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China Creek / Thunderhole Loop

Difficult
 4.5 (15) RECOMMENDED ROUTE

A burly backcountry loop taking you down the rabbit hole and into a primordial landscape.


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Map Key

6.7

Miles

10.7

KM

74%

Runnable

3,855' 1,175 m

High

2,054' 626 m

Low

1,922' 586 m

Up

1,913' 583 m

Down

11%

Avg Grade (6°)

42%

Max Grade (23°)

Dogs Unknown

Features River/Creek · Views · Waterfall · Wildflowers · Wildlife

Just to clarify where you park vs. where you pick up the trail: If you park at the rest area you and are planning on doing the course clockwise, you'll have to walk on Hwy 221 towards Blowing Rock for about 1/2 mile before veering off to the right onto the horse trail toward the stables. If you want to go counter-clockwise, enter the trail at the rest area and head down from there.

Overview

While the crowds are doing laps around nearby Moses Cone, you are chasing down thunder in your own wilderness sanctuary—worlds away. Expect a rollicking plunge into the Pisgah Forest chock full of boulders, old growth forest, and plenty of flowing water. This is an advanced run that will require some thunder thighs to power you back up the 2,000 ft ascent to the top of the gorge. Your reward is a 7-mile loop that is beautiful, raw, and rarely travelled, despite being just minutes away from downtown Blowing Rock. Expect the China Creek section of the trail to be overgrown and hard to follow in the upper section. Count your lucky stars that the actual Thunderhole Trail was recently given some serious lovin' by a trail crew who officially made this old school trail a modern joy.

Need to Know

The 221 Rest Area is just past the Blue Ridge Parkway turnoff as you are heading out of Blowing Rock. The Thunderhole Trail is best found by GPS: 1500 Laurel Ln, Blowing Rock, NC 28605. The two car pulloff and accompanying kiosk are directly across from the equestrian center (and a bit hard to find).

NOTE: The China Creek Trail will be an overgrown jungle of hate in the middle of summer. Bring your machete or wait until fall, winter, or early spring.

Runner Notes

Consider bringing water and nutrition, esp. for the climb up. If you're new to the area, gauge your trail running skills on the 5 mile Boone Fork Loop. Thunderhole/China Creek is easily several notches harder.

Description

Park at the 221 Rest Area just outside of Blowing Rock. Locate the unmarked trail that heads through the rhododendron thicket on the far western side of the parking area. The trail contours and gradually drops in elevation. Within 1/2 mile, you'll run straight into the Blowing Rock Boulders. If it's dry, you might encounter climbers here in the tumble of boulders.

IMPORTANT: The China Creek Trail is easy to lose here due to the informal climbers trails in the area. In general, you are looking for a faint trail that is heading down and SW. Keep your eyes peeled and it will all likely work out for you. You can also use the Trail Run Project mobile app to help find your way.

Continue downhill, passing near a subdivision and an old dumping grounds. Get ready to to leave civilization behind. Down, down, down, you go. You'll cross China Creek multiple times and eventually have it as a beautiful and bubbly companion in the steep ravine alongside your trail. Enjoy the cascades and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. After several miles of descending, be on the lookout for a trail that will join you from the right. This is Thunderhole Trail and your ticket home. If you decide to turn righ here at this point, your loop will be approximately 5 miles. But since you're finally down in the beautiful valley, you should really keep running down on the China Camp Trail and enjoy the best part!

Soon after the junction between China Creek and Thunderhole, the trail widens and becomes an old roadbed. The downhill grade is moderate and the scenery is to die for. Within a mile, you can cross the creek to the left and join up with the gravel Globe Road (FS 1367). Alternatively, you can stay to the right of the creek and run an additional 2+ miles and join up with the Globe Road at a much lower point.

Retrace your route back to the China Creek/Thunderhole Trail intersection. Head up the beautifully regraded Thunderhole Trail. 1.5 miles of uphill chugging will bring you back to civilization. The large homes along the rim are your sure sign that you are about to enter a new world. Assuming your car is parked at the 221 rest area, the most aesthetic route to complete your loop is to take the crushed gravel horse trail that begins just a few yards away from the trail kiosk. Follow this carriage trail away from the equestrian complex. Just before reaching a tunnel, get off the path and onto HWY 221. Less than 1/2 mile of road running will deposit you back at your car.

Flora & Fauna

The relatively rare Heller's Blazing Star, bog turtles, and native trout.

Contacts

Land Manager: Blue Ridge Parkway

Shared By:

Eric Heistand with improvements by Chad Randolph

Trail Ratings

  4.5 from 15 votes

#708

Overall
  4.5 from 15 votes
5 Star
60%
4 Star
33%
3 Star
7%
2 Star
0%
1 Star
0%
Recommended Route Rankings

#708

Overall
133 Views Last Month
7,694 Since Dec 4, 2016
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Photos

Pisgah Paradise
Dec 5, 2016 near Blowing…, NC
Switchbacks towards China Creek.
Dec 31, 2020 near Blowing…, NC

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Check-Ins

May 7, 2020
Ben Eige
Didn't do the full out and back section. Climb up was very washed out. Great loop but tough! 5.2mi — 1h 35m
Jan 28, 2019
Mike D
A few fallen trees and many nice, cold creek crossings. Trails were super easy to follow, except up between the BR Boulders and the 221 Rest Area 10mi — 2h 16m
May 9, 2017
ultragoat Hamilton
Ran it counter-clockwise....had to do some bushwhacking and trail finding through the boulders. It was awesome! Super gnarly, technical, creeks, etc!! 7mi — 1h 30m