For a sky-box view of fall colors in the Western North Carolina mountains, it’s hard to top the 40-foot-high observation tower in Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.
The tower is a 2.5-mile hike from the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the summit, clamber up the steel-frame tower, get your compass bearings and focus your camera or binoculars. Anywhere. The panoramic vista from 4,555-foot-high Flat Top Mountain is flat-out stunning.
To the southwest, the distinctive profile of Grandfather Mountain juts up. To the northwest, the town of Boone sprawls across a valley. Beyond, hazy mountains in Tennessee meet the sky. Blowing Rock lies to the east and south.
In October, day hikers, joggers and horse riders form a near unbroken cavalcade to Flat Top on one of the park’s moderately sloping “carriage roads.”
Cone Park adjoins another park to the south, Julian Price Memorial Park. With a combined 7,844 acres, the two form a one-stop recreation destination. Both are managed by the parkway. Visitors can hike, ride horses, car camp, picnic, fish in three lakes and rent canoes and kayaks on Price Lake. Long-distance hikers can join 13 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
The parks provide family-oriented outdoors activities, with Blowing Rock conveniently nearby. Don’t want to cook dinner at the campsite? Too cold to camp? Restaurants and motels are only 15 minutes away.
First, a little history. Cone Park was named for Mose H. Cone, a textile magnate who made his money manufacturing denim. In the mid-1890s, he and his wife, Bertha, built a summer estate on 3,516 acres that is now Cone Park. Their two-story, 20-room Cone Manor houses the Parkway Craft Center.
The park’s 25 miles of “carriage roads” function as walking and horse trails (and, in winter, cross-country ski trails). The gravel roads radiate from the manor’s Carriage Barn, winding around hills and mountains.
Cone died in 1908; his wife in 1947. Three years later the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro donated the property to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Both are buried in a cemetery off the Flat Top Mountain road.
Julian Price Memorial Park was named after the former president of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co. in Greensboro. Price purchased the land as a recreation site for his employees. After Price’s death in 1946, his heirs left the land to the parkway.
Here’s a brief look at camping, fishing, boat rentals, picnicking, hiking and horse riding at the parks.
With 129 sites for tents and 62 for RVs, Julian Price campground at Milepost 297 is the parkway’s largest. Of the tent sites, 13 front on Price Lake. The campground has rest rooms and water but no water or electrical hookups at the sites. Showers are available for $2 at the Blowing Rock public pool. Overnight camping fee is $16.
Price Lake, Trout Lake and Bass Lake are open to fishing. An N.C. or Virginia fishing license is required for those over 16.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocks 47-acre Price Lake with hatchery-raised trout; earlier this year the lake got 8,500 brook, browns and rainbows at least 10 inches long. No lure restrictions apply. Anglers also may use earthworms, canned corn or preserved fish eggs as bait. Parkway spokeswoman Leesa Brandon said a fish survey showed the lake also has catfish and redbreast sunfish.
Trout Lake, the smallest at 15 acres, is designated as wild trout waters. The lake also has largemouth bass. Only single-hook artificial lures are allowed. With a brushy shoreline, the only open area for casting is near the lake’s dam. Follow Flannery Fork Road north to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail intersection, park and walk 0.25 miles to the lake.
At Bass Lake, a carriage road circles the 21-acre lake for easy angler access. It too is designated as wild trout waters with single-hook, artificial lures. At both Trout and Bass lakes, keeper trout must be 7 inches long; keeper largemouth must be 14 inches (except that two may be less than 14 inches).
A parkway concessionaire rents canoes and kayaks on Price Lake adjoining the campground. Fee for canoes is $13 an hour; for kayaks, $10 an hour. For more information, see http://pricelakeboatrentals.wix.com/blueridgeparkway.
The Julian Price picnic area at milepost 296.4 has 100 picnic sites.
HIKING, HORSE RIDING
Price Park trails are for hikers only while hikers and horse riders may use Cone Park roads. Bicycles and motorized vehicles are banned.
Boone Fork Trail, longest of three trails within Price Park, loops 5 1/2 miles through meadows and hardwood forests, following beside Boone Fork in parts. The creek was named for Jesse Boone, a nephew of frontiersman Daniel Boone.
In Cone Park, hikers and horse riders seeking a back-country experience can follow carriage roads to Rich Mountain and Flat Top Mountain. (No horse rentals are available so equestrians must bring their own horses.)
The Rich Mountain Road trailhead is next to the Trout Lake parking area off Shulls Mill Road. The 2.6-mile trail starts in a forest, then enters pasture with grazing cattle. In late September, the pasture was ablaze with yellow and lavender – blooms of goldenrod and New York ironwood.
Headed for the summit on Tennessee walking horses were Linda Latimer of Johnson City, Tenn., and Stacy and Sammy Doyle of Greeneville, Tenn. “This is probably one of the best places to ride,” Latimer said, with wide, well-maintained and clearly marked trails. “Thank goodness for Mr. Cone.”
The road spirals around Rich Mountain, picking up a segment of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that enters from Price Park. Capping the brushy 4,200-foot-high summit is a rock terrace built by the Cones.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail overlays park roads, continuing east from Rich Mountain, skirting Trout Lake and passing by Cone Manor before exiting on Watkin Road.
The road to Flat Top tower begins at the Cone Manor parking area at milepost 294. The road crosses a pasture and passes through forest before going over an expansive hayfield. At the summit, a hitching post secures horses.
The original, chestnut-wood tower built by the Cones was torn down by the park service after being deemed unsafe, according to “Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers,” by Peter J. Barr. The current steel tower was erected in 1954, marking this year as its 60th year standing.
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”