Dark Skies Above: 5 Spots in Western North Carolina for Astrotourists

by Kristy Tolley
Dark skies at Waterrock Knob

What if I told you that magic is all around you? All you have to do is look up to the dark skies. Specifically, in the Western North Carolina mountain towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro and Sylva, this magic I speak of can be seen for miles and miles across the sky in the form of stars.

This destination is surrounded by nature and void of any big cities close by, making the light pollution low. As a result, the sea of stars to be seen from any location in the destination. For the brightest and clearest view, hikers can make their way to the top of one of the many overlooks sprinkled throughout this mountain hideaway.

As 2020 showed us, it truly is the little things in life that matter the most, and taking a second to appreciate those little things does the soul a whole lot of good. Star chasing anywhere else may just look like hundreds of little white dots but here. However, these starbursts look close enough to reach out and touch. Pack your telescope and choose from a wide array of viewing locations, overlooks and hiking trails for your next moonlight adventure and get ready for an out of this world experience in Jackson County, North Carolina.

Black Balsam Knob view of clouds

Black Balsam Knob

1. Black Balsam Knob

This is perhaps one of the greatest hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Black Balsam Trail scales Black Balsam Knob, the 23rd highest mountain in North Carolina. Once you reach 6,000 feet, the mountaintops are almost completely void of trees, making for incredible views and invigorating hikes.

Dark skies at Waterrock Knob

Waterrock Knob

Dark skies of Waterrock Knob just before sunset

Waterrock Knob

2. Waterrock Knob

For a steep hike with great views along the way, Waterrock Knob Trail might literally take your breath away. A 1.2-mile round-trip hike will take you to the top of the 6,292-foot summit. The vigorous climb gains 412 feet in elevation and features great views along the way. At the top, several vantage points provide panoramic views of up to 50 miles out on a clear day to the Smokies.

3. Whiteside Mountain

With sheer, vertical cliffs that tower above the valley below, this trail features one of the county’s most recognizable peaks. Due to erosion, Whiteside Mountain now boasts the highest vertical cliffs in the eastern United States — about 1,800 feet. Whiteside’s 4,930-foot crest can be attained by a loop trail that offers panoramic views of the sky in its most perfect form. You may glimpse a peregrine falcon soaring overhead or perched on Whiteside’s rocky outcrops during spring or summer visits. However, the cliff face is closed to rappelling and climbing during nesting season.

4. Pinnacle Park Trail

See if you have what it takes and hike the strenuous terrain of Pinnacle Park, a 7-mile trek that ascends more than 3,000 feet. Your reward? Incredible views of the mountains below and the stars above. Be sure to pack a late-night snack and camera before embarking on this hiking adventure. The 1,000-acre town park features streams, waterfalls and panoramic views throughout. The 3.4-mile trail to the top follows an old logging road for most of its length, through a grassy ridge and then up a short rocky trail to the Pinnacle where panoramic views of Sylva and Scotts Creek Valley await.

5. Richland Balsam Trail

Known as the best-smelling trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this 1.5-mile loop winds through a spruce-fir forest. You’ll love this surprisingly easy hike to the highest peak along the Blue Ridge Parkway – talk about skyline views! Even though the climb is about 700 vertical feet, the Richard Balsam Trail is not overly strenuous, and the cooler temps make for a refreshing hike during hot summer months.

When hiking to view the beautiful night skies, we recommend you either pack gear to stay the night or bring flashlights and take care while climbing down since you only have natural moon and star light to guide you!

(Waterrock Knob photos courtesy of Noel-Benadom)

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