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.

georgia hiking trails: 6 or more miles 12.1 miles
(round trip)
? Your mileage may vary! Accuracy of your GPS device, weather conditions, and stops along your route will affect your own recorded distance.
georgia hiking trails: difficultmost
difficult
?Our difficulty estimate, based on distance, terrain, elevation change, & ease of wayfinding. May vary daily due to weather, trail reroutes, downed trees, etc.
georgia hiking trails: Okay for Trail-savvy dogs Challenging
for some dogs
?Leashed dogs are allowed on this trail, but it might be a challenging hike for your canine hiking buddy. Check out our favorite dog-friendly trails near Asheville for a great hike with your pup.

LOCATION:near Highlands and Cashiers, NC

GEAR: North Face Pack, our hiking gear list and Nikon D810 Camera

WEAR: Our ultra-soft Asheville Trails shirts and mountain logo hats

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 in NC

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. #hiking #trailrunning #camping #backpacking #asheville #nc #northcarolina #travel #outdoors #adventure

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.

Yellow Mountain Trail in NC

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.

Yellow Mountain Trail in NC

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.

Yellow Mountain NC

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.


Yellow Mountain Trail Map, Directions & Details

Yellow Mountain Trail Map
This map is not a substitute for official trail maps or topographic maps.

Driving Directions



Parking

Free parking is available at the Cole Gap trailhead.


GPS Coordinates

35.104548, -83.204056     //     N35 06.276 W83 12.245

Elevation Profile

Yellow Mountain Trail Elevation Profile
 
Leave No Trace: Atlanta Trails, Asheville Trails and Trailful are official Leave No Trace partners

Please Remember

Always leave no trace, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way, and follow these trail etiquette tips.

Nicholas Walsh
Author

Nicholas Walsh is a adventure photojournalist from the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. The son of avid outdoorsman father and a mother with a passion for education, he sought to wander his home from an early age. With passions for snowboarding, cross-country skiing, surfing, and whitewater paddling developing before his seventh birthday, it became clear that both a personal and professional life spent outdoors and abroad would be in his future. Nick is a freelance photojournalist, based in Atlanta, Georgia with professional affiliations to several media and photographic production firms. Follow him on Instagram: @_shootnick_