Ever seen a pluton that didn’t make a good hike? As you may recall, a pluton is formed by an ancient “bubble” of lava which solidifies under the surface only to have its covering layers eroded way. As a result, the feature that’s created has steep sides and tends to stand out visually as not belonging where it is. Other examples of plutons are Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta and Looking Glass Rock in Pisgash National Forest.
To get to Whiteside Mountain, take US 64 west, out of Cashiers, NC about 4.5 miles. You’ll be looking for Whiteside Mountain Road on the left in a sharp turn on US 64. The Forest Service has marked both the approach and the road, so you shouldn’t miss it. From the turn, it is just an uphill drive. It will be further than you expect, so don’t give up, you’ll eventually arrive at the parking lot for the trail head. It’s a pretty good sized parking lot, but can be full during the summer. You’ll find an information kiosk along with restrooms here.
Whiteside Mountain Trail is 2.5 miles long, gains about 800 feet vertically and can be rated moderate in some sections.
The trail begins at the kiosk and runs up some steps before encountering a roadbed. Turn left and follow the roadbed. In a short distance, you’ll see a smaller, stepped trail coming in from the right. This is actually the other end of the loop as it returns from the mountain. You can ascend this way, but it is steep and rugged in places.
Continue on the old roadbed. For the next mile, you will be climbing slowly, eating up that 800 feet in altitude gain. You’re on the opposite side of the mountain from the cliffs, so don’t expect any views.
The roadbed ends at the “nose” of the mountain with some marvelous views all the way from the North around to the Southwest. The trail itself makes a hard right as it begins to work its way along the cliff’s edge. Just past the start, you’ll find an observation platform to give you some teaser views of what’s to come.
For the next mile, the trail wanders from one overlook to another. Depending on which guide you read, the cliffs here are from 700 feet to 1000 feet high. Regardless, they are high and they are steep. Whiteside Mountain is a popular ascent spot for rock climbers. For the exposed overlooks, the Forest Service has built some strong protective fences which allow you to get close to the edge safely.
About halfway along the cliffside portion of the trail, you’ll find the top of the mountain, a large portion of rock sticking up in one of the overlooks. It is deeply chiseled with the altitude at that spot, 4930 feet.
A little further along, you’ll find another overlook with a kiosk telling the story of the 1911 exploits of Charles Wright in saving the life of a friend at that spot. Immediately below you is Fool’s Rock, a small promontory that actually sits away from the rock face. You can safely get down onto it (it has a safety fence) but it is unnerving how it hangs out there in space.
More overlooks are found as you move down from the summit until the trail turns away from the cliff. You’ll probably see a sign about climbing prohibited past that point because it is a Peregrin falcon nesting site. Once you make the turn, you’re looking at about a half mile down the mountain. This will take you back down to the original roadbed you started on and on to the parking lot. Coming down this trail will reinforce why it is recommended you take the roadbed to the top and come back down this way.
Whiteside Mountain is a pretty special place, definitely different than any of the other “big rocks” you may have hiked. All the other “big rocks” probably have some nice cliffs, but they won’t have any that are a mile long.