Hike the Yellow Mountain Trail to a view-packed summit, following a twelve-mile roundtrip journey on one of the most difficult trails in Western NC. This tough adventure rolls over mountaintops, explores lush valleys filled with gnarly-branched mountain laurel, and visits a historic fire lookout tower, scoring a great workout along the way.
LOCATION:near Highlands and Cashiers, NC
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 785 Trails Illustrated Map
Touted as one of the most difficult hikes in the South, the Yellow Mountain Trail stands as a formidable goal to even the fittest of adventurers. Along this twelve mile out-and-back route, the trail ascends and descends multiple mountain peaks, winds through tunnels of mountain laurel and rhododendron, and scrambles across craggy sections of single track.
The reward at the summit is quite worthwhile: Yellow Mountain’s vast panoramas extend from the historic fire tower on one of the highest peaks in the Highlands Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest. And while this is one serious workout, the trail’s incredible terrain and far-flung vistas make it well worth the effort.
Yellow Mountain Trail: the hike
Departing from a parking area on Buck Creek Road (view maps and driving directions), the trail begins a gradual but steady ascent from Cole Mountain Gap onto the ridge of Cole Mountain. Beautiful, open, old-growth forest predominates the path. Marked with blue blazes, the trail ascends around 300 feet, and then descends prior to its first major climb. The trail carves through a series of switchbacks before cresting the summit of Shortoff Mountain at around 4,850 feet. The turns here are relatively tight and steep, with rocks scattered mid-trail, so a bit of caution is needed on the switchbacks. (There’s also a Shortoff Mountain that shares the same name, located to the northeast at the southern end of Linville Gorge.)
From the Shortoff summit, the trail descends and then climbs to Goat Knob at 4,955 feet, and then plunges nearly 900 feet into Yellow Mountain Gap. On the descent into the gap, the trail passes a major trail intersection, denoted by a sign indicating the return route to Cole Gap and the direction to head for Yellow Mountain.
The gap marks the approximate halfway point to the summit – and 1/4 of the total hike. The route veers to the left here, being mindful of the steep descent – as the return hike of this section is punishing.
The trail begins to overlap a discontinued use fire access road. Navigating this stretch of the trail can be tricky, thanks to recent reroutes due to deadfall and obstacles. (Keep in mind that the trail proceeds on the western flanks of Yellow Mountain if navigation becomes difficult.) From Yellow Mountain Gap, it’s a nearly unrelenting climb of over 1,000 feet to the mountain’s summit, meandering to the northwest as the trail continually climbs.
Along the base of the final climb, the trail winds through beautiful groves of mountain laurel and rhododendron, with short and scrambly pitches accompanied by rolling single track. This section is usually the best opportunity for water fills: springs bubbling are seasonally plentiful alongside the trail.
The climb intensifies as the trail arcs through a sharp switchback at just over five miles, taking a serious turn vertically. Littered with 100-meter sections of 45+ degree, rock-filled pitches, the final approach to the Yellow summit more closely resembles a staircase than a trail. After carving through switchbacks, the surrounding leaf cover begins to thin noticeably, and the granularity of the trail indicates the summit’s close proximity. After rounding one final bend, the sight of the summit’s historic fire lookout tower is a welcome sight. Some of the finest views in Western North Carolina begin to stretch far and wide. From the tower, views extend to town of Franklin to the west and the towering granite walls of Panthertown Valley to the east.
The summit is a fantastic place to soak it all in, rehydrate, and refuel, as the return trip to Cole Gap is equally daunting. After making a grueling climb from Yellow Mountain Gap to Shortoff Mountain, the hike makes a long descent to Cole Gap, reaching the gap at just over twelve miles. Congratulations are in order: we’ve just bagged one of the toughest trails in NC!
More of our favorite hikes near Highlands and Cashiers, NC
In the area with energy left to burn? The views from the sheer-walled cliffs at the nearby Whiteside Mountain are simply remarkable and well worth a visit. Up for chasing waterfalls? The cascades of some of NC’s most beautiful falls are a short drive away, including the incredible Rainbow Falls at Gorges State Park, multi-tiered wateralls at Glen Falls, and the enormous single-drop plunge of High Falls at Lake Glenville. Catch some lofty views on our favorite hikes to fire lookout towers near Asheville. And check out our full guide to the best hikes near Cashiers and Highlands for ore adventure inspiration in this scenic stretch of North Carolina wilderness.
This map is not a substitute for official trail maps or topographic maps.
Free parking is available at the Cole Gap trailhead.
35.104548, -83.204056 // N35 06.276 W83 12.245