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Hiking the Epic Waterrock Knob Trail (Complete Guide!)

Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on February 7, 2024.

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The Waterrock Knob Trail and Visitor Center are located at Milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 20 minutes from Maggie Valley in Western North Carolina.

Waterrock Knob is an incredible overlook, and after a short hike, you’ll be treated to one of the best views of North Carolina’s mountains. Our guide features everything you’ll need to know about hiking the Waterrock Knob Trail, including when to visit, why you should NOT visit the plane crash site, safety tips, and nearby things to do.

  • Where is Waterrock Knob?
  • Why is it Called Waterrock Knob?
  • When to Visit Waterrock Knob
  • Hiking the Waterrock Knob Trail from Start to Finish
  • The Plane Crash Site
  • 5 Reasons Why You Still Shouldn’t Visit the Plane Crash Site
  • Safety Information
  • Leave No Trace Reminder
  • Things to Do Near Waterrock Knob (Blue Ridge Parkway Stops, Maggie Valley, and More!)

You can skip ahead to any section within this guide or continue reading more about where Waterrock Knob is located in Western NC.

Read more: NC Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes (30 of the Best Trails!)

Where is Waterrock Knob NC?

Waterrock Knob Trail

At 6,292 feet, Waterrock Knob is the 16th highest mountain in the Eastern United States and one of North Carolina’s 40 mountains over 6,000 feet. Here are some tidbits about its location:

  • Waterrock Knob is in the Plott Balsams, a mountain chain between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Great Balsam Mountains.
  • Located near the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 451.2, Waterrock Knob is one of the last trails on the scenic road before it meets US 441 and Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee and Bryson City.
  • The Waterrock Knob Visitor Center and the trailhead are located in Jackson County, about 30 minutes from Sylva.
  • Waterrock Knob is just 20 minutes away from Maggie Valley in Haywood County. From Waynesville, Waterrock Knob is about 30 minutes away.

You can visually plan your trip to Waterrock Knob with our North Carolina Travel Map or our Western North Carolina Map.

Read More: 10 of the Best Black Mountains Hikes near Burnsville (Mount Mitchell, Crabtree Falls, and More!)

Why is it Called Waterrock Knob?

Waterrock Knob view

The name “Waterrock Knob” comes from a cool stream that emerged underneath a rock. Farmers, hunters, traders, and Cherokee Indians stopped at the stream to get a cool drink of water.

Read More: Museum of the Cherokee People (13,000 Years of History in One Important Space)

When to Visit Waterrock Knob NC

Waterrock Knob hike paved trail
  • Seasonal Road Closures: Waterrock Knob is beautiful throughout the year, but it may not always be accessible due to weather-induced gate closures and road closures. The National Parks Service provides regular updates here.
  • Sunrise and Sunset: The elevation from the Waterrock Knob parking area is 5,719 feet and is the perfect spot for a picnic and also yields epic sunset and sunrise views. This is also a prime destination for viewing the fall leaves in North Carolina.
  • Stargazing: While Waterrock Knob is epic for sunrise and sunset, it’s also perfect for stargazing! We recommend hiking the Waterrock Knob Trail just before sunset and descending while there is still light and then having a romantic picnic while the sky turns dark and sprinkled with lights. There is very little light pollution, and it is truly magnificent to see!
  • Visitor Center Open Dates: The Waterrock Knob Visitor Center is typically open from mid-April through October if you’d like to take something home with you.

Read More: 100+ of the Best Hiking Trails in North Carolina

The Waterrock Knob Visitor Center

The Waterrock Knob Visitor Center is open from mid-April through October. This is also the highest visitor center on the Parkway.

As we mentioned, the Visitor Center is stocked with souvenirs, coffee, and more items.

There are restrooms located in the center of the parking lot.

Read More: 20+ Wonderful Restaurants in Waynesville NC and Nearby!

Leave No Trace Reminder

While hiking the Waterrock Knob Trail, we ask you to PLEASE leave no trace. Pack in, pack out, and please do not ever litter in any of our beloved public spaces.

If you’d like to lend a helping hand, bring a grocery bag of your own and pick up any trash that you see!

Hiking the Watterock Knob Trail

Waterrock Knob hike pedestrain view
  • The Waterrock Knob Trailhead starts from the large parking area and is across from the Visitor Center.
  • The trail is a steep and fast climb (1.2 miles roundtrip) with an elevation gain of 412.
  • You may think it’s going to be an easy hike as the first 0.25 miles is a paved path.
  • Even that first section is pretty steep, with no real letup throughout the hike.
  • Near the end of the trail, you’ll see a spur to the left. That is the Plott Balsams Trail that will take you to Browning Knob, one of the highest peaks in the area.
  • With perseverance and some stops to take a breather (optional), you’ll reach the summit with plenty of space to enjoy long distant views.

Keep your eyes peeled for the following collections of mountains:

  • Great Balsam Mountains
  • Great Smoky Mountains
  • The Cowees
  • The Nantahala Mountains
  • The Blue Ridge Mountains
  • The Black Mountains
  • The Craggies

You can spend a lot of time sitting at the top with a blanket and a picnic lunch, admiring the seemingly endless views. After taking as much time as you’d like, you’ll return to the parking lot.

Your knees and front thighs (among other muscles) will take on the brunt of the work as you hike down the steep path. Make sure you stretch before and after this hike, as with any hike.

Read More: Craggy Gardens (A Beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway Stop)

The Plane Crash Site near the Waterrock Knob Trail

Waterrock Knob hike with kids

On November 24, 1983, a Cessna 414 was en route to the Jackson County Airport from Chicago when it crashed into the mountainside just before 6:00 pm. Neither the passenger nor the pilot survived, and the cause of the crash is said to have been a combination of poor visibility and a 0.04 percent blood alcohol level in the pilot.

The deceased were pilot Ernest Martin (53) and Centa Jarrett (42). They were flying from Chicago to Cullowhee to visit Centa’s daughters, who were then students at Western Carolina University.

It was noted that Martin did not file a flight plan despite flying in poor conditions, and the plane was not found for five days after the crash.

For various reasons, we didn’t recommend visiting the plane crash site near Waterrock Knob. Thankfully, local officials removed the wreckage from the area.

5 Reasons Why You Still Shouldn’t Visit the Plane Crash Site

Many blogs and websites offer tips to help you reach the plane crash site. We’ve decided not to be one of them for a few reasons:

  • If you want to visit the plane crash site near Waterrock Knob, please understand that lives were lost here.
  • It is a somber experience to come upon this plane crash, especially knowing that two people died at this spot.
  • In addition, the trail to the plane crash is not an official trail. It’s about 200 steep and treacherous yards off the Plott Balsams Trail.
  • It is easy to get lost on this trail and it is often extremely muddy.
  • Also, the increased amount of visitors to the plane crash is hurting the fragile ecosystem.

Because of all these factors, we do not encourage visitors to the plane crash site. We aren’t trying to shame anyone who has visited. It’s just not our goal to visit and thankfully, the Cessna 414 was removed.

Waterrock Knob Trail Safety Information

Waterrock Knob hike from the top

Safety is your responsibility when visiting Waterrock Knob but here are some important tips to consider before visiting.

  • Wear hiking boots. Due to the muddy and slick nature of the trail, it is nearly impossible to hike the Waterrock Knob Trail in sneakers. You’ll want hiking boots for stability and tread.
  • Inclement weather may prevent access to the Waterrock Knob trail. Before you go, please consult with trailhead maps, official maps, and official offices for closures, safety information, and any specific restrictions.
  • Many of these trails are for all levels of hikers and some will be more advanced. Our guide will cover those details. If you have any doubts about your health or physical capabilities, consult a medical professional.
  • There are also real dangers, including steep drop-offs. Please respect and follow any signage and stay on officially designated trails. Your life may depend on it in some cases.
  • User-created “social” trails cause lots of problems, including erosion, damage to fragile and endangered plants, and reduced space for wildlife. Please avoid them.
  • Also, if you’re bringing a dog along for your hike, federally managed public lands require them to be kept on a leash.

Read More: The Swag in Waynesville (10 Luxurious Things We Love!)

Ready to Hike the Waterrock Knob Trail?

Waterrock Knob hike

Waterrock Knob is one of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway hikes and is a highlight in an amazing area of Western North Carolina. If you’ve visited this spot or even hiked to the top, we’d love to hear from you.

What did you think of this place? Was it as beautiful as the hype?

Let us know in the comments section or by email.

Don’t forget to share your mountain adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group!

Things to Do Near Waterrock Knob NC

Waterrock Knob is close to plenty of more adventures nearby! Here are a few of them:

  • Blue Ridge Parkway Stops Nearby
  • Maggie Valley
  • Sylva
  • Cherokee
    • Soco Falls
    • Mingo Falls
  • Bryson City
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park

You can read more details about each below!

Read More: 75+ Fun Day Trips from Asheville (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

Nearby Blue Ridge Parkway Stops

Richland Balsam NC Blue Ridge Parkway Stops

Here are some Blue Ridge Parkway stops near Waterrock Knob. Remember that this scenic road counts down from North to South. Waterrock Knob is at Milepost 451.2 so anything with a lower Milepost number is to the north and stops with a higher number are to the south.

  • Southern Terminus (MP 469.1, 35 Minutes South): The Parkway will end and intersect with US-441, just a mile away from Cherokee on one side and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance on the other. We’ll share more about each of those attractions shortly.
  • Richland Balsam Overlook (MP 431.4, 35 Minutes North): Richland Balsam is the highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway at 6,047 feet. From this BRP stop, you can hike the summit of Richland Balsam (6,292 feet) via a moderate 1.5-mile loop.
  • Devil’s Courthouse (MP 422.4, 50 Minutes North): Short and strenuous, Devil’s Courthouse is mostly-paved and takes you to a rock overlook at 5,720 feet.

Read More: Graveyard Fields Blue Ridge Parkway Hike (How to See 2 Waterfalls in 1 Trail)

Maggie Valley

20 Minutes from Waterrock Knob

Bearwaters Brewing Company Maggie Valley NC

Maggie Valley is about 20 minutes away from Waterrock Knob. This mountain town is well known for an overall cool and retro vibe, and great things to do throughout the year.

Grab some breakfast at Joey’s Pancake House (arrive early!), enjoy a beer along the creek at BearWaters Brewing, and learn about classic motorcycles at the seasonally open Wheels Through Time Museum.

Additional seasonal fun includes Cataloochee Ski Area in the winter. It’s one of the best NC ski resorts. We also always keep an eye out for Jason Momoa and his biker friends.

Don’t forget to check out the artisans along Maggie Valley’s section of the Haywood County Blue Ridge Craft Trails!

Read More: 100+ Unique Things to Do In North Carolina (Your NC Bucket List)

Sylva

25 Minutes from Waterrock Knob

Sylva near Asheville NC

Sylva is one of Waterrock Knob’s Jackson County neighbors, about 25 minutes away. Downtown is home to some great local businesses, including City Lights Bookstore and Innovation Brewing.

And if you’re into beautiful historic buildings, check out the Jackson County Public Library. A nice view of downtown awaits from up there.

Visitors to Sylva will love the natural surroundings, including spots like Pinnacle Park and Wolf Creek Lake.

Read More: Bear Lake Reserve (Everything You Need to Know about this NC Mountains Getaway)

Cherokee

30 Minutes from Waterrock Knob

Small Towns in North Carolina Cherokee

Waterrock Knob is also close to Cherokee. Learn about the history and culture of the Cherokee people at the Oconaluftee Indian Village or the Museum of the Cherokee People.

There are some great places to eat in Cherokee, including Peter’s Pancakes and Wise Guy’s Grille.

Don’t miss the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which features Native artists and the history of crafts in the region.

Read More: How to Enjoy Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort (15 Tips)

Soco Falls

15 Minutes from Waterrock Knob

Western North Carolina Soco Falls

Soco Falls is an intersection of two waterfalls near Cherokee that create an incredible scene. You can view them from a platform above or take a trickier scramble down to see the falls smash together.

We definitely recommend wearing sturdy shoes for the hike to the base.

Read more: 25 of the Best Waterfalls in North Carolina

Mingo Falls

40 Minutes from Waterrock Knob

Mingo Falls is the closest waterfall to Soco Falls and perfect to combine with the latter!

Mingo Falls is reachable after climbing a steep set of 160 stairs on the Pigeon Creek Trail. The tall waterfall can be viewed from a wooden bridge and gives beautiful scenes all year round.

For better photos, visit earlier in the day so you can capture the waterfall without the sun shining on it.

Read More: 50+ Beautiful Waterfalls Near Asheville (Within 2 Hours)

Bryson City

40 Minutes from Waterrock Knob

Swain County Heritage Museum Bryson City NC

Bryson City is also within a short drive from Waterrock Knob. The small town is well-known for hiking and river recreation.

Hike the easy Deep Creek Loop, go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River from the Nantahala Outdoor Center, ride the scenic Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, or get lost on the Road to Nowhere—there’s endless fun in Bryson City! 

Read More: How to Relax at Lakeview At Fontana (One of the Best Spa Resorts in NC)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower NC

Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits on the Tennessee and North Carolina border, near the Southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Of all the national parks in North Carolina, GSMNP is the most visited. With over 900 miles of hiking trails, historic sites, and more. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the biodiversity inside is protected to the point that even dogs are not allowed inside. 

Here are a few of our favorite spots on the NC side of the Smokies:

  • Big Creek Trail (leads to Mouse Creek Falls and more)
  • Clingmans Dome Observation Tower (the western terminus of the Mountains to Sea Trail)
  • Deep Creek Trail (a 3-waterfall hike)
  • Mingus Mill (a beautifully preserved former grist mill)
  • Oconaluftee Visitor Center (a very popular place for Elk watching)

We know there are many more great places inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Do you have any favorites to share?

Read More: 75+ Great Hikes Near Asheville (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

We’ve created many more NC travel guides that include the Waterrock Knob Trail and its surroundings, including Maggie Valley and other Western NC attractions.

Here are a few of our guides:

Mingo Falls is one of the tallest and most beautiful waterfalls in North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians, worth the many steps you take to reach it!

The Graveyard Fields hike is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and an incredibly popular trek that’s within an hour of Asheville.

Skinny Dip Falls in Transylvania County might once have been a secret but it’s very popular now.

Soco Falls is a beautiful double waterfall near Cherokee and a few minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s so easy to miss, but not with this guide.

Black Balsam Knob is a popular section of the Art Loeb Trail in Western NC. It’s easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 420.

Deep Creek Trail inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best spots for hiking in North Carolina, taking you by three amazing waterfalls.

The Road to Nowhere is now a popular tourist destination near Bryson City. Of course, the history of this part of Western NC should not be forgotten.

Surrounded by the breathtaking Smoky Mountains, Bryson City is a quaint town with many attractions. These are the best things to do in Bryson City!

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