Distance – 5.75 Miles (loop)
Elevation Change – 1079 feet
Highest Point – 3,320 feet
Hike Rating – Moderate+
While never an obsession like it’s Big Brother, Looking Glass Rock, John Rock is a similar type of granite pluton a short distance further up FR475 from the intersection with US276. John Rock can be seen from the parking lot of the fish hatchery. The hike to the summit of John Rock can be completed in one of two ways. It can be done as an out and back or a loop. When I did the hike it was taking the loop route, so that’s the way I’m going to recount. The total hike is around 5.75 miles and it includes more than 1000 feet of elevation change on the way up. The trail varies on the loop route and if you ask me, the ascent is much prettier when done as a loop. It can also include two waterfalls, the Upper Waterfall on Cedar Rock Creek and the Waterfall on Cedar Rock Creek. Both can be seen early on in the hike by making a slight detour along the way. If you haven’t seen these two falls, they are definitely worth checking out, especially the lower falls. The trail to reach both is about 0.8 of a mile into the hike. If you look on my AllTrails map you will see the spot where we went down to Cedar Rock Creek shortly before the intersection with Butter Gap Trail.
To get to the John Rock Trailhead from the intersection of 64/280/276 in Brevard, follow US276 North 5.2 miles to the split with FR475. make a left onto FR475 and drive 1.4 miles to the driveway for the Fish Hatchery. This is a big parking lot but even so it fills up so get here early or you’ll be parking on the side of FR475. The hike starts by crossing the bridge to the left of the Fish Hatchery on FR475C. The road is gated to stop vehicle traffic so after bypassing the gate, cross the bridge. As soon as you get across the bridge, make a right onto the Cat Gap Loop trail. Most of the hike will be on the Cat Gap Loop Trail,including the finish, which ends at the far side of the parking area.
After crossing a wet area on footbridge, the trail mounts a series of log steps before the grade moderates. This initial section of the hike follows a chain-link fence that separates the forest from a preserve area. There are portions of this trail that are soggy and there is a small tributary crossing that is more of a muddy area than a creek. From here the trail descends to a bridge over Cedar Rock Creek. A forestry road follows the creek upstream but we’re going to stay on the Cat Gap Loop Trail which is the steep trail to the right. The steep ascent is soon forgotten as the trail levels off as you near the trail to the waterfalls. It is still up hill but only moderately so. You’ll hear the Waterfall on Cedar Rock Creek before you get to a large tree on the left side of the trail. There are two fallen trees that have been sawed away shortly before you reach the tree on the left. On my last two visits there was a small pink flag at the base of the tree. If you want to see the waterfalls, head on down. The trail can be steep in places so use cation.
If bypassing the waterfalls, continue on the trail a short distance to the intersection with the Butter Gap trail. It was signed on my last visit. Stay to the left on the Cat Gap Loop Trail crossing another bridge. The trail will follow Cedar Rock Creek upstream. There is another crossing of the creek before you get to one of the coolest features on the hike. The trail empties into a stand of white pines. There is no undergrowth in this area and on my visit a lot of folks had set up camp under the pines.
After departing the pine forest the trail crosses the creek again but without benefit of a trail. The rock hop wasn’t too bad but the creek level was low. After the crossing the trail starts uphill in a big way. There is a series of switchbacks as you make your way higher up John Rock. After the switchbacks the trail levels off until it meets up with the Cat Gap Connector trail. Make a left onto the Cat Gap Connector and follow this until it reaches a four-way intersection.
Turn left and head up the hill. This is the steepest part of the hike as you make your way around a rocky knob on the side of the hill. The two trails at the intersection that go to the right are the Cat Gap Loop Trail. This part of the ascent provides a good workout since it is very steep and not in the best of shape. It’s very rocky and eroded. Thankfully it’s short but it will likely have you breathing heavy. Once you reach the top of this section the trail will level off. You are on the summit. The trail will undulate along the top of John Rock before it begins into a long sweeping u-turn on the summit. As you reach the northernmost part of the trail you will see open areas to your left with trails leading out of the forest. You can take any of these out onto the exposed rock. As always, use your best judgment when venturing onto the rock. There are no fences and no signs. The only thing keeping you from a plunge to the base if commonsense. If the rocks are wet, stay in the woods. If you don’t, that’s on you.
We did a fair amount of exploring on the summit until the rains came and forced us off the rocks and back into the woods. After the squall passed, the ground was too slippery to venture back out so this was our sign to leave. There are numerous trails off the cliffs and back to the main trail to the base. Make a left on the John Rock Summit Trail. This trail will complete the U-turn back to the Cat Gap Loop Trail. There are numerous side trails to explore that offer differing views of Pisgah Forest. We explored a few but the drive home prevented additional exploration on this day. The trail along the summit will rise and fall before cresting the ridge for the descent to the Cat Gap Loop Trail.
Turn left heading downhill. The hike will stay on Cat Gap Loop even though it might be tempting to make a left onto FR475C when it intersects. Parts of this section are steep but it is all downhill. You will encounter a lot of people who are hiking up this way to the summit since it is the shorter route but it is nowhere near as scenic. The trail will descend to the base of John Rock and eventually it will meet up with the Davidson River after one more crossing of Cedar Rock Creek. The trail empties into the parking lot at the end furthest from the Fish Hatchery.