John Rock Loop Hike

This hike takes you past a small but attractive waterfall, up to the top of John Rock, which is the large mountain you see looming behind the Fish Hatchery parking area in Pisgah National Forest. Views of the valley below, up to the Pisgah Ridge, and across to Looking Glass Rock are this hike's main scenic attraction besides the waterfall. It also passes by tranquil meadows near Picklesimer Fields, and through some nice displays of wildflowers in the spring.

At A Glance

More Difficult 5 mi round-trip

Difficulty Rating: 7.59 (More Difficult)
Tread Condition: Moderately Rough
Climb: Climbs Steeply
Lowest Elevation: 2350
Highest Elevation: 3320
Total Elevation Gain: 1000
Configuration: Loop
Starting Point: Parking Area at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education (Fish Hatchery)

Trails Used: John Rock, Cat Gap Loop, Cat Gap Bypass

Hike Start Location


From Asheville, take I-240 west to I-26 east to the exit for the Asheville Airport (exit 40). Turn right onto NC 280; follow this 4-lane highway for 16 miles toward Brevard. At the intersection with US highways 276 and 64, turn right onto US 276 west (follow signs for Pisgah National Forest). Follow US 276 for 5.2 miles; turn left onto FR 475. Go 1.4 miles to the Center for Wildlife Education and Fish Hatchery. Turn left, cross the bridge and park in the parking lot.

Directions on Google Maps


Hike Description

Footbridge over Cedar Rock Creek
Footbridge over Cedar Rock Creek

Begin the hike by following Forest Service Road 475C out of the parking lot. It's the paved road on your left if you're standing in the parking lot and facing the main building, leading toward the dumpster (with John Rock behind it). (The portion leading along the Davidsion River near the picnic tables is where you will return.) Go around the gate and immediately cross a bridge. Immediately after that, turn right onto the Cat Gap Loop trail.

This trail will get your blood pumping from the start, with a climb up some log steps, but it soon levels out to a gently rolling grade. It lies just outside of a forest demonstration area delineated by a green chain-link fence on your right. Look inside the fence to see the last remaining healthy hemlock trees in the area (they've been treated with insecticide; most of the rest on this hike are dead). The trail will cross one small tributary, which you can rock-hop.

The forest here has many different varieties of trees: cove hardwoods (namely tuliptree and oak), white pine, (formerly) hemlock, and more. In places there is an extensive ground cover of Lycopodium - also called "ground pine" and "running cedar". Ground pines are some of the oldest varieties of plants in existence, and they used to dominate the landscape with tree-sized forms. Now diminutive, this cute little plant looks like a 6" high forest of its own! The spores of this plant are very flammable, and were once used to make flash bulbs for photography.

Cedar Rock Creek Falls as seen from the approach side.
Cedar Rock Creek Falls as seen from the approach side.

Shortly, you'll come to a footbridge over Cedar Rock Creek; cross it, cross the gravel road just after it, and pick up the Cat Gap trail again on the other side. A short, steep climb takes you up to an old roadbed soon and moderates considerably again. From here it becomes a wide, eroded trail that will take you high up along the side of the valley.

You will pass the weir where the water is diverted into the fish hatchery, far down below you on the left. The cold, clear waters of Cedar Rock Creek are perfect for raising the trout in the hatchery.

At times, rhododendrons arch over the trail forming a "tunnel". You'll pull away from the main valley and head up a side cove, then cross a very low ridge. Soon you'll start to hear (and see, now that the hemlocks are dead) Cedar Rock Falls on your left. The trail will pass by a nice but overused campsite with a small cascade beside it; the main falls are just downstream. To get to the base, follow the path downhill from the campsite. Bear left where the path drops over a small ledge to find a less risky route around and down. It's worth a visit but be very careful around waterfalls and slick rocks. There are high drop-offs in this area.

Back on the main trail, continue past the campsite and another small chute. You'll reach the intersection with the Butter Gap trail, at a big rock slab. Our hike goes left across the bridge, remaining on the Cat Gap Loop, but you may wish to explore to the right a bit, which is an open area known as Picklesimer Fields. It reminds me of a mini version of the Pink Beds area, with slow, meandering streams winding through shrubby and open areas.

Cat Gap Loop Trail Sign and Bridge
Sign and newer log bridge at the start of the Cat Gap Loop trail.

Back at the rock slab, Cat Gap Loop goes left across a sketchy log bridge, right at the point where the lazy stream starts to drop out of the level valley bottom and over the falls. You'll then begin heading upstream through the southern arm of the valley along Cedar Rock Creek, which carries some of the same characteristics as the northern portion along the Butter Gap trail. I saw a rattlesnake not far off the trail here in May 2013 - this is definitely the type of area they like to hang out, so keep that in mind. The trail crosses the creek again on another log bridge and comes out in a planted stand of white pines where there is almost no undergrowth, before continuing upstream.

The trail will cross the creek again - this time, it's a rock-hop - and then become significantly steeper. It pulls away up the mountainside and works its way up onto the nose of a ridge. Then, you'll switchback up the ridge, which is located between John Rock Branch and Cedar Rock creeks. Footing is generally good, though there is some erosion, and a there are a few rooty and rocky sections.

The trees become older, and you'll be traveling through a mixed hardwood forest typical of these sloped areas at this elevation. The thick understory of mountain laurel and rhododendron would make traveling off-trail extremely difficult. It also poses somewhat of a fire hazard. Since the era of fire suppression, undergrowth like this has become much more common. The Forest Service sometimes use controlled burns to reduce fuel loads and open up areas such as this. Nature uses wildfires to do the same thing, but in a much more dramatic, uncontrolled fashion.

The climb will lessen, and you'll reach the intersection with the Cat Gap Bypass trail. Turn left here, onto the Cat Gap Bypass. (Straight ahead, the Cat Gap trail climbs to reach the Mountains to Sea Trail northeast of Cedar Rock Mountain, in Cat Gap).

This trail traverses a high slope below Cat Gap, at the head of John Rock Branch at about 3100' in elevation, and provides a much easier, shorter, and faster way to John Rock than going through Cat Gap itself. You'll pass through varied forest environments in rapid succession. As you go out around ridges, look for mostly oak trees. When you dip into the small coves you'll find tuliptree and (formerly) hemlocks. In the wintertime you can catch views of the side of John Rock through the branches.

You'll come to a four-way intersection in a deep gap to the south of John Rock. Turn left here onto the John Rock trail. (To the right, the Cat Gap Loop trail climbs up to Cat Gap and the Mountains to Sea Trail, mentioned above. Straight ahead is also the Cat Gap Loop, which promptly descends into Horse Cove). Here, you begin an extremely steep climb up to an unnamed knob along the ridge leading out to John Rock.

This section of trail could afford some switchbacks, or even to skirt around this knob entirely, but for now it doesn't. Watch your footing, as the trail is rocky and deeply eroded with roots crossing the trail, suspended a foot or more in mid-air in places. The rough section of trail is short-lived; after reaching the top of the knob, you'll head gradually down again toward John Rock. This is the highest point on the hike, at approximately 3320' in elevation.

There is one more short climb, then another descent, before the trees become smaller and disappear, and you pop out onto the face of John Rock itself. This goes without saying, but: be extremely careful here! It's a 200' sheer drop to the rocks below. It's nearly level and not unsafe to enjoy the view from the edge of the forest if the rock is dry, but watch out for wet rocks and slippery things like leaves, pine needles, moss, and algae which could send you sliding downhill!

View of Looking Glass Rock from John Rock.
View of Looking Glass Rock from John Rock.

Enjoy the view north across the valley of Looking Glass Rock and of the Fish Hatchery below. Bring a pair of binoculars and see if you can pick out your car in the parking lot! To your left (northwest) is the Pisgah Ledge and all the ridges extending off from it. Just to the right of Looking Glass Rock (northeast) is Coontree Mountain, and to the right of that is Bearpen Mountain.

After you're done soaking up the views, head northeast along the edge of the woods to the right, and pick up the trail again heading downhill. This is the continuation of the loop, and it heads in a generally southeastern direction.

You'll pass through a large, flat area to the east of John Rock, where the trail winds around a bit. Then it drops downhill slightly into a cove filled with a dense undergrowth of rhododendron and mountain laurel.

Mountain Laurel blooming along the John Rock trail
Mountain Laurel blooming along the John Rock trail

From this cove, the trail begins winding back uphill again slightly, over into the next cove, where it starts to descend in earnest. You'll bottom out at a crossing of Horse Cove Creek; on the other side you'll reach the eastern intersection with the Cat Gap Loop trail.

Turn left here, downhill. The lush forest in this area is dominated by tall, straight tuliptrees, one of the most common Cove Hardwood species. Dark, lacy hemlocks used to grow in the shade of the tuliptrees here, waiting paitently for a chance to dominate the canopy some decades into the future, but unfortunately, they are all dead or nearly so now. You'll reach another intersection with FS road 475C; go straight across and continue on the trail downhill.

Wildflowers bloom beside the Cat Gap Loop trail in Horse Cove.
Wildflowers bloom beside the Cat Gap Loop trail in Horse Cove.

Horse Cove starts leveling out soon near its confluence with East Horse Cove; then the trail will pass out of the mouth of the cove and begin heading upstream beside the flat, gently flowing Davidson River.

The river is mostly calm, but some steeper sections do contain a few scenic rapids. Although you are climbing very slightly on this section of trail, you'll hardly notice it compared to the rest of this hike. Several small tributary streams and seeps pass beneath the trail to join the river. Once dominated by cool, dark hemlock trees, this section of forest is returning to a place of cove hardwoods.

Near the end of the hike, a large, once-attractive campsite opens up to your right. (Dying and falling hemlocks will make this a bit undesirable for a while). But this is a great place to relax by the river at the end of a great hike. Finish by crossing the last bridge over Cedar Rock Creek and you'll end back at the far end of the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education parking lot, and your vehicle.

All Photos from This Hike

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Average Rating: 4.6 (rated 13 times)

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Hannah said: Really excellent hike! I did it yesterday and it's great for dogs - lots of stream crossings for them to drink from and cool down in. Keep your dog on a leash at all times - we saw several rattlesnakes and copperheads once you were on the actual johns rock trail. A lot do the rattlesnakes were in the edge of the woods on the cliff face - watch where you sit and stay on the trail
Tuesday, September 4 2018 12:33pm
Tracey said: Hiked this trail today - decided to take the cat gap loop - I cheated slightly and about half way in hopped on the john rock loop which is a quicker yet steeper trek to the "summit" beautiful view of looking glass. I recommend looking glass over this trail if you have to pick. Some great waterfalls if you follow some bushwacked paths.
Saturday, March 24 2018 12:35am
Someone said: The hike was great, and it was pretty easy to follow the directions above! It took us about 3 hours to hike and total distance was 6.4 miles. I'm not sure how someone got over 8 miles above, it must have been a longer route. For what it's worth, the Cap Gap Connector is labeled Cat Gap Bypass on the trail. Additionally, after the steep climb to the highest point it's a good 10-15 minutes until you get to John Rock. When leaving John Rock, we walked down the rock and to the right along the tree line... that's where a spur of the trail picked up again.
Thursday, May 25 2017 9:19pm
KBEAR said: Just did the loop today for my birthday. What a beautiful hike!!! Not too challenging really. I like the short step climbs as I'm not such a switchback fan. I'd rather climb the climb straight on. Plenty forgiving rolling hills and saddlebacks. I had an interested critter (deer or bear) follow me for about 20 mins. Started at 7:30, back to car by 12. That rock scares me. I'm not cool w heights so... But I sat there for a while. YOLO, right? I too followed the instructions on this website and didn't have a bit of trouble. What a treasure the Pisgah Forest is and what a gem this hike is within it. Bless it.
Tuesday, August 2 2016 6:40pm
Helen said: I don't know where the 5 mile measurement comes from. My app picked up 8.11 miles with a slight sidetrack onto Butter Gap. Sidetrack no more than .1 mile. Falls and cave are beautiful and it's worth the hike, but it is much longer than advertised. We are well and truly tired. The views are amazing! I will do it again, but not every weekend. Tough on the old knees.
Sunday, May 29 2016 10:46pm
evans gleaton said: I hiked up the 5017 service rd to the Art Loeb to get to Cat Gap Trail. Passed going the other way two ladies with their small dogs, walking off leash. Further up the trail a coyote ran out of the brush towards me, spied me and turned tail the other way. The critter was tracking these two little dogs as potential meals. Be careful with your pets, people - - this predator would have frightened one of these dogs to run off trail, and there would have been nothing these ladies could have done to save their four legged companion. Coyote just being a coyote.
Tuesday, March 29 2016 2:56pm
Natasha said: I omitted to add that it took us about 5.5 hours to complete this hike - that was including one extra mile (accidentally added on when we back-tracked!), but also included ample time at both waterfalls, the forest (which was my favorite part - I wish that we could upload pics with our reviews) and of course the vista up the top.
Friday, January 22 2016 11:15pm
Natasha said: JAN 2016 hike: I really loved this hike - as has been mentioned it offers a little of everything: forests, brooks, waterfalls and fantastic vistas. The directions for this loop were excellent....until the part where you reach the highest point on the hike. The directions (to me) sounded as if the walk down from the highest part to the view of Looking Glass as close by, and it's not. It took us at least 10 minutes from that point and we even double-backed on ourselves believing that we had somehow missed the view. My tip to you is that if you see a tree with a big oval hollow (on left hand side, if you start the trail from the point as listed above), then you have gone too far. There are a few parts to get a view of Looking Glass, which is outstanding (and that is a hike worth doing also), but be very careful, especially if you hike this in the Winter, it was incredibly icy at the view point.
Friday, January 22 2016 11:12pm
Angela said: This kind of has everything you could ask for in a hike. If you go the direction in the description I think the waterfall is very easy to find (you can see it through the trees.) I took my dog and my friend took theirs, I do second the "be sure the dog is on a leash" while you are on the ridge and the rock, otherwise it would be no surprise to loose your dog over the edge, it's not just a tumble down a hill, it would be the end of your dog
Monday, September 14 2015 8:43pm
Kristen said: Could anyone tell me an average time it takes to complete this 5 mile trail. We're pretty used to hiking hilly terrain at Warner Parks here in Nashville. A 4.5 mile with some steep hills takes us about 1 hour 20 minutes. However I may be totally underestimating NC terrain. Thank you!
Sunday, June 7 2015 1:01pm
John Jenkins said: Does anyone have any information on camping along cedar rock creek? Do I need a permit? How crowded does it normally get?
Tuesday, March 3 2015 4:28pm
David Baird said: Dear sir Is this area pet friendly? On a lead of course! Thank you David Baird
Wednesday, June 25 2014 6:11pm
Kathy, Bill, Jim, and carol said: We had a great hike on the trail today. We started on the way to Johns Rock and then headed down to the waterfalls and bypass. We never really saw the water falls, but did enjoy the easy hike on the biomass trail to the hatchery parking lot. We figure we did about 9 miles and enjoyed most of it. The view from the rock is amazing and we worry about people who take dogs (or stray children) up there without guidance. Great day all in all but one needs to be ready for a long walk and a challenging climb.
Sunday, April 6 2014 1:56am
steadysnacks said: This hike is so beautiful from beginning to end. I followed the instructions above and did not get lost, although there are several points where you could take a 'wrong turn' and lengthen your over all trip. I highly recommend taking the short side trail to the waterfalls. With all of the rain we have had, it is worth it for sure. It isn't marked, but you can hear it when you are close by and it is a skinny trail at some points, but just keep going and you will see it. At the top, I would keep you dogs on a leash and your eye on your children as you arrive to a beautiful view and a steep drop off. Sunning yourself on the rock face and eating lunch makes it all worth the climb.
Tuesday, July 16 2013 12:09am
Lupperrrrr said: This is a great hike. I have been on it multiple times and loved it. If you bring a dog, please keep it on a leash as my dog sliped of the rock last christmas.
Thursday, October 25 2012 12:57am
Jeremy said: Well I did the trail backwards and came back the same way until I got to the service road and took the road back to the parking lot. I saw the beginning of the trail at the end of my hike. I took my dog, keep your dog on leash when going near the steep slick parts. I will go again and see the rest of the trail.
Sunday, November 13 2011 7:39pm
unnone said: went for an over night stay, about 3am a man walked up on me and robbed me. So stay alert and don't go by your self
Friday, September 23 2011 1:41am
Picklz said: My husband and I just hiked part of this trail this weekend...must have decided to go the wrong way, cause we missed the waterfall....this is a very tough hike for beginners...especially with all the tree roots sticking up thru the ground...have to watch your step constantly to keep from tripping...was an awesome view once we got to the top though...will have to go back and do the round trip next time...
Wednesday, September 7 2011 4:16pm
Picklz said: My husband and I just hiked part of this trail this weekend...must have decided to go the wrong way, cause we missed the waterfall....this is a very tough hike for beginners...especially with all the tree roots sticking up thru the ground...have to watch your step constantly to keep from tripping...was an awesome view once we got to the top though...will have to go back and do the round trip next time...
Wednesday, September 7 2011 3:07pm
Picklz said: My husband and I just hiked part of this trail this weekend...must have decided to go the wrong way, cause we missed the waterfall....this is a very tough hike for beginners...especially with all the tree roots sticking up thru the ground...have to watch your step constantly to keep from tripping...was an awesome view once we got to the top though...will have to go back and do the round trip next time...
Wednesday, September 7 2011 3:03pm
Alice said: Hiked loop today. The switchbacks almost got to me, but I kept going and was not disappointed. The view is fantastic. There is one adjustment to the trail. At the intersection with Butter Gap Trail you now turn left across the stream on a foot bridge and continue following the orange blaze. Looks like beaver activity may have dammed one of the streams and water is blocking the trail as it goes straight ahead at the intersection. I will be hiking this one again and again.
Sunday, June 1 2008 1:04am
WickedGood said: One of my favorite trails. We hiked it in late winter and the views were still awesome. It was a nice warm day and we took our lunch and ate on the rock itself and soaked up the sunshine. Lots of people visit the first mile of the trail but we didn't pass anyone once we started the ascent.
Friday, April 18 2008 12:28am
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