Chimney Rock State Park

Rising like a medieval guard tower, Chimney Rock keeps watch over Hickory Nut Gorge below. Passing between mountains on each side, the gorge for centuries was a reliable route from the highland regions in the north to the flatland in the south.

Before it was the to Chimney Rock State Park tourist attraction and a lake resort, Hickory Nut Gorge was a “drover’s road” where livestock would be moved between grazing lands. Long before that, it was known only to the Cherokee who used the passage to trade for tobacco with growers to the south.

Legend of the Little People and Chimney Rock State Park

Calling Chimney Rock a guard tower, may not be too far from the truth. The Cherokee believed that what we call Hickory Nut Gorge was the domain of the Yunwi Tsunsdi, or Little People in English. The Yunwi Tsunsdi were a race of magical beings. They were short in stature, only coming up to your knee and had long hair almost touching the ground. They lived in rock caves and on mountain sides where they always kept watch over their mountain home.

Unlike other Little People legends, the Yunwi Tsunsdi weren’t malicious by nature, but they could be mischievous at times. They saw themselves at stewards of the mountain and would often help humans in need.

They weren’t to be feared, unless you crossed them. Despite their small stature, they were powerful magical spirits, and as such they were respected by the Cherokee.

The Yunwi Tsunsdi were said to be fond of music. You could hear their drumming throughout the mountain. But if you hear their drumming, best to stay away. While they are often helpful, they value their privacy. You only see them if they want to be seen. And they’re said to have cursed people who have gone in search of them.

Chimney Rock and the Underground Railroad?

Another legend associated with Chimney Rock is the local belief that it was used as a guide post along the Underground Railroad. Former slaves making their way to freedom in the North are said to have taken shelter in the caves of nearby Bat Cave, North Carolina. However, most historians discount this belief. The majority of Underground Railway activity in North Carolina took place in the Quaker settlements in the eastern part of the state. Looking at maps of the Underground Railroad, you’ll see that the routes bypassed the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.

That’s not to say, that the legend is completely untrue, though. The reason that the Underground Railroad worked is because it was secret. It’s entirely possible that some slaves may have made their way North through the Hickory Nut Gorge. It wasn’t heavily populated at the time and has numerous caves and rock formations where they could hide during the day.

Chimney Rock State Park Goes From Home of the Spirit People to Tourist Attraction

Up until the late 1800’s Chimney Rock and vicinity saw very little development. The Hickory Nut Turnpike ran through the area from Lincolnton to Asheville, and Scotch Irish settlers had arrived as early as 1670. But the area remained mostly isolated from the outside world and completely unrecognizable from what it’s like today.

That all began to change in 1890 when Jerome Freeman came up with a plan to build a staircase to the top of Chimney Rock and construct a park around it.

Soon, tourists began making their way to the new attraction. One of these tourists was Lucius Morse. Later in 1902, Morse would buy Chimney Rock and go on to change the landscape of Hickory Nut Gorge forever.

In 1916, Morse constructed the stairway from the base of Chimney Rock to give park visitors easier access and a series of hiking trails to points of interest throughout the park. Then a few years later he opened the Cliff Dwellers’ Inn for weary visitors to the top of the mountain. At the same time the village began taking shape at the base of the mountain.

Automobile ownership exploded in the 1920’s. By 1928 North Carolina had 473,623 licensed cars. People’s new found mobility gave rise to tourist attractions throughout the region and the country as a whole. Morse’s Chimney Rock became the premier destination for folks from all around. In 1922, he came up with the idea of a summer resort to capitalize in this rise in tourism.

But a resort would require power – much more than could be provided by generators. So he organized a corporation that bought 8000 nearby acres and constructed a hydroelectric dam. The dam was completed in 1926, and Lake Lure was born.

An Elevator to the Top of Chimney Rock

As tourism continued to grow, Morse realized that many people were unable to climb to the top of the rock. He himself was having difficulties as he aged, having to hire donkey rides to the top. So in the 1940’s he began work on what would become an engineering marvel. In May of 1949 the first elevator running through the middle of a mountain was opened. Construction took 18 months and required 8 tons of dynamite to blast out the 258 foot elevator shaft and 198 foot tunnel. All through solid rock.

Chimney Rock State Park Moves Into a The New Millennium

In 2005 a coalition of nature conservancy groups bought 1500 nearby acres of what was known as “World’s Edge”. The land included steep slopes, streams, and waterfalls and is habitat to rare flowers as well as endangered and unique species. This land became known as the Hickory Nut Gorge State Park.

In 2006, the Morse family put Chimney Rock park up for sale. The State of North Carolina stepped in and bought the land, adding it to the existing Hickory Nut Gorge State Park. Then in 2007, the name was changed to Chimney Rock State Park

Things to Do at Chimney Rock State Park

Today Chimney Rock State Park includes over 8,00 acres and offers breathtaking views, unique rock formations, abundant wildlife, and waterfalls.

The signature feature is the 315 foot granite monolith that the park is named after. It can be seen from miles around. From the top of Chimney Rock you’ll be treated to a 75 mile panoramic view of the surrounding area including Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure.

Chimney Rock State Park Hiking

The Lower Parking lot

When you arrive at the park, follow the park road for about a mile to the ticket plaza where you’ll pay for admission and get a park map. From the ticket plaza continue straight and you’ll arrive at the lower parking lot. If you want to hike the entire park or visit the kids section, this is where you need to park.

Four Seasons Trail – 1.4 mile trail up the mountain to the base of Chimney Rock, it will bring you out close the start of the Hickory Nut Falls Trail. Along the way you’ll see some of the parks large boulders and abundant wildflowers.

Great Woodland Adventure trail – .4 miles and designed especially for kids with signage to help them learn about the local wildlife. At the start of the trail is The Animal Discovery Den, a small building where kids can get a close look at some of the wildlife they learned about along the trail.

Upper parking Lot

If you want to drive to the base of Chimney Rock, keep to right at the lower lot and follow the road an additional mile and a half. The road up has a few spots where you can pull over for a picnic. Tables and grills are set up at the pull offs. As you get close to the top, you’ll see the trail for Hickory Nut Falls on the right. Soon you’ll see a gravel parking lot right in front of you, but to the right is a paved lot.

Once at the base of Chimney Rock, you can either take the Outcroppings Trail or ride the elevator to the top. The elevator is located in a tunnel right before the Cliff Dwellers Gift Shop. The original elevator was shut down in 2010 and the State undertook a long 8 year project to completely modernize and rework it. After a few missteps, the finished elevator was reopened in 2018 and has been available to visitors since then, but is closed for maintenance from time to time. So if you know you’ll need to use it, check Chimney Rock State Park’s Website or Facebook page for updates.

If you walk past the gift shop on your left and the restroom on your right, you’ll step out onto a wooden deck. From here you can have a look at the Gneiss Cave, although currently the gate to the cave is locked. The deck has a few picnic tables and is a great place to cool down and have a little break. The Outcroppings Trail begins here with a series of stairs going up, and you also have access to the Hickory Nut Falls Trail from a series of stairs leading down.

Hickory Nut Falls Trail – 1.4 mile out and back trail leading to Hickory Nut Falls. At over 400 feet tall. It’s the largest waterfall in NC and one of the largest in the Eastern United States.

Outcroppings Trail – .4 mile to the top of Chimney Rock. A Set of staircases (almost 500 steps) leading to the top of the rock. Along the way you’ll find great viewing platforms and rock formations like “The Grotto” and a small cave called “The Subway”.

Climb the Last Steps to the Top of Chimney Rock

If you took the elevator to the top, you’ll step out into the Sky Lounge gift shop and deli. Turn to your left and head out onto deck where you’ll find more picnic tables and your first closeup view of Chimney Rock. You’ll already have a great view of Lake Lure and the valley below, but it gets even better. If you took the Outcroppings trail up, you’ll find yourself on the same platform but on the opposite side of the final staircase to the top of Chimney Rock.

If you want to continue your hike, there are two more trials at the top of the mountain, both leading to some spectacular views.

Exclamation Point Trail – .6 mile trail to one of the highest lookout points in the park. Along the way you’ll find sights like the “Opera Box” – a rock overhang that proves a small sheltered area on the side of the mountain, and the “Devils Head” – a menacing looking bolder.

The Skyline Trail – 2.2 miles starting at the end of the Exclamation Point Trail. It runs along the top of the mountain finally ending at the top of Hickory Nut Falls.

Other Areas of Chimney Rock State Park

In addition to the main part of Chimney Rock Attraction, there are two other areas that while part of Chimney Rock State Part, aren’t connected to the main part of the park. Both areas are free and offer great hiking but have limited infrastructure.

Rumbling Bald Access at Chimney Rock State Park

It’s best to visit this spot in the cooler months because the sun bakes the rock face of the mountain and makes climbing if not impossible seriously ill advised. The vegetation in the warmer months also obscures the view of the boulder fields and the Cereal Buttress.

Eagle Rock Access at Chimney Rock State Park

Limited parking at this site has held back development for decades, but now there’s some limited parking on site, so climbers don’t have to hike 10 miles to reach this spot. Parking is free, but you do need to sign up online for a parking permit. Otherwise you have park at Buffalo Creek Park and hike the 10 mile Weed Patch Mountain Trial to reach this spot.

Fast Facts About Chimney Rock State Park

Type:State Park
Admission:$17 for adults, $8 for kids (ages 5-15). Children under 5 are free.
Location:431 Main St, Chimney Rock, NC 28720
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Things to do at Chimney Rock State Park: Hiking, Scenic Views, Picnicking, Kid’s Activities, Waterfall Viewing, Bird Watching

Map to Chimney Rock State Park