The Cowee Mountains is the highest mountain range in the Highlands-Cashiers area, with many mountains approaching 5000 feet. This hike leads to the highest point in the Cowee Mountains as well as the highest point in the entire Highlands-Cashiers area, Yellow Mountain. Yellow Mountain rises to 5127 feet, and has a historic, renovated fire lookout. You'll also pass over several other mountains with great winter views and some viewpoints as well. Chances are you will be tired by the time you make it back to the trailhead at Cole Gap, and although the fact that the route back is almost as hard as the way in is pretty major, the rewards will sill be worth it, especially on a clear day. This hike occurred on Thursday, November 27th, 2014. My plan was to hike the Yellow Mountain Trail from Cole Gap to Yellow Mountain, and then return the same way.
R/T Length of Trail: 9.6 Miles
Duration of Hike: 5:00
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Amazing panoramic views from Yellow Mountain Fire Tower (in good weather)
Cons: Steep grades from Shortoff Mountain to Yellow Mountain Gap; major climbing on the way back; confusing signage in some places
Scenic Views: Cole Mountain Overlook - 3 stars; Yellow Mountain - N/A (See text below)
Water Features: None
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter
Trail Blaze Color(s): Yellow Mountain Trail - None
Beginning Point: Cole Mountain Gap on Buck Creek Road
Directions: From Highlands, NC: Follow US Route 64 East for about 2.9 miles to Buck Creek Road. Bear left onto Buck Creek Road at a hairpin turn on US-64. Follow Buck Creek Road for 2.1 miles to Cole Gap. The gated Forest Service Road 4535 will be on the left - park on the side of the road but don't block the gate.
There's about a handful of fire towers left across western North Carolina. Some are tall; some are locked down; some have been rehabilitated; and some can be more simple lookouts, like this one. Being the highest peak in the area, Yellow Mountain has a historic fire lookout that is open to the public, provided they do a nearly 10 mile roundtrip hike. You can also access the tower on car via the gravel road that goes up there, but that is only for people who know the code to the gate for Yellow Mountain Preserve.
The hike starts from Cole Gap (also known as Cole Mountain Gap) on Buck Creek Road. The trail starts across from the designated parking area (see directions above). It starts climbing right off the bat, coming to a trailhead kiosk shortly. Then, the ascent steepens. This first ascent isn't that long - only 0.5 miles. At 0.4 miles, an unmarked side trail goes left leading to a nice overlook. Some pine trees are in the way, but even with those, the view still gives a good perspective of the valley below, especially when Yellow Mountain is fogged in and you reach in twilight, which is what happened to me on this day. At 0.5 miles, the Yellow Mountain Trail finishes climbing Cole Mountain, and then after turning east, descends and ascends briefly several small hills on the ridge. At 1.2 miles, the trail starts ascending Shortoff Mountain. There are a lot of switchbacks that ease the climb somewhat. When I hiked this trail, there was a fallen tree halfway up the climb that was tricky to climb over. Towards the top of the climb, a side trail heads right to a small view. Meanwhile, as the switchbacks end, the climb ends, skimming the peak of Shortoff Mountain just to the left. Or did it? Shortoff Mountain is one long ridge, and after a brief descent into a gap, the trail begins to climb again toward the "second peak" of Shortoff Mountain. This climb is more gradual. There were a couple side trails near the top, but I didn't check them out, because the mountain was fogged in. Perhaps these side trails lead to viewpoints.
On the other side of Shortoff Mountain, the trail begins to descend at around 2 miles. The descent is pretty steep in places, and then there's a large sign at 2.4 miles. This sign marks the halfway point, showing 2.4 miles back to Cole Gap and 2.4 miles to Yellow Mountain. Turn left here; an unmarked side trail continues forward. The ascent steepens - in fact very steep for a short time. What I'm about to tell you is going to hurt your spirit - you'll have to climb ALL the way back up here. It is a slow and steep climb. Anyway, around 2.6 miles, the trail reaches a small flat area below Goat Knob. Then, instead of climbing up Goat Knob, it suddenly jumps off to the left and makes several muddy, steep switchbacks. In the snow on this day, they were pretty slippery. After this, the trail levels and follows the slopes of Goat Knob, before crossing a small stream at 2.9 miles. At 3 miles, the trail exits onto an old roadbed. Turn right here. The roadbed stays flat for a bit, but after passing another old road going right, it starts a steep descent at 3.2 miles. At 3.4 miles, a confusing turn happens. Here, there is a sign that says "Yellow Mountain ^ <----". In other words, it seems to show that Yellow Mountain is both the way you came from and also turning right. If you turn right, you'll find another sign shortly, saying "Yellow Mountain ^". In reality, all of these signs mean "Yellow Mountain Trail", not Yellow Mountain. So turn right at the first sign. The old road that continues forward eventually leads out to Buck Creek Road. After turning right, the trail will descend to Yellow Mountain Gap at 3.5 miles. Signs on the right indicate property - a path beyond the signs leads to Yellow Mountain Preserve, a private neighborhood positioned on the slopes of Yellow Mountain.
After Yellow Mountain Gap, the Yellow Mountain Trail begins climbing Yellow Mountain. The ascent is not very hard. There are some switchbacks as it ascends up Yellow Mountain. At 4 miles, the trail climbs onto a ridge which is part of Yellow Mountain's upper reaches. At 4.3 miles, the first of several paths go right onto the gravel road that leads to the top of Yellow Mountain. It's a faster alternative to reach the top of Yellow Mountain, so I used it. The distance is the same as on the trail, but I heard the trail can be overgrown in places there. because most people use the road. At 4.4 miles, the gravel road dead ends in a T-type intersection with a bigger gravel road. Keep left here. There will be some house lots for sale on the right, with views into the valley below. At 4.7 miles, the road dead-ends near the top of Yellow Mountain. A wide path continues forward. Shortly pass the Yellow Mountain Trail coming in from the left. The path ends at the Yellow Mountain Fire Tower at 4.8 miles. I heard the fire tower has an amazing 360 degree view, but it was twilight when I got here, and the views were nonexistent due to the snow and fog. It was also bitterly cold with strong winds blowing across the tower. Maybe pne day I will return to it in better weather conditions. I really don't want to do this trail with all the climbing on the way back again. I need to research the other route from the old road that exits onto Buck Creek Road. Judging by the pictures I have seen from others, I think it is worth it to see the views from the fire tower though.
Below are my pictures from this hike.
Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 390.5 Miles