September 2012: Montreat Trails

Black Mountain, North Carolina

The Reverend John C. Collins led a congregation of clergy and lay leaders into the North Carolina mountains in 1897 and purchased 4,500 pristine high-mountain acres for a Christian settlement called Montreat, a mashing of “mountain retreat.” A lodge was accepting its first guests by 1901. A Presbyterian church and a women’s college preparatory school - first class of eight students - soon followed. It 1934 the institution was renamed Montreat College and today it operates as a four-year college with several campuses. In 1911 the Mount Mitchell Railroad ran across the Presbyterian grounds at Montreat on its 21-mile journey from a junction with the Southern Railway in the town of Black Mountain to Camp Alice, just one-half mile from the summit of Mount Mitchell. The quarry was spruce pine and when it was all chopped down the owners converted the railroad bed into the “Mount Mitchell Motor Road,” a cinder-surfaced, one-way toll road to the top of the highest peak in the eastern United States. Tourism was so popular that a second toll road was built up the east flank of the Black Mountains and these old trackways help form much of the Montreat Trails. 

There are enough peaks and canine hikes at Montreat that you could take you dog out every day for a week and not set a paw on the same stretch of trail. Sooner or later every canine adventure who frequents these trails, however, will make the climb to Graybeard Mountain, the highest elevation on the property at 5,408 feet. The quickest way is on the 4.75-mile Graybeard Trail that can roughly be divided into the three 45-minute to an hour chunks. The first leg climbs steadily up Flat Creek with three normally easy stream crossings and numerous chances for your dog to step off the trail into an enticing pool under a small waterfall. Expect as many pawfalls on rock as on dirt during this opening thrust. Once at Pot Cove Gap the trail boards the Old Trestle Road for almost flat trotting on to Graybeard Falls, a sheet of water flowing down a rockface - and more splashing. The final push for the summit with its west- and east-facing views reverts to a steady footpath climb. Take a five-minute detour at the trail shelter just past the falls to scramble up to the craggy overlook at Walker’s Knob where the entire Montreat Valley will spread beneath your dog’s paws. Not every canine hike at Montreat need be a plunge into the 2,500-acre wilderness with options such as the mile-long interpretive Gate Trail at the Nature Center, the Horseshoe Loop on nearby Lookout Road and a 1.7-mile sampler loop of the Graybeard Trail-Harry Bryan Trail-Julia Woodward Trail-Sanctuary Trail.

The Prayer Path at the Graybeard Trailhead is above the grade of the parking area and can be overlooked. It is a pine-shrouded, quarter-mile walking path for quiet reflection and environmental awareness as you circle the community’s old reservoir. At Station Three is a Labyrinth, an elaborate structure from Greek mythology built by Athenian hero Theseus to trap and kill the half-man, half-beast Minotaur. Today the walk to the center of a labyrinth is often used as a symbolic pilgrimage in pursuit of a contemplative state.

From I-40 take Exit 64 onto Route 9 through town and through the Montreat gate. When Assembly Drive bears right stay straight to the Graybeard Trail.