA, oriented in a SW to NE direction. Its summit is the Eastern Continental Divide. To the east of it, all streams flow to the Atlantic ocean. To the west of it, all streams flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The highest point on the Blue Ridge, Grandfather Mountain, reaches nearly 6000 ft. Most mountains in the range rise to around 3000-4000 ft, slightly higher in places.

Shorter ranges and clusters of mountains lie to the West of the long, even Blue Ridge - and they are generally the highest. The Nantahala Mountains, Snowbird Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains, Balsam Mountains, and Newfound Mountains lie to the Southwest of the French Broad River basin and occupy the lands in the extreme Southwest portion of the state. The French Broad River basin is a broad, hilly valley running northwest from near Brevard to the NC-TN line where it narrows into a gorge. Northwest of the French Broad River basin lies the Bald Mountains and the Black Mountains, which contain Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Even further northeast, along the NC-TN line, lies Roan Mountain and the North Carolina High Country - the area with the highest average elevation east of the Mississippi. This area is generally a high, rolling plateau.

Here are some major peaks and area elevations:

  • City of Asheville - about 2200 feet.
  • Town of Highlands - about 4500 feet (Highlands Plateau).
  • Town of Beech Mountain - about 5500 feet (Mountain on the High Country Plateau).
  • Looking Glass Rock - 3969 feet (Davidson River Area)
  • Mount Pisgah - 5721 feet (Pisgah Ranger District - Pisgah Ridge)
  • Grandfather Mountain
  • Craggy Dome - 6085 feet (Great Craggy Mts. Area, near Craggy Gardens and the Black Mountains)
  • Clingman's Dome - 6643 feet (highest in Great Smoky Mts. Area; highest in Tennessee on the NC-TN state line; 3rd highest in the east)
  • Mount Mitchell - 6684 feet - (highest point east of the Mississippi River, in the Black Mountain range)

Physically Speaking: The Trails of Western North Carolina

The trails in our area have various and even predictable characteristics, yet each one holds its own surprises. For example, trails that follow old road or railroad beds all have similarities, and you can learn what to expect from a trail that follows a ridgeline, one that travels beside a stream, or one that travels along a mountainside. Even the type of forest a trail travels through indicates what you might find along the way. But the view you'll find around the next bend - that can never be predicted by looking at a map.

Most trails are hatched through thick vegetation of many kinds, depending on their location. You can expect trails that follow rivers and creeks, and that travel through coves, to have a wet, muddy, rocky, and maybe sandy surface. These trails will pass through ferns and other lush groundcover, tall hemlocks, cove hardwood forests (tuliptree is a common species), and thick Rosebay rhododendron, which blooms around June. Mountainside trails often follow old logging or skid road beds, which have now become singletrack, in forests of oaks, some cove hardwoods, and scattered mountain laurel and rhododendrons. Ridgetop trails are often dry and rocky, passing through laurel, Catawba rhododendron, and mixed hardwoods and pines. All trails can have rocks and roots.

Steep trail sections often have waterbars (logs) placed across the trails to keep erosion down. Many times though, the trails do erode and become shallow clay canyons. High elevation trails (rare) above 5000 feet are usually extremely wet or extremely dry and very rocky, with twisted northern hardwoods, lush heath shrubs (rhododendron, mountain laurel, and blueberry), and some scattered spruces and firs.

Other trail features include likely stream crossings and a wide variety of vegetation on any trail, wildlife (birds, bears, and deer are common), large rock outcroppings and boulders, open man-made meadows with tall grass (unless you are lucky enough and it has just been cut), lots of doubletrack and forest roads, and active logging areas.