There are a lot of overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, some are prettier than others but none are as pretty as Waterrock Knob. We’ll show you why and when to visit. We’re sharing details of all it has to offer including picnic area, hiking trail, and gift shop as well as some tips for seeing sunset and sunrise.
Waterrock Knob is a scenic mountain picnic area and overlook with an awesome short hike and gift shop in Western North Carolina along the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile post 451.2.
If you haven’t been to Waterrock Knob, you may imagine a parking lot with a few nearby picnic tables and a small shop.
That’s what I was expecting when my wife said we were going there last year to watch sunset.
The drive to Waterrock Knob is a scenic tour through the most beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As you reach the high elevations near Waterrock Knob, the view widens, offering glimpses of the sweeping vistas below.
Instead of a small pullout on the parkway, Waterrock Knob Overlook is a plateau with breathtaking views in every direction with a smattering of tables seated along the rim.
The rolling Blue Ridge Mountains fade far into the distance and the azure haze of the mountains waits to contrast the setting sun.
The summit at Waterrock Knob is accessible via a rocky and steep trail that winds through the forest to a rugged view hundreds of feet above the plateau.
The view from the top of the hike is really incredible but so is the view from the overlook. If you can’t make it to the summit don’t fret.
Amenities at Waterrock Knob
Aside from the stunning view, there are several good reasons to visit Waterrock Knob.
The picnic and overlook area has a cool shop along with multiple restrooms and a tough but really, really rewarding hike.
Waterrock Knob Visitor Center
The Visitor Center has a few interpretive offerings about the region and the formation of the mountains as well as the most common gift shop offerings.
Our kids liked looking at the stuffed animals and candy while we perused the books. What eventually caught my eye, or nose rather, was the coffee.
Sourced locally, the cup was hot, bitter, and strong. If you aren’t a coffee drinker I realize that probably sounds gross. For you coffee lovers, the cup is worth a couple bucks.
There are stone picnic tables along the outer edge of the overlook area. They are standard Blue Ridge Parkway tables but the view is anything but standard.
The overlook is at a little less that 5800 feet and the almost 360 degree view is a parade of the most beautiful mountain peaks and valleys in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Fair warning, if you come for sunset, you will have a lot of company so don’t expect to have a table unless you get there early.
Other times of the day it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place to eat. Afterwards, the large grassy field between the two sides is a great place to let kids roam free for awhile.
Waterrock Rock Knob Trail
The trail that takes you to Waterrock Knob, the point the overlook is named after, is a moderately tough one mile hike to the tallest overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The trail gains about 500 feet in half a mile and weaves up the mountain.
Expect uneven footing and steep stone stairs before you reach the top.
The payoff is amazing, though.
Waterrock Knob summit sits at 6273 feet, making it one of the highest places in the eastern U.S.
From the top enjoy the lazy hazy mountain view. The closer to sunset your visit the more the gray blue mountains fade into a sea of cobalt.
There is also a plane crash that can be access from Waterrock Knob that is 2.5 mile further up the trail. The trail is not maintained by the NPS. If you choose to hike to it please be respectful and limit the impact you have on the environment.
Waterrock Knob Trail
Length: 0.9 miles out and back Elevation Gain: 450 feet Difficulty: Moderate
Great For: Amazing views, photography, pets
When to Visit: May to October
How We Rate It: 4/5, Aside from the amazing view from the top there are a few spots with incredible views along the way. Hike to the summit if you have an hour.
Sunrise and Sunset
Both sunrise and sunset are stunning at Waterrock Knob. You will probably have some company in the morning but in the evening you can expect a lot more.
You can enjoy either from the parking area or from hiking to the Waterrock Knob overlook. If you are going to the overlook, give yourself an extra half hour to reach the summit and bring a flashlight.
The sunrise at Waterrock Knob starts with pink hues stretching across the sky gradually replacing the night sky. The layered mountains slowly come into view but the show really starts once the sun peaks over distant mountain ranges. Warm glowing rays blanket the furrowed ranges.
We were lucky enough to visit when thick fog trapped the peaks. Each looked like an opaque island in an uncharted sea.
The rising sun quickly ascends making sunrise a beautiful but brief affair, but still worth rising early for.
We had stayed in Cherokee the night before and it took us about 35 minutes to reach the overlook. If you are coming from Bryson City it’ll take more like 45. Just give yourself enough time to arrive early.
While sunrise is a quick thing, sunset takes much longer. We arrived about an hour before sunset and the fading light had already begun to cast dramatic shadows along the mountained landscape.
Even an hour before sunset, the western rim of the overlook was lined with onlookers.
Still, we found parking and a spot to enjoy.
Ever so slowly, the blue haze deepened as ochre light washed the ridges and valleys in the cooling evening. Waves of half light rode the mountain peaks, valley merged with mountain and a blue sea stretched to the horizon.
We thought our kids would be just as mesmerized as we were, but instead they sat in the van and loudly talked about Minecraft. Oh well.
When to Visit Waterrock Knob
Waterrock Knob is open from April through the end of October. The area can be visited in winter months when the parkway is open but the shop will be closed.
If you are planning a visit in the off season, make sure you check for road closures on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You are looking for Balsam Gap (mile marker 443) to Soco Gap (mile marker 455.7).
Even absent dangerous conditions, the Blue Ridge Parkway closes for long periods of time in the winter in western North Carolina.
Spring comes to the mountain heights at Waterrock Knob later than most of the Blue Ridge and the air stays crisp longer. May to early June is when spring really sets in.
You won’t find the budding rhododendrons so common throughout the Blue Ridge at Waterrock Knob but the sweeping views and renewed mountains stand bright below.
Come prepared for cool and breezy weather even late into spring, especially at the summit.
You can escape some of the summer heat at the high elevations at Waterrock Knob. Be sure to still lather up with sun screen there is relatively little shade at the overlook. It may be much cooler but the effects of the sun are the same.
If you are hoping to catch those deep blue mountains at sunset, summer is the best time to visit. Isoprene is the chemical that causes the bluing of the mountains and its produced by the foliage in our awesome hardwood forests.
We’ve traveled all over the U.S. and seen sunsets from both coasts and countless amazing mountain ranges. Sunset in the Blue Ridge is special and Waterrock Knob is in a perfect place to experience the fullness of that beauty.
Fall is another great time to visit. You can experience the beautiful leaf changes at Waterrock Knob and on the drive along the parkway to get there. The leaves change color earlier at the higher elevations near Waterrock Knob.
Many of the trees at Waterrock Knob are evergreen so the foliage change is muted at the overlook itself.
However, the surrounding mountains are lower and you can see the brightly colored mountains.
Why You Should Visit
So we’ve listed everything to do and when to do it, but the most important is why to visit.
Simply put, the overlook is towering and gives you a perspective you are unlikely to find many places outside of the western US.
Sunset is the best time and sunset in the summer is the best, best time.
You won’t find a better place on the Blue Ridge Parkway where the mountains call.
If you can’t get to Waterrock Knob but still need a sunset, we have you covered! Here’s a list of 12 spots to catch an amazing sunset on the Blue Ridge Parkway.