Thursday, March 18, 2010

Finding Point Lookout, Part Three

“Old US 70” heading west from the Old Fort Picnic Grounds is a quiet stretch of road these days. You wouldn’t guess that it was once the main highway up the mountain. This route came into use in the early 1800s as a connection between Old Fort and Ridgecrest. Long before the age of automobiles it was known as the Western Turnpike.

In the years after the Civil War, passengers would disembark from the train at Old Fort, the end of the line, and take the stagecoach to Swannanoa Gap and beyond. In those days, Jack Pence handled the reins on a team of six white horses drawing the stage up and down the mountain daily. I did see some horses along the “Western Turnpike” but these plugs weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to pull a stagecoach anywhere.

When I reached Piney Grove Baptist Church I encountered the barricade across the road. I had been here several years ago and didn’t have time to get out and explore. Things have changed since my earlier visit. A narrow strip of asphalt has been installed over the original concrete road surface.

Despite my hope that an uphill climb might ease the pressure on my injured toes, the Timberlands continued to mistreat my piggies. After considering the smooth blacktop, I freed my feet from boots and bloodied socks. Going barefoot was a great relief.

This section of the road twists and turns through the Pisgah National Forest and provides some of the prettiest scenery on the entire hike.

Almost three miles from the barricade, I reached Point Lookout (elevation 2146) and a long-anticipated view of the Royal Gorge.

The steep banks above and below the overlook are covered with kudzu. And another tell tale sign of abandonment, the invasive paulownia tree, is also thriving. Fragments of rock walls are all that remain of the buildings where you could buy hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks while enjoying the view in the 1930s.

On the bank across the road from the overlook, a steep rock stairway leads to a flat spot offering an even better view of the gorge.

A flagpole and benches are recent additions to the Point Lookout and a sign on the benches identifies them as an Eagle Scout project by Tyler Smith. Thank you, Tyler, for a job well done!

Clearly, this old stretch of road has attracted recent attention. Volunteers and community groups have worked with the NC Department of Transportation to enhance the route for hiking and biking. In October 2008, what they’re calling the “Point Lookout Trail” was officially dedicated. For a detailed NC DOT report on this project, click on

Nevertheless, the place has retained its ghostly charm.

Above Point Lookout, the road starts intersecting with the rail line that snakes up the mountain. When the railroad was built in the 1870s, it was the most ambitious feat of engineering ever undertaken in Western North Carolina. Seven hand-dug tunnels accommodate the track.

Double Tunnels, Then and Now

The longest of these is the Swannanoa Tunnel built at a cost of $600,000 and 120 lives. (That is another story for another day.)

I recognized one more bend in the road from an old postcard I carried along with me:

Royal Gorge, then and now

After crossing the barricade at the upper end of Point Lookout Trail, I followed the state road back toward Swannanoa Gap and took one last detour to inspect a marker on the Civil War Trail. This one commemorated an engagement at the Gap in April 1865 when Confederate forces effectively blocked Stoneman’s raiders who had come up from Old Fort.

There’s not much more I can say about this trip. I’m glad I took the ten-mile loop…love those endorphins.

One guide to Point Lookout Trail is available here:

Finally, here’s something really special, a beautiful performance of "Swannanoa Tunnel" from the great Bascom Lamar Lunsford:


casualism said...

Thanks for the post. I love 'ghostly' hikes and visits like these. I appreciate the links for more info today...i may by trying this hike soon!

GULAHIYI said...

Hiking in from the top is the quickest way to get to the Point, except there's no place to park (that I could see). The upper end of Point Lookout Trail goes through private property and signs remind you to stay on the trail to access National Forest (which you'll reach a half mile or so from the top). At the bottom, you can park at Piney Grove Baptist Church and not have a problem. If coming from Asheville and hiking in from Piney Grove be sure to drive back via Mill Creek Road (just across from the Old Fort Picnic Grounds). This takes you by Andrews Not-A-Geyser and follows the rail line for much of the way back up to Ridgecrest.

Now, I've learned of another lost trail in that vicinity - the Mount Mitchell Toll Road. Details to follow!

Jim Parker said...

Not sure if it is the same rail line or not but I suspect it is. When I was a child I went to summer camp at Camp Elliot in Old Fort sponsored by the Kannaoplis YMCA. Once summer we actually took a train ride and I remember several tunnels.

GULAHIYI said...

Hi Jim, I'd guess that's the route. Kannapolis, eh? I grew up in Albemarle and had a memorable school-trip train ride in the early 60s. Not memorable enough for me to recall if we rode from Salisbury to Concord or what. But we also went to the Buffalo Ranch that day. I'll bet you remember that place!

Anonymous said...

Did you take the stagecoach ride at the Buffalo ranch?

Thanks for the shot of Royal groge, which I've not seen since my serious woodchuck days.

Also my thanks for the introduction to Mr. Lunsford- wow.


GULAHIYI said...

I'd like to think I took that stagecoach ride at the Buffalo Ranch, but I'm really not sure. What I remember the most about the place is driving by on NC 49 and stopping to watch the goats. They had rigged up a cat-walk (goat walk?) suspended 20 feet or so above a little pond and there would usually be a sure-footed goat or two way up there in the air. It was a crazy sight.