Bakers Mountain Highlights Tour

Bakers Mountain Highlights Tour

Published: October 26, 2023

2023 is the Year of the Trail in North Carolina and we invite you to spend it at Catawba County Parks! This series of articles will help you do that with details on suggested routes across our four parks. Our next feature is a highlights tour of Bakers Mountain Park.

Hike Statistics:
     Distance: 2.36 miles round-trip
     Estimated Time: 1.5 hours
     Elevation Gain: 600 feet
     Difficulty: Moderate

Hike Overview:
Bakers Mountain Park is home to Catawba County’s highest elevation point set in an environment representative of the North Carolina mountains complemented by fauna and flora native to the area. This moderately-challenging 2.4-mile route incorporates the park’s most notable spots featuring views, streams, historical sites and natural landmarks as it climbs up the mountain and through various habitats for a vigorous, stimulating and rewarding hike in the woods.

Directions to Trailhead:
From I-40, take exit 121.  At the top of the ramp from either direction, turn right to travel south on Old Shelby Road, bearing left at the intersection with George Hildebran Road.  After traveling approximately 4.1 miles from I-40, turn left onto Bakers Mountain Road. Park entrance is to the left at the end of the road. The hike begins on the right side of the park office at the southeastern trailhead for the Bakers Mountain Loop trail blazed in red. 

Hike Description & Details:
From the park office, begin on the red-blazed Bakers Mountain Loop that starts just past the restrooms at the wooden Bakers Mountain Park sign that makes a nice photo spot to document your visit. At the edge of the tree line near the sign, look for a buckeye tree so named for the seeds resembling a deer’s eye borne in early fall. The shiny, dark brown nut with a light-colored spot is believed to bring good luck; carrying one in your pocket is said to bring wealth and wisdom according to folklore. A few steps ahead, near the picnic area on the right, a pair of beautyberry shrubs attract attention in early October when they produce clusters of showy purple berries that are a valuable food source for the park’s songbirds and small mammals through autumn and winter months.

As you enter into the chestnut oak forest, the path starts out flat but uneven due to large roots that protrude from the ground. White oak, one of the park’s dominant trees historically valued for timber in ship-building, furniture, and cabinetwork, drops acorns in September and October but the trail is mostly free of debris and easy to make out as the rangers maintain and clear it regularly. The other noteworthy tree in the hardwood forest is the American chestnut, which dominated the woods at Bakers Mountain until the 1950s when it was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease designated by New York Times in the early part of the century as the "most rapid and destructive" fungus in the world. Once a prized source of lumber and food, the American chestnut is on the verge of extinction but lives on at the park as sprouts of root systems and stumps of the diseased host trees. 

A short, steep hill awaits at 600 feet, providing a good warm-up for the arduous climb that awaits further into the hike, which continues on a rolling terrain to the junction with the blue connector trail at map stand 6 at 0.25 miles. Continue straight to follow the red-blazed trail on a gradual descent and look for a spur path on the right at 0.28 miles which leads to a crooked tree (GPS coordinates: 35.65735, -81.41275). The branches of this sourwood are curved and twisted, the result of the tree bending toward the sunlight through the dense forest canopy. The tree looks like a sculpture, a natural masterpiece of spirals and twists that is a sight to be seen year-round: lush and green in spring and summer, adorned in brilliant red hues during the fall, bare and exposed in winter months.

Returning to the main path, you may notice a shimmer on the trail especially in the open canopy of fall and winter months when sunlight illuminates and reflects off the glass-like mica deposits scattered on the ground. The mineral is a residuum of a former prospect mine site marked with an interpretive sign at 0.37 miles, one of a few excavation sites on the mountain during the period around World War II. The terrain is rocky as the trail dips then rises on the way to the junction with the orange-blazed Chestnut Ridge trail at map stand 5 at 0.48 miles, the location of a stone chimney. A probable remnant of a former hunting cabin, little is certain about the history of the structure built in 1917, so dated with the assistance of local resident and conservationist Dr. Bob Hart of Hart Square Village.

Follow the arrowed “Mtn Top” sign to continue on the red-blazed trail as it begins a steep climb, gaining almost 300 feet in the next 0.4 miles toward a peak of Bakers Mountain, Catawba County’s highest elevation point at 1780 feet. Along the way, pass two rock outcroppings on the right: the first at 0.57 miles affectionately known by the locals as “Devil’s Den” and another at 0.7 miles dubbed “Vulture Rock.” The unique geology is representative of the Cat Square terrane metamorphic rocks likely to have been deposited between 430 and 380 million years ago. Between the two outcroppings, the trail parallels a gully where pinxter azaleas can be spotted blooming in April with clusters of pale pink, funnel-shaped flowers and magenta-colored protruding stamens.

The ascent up the mountain, equipped with opportunities for rest breaks at benches along the way, leads to a gazebo on the left and a picnic table on the right at 0.82 miles, and an observation deck at map stand 4 at 0.85 miles. The long-range view on a clear day is breathtaking: downtown Hickory and the Catawba Valley in the foreground and the iconic peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including Table Rock, Hawksbill, Grandfather and Mount Mitchell, in the background. Overhead, migrating raptors like red-tailed coopers, sharp-shinned hawks, and turkey and black vultures can be seen soaring high in the sky. The ground below the viewing platform is adorned by Carolina rhododendron’s soft shell pink blooms in April and mountain laurel’s white bell-shaped flowers in May, enhancing a visit in spring which is almost as impressive as the colorful display of the landscape at the peak of autumn which typically occurs the first week of November.

After taking in the view, aim straight ahead as you descend the steps of the platform toward the picnic table, then veer left on a footpath towards a “Service Road: Park Staff Use Only” sign next to the powerline. A few steps behind the sign (GPS coordinates: 35.65995, -81.40685) is the location of one of two confirmed geocaches within the park, this one hidden underneath a square block stamped on the top with the letter G. After signing the geocache and putting everything back the way you found it, retrace your steps back to the service road sign and turn left on the doublewide road which leads past the picnic table on the right to the gazebo ahead at 0.91 miles. Turn left to descend the mountain via the red-blazed trail to the chimney and three-way junction at map stand 5 at 1.29 miles.

Turn right onto the purple-blazed Rosebay trail, named for the thicket of rosebay rhododendron prevalent in this area of the park. The largest evergreen rhododendron and the state flower of Virginia, the rosebay can reach 30 feet high in favorable sites. Its bright pink buds open in June into large white and pink-margined bell-shaped flowers that grow in clusters of 16-24, reminiscent of large apple blossoms. The trail descends steeply for the first 0.1 mile, becoming more gradual as it passes a bench on the left at 1.48 miles; it then gets steeper again down to a creek crossing over a culvert at 1.52 miles. As you continue on a rolling, meandering terrain to a junction with the blue-blazed A.G. Clark trail at map stand 9 at 1.63 miles, notice the size of the trees here due to the nutrient-rich environment in the valley. In wintertime, as trees defoliate, the pine trees found in this section stand out among the giants, especially the white pine, the largest of conifer trees and described as the tallest tree in eastern North America. Living considerably longer than yellow pines, the white pine can be aged crudely by counting the number of whorls of branches that grow in rings around its straight trunk. But it is the Table Mountain pine that is most noteworthy here; while endemic to the Appalachian Mountains, the only place in Catawba County where the small pine grows is at Bakers Mountain Park.

Make a left onto the blue-blazed A.G. Clark trail and follow it down past the junction with a connector trail on the right at 1.65 miles, crossing a creek over a bridge at 1.67 miles. The path parallels the water on an ascent with a steep drop-off on the right, then flattens out as it travels past a small water feature at 1.74 miles. (GPS coordinates: 35.66011, -81.41542). While not tall enough to be considered a waterfall, the drop is quite scenic, especially after a heavy rain, dropping from a small rock ledge in 2 or 3 distinct streams. The creek attracts a variety of reptiles such as turtles and lizards, amphibians such as salamanders and frogs, and macro-invertebrates such as snails and crawfish, denoting the stream’s pristine water quality. The riparian habitat along the stream is noticeably different, its rich soil host to lush vegetation year-round and a diversity of wildflowers that emerge in March, peak in April and taper off in May. The rich biodiversity, alluring scenery and peaceful melody of the stream combine to make this one of the favorite spots at the park.

Continue straight ahead, bypassing the bridge over the creek at 1.75 miles. As the trail swings to the left and begins to climb, notice the burl on the tree on the right. A bulbous, woody growth caused by some form of stress to the tree, burls are valued by furniture makers, artists, and wood sculptors for the uniqueness and beauty of their grain patterns and colors. The trail reenters a hardwood forest and continues on an incline, covered in roots that form steps that aid the ascent past a bench on the right to the ruins of an old homesite and a memorial to one of its residents, A.G. Clark, a decorated US Army soldier killed in action in World War II. The site is home to another confirmed geocache within the park (GPS coordinates: 35.66013, -81.41458), tucked into the outside of the right wall of the chimney remains within the old homestead boundary.

Return to the main trail and continue on an uphill to the junction with the orange-blazed Chestnut Ridge trail at map stand 8 at 1.88 miles. Veer right to stay on the blue-blazed trail as it descends steeply down to a creek crossing at 1.92 miles; loose rocks in this section require caution on the descent. On the other side of the creek, the terrain strewn with boulders climbs steeply past a bench on the left at 1.95 miles to the junction with a spur path on the right at 1.97 miles. The spur, no longer than 0.1 mile, leads to a bench located at a rock outcrop above a gully, another spot in the park where rosebay rhododendron can be seen decorating the park with its blossoms in June.

Retrace your steps out of the bench area and return to the blue-blazed trail, taking a right at the T intersection at 2.03 miles. The path ascends gradually as it comes to the junction with the red connector trail at map stand 7 at 2.05 miles. Bear right through the junction and continue on a descent to a flat area at 2.1 miles that was once the site of a moonshine operation. A few steps ahead, the trail swings to the right and climbs gradually up to a curve to the left at 2.17 miles; the route is lined with mountain laurel that blooms in May with bell-shaped flowers whose coloring resembles that of peppermint candies. At 2.21 miles, it comes to a picnic shelter on the right and a stand on the left with information about the fauna and flora within the park.

The path, now paved, continues up to the junction with the park’s LITeracy Trail at 2.25 miles between story stations 12 and 13; continue straight on a gravel shortcut up to the picnic shelter on the left and reconnect with the paved trail at story station 6. Just ahead, behind a picnic table at 2.32 miles, the park’s pollinator garden showcases seasonal flowers from April through September, attracting pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds. Pass a few Catawba rhododendron bushes, known for their striking lavender-pink clusters of flowers blooming in April and May, on the approach to the western trailhead for the red-blazed Bakers Mountain Loop on the right at 2.34 miles. Curve left past story station 1 to arrive at the parking area and the park building ahead for the completion of the hike at 2.36 miles.

Mileage Breakdown:

  • 0.00 - start of hike at park office
  • 0.25 - junction with blue connector trail (map stand 6)
  • 0.28 - spur path to crooked tree
  • 0.37 - former prospect mica mine site with mica display
  • 0.48 - chimney and junction with orange Chestnut Ridge trail (map stand 5)
  • 0.57 - “Devil’s Den” rock outcropping
  • 0.70 - “Vulture Rock” rock outcropping
  • 0.82 - gazebo
  • 0.85 - observation deck (map stand 4)
  • 0.88 - geocache
  • 1.29 - junction with purple Rhododendron trail (map stand 5)
  • 1.63 - junction with blue AG Clark trail (map stand 9)
  • 1.74 - water feature
  • 1.80 - Clark homestead site and memorial
  • 1.88 - junction with orange Chestnut Ridge trail (map stand 8)
  • 1.92 - creek crossing
  • 1.97 - junction with bench spur
  • 2.05 - junction with red connector trail (map stand 7)
  • 2.21 - picnic shelter and information board
  • 2.25 - junction with paved LITeracy trail
  • 2.28 - picnic shelter
  • 2.32 - seasonal pollinator garden
  • 2.34 - western trailhead of the Bakers Mountain Loop
  • 2.36 - end of hike at information board and parking area

Visitor Reviews:
Beautiful hiking trail with lots of interesting things to stop and look at. (old homestead, creek, overlook). Clean restrooms and parking lot. Google Review

Moderate hiking trails with good hills and a lookout.  Trails are well marked.  There is a little waterfall on the trail and history points. Google Review

There are multiple trails with different distances. The park has clean restrooms, plenty of picnic areas and benches. The trails are all very well marked. Google Review

Easy parking with convenient access to restrooms before starting out. The trailhead starts to the right of the restrooms right off the parking area. Great trails that are clearly marked with cut through options. Each map is labeled with a number that correspond to the map so you know exactly where you are and can plan where you’re heading. Benches for rest breaks are frequently placed along the paths. Gazebo and lookout deck are at the highest elevation allowing for pretty good views. There are 2 old homesites, a couple of bridges, and a small waterfall to see along the way. Great for a day of family fun and picnicking.  Google Review

Hike Video:

Other Routes in the Series: