If there's a better grandstand for viewing Grandfather Mountain, I've yet to find it. Admittedly, I haven't hiked a lot in the Wilson Creek vicinity, where Big Lost Cove Ridge is located. But I doubt I'll find a better view of Tanawa in the immediate future.
Located in what is locally known as the Wilson Creek Gorge Recreation Area, Big Lost Cove Ridge is a major spot for hiking, waterfall wandering, and rock climbing. There are a number of major cliff areas where climbers can find plenty of opportunities to play. While I was at the summit of Little Lost Cove Cliffs, there were folk technical climbing and top roping.
The enormous drainage of Grandfather Mountain feeds the tremendous numbers of creeks and streams that cut into these local peaks. Because of the resistant sandstones and quartzite caprock, these ridges are packed with many waterfalls and cascades. You could spend months within a few square miles searching out both the obvious and lesser known waterfalls and still not be able to hit them all. It's a waterfall wanderer's jackpot.
In addition, the variety of trees and shrubs and flowers rivals the Great Smoky Mountains in sheer diversity. There's not as much old growth, but you can even find patches of ancient trees that the lumbermen missed on the rapacious ways over these high peaks.
Most of this land lies within the Pisgah National Forest and it is riddled with established and maintained trails. As always, back country camping is in ample supply and is completely free of charge. Thousands of grand campsites await the adventurous backpacker.
And these mountains are also a gathering place for kayakers and tubers. The upper portions of Wilson Creek are mainly flatwater that is great for the general public who only wish to take a leisurely float down these clear waters. But there is a two and a half mile stretch of Wilson Creek that offers up Class III and Class IV kayaking when the water levels are at a good flow.
For those involved in the shooting and angling sports, the side feeder streams and creeks are packed with brook trout. And the forest are full of wild turkey, deer, and bear. It's darned near impossible to take a walk through the forests here and not run into turkey.
All in all, this is one of the finest spots that I know of for all around outdoors recreation in every season.
From the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile post 311.1. Turn left if you are heading south on the BRP on SR 1518 which is Old Jonas Ridge Rd, 6 miles south of the intersection of Hwy 221 and the BRP. The road is dirt/gravel, then part has been recently paved, then back to gravel on the forest road. Follow it for a little less than 2 miles, past a Christmas tree farm on the right and to a little white church on the left. The main road curves to the right, but continue straight past the church on the narrower FR 464.
From Morganton, traveling north on NC 181, reset your milage where the 4 lanes goes to 2 lane and go 10.3 miles to Brown Mountain Beach Road. Turn right and continue for 5 miles to SR 1328. Turn left - there was no road sign there on my last trip, but there was a Pisgah Forest sign. Pass the commercial campground and the road turns to gravel, following the Wilson Creek gorge. There are quite a few places to park and head down to the creek and this stretch is a popular swimming area and my guess is that is where you have to pay to play. The road continues on - after 4.5 miles it crosses a bridge. Bear to the right and continue another 4-5 miles until the road ends at the Mortimer Recreation Area - NC 90.
I'd been told that some attempts at creating pay stations along the Wilson Creek Area had been attempted in 2008. But on my visit in 2009 I saw no signs of this at all.
Back country camping is available throughout the forests. There is a developed and quite excellent National Forest Service Campground called Mortimer at the intersection of FS 1328 and NC 90.
You can get some information about the area, and Mortimer Campground at the totally piss-poor Pisgah National Forest website here.