Hiking North Carolina: Shining Rock via Old Butt Knob and Shining Creek

From Old Butt Knob (5,522').
I'd like to start off by apologizing for failing to give hiking in North Carolina a chance prior to this weekend

My default long weekend driving destinations are usually north, but when our Memorial Day weekend plans to go to Maine fell through, my husband and I had a decision to make. Where else could we get in the same amount of drive time (ten hours) that was new to both of us, and could be as spectacular as the hikes we'd originally had planned?

Turns out, the Pisgah National Forest had exactly what we were looking for. The Pisgah Ranger District is home to two of the first designated wilderness areas in the eastern United States. Only having two full days to hike meant whittling down a long list of possibilities. After deciding to stay in a campground and forgo backpacking, our criteria included day hikes near where we were staying.

Shining Rock kept coming up in all of our searches for must-do day hikes in the area, and there are multiple ways to get there. We chose our route using this Pisgah Ranger District map based on the length of the hike, elevation change, names of some other nearby waypoints - Old Butt Knob and Dog Loser Knob - and the possibility of avoiding some of the holiday weekend crowds.

Route Planning (8.5 Miles, 2,605' Elevation Gain) and Getting to the Trailhead

We planned a counter-clockwise lollipop loop starting here at the Shining Rock Trailhead in the Shining Rock Wilderness. We'd head up the steeper more lightly used side of the loop, hitting Old Butt Knob and Old Loser Knob before Shining Rock, to give our knees some relief with a more gradual descent along Shining Creek. Plus, we'd have the option of dipping our feet in the creek on the way down after a sweaty day of hiking.

(If you prefer less elevation gain or a shorter hike, other popular routes to get to Shining Rock involve the Art Loeb Trail, or the Ivestor Gap Trail, both of which you'd park in this vicinity to use.)

Hiking to Old Butt Knob (5,522') and Dog Loser Knob (5,761')

We started our hike at 11:00am, parking in one of the overflow lots a short walk from the trailhead; both small lots at the Shining Rock Trailhead and Big East Fork Trailhead were full. The trail starts around 3,250', and the first 0.75 miles climbed gradually along Shining Creek. We'd come back down along this section of the trail after completing the loop part of our lollipop.

One of the beautiful little waterfalls along Shining Creek.

We kept an eye out for the trail leading up to Old Butt Knob to our right and still almost missed it. My husband spotted a small opening in the trees with a pile of large branches across it, and an old rusty can; I'm used to large branches across a trail indicating it's closed, but the more we looked around, the more we thought that had to be it, and it was.

The Old Butt Knob trail climbs very steeply for the first 0.5-0.75 miles, gaining almost 1,400 vertical feet before climbing less steeply to the top of Old Butt Knob. We wound through dense clusters of rhododendron and mountain laurel, and I expected the trail to become less overgrown the higher we got, and it did in spots, but overall, it was clear the trail isn't used nearly as much as others in the area.

Our lunch break spot on Dog Loser Knob, with my husband pointing toward Shining Rock.

We took a break for lunch on top of Old Butt Knob with stunning views of Chestnut Ridge, looking forward to some easier climbing to Dog Loser Knob. Continuing on to Dog Loser Knob, the trail still climbed, and in spots, became harder to follow. When we reached Dog Loser Knob, we lost the trail, wandering a bit under tall coniferous trees trying to pick it up again.

Right around where we picked the trail back up again near Dog Loser Knob. (Stay uphill to the left to stay on the trail.)

After finding the trail toward the left side of where we'd been, we kept going toward Shining Rock, and the more level the trail got, the more dense the vegetation got. But we didn't see a single person on the trail between leaving the Shining Creek Trail and getting within 0.25 miles of Shining Rock, which is exactly what we'd hoped for.

Hiking to Shining Rock (5,941') and Completing the Loop

The closer we got to Shining Rock, the more people we encountered. But once we made it to Shining Rock, it became clear why it's such a popular spot. I couldn't decide which I was more impressed by - sweeping views of the Shining Rock Wilderness or the massive bright white quartz formations.

Enjoying the views from Shining Rock, which my husband is sitting on.

After taking in the view, we started down, making sure to choose the correct path out of all of the small side trails we came across. We dropped down from Shining Rock Ledge to as intersection between the trail we'd been on, the well-used Art Loeb Trail, and the Shining Creek Trail. Other hikers helped point us in the right direction; the trails aren't blazed, and we only saw one sign pointing to a trail we didn't want to take that day.

The aforementioned intersection, and stopping to make sure we picked the Shining Creek Trail to head down

Following the Shining Creek Trail, we descended through coniferous trees until the forest started looking much like it did on the way up - dense foliage, deep green leaves, and bright sunlight peeking through every gap in the canopy. It was beautiful.

We saw a number of hikers heading up as we descended, and other groups descending near us. Despite being less steep on paper, the descent was still steep until the last mile or so before we reached the old rusty can marking the Old Butt Knob Trail turnoff. But the sound of the creek running down the rocks, the small waterfalls, and the birds singing made it an absolutely perfect day.

Blooming rhododendron along the trail.

All said, the hike took us just over five hours with breaks, and we finished out the day with a stop at Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville, NC (highly recommended). Take a look at our entire route here.

Things to Know Before You Go

There are at least four parking lots you can use in this vicinity, and even on a holiday weekend, we found a spot in one of the overflow lots. There are two small parking lots at the trailheads on either side of the river, one at the Big East Fork and one at the Shining Rock Trailhead. If both are full, there's a large lot on the east side of 276 (Cruso Rd.) across from the Shining Rock Trailhead, and one back up the hill on the west side of the road, which is the one we used.

Though not all of the trail was like this, it was definitely overgrown in some spots. Tread carefully!

Be sure you pick the right trailhead if you're planning this hike from Shining Creek; we almost took the Big East Fork Trail by mistake. They're across the East Fork of the Pigeon River from each other, though a careful glance at our maps would've gotten us to the right starting point on the first try. Oops!

Don't miss the Old Butt Knob trail turnoff, especially because the best views are at the top of Old Butt.  Assuming the rusty can we spotted won't be there forever,  keep track of distance and starting to look for the turnoff between 0.6 and 0.85 miles from the start of the trail. According to MapMyRun, we turned off at 0.77 miles.

Though the path is easy to see in some spots, but random side trails threw us off a few times.
The trails aren't blazed and most intersections are unmarked. Be careful not to be led astray by side trails. We came across more and more of these side trails as we approached Shining Rock. My husband downloaded the Gaia GPS app and GPX files for our route, and that's a big part of how we were both able to find the trail in the first place, stay on track, and know we'd made the right choice when we weren't sure about the Old Butt Knob trail turnoff. The National Geographic map we bought didn't show enough detail for little nuances like that.

Who's done this hike, or any other hikes in North Carolina's Blue  Ridge Mountains? And if you know where the names Old Butt Knob and Dog Loser Knob came from, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!