A 200-foot cliff and Asheville’s newest coffee shop

Me (Hayden Bailey) hiking across the only structured bridge on the trail.

According to legend, John Rock gets its name from a horse who slipped and fell off of the 200-foot cliff. According to history, a plaque near the trailhead remembers the young men who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp John Rock during the Great Depression. 

When I talk about John Rock and the hike up to it, I always tell people we’re going to the hike named after the horse that fell off. Maybe that’s morbid of me or maybe it’s just my way of convincing people to go hiking with me. 

I haven’t gotten to go on one hike with my sister, Auburn Bailey, all fall. We have both been super sad about it but nobody is to blame, our schedules as full-time college students and both working just don’t line up well. 

We decided Oct. 21 would be the day. Our mom, Kristi Bailey and our good friend Marytaylor Bruns came along for the ride. 

Our day started with some caffeine from my new favorite coffee shop around Asheville, Retro Coffee. I had been dying to bring Auburn there ever since it opened in early October. Her and I are both coffee fanatics, looking for both a good latte and good vibes. Retro Coffee goes above and beyond those expectations. 

From my house, it takes about 40 minutes to drive to John Rock so we hopped in my Honda and made our way toward Brevard. 

To access John Rock, you must park at the Fish Hatchery in Pisgah Forest and start your hike at service road 475C right next to the parking lot. 

We parked, reminiscing about our elementary school field trips to the Fish Hatchery and packing my dark purple Osprey full of water, Lara Bars, grapes, gluten-free pretzels and Auburn’s pride and joy- her Canon EOS rebel t7i camera.

The entire trail up to John Rock ends up being around 5 miles round trip. As a pretty regular hiker, I would deem its difficulty as moderately difficult. Because of this, I was worried about my mom with her injured ankle and Marytaylor with her recently injured knee. 

The blue skies peaking through the canopy of leaves.

However, they both insisted with their knee and ankle brace, the trek upwards and onwards would be no problem for them at all.

We started walking along service road 475C, which is more like walking along a wooded trail,  admiring the sun making the color of the leaves pop while listening to the gurgling of the Davidson River beside us. 

After crossing only one newly constructed bridge, the rest of them being either makeshift log bridges or simply picking the correct rock to land your foot on, we took a right on Cat Gap Loop trail. 

From here, it’s up and up and up. There were many people on the trail and I couldn’t blame them, it was a beautiful day. Even though the hike was under a canopy of trees, the blueness of the sky refused to stay hidden. Reds, yellows and oranges illuminated the trail, giving a valid excuse for us to stop and stare. 

I always feel like a sense of comradery exists between you and the other people on the trail because you’re all there for the same reason which in turn, instigates conversations. 

One lady we met coming down encouraged us as we huffed and puffed climbing up. 

“Don’t worry, you’re almost there,” she said. “It’s so worth it, trust me.” 

I nodded my head in agreement, filled again with anticipation for my companions to see the beauty I knew awaited us. 

Soon afterward, we met a woman, her son and their dog. The dog was adorable and completely rolled over for stomach scratches, I imagine she was as tired as her humans. 

The mountains and John Rock come into view from the tunnel trail.

You know you’re near the top when you see a white sign nailed to a tree, warning you to keep your pets on a leash because of the slick rock face up ahead. The USDA website also warns of rock climbers who may be below you so make sure you don’t throw anything off the edge.

Finally we made it to the point on Cat Gap trail where you can either hike a little further up to come out at John Rock from the top or go through a little secret tunnel of sorts, which to me, is magical. 

I turned down the tiny path near the lower part of the rock face, careful to not get scraped by tree branches. 

The light at the end of the tunnel becomes mountains towering in their beauty, a view different than ones you might find at an overlook.

I had to hunch down a bit so as to not get my backpack caught in the rhododendrons and let my jaw drop as once again, I was taken aback by the splendor here. 

“Mom, do you see this? Oh my gosh, I’ve been dying to show you this forever guys,” I called back to them as they began to see the same sight as me. 

Sitting in the sun on top of John Rock.

As we stepped out further onto the steep face of John Rock, directly across from us was Looking Glass Rock, another rock face you can hike to in Pisgah Forest. Speaking as someone who has hiked to both of these, I am partial to John Rock. 

If you look closely enough at the ridgeline of the mountains, your eyes will catch hold of shiny objects flickering under the sunlight. Those are cars and motorcycles driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway or stopped at an overlook. 

The fall colors were past their peak but still stunning. I once heard someone describe the post-peak fall colors as “cozy and comforting” and I couldn’t agree more. 

I am pretty sure we spent an hour up there basking in the sun, eating snacks and watching a Raven scream at everyone up there as if to say “this is my home, please leave”. 

It’s so serene sitting on the face of a 200-foot cliff you could fall off of yet somehow you’re safe, sitting high above the world and all of the stress of everyday life. 

We were sad to go but also felt fulfilled and happy from our time spent in nature. 

View of Looking Glass Rock across from John Rock. (Hayden Bailey)

At one point on our way down the trail, we met a group of college boys, there were at least 10 of them, carrying backpacks with sleeping bags slipping out of their rightful spots. 

They were clearly exhausted from hiking with this much equipment and seemed glad to have to stop to clear the trail for us to make our way through. I felt bad for them, only a few seemed like they had trail experience but others, not so much. 

“Are y’all camping up here?” I asked. 

“Yeah, we are,” one of them responded. 

“Wow, that will be incredible,” I said. “You guys have so much fun!” 

“Wait, how much further up is it?” another one of them asked. 

I smiled, knowing I had to be honest with them but wanting to give them a little bit of encouragement. I ended up telling them they at least had half a mile if not a mile left but that it would be so worth it and camping up there would be a crazy experience.

Whether John Rock gets its name from the horse or the men in the CCC, this hike will have you already planning your next trip.