The Black Mountain Crest Trail is legendary among hikers in the southeast. It is the highest trail east of the Mississippi, as it traverses the summit of several peaks over 6,000 feet. It is also widely acknowledged as one of the most punishing and strenuous hikes you’ll find anywhere. To begin with, the trail immediately ascends over 3,000 feet in just 4 miles up Celo Knob. After a short respite at Horse Rock Meadows, the rest of the trail is a relentless up and down with precious few switchbacks. Several sections are so rugged they require climbing ropes and/or basic rock climbing/bouldering skills. Other sections are narrow and hug cliffs with sheer drop-offs. It’s no wonder the BMCT is nicknamed “The March of Death”!
Despite all the blood, sweat, and tears (they’ll be plenty of each on this hike), by completing this trek you’ll be rewarded with perhaps the most amazing scenery and views anywhere. You’ll also have the personal satisfaction of knowing you came, saw, and conquered one of the premier hiking trails in the United States. The entire hike runs above or near 6,000 ft., with the notable exception being the primitive campground at Deep Gap. There are views throughout, as well as alpine wilderness beauty galore. If you’re into peakbagging, there are six recognized SB6K summits along the trail. The SB6K stands for South Beyond 6000, which comprises 40 mountain peaks 6,000’ or higher in the Southern Appalachians as recognized by the Carolina Mountain Club.
When researching this hike, which began over a year ago, I was struck by the relative lack of information regarding it. There are a couple of good, detailed trail reports online, but not much else. My aim in writing this piece is to provide a brief, yet comprehensive trail review and guide to hiking the Black Mountain Crest Trail (BMCT) from Bolens Creek to Mount Mitchell.
The Trailhead. The best way to hike the BMCT is to shuttle it, as it is a tough point-to-point trek. We left a vehicle at Mount Mitchell State Park at the Deep Gap picnic area. Registration is required to leave your vehicle overnight, but it’s free. We loaded all our gear and drove to the Bolens Creek trailhead. I’ve heard some hikers say they paid for a shuttle service to and from, so that is also an option.
Confusion abounds in finding the trailhead proper at Bolens Creek. The first thing you need to know is parking is not allowed at the small cemetery near the trailhead. There are signs posted forbidding parking. Several online sources direct hikers to park their car at the cemetery. Please respect the wishes of the cemetery owner(s) and don’t park there. Just off Highway 19E, look for the Bolens Creek Road Sign. Turn here. After a short drive, you’ll come to a hairpin turn. Just before reaching the turn, there is a sign for WATER SHED RD next to a house upon a hill at the curb.
Even though the sign says this is a private drive, turn here anyway. There is a small, muddy parking area on the right a few yards down the road. There is room for 3-4 vehicles. Park and leave your car here, being mindful not to block any residential driveways. You’ll also see a sign for “Entering Pisgah National Forest” at the far end of the parking area. This begins the hike.
The Hike. Carry plenty of water. You need to know this up front. There are two main reasons: 1. This is a tough hike, and you’re going to probably drink more water than you normally would; 2. there is only one reliable water source once you leave the Bolens Creek area. If you undertake this hike during a wet season, as we did, you could carry a filtration device as there are a couple of run-off springs on the way up. I don’t drink much during hikes, but I drank almost all the water out of my 3 liter Camelbak bladder, plus a couple of extra bottles I stashed in my pack. There is a small spring off the Colbert Ridge Trail near Deep Gap, but it requires a short hike to reach. By the time you reach Deep Gap, you probably won’t feel much like hiking to find water, though.
Also, begin this hike early in the morning. We started at around 10:00am, and in retrospect, we should’ve started out at 7:00am. Because of the relentless climbing and the slower pace, this would’ve given us more time to explore. Also, we probably could’ve avoided late afternoon thunderstorms that are so common to the Black Mountains, and set up camp earlier at Deep Gap.
After leaving your vehicle, hike past the PNF sign up a once-paved forest service road.
Shortly, you’ll see a wand marker on the far side of a rickety bridge letting you know you’re on the correct trail. Cross around an iron gate. The BMCT is blazed in orange triangles, and the trail is well-marked. Bolens Creek cascades pastorally to your right.
Almost immediately, the trail begins to ascend through a dense hardwood forest. This is a sign of things to come, but thankfully there are switchbacks, so you’re not plowing straight up and down like you’ll be doing later on. We stopped for a breather after every 3-4 switchbacks. The going is slow, but if you hike smart you’ll get through it. Remember, you’ll be gaining over 3,000 feet over the next 4 miles. We joked that the trail should be renamed “Trail False Hope” because several times it seemed the climbing had subsided, only to begin again. For the first 4 miles, there are no views or sights of note, just quad and lung-busting climbing.
The trail leaves Bolens Creek after a while, and if you’re following your map, you can gauge your distance based on this. As you reach a couple of thousand feet, the hardwoods start to thin and evergreens start to appear. There is a fairly long, level stretch of trail after you pass another BMCT wand, and a peculiar cairn lodged in a tree trunk. This is a beautiful area and was helpful in allowing our legs and lungs to rest.
You’ll begin catching small glimpses through the trees and bushes of the Black Mountain ridgeline to your right, but there are no good views. You’ll also intermittently see the shoulder of Celo Knob rising up ahead. The last mile or so of this section is a tough climb, even with switchbacks. I caught a leg cramp here, but thankfully one of my kind hiking partners introduced me to the wonders of Emergen-C for staving off cramps!
The trail opens up and levels off noticeably as you enter a high-mountain meadow called Horse Rock Meadows. You will catch amazing views of the entire Black Mountain range and the Cane River Valley here. Be careful of your footing. The trail here is somewhat overgrown, and there are numerous potholes and drop-offs concealed beneath the grass and shrubs. You’ll make your way around the shoulder of Celo Knob enjoying the great views.
We took a break and had lunch at a trail wand just below the summit. There is an obvious scramble trail to the left that takes you to the true summit of Celo Knob. It’s steep and rugged, but there is a great opening for views about halfway up.
We spotted Linville Gorge and the iconic summits of Hawksbill and Table Rock mountains from this vantage, even with haze. Further up the trail the summit of Celo Knob (6,327’) is uneventful, being marked only with a couple of pieces of orange tape.
The trail is easy and restful through Horse Rock Meadows. Turk’s Cap lilies were in full bloom everywhere.
Gibbs Mountain is in front of you. The hike up Gibbs is a foreshadowing of the rest of the Black Mountain Crest Trail: narrow, rocky trail, no real switchbacks, and steep climbs and plunges between peaks. The trail goes beside the summit of Gibbs Mountain (6,224’), which is located just off the trail at the unmarked highest point.
A fierce thunderstorm blew in bringing rain and fog after we reached the summit of Gibbs. You can count on inclimate weather at some point almost 100% of the time when hiking the Blacks. Pack accordingly. I didn’t get many pictures from this point, as the rain was coming down too hard. The rough weather stayed with us as we crossed over to Winter Star Mountain.
After the grueling climb from Bolens Creek to the summit of Celo Knob, the rain and cooler temps were not unwelcome! Even with the rain and clouds dropping down on us, we could see we were traveling along a narrow, rocky ridgeline with sheer drop-offs. Take caution here. The trail climbs and crosses over the summit of Winter Star (6,212’), where there is a benchmark. There is also at least one campsite.
Along the way, be sure to look behind you at the peaks you just crossed. You’ll feel amazed, if not accomplished. We descended steeply from Winter Star down to the Deep Creek primitive camping area at around mile 8, still under rain and fog. We were drenched and considered attempting finishing the BMCT, but thought better of it. The storm was beginning to subside, but left high winds in its wake. This helped us dry off somewhat. We pitched our tents and hammocks and enjoyed the sunset and much needed rest at Deep Creek. The four of us were snoozing before the sun had fully set. The temps dropped into the low 40s during the night. It was an uncomfortable night as the temperatures plunged and the air was damp. The wind howled all night long. The rest was welcomed.
We awoke to clear skies with fog and a gentle breeze. After packing up camp, we hit the trail again.
After leaving Deep Gap, you’re 4 miles from reaching the end goal of Mount Mitchell. In my opinion, these were the most difficult miles of all. Immediately after leaving Deep Gap, you’ll enter the boundaries of Mount Mitchell State Park. The first ascent is up Potato Hill (6,475’). It’s a long, narrow climb, with great views to the east.
There are a couple of sections of trail on Potato Hill that are very narrow and skirt sheer cliffs. The summit is located off an obvious short path to the right. Potato Hill, being a sub-peak of Cattail Peak, is no longer a recognized SB6K peak.
The descent of Potato Hill is rocky, slick, and almost vertical in places. Each time we thought we’d reached the gap below, there was another section of descent. There are no ropes, so use careful footing and take your time.
The gap between Potato Hill and Cattail Peak is more level, and passes through a dense Tolkienesque, moss-covered spruce-fir forest. Sunlight is almost nonexistent in places here, it’s very dark and damp.
After a half mile, you’ll pass a wooden sign indicating the summit of Cattail Peak (6,580’). This is not the true summit. You’ll have to hike a little further to the obvious high point to reach the true summit, which is benchmarked. This area also has camping spots.
After another half mile or so, the BMCT passes over the summit of Balsam Cone (6,611’). You’ll then begin descending into Big Tom Gap. This section is another long, sharp downhill trek that requires sure footing and a deliberate pace. Just before reaching the gap, there is a junction with the Big Tom Gap Trail, plus a sign marker letting you know the Black Mountain Crest Trail is now called the Deep Gap Trail. I can’t imagine this causing confusion, but it might. Continue straight ahead on the orange-blazed BMCT.
Before you is Big Tom (6,579’), named for local bear hunter, tracker, and storyteller Big Tom Wilson. Wilson famously recovered the body of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who’d fallen to his death while exploring the Black Mountains. In my opinion, this is the toughest section of the entire hike. You’ll be ascending the north face, which is exposed and rugged.
Thankfully, there are climbing ropes to help with the ascent. Because of the heavy rains the night before, the trail was extra wet and muddy. We began passing other a few other hikers at this point, all of them heading down to Deep Gap. I gathered not too many attempt the route we’d just taken, hiking up from Bolens Creek.
After several steep, rope-assisted sections, the summit of Big Tom is marked with an obvious plaque and geological benchmark. This is a great spot to rest. There is a semi-view here. The area is flat and boggy, and has obvious signs of acid rain and invasive pest decimation.
After leaving Big Tom, there is a short descent, then the BMCT begins to ascend Mt. Craig (6,647’), the second highest peak east of the Mississippi. Mt. Craig’s summit is rocky and beautiful, with some of the best views you’ll find anywhere. Be careful to stay on the marked trail, as several rare species of plants grow on Craig’s rocky outcrops.
The summit of Mt. Craig is marked by a plaque honoring the late Sen. Locke Craig, for whom the mountain is named. After a short ascent through an open meadow, there is an outcropping to the right which is a great place to rest and enjoy the views. It’s one of my favorite places in Pisgah, actually. We talked to several other hikers here who asked about the Black Mountain Crest Trail. You will also begin to notice tourists or leisure hikers who’ve taken the moderate hike from the parking area to this point. This is a great place for pictures.
The hike from Mt. Craig to the parking area at Deep Gap/Mount Mitchell is around 1.5 mile sin length, and moderate in difficulty. It follows a rocky spine, and has nice views on clear days. The last hurrah before reaching the end of the hike involves climbing several sections of stone steps.
You’ll notice the trail becomes less steep and graded with pebbles. After a short while through another dense section of spruce-fir, the Deep Gap campground comes into view with picnic tables, restrooms, and a paved parking area. Like most any hike that reaches the summit of Mt. Mitchell (6,684’), the whole scene can be anti-climatic.
We had a small celebration in the parking lot, high-fiving and congratulating each other on accomplishing what is widely regarded as the most grueling, difficult hike on the east coast. We’d just spent two days together climbing, sweating, cramping, and laughing our way up and down the highest mountain range east of the Mississippi. We garnered a few stares, mostly from people who were probably wondering why we were so happy and muddy.
See you on the trail!
If you’ve completed (or survived) the Black Mountain Crest Trail, and would like something to commemorate your accomplishment, I have designed a couple of stickers for purchase. These would look great on your water bottle, car, or anywhere else you can think of. Available for purchase in my online store! See link below.