Hiking the Black Mountain Crest Trail

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The Black Mountain range

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.

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Locked and loaded

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.

 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Peaceful and level Horse Rock Meadows

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.

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Horse Rock Meadows with Gibbs Mountain in the distance

 

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.

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Thunderstorm bearing down on us at 6,000′

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.

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The trail looked like this most of the way

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.

 

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We awoke to clear skies with fog and a gentle breeze. After packing up camp, we hit the trail again.

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Headed for the light

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.

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Juan Carlos being awed and amazed

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.

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Amazing eastern views

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.

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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.

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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.

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The not-really-the-summit-summit-marker

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.

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Profound beauty

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.

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Whenever you think you’ve reached the top, there’s always more

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.

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Grab ya rope!

 

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.

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The Cane River Valley from atop Big Tom. Notice the map. Always carry one and know how to read it

 

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.

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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.

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The best trail team I could ever ask for

 

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. 

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Almost as if the BMCT was letting us know she wasn’t quite finished with us

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.

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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.       

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See you on the trail!

07/28/2017        

 

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.

Carolina Trekker Stickers!

 

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Essentials for Your Backpack

Backpack Essentials

What should I pack for a hike? This is one of the best questions any hiker could ask. Everyone has a different opinion, and there are probably a million lists online about which items should be essential pack items. I don’t claim to have THE definitive answer to the question posed, but I do believe there are a few pack essentials that every hiker should carry, regardless if it’s a long or short hike. Obviously, the season, terrain, distance of the trail, etc. will cause you to adjust the contents of your pack to fit the hike. But, here is my list of essentials that I carry in my pack at ALL times, and you should have them in yours, too.

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A good backpack.

This goes without saying. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or newest model, but starting out with a good pack is a given. I use the Osprey Kestrel 28 most of the time. It’s a smaller, lighter pack, but it’s very durable and has tons of room. The Kestrel 28 is good for a day hike, but it’s sufficient for a three day hike. It comfortably carries all that’s shown in the pic, plus more. Some of the things I suggest looking for in a good, serviceable pack is:

– Correct size. You need to get a pack that can adjust to fit your body size and type. Most outfitters can help you with this, and there are Youtube videos to show you how to properly size a pack. This is important both for personal comfort and to be able to get all you need in it for the hike you’re undertaking.

– Well-made. A durable pack will pay for itself over and over again. The last thing you want is a backpack strap breaking while you’re miles from anywhere, or a zipper breaking so you can’t zip up and protect your gear. Again, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive pack. But it does need to be durable and well-made. Read pack reviews online, or ask a seasoned hiker for his/her recommendations before making your choice. Then you’ll most likely make the right choice.

– Waterproof/resistant. Most good packs come with a rain cover included. Some backpacks are made of waterproof material. This is important if you get caught in a storm and need to keep your supplies dry. Or, you might fall into a stream. Some hikers treat their packs with a water-resistant spray. I know I was once caught coming down Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains when a sudden massive rainstorm blew in. I had a relatively cheap backpack that was not waterproof/resistant, and everything I had in it got soaked. Plus it made the pack heavier, which wasn’t fun, either.

A first-aid kit.

I carry a simple, small kit that’s in a hard case. The inside contents are in a zip-lock bag also to keep everything dry. Some of the things I have in my basic first-aid kit are: band-aids, burn/rash cream, gauze, Advil, iodine, alcohol wipes, and a needle/thread.

Cutting tools.

I have a wilderness knife and a multi-purpose knife. Both are relatively small. The wilderness knife is a Gerber, and its tang (handle) is wrapped in nylon paracord in case I need more rope. It can also be mounted to a stick and used as a spear. I also have a Victorinox “Swiss Army knife” multi-tool that I like to keep with me at all times on a hike. It stays in my pack, while the larger wilderness knife normally stays on my hip. Keep your blades sharp.

Light source.

A small, waterproof flashlight is what I carry. I also have a small LED flashlight. If I knew for certain I’d be hiking at night, I’d take along a headlamp.

Multi-purpose bag.

I pack a small ziplock bag containing toilet paper, lotion, wet wipes, waterproof matches, tinder, water purifying tablets, lighter, a couple of extra zip-lock bags, and an emergency blanket. Plus, I include an extra, cheapie poncho.

Rain gear.

I have a waterproof poncho that packs into itself and becomes a pillow or floatation device. You should always have some type of rain gear, even when the weather forecast is clear. If you’re hiking at higher elevations, storms can form quickly. The last thing you want is to be drenched with miles to go.

Extra rope.

It’s good to have extra rope in case you need to string up your pack, build a shelter, splint a broken bone, etc. I’ll carry about 4 feet of utility rope in my pack at all times.

Tape.

I get laughed at about this. I never go on a hike without some kind of durable duct tape or packaging tape in my backpack. It’s amazing how it’ll repair gear, dress wounds, or help hold together a shelter in a pinch. I once saw a guy on the trail whose boot sole had ripped off, and he had secured it back on with duct tape!

Extra socks.

This is another one I get laughed at. But, have you ever tried to complete a hike with wet socks? Blister city. Very uncomfortable. Walking in wet socks will blister your feet and incapacitate you, and I’m not carrying you out. I always keep a durable pair of Columbia weatherproof socks in my pack just in case. You should, too.

Extra water + food.

I don’t use a pack bladder because I don’t like the bulge it creates in my back. If you do, that’s fine. I carry an extra water bottle. My bottle is sturdy enough that water can be boiled or food can be heated in it if need be. You can never have too much water on a hike. And having a way to boil water if needed is an added bonus. I also keep a couple of calorie dense protein bars in my pack. I like the ProBar peanut butter and chocolate bars.

Compass/Map.

I realize many people don’t know how to read a compass and map, but it’s definitely something a hiker will want to learn to do before he or she begins longer, more challenging hikes. Knowing how to use a map and compass is a non-negotiable. Even if I’m going on a short hike, I will at least carry a photocopy of the trail route (in a ziplock bag) and a copy downloaded on my phone. My compass is built into a nifty bear whistle. That way I can scare off a bear, signal for help, or find my way out. I like items that serve more than one purpose.

Cell phone.

This is a given. Have a charged phone with you. Granted, I’m usually somewhere with no signal, but even if I can’t make a call, my cellphone has a compass, extra copy of a map downloaded, and a homing device. The screen can also be used as a signal or a mirror to start a fire.

So, that was my non-exhaustive list of backpack packing essentials. Again, this is not a be-all/end-all list. But, in my experience, I won’t hike without them. I know some people might laugh and say it’s just a day hike, but too many day hikes have turned into cold nights alone in the wilderness when a hiker took a wrong turn or broke an ankle. You never know what the wilderness will throw at you. We must always remember that any time we’re in nature, we’re at a disadvantage. It’s best to try and even the odds as much as we can. I think you’d be surprised at how light these items turn out to be also. I can get them all in my backpack with room for extra clothes, hammock, etc.

What are some things you might add or subtract to your essential backpack gear?

Let me know. See you on the trail!

Shining Rock Mountain via Art Loeb/Ivestor Gap Trail

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Synopsis

Hike the peaks of 3 mountains that are over 6,000 ft. on your way to Shining Rock Mountain, whose summit is jeweled by giant boulders of white quartz.

Features

6,000 ft. summits, Appalachian balds, amazing views, Shining Rock.

Length

11+ miles round trip.

Rating

Strenuous; Very rugged and remote in places.

Description

I can’t say enough about this hike. It has it all. Rugged and remote wilderness, high mountain peaks, breath taking views, and so many other goodies. The rub is you’ve got to work for it.

I’m going to issue a few words of caution up front. Have a map of Pisgah National Forest/Shining Rock Wilderness and a compass. Know how to use them both. There are numerous side and phantom trails and except for trail wands, none of the trails in the Shining Rock Wilderness are marked. Don’t attempt this hike if you’re inexperienced and unfamiliar with the area. It’s a beautiful and rewarding trek, but physically demanding. Know your physical limitations. Be sure you carry enough water/filtration system, and wear supportive footwear.

This is my hiking route on this day: Black Balsam > Tennent Mountain > Ivestor Gap > Grassy Cove Top > Flower Knob > Shining Rock Gap > Old Butt Knob Tail > Shining Rock Mountain > Ivestor Gap. This hike follows the Art Loeb Trail and Ivestor Gap Trail in a loop.

To begin this hike, turn off the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 420 onto FR 816. Drive to the end and park at the parking area at Ivestor Gap. There is also a pull-off on the right at the Art Loeb trailhead, parking permitting. If you park at the parking area you’ll have to hike back down the road to the trailhead, about .5 mile.

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The first part of the hike follows the Art Loeb Trail and takes you up to the summit of Black Balsam Knob (6,240’). From here you can enjoy 360 vistas that will take your breath. You can see the Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields, and Sam Knob.

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Continue along the ridge and down around Black Balsam Knob. You’ll catch views of Big East Fork and Same Knob, as well as Ivestor Gap on your left. Wind down through thickets. Since I was hiking in the morning, the dew off the bushes literally soaked my clothing. Tennent Mountain and its hooked summit will come into view. After a while you’ll come to the first of 3 of what I call “chicken feet.” This is an area where the trail splits three ways off a main trail. Take the obvious trail that heads up Tennent Mountain, this is still the Art Loeb Trail. It bears to the right.

Once you’re at the summit of Tennent Mountain (6,040‘), enjoy even more amazing views. Looking Glass Rock is very visible from here. You’ll also catch a glimpse of Shining Rock Mountain gleaming in the distance.

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Follow the trail down Tennent Mountain to the next “chicken foot”. This is an open area that is an obvious “gap” between mountains. From here, you can take the trail to the right, which is the Art Loeb Trail, and has a wand. It leads you up over the hill. The left trail, which looks like an very old road (because it is), is Ivestor Gap Trail. Both trails will wind up at the entrance to the Shining Rock Wilderness. You’ll know you’re at the entrance because there is a wooden sign saying so. There are several fences here. This is a good place to rest and get your bearings. The mountain in front of you is Grassy Cove Top. There were signs that trails to the summit were closed due to erosion. You probably don’t want to climb here, anyway.

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This is another “chicken foot”. Pay close attention here, because this is where I became disoriented and added a couple of miles to my hike that I didn’t need to. The far left trail is still Ivestor Gap Trail. You could take it and wind up at Shining Rock Gap. It’s relatively flat. You can see Big East Fork area to the left of it. I took the trail right, which is the Art Loeb Trail. The trail winds around Grassy Cove Top, then climbs the far side of it. Ignore all other side trails here! There seems like hundreds of them. Wind a narrow path until you come to another (surprise!) “chicken foot”. This one is probably the most confusing gap on the hike.

The right trail heads down and toward Cold Mountain. The trail straight ahead skirts Grassy Cove Top. The trail left climbs up Grassy Cove Top toward Flower Gap. This is the trail I took because it seemed the most traveled. It climbs through sawing blackberry thickets on a narrow trail. The point of reference you’ll want to look for is a huge, old double fir tree. You’ll know you’re on the right track. Continue to follow the trail to the backside of Grassy Cove, barely skirting the summit. You’ll get a very good view of Shining Rock as you come down the trail. The trail winds down to Flower Gap. There are several campsites at the gap and great high meadow open views.

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Continue on up the trail toward Shining Rock Gap. The trail winds through evergreens and rhododendron. There are more campsites on each side of the trail. When you come to Shining Rock Gap there is another “chicken foot”. Pay attention to just TWO: Left is Ivestor Gap Trail and leads you back to the entrance of the Shining Rock Wilderness. You will want to take this trail on your journey back. The trail straight/right is Old Butt Knob Trail. This is a deeply worn, steep trail that winds up the mountain through thickets. It’s dark and damp, and you’ll soon start seeing shards of white quartz, from whence Shining Rock gets its name.

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As you climb the trail, a huge white boulder will be on the left. Before you, appearing suddenly, is Shining Rock. It’s a huge rock wall, about as big as a two-story house. Continue up the trail to the summit of the Shining Rock (6,000‘). Enjoy great views back toward Flower Gap and Grassy Cove Top. Be careful, as the rock has sheer cliffs on every side.

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I enjoyed a snack here with a nice couple from Greensboro, North Carolina. After they left, I enjoyed the solitude. Interestingly, the giant white rock was considered a sacred place to the Cherokee. It is a unique formation to say the least. I could sense the history there. After eating my snack and enjoying the peace and quiet and gentle mountain breeze.

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Climb down Shining Rock and hike back down to Shining Rock Gap. Take the far right trail (left as you were coming in) which is Ivestor Gap Trail. This trail is relatively flat and shaded. I had the entire trail to myself. You will come to a split in the trail. Continue left. (Right leads you to the Daniel Boone Campground.) Enjoy the quietness. The trail was very soggy and muddy in places from seepage. There are some great views of the mountains and valleys to the right. After a while, you’ll see Grassy Cove Top, and you’ll return to the Shining Rock Wilderness entrance.

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Continue on the Ivestor Gap Trail, which is on the right. It is an obvious old road and is wide and rocky. Another word of caution: Ivestor Gap Trail, though level, is extremely rocky and is punishing after a long hike. Follow this trail back to the parking area. I’d parked on the roadside at the Art Loeb trailhead, so I had to walk (limp) another half mile back to my Jeep.

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Overall, this was an amazing hike, and I don’t use the word “amazing” lightly. It has everything. Again, be careful of all the unmarked side trails. When in doubt, take the trail most followed. Enjoy the dramatic scenery from the mountain peaks and the remoteness of a true wilderness hiking experience.

See you on the trail!

Mt. Craig + Big Tom via Deep Gap Trail

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Synopsis

Alpine-type hike in the Black Mountains of North Carolina beginning at Mt. Mitchell to the 6,000’+ summits of Mt Craig and Big Tom.

Features

Alpine landscape, semi-technical trail, rock climbing, rare plants and fungi, breathtaking views.

Length

2.5 miles round-trip

Rating

Moderate – Strenuous

Description

The Deep Gap Trail is a classic Black Mountains hike that begins at the picnic area of Mt. Mitchell State Park and continues on to Deep Gap campground. Deep Gap boasts a stunning FOUR peaks that are above 6,000 ft., five if you include Mt. Mitchell. For our hike, we decided to include just the summits of Mt. Craig (6,663 ft.) – the second highest peak east of the Mississippi – and Big Tom (6,580 ft.), both of which are the first two peaks encountered on the trail.

Deep Gap Trail is accessed at the Mt. Mitchell picnic area. Look for the giveaway trail head:

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The first 1/4 mile or so of the trail is relatively level. Soon you’ll begin to start the first ascent down rock stairs that trail volunteers have kindly put in place.

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As usual, the weather atop the Black Mountains is unpredictable. Below Mt. Mitchell the Blue Ridge Parkway was 73 degrees and sunny, but on the Deep Gap Trail, the air was chilly and fog was rolling in. Thunder clapped in the distance. Mountains this high are perpetually moist. These are two things to consider when hiking at heights such as this. Always carry proper weather gear (light jacket/poncho/rain jacket), and wear shoes with good traction. The Black Mountains are rocky and rooty – a slip or ankle twist is always a step away.

After making our way through the moss-covered forest, we came upon a cluster of dead evergreen trees, victims of the woolly adelgid, a non-native pest that feeds almost exclusively on the sap of evergreens. With the fog, the scene was quite surreal.

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We wound our way in and out of dense, moss-covered alpine forest, catching a few views to the left. As the trail begins to ascend to Mt. Craig, there are several rocks and rock outcroppings that you’ll need to traverse. Most of them were ice slick with the moss and water. Be careful on these.

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The trail then becomes fairly level as you continue along the ridge line
before ascending again to the first amazing overlook. The sun had broken through and the valley below was wide and green. This is a great place to rest, picnic, catch a cool breeze, or just soak in the beauty around you.

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After resting here, continue up to the true summit of Mt. Craig, being careful to stay on the trail so as not to harm any of the rare alpine plant species.

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There is a plaque around the corner as you head toward Big Tom, which commemorates North Carolina Governor Locke Craig, who played an important role in the establishment of Mt. Mitchell State Park.

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From here continue on along the trail another 1/4 mile or so to the summit of Big Tom.

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There is not much of a view here, but there is another plaque letting you know you’ve reached the summit:

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As you can read on the plaque, Big Tom was a colorful character who found and helped retrieve the body of Elisha Mitchell, for whom Mt. Mitchell is named, after he fell to his death during a geological survey.

Here was the terminus for this hike. If you continue on the trail, you’ll summit Cattail Peak and Potato Hill, then ascend down into Deep Gap. To get back to the trail head, simply retrace your steps. If the weather is clear, you’ll find it hard to not stop and take in one more view of the valley below from the summit of Mt. Craig and if you’re lucky, Mt. Mitchell to the south.

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See you on the trail!

Notch Trail – Badlands National Park

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Synopsis

Hike through a section of Badlands National Park to an overlook of the White River Valley.

Features

Canyons, cliffs, ladder, dramatic views

Length

1.5 miles round-trip

Rating

Moderate – Strenuous

Description

The trail head to the Notch Trail is located in Badlands National Park 2 miles east of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. There is a large “can’t miss it” parking area with restrooms on the right (east) side of the road. There are several more trails accessed here (Door Trail; Window Trail) in addition to the Notch Trail. The Notch Trail is the closest trail head as you enter from the visitor center side of the road.

One of the first things I noticed was the sheer number of people here. This is because several nice views of the canyon are located on short boardwalk trails which are wheelchair accessible and kid-friendly. Also, there are restrooms.

We arrived mid-day after tromping through other sections of Badlands NP. It was around 100 degrees and dry. After locating the trail head, we began our hike.

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There were literally no crowds on this end of the parking area. This could’ve been because of the heat, or because the Notch Trail, though relatively short in distance, has a reputation for packing a punch. The sign says it all.

I would say to make sure you carry plenty of water on hotter, drier days. Also consider there are rattlesnakes (unfortunately I didn’t see any), canyons, cliffs, narrow sections of trail, and a steep log ladder to climb.

After hiking around .50-.75 miles through a canyon, you’ll come to the most famous feature of the Notch Trail: the log ladder.

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The ladder is built into the side of the canyon and is steep and has around 50 rungs. I’m guessing it’s anywhere from 80-100 feet high. We met a few other hikers here tackling the ladder one by one. I couldn’t wait for my turn, as I love technical trails:

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Only the last 10 feet or so of the climb is what I’d consider steep, but when you’re at the top looking down, you get a different perspective:

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The ladder leads up to a cliff and the trail continues here to the left. The trail skirts a cliff and has a great view of the valley below. I found this short section to have the highest capacity for danger. It’s narrow and well over 100 feet above the canyon floor. The dirt is loose and slipping and falling is a very present possibility. As a matter of fact, I witnessed someone slip and begin sliding down toward the cliff’s edge, but I grabbed his shirt and pulled him back up.

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Falling hazards aside, there are some nice views of the canyon below.

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Continue to follow the trail as it hugs the cliff beside you. Again, exercise caution as there are no cables to hold onto. The trail veers right, and then dead stops at an overlook, or “the notch,” which provides great views of the White River Valley.

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After admiring the views and exploring, simply retrace your steps back down to the canyon floor and return to the parking lot.

I really enjoyed this hike! If you’re ever in South Dakota, and Badlands NP in particular, this is one trail you’ll have to hike. As I said earlier, it’s not a long trail, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in features and fun.

See you on the trail!

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Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve: Eastatoe Gorge/The Narrows

Synopsis: A challenging hike down into Eastatoe Gorge to the “Narrows” – a spectacular box waterfall – in the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve.

Length: 5 miles round trip.

Rating: Strenuous

Blaze color: Yellow

Location: From Spartanburg, SC, follow Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway 11 toward Pickens. At the 4-way intersection of 178, turn right toward Rosman, NC. At around 10 miles, Horsepasture Rd. will be on the left directly after the bridge. Look for the large red sign that says “Foothills Trail.” Drive up the gravel road until you come to a large graveled parking area on the left. You can park here, or drive on a short distance until you see the sign for Eastatoe Creek Preserve on the left. There is room here for 2-3 vehicles.

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Description: The Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve is a 300+ acre nature preserve at Eastatoe Gorge. The preserve features a box waterfall known as The Narrows, and is also home to several rare species of ferns and wildflowers. One type of fern is known to grow only in this preserve within the US.

The upper part of the gorge is typical of the Upstate, SC mountains: a mixed forest of hardwood and evergreen trees. As the trail descends, the gorge takes on a rain forest atmosphere and look, with plenty of humidity, moss, ferns, vines, and biting insects!

The trail to The Narrows of Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve begins innocently enough. This 5-mile round-tripper is a spur of the Foothills Trail. It starts at the red gate as an old road bed, winds its way down into Eastatoe Gorge, and ends at a viewing deck overlooking The Narrows.

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There are distinct “sections” to this trail that can be seen visually in the changing terrain and flora. The first section takes you on a relatively level trail that begins as an old road bed before turning into a more traditional hiking trail.The trail is surrounded by hardwoods and mountain laurel.

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We also encountered an abundance of wildflowers throughout this section.

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You’ll also notice that the trail clings to the side of Eastatoe Gorge on your left, with it’s dramatic vertical drop-offs. I would like to hike here in the Fall or Winter, as I imagine the views sans foliage would be amazing.

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After a distance of a mile or so, the trail begins to descend via a bridge and stairs to the left.

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This is a fairly sharps descent in some places with numerous switchbacks.

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This section gradually narrows until the trail is only a foot or so wide. There are a couple of footbridges across small streams.

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As you descend you’ll notice the ferns become more numerous, as well as vines and moisture. The spray off The Narrows and Eastatoe Creek turns the mountain environment into a rain forest.

After a while, the trail levels out and you’ll be tempted to think you’ve reached the floor of the gorge, but you haven’t. There is a small sign pointing you to The Narrows. (The trail here splits to the left also, but I’m told it is more for crossing the creek upstream.)

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Follow the trail down to a viewing deck overlooking The Narrows. The view here is dramatic. Eastatoe Creek has cut a narrow box waterfall through the granite cliff, and as the creek is funneled into what looks like a 4 or 5-ft. sluice, it creates a dramatic roar and water plume all around the gorge. I’m told the deck is fairly recent, not just for viewing, but for safety. Several people have been injured or died here. Without the deck, the trail literally ends with a sheer vertical cliff.

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I was feeling more exploratory, so I hiked back up to a spur trail of to the right. This trail led down to the edge of Eastatoe Creek. Be careful if you take this trail! It’s almost vertical, and blow-downs are present the whole way. When you reach the end, you are now at the very bottom of Eastatoe Gorge. There is a primitive campsite along the creek.

There are also numerous raging rapids here. The rocks around the creek are slick due to the perpetual dampness and darkness. I took off my shoes here and attempted to ford the creek to get a better view of The Narrows, but the creek wasn’t having it. Not only was it ice cold, but very swift, and the rocks were extremely slick. If I ever go back, I’ll take a rope and trekking poles or hiking staff for balance. Again, be careful here. One slip and fall puts you right in the middle of a cold, raging creek with plenty of rapids below you. Not a good combination.

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One interesting fact about Eastatoe Creek: The waters here are so pristine that native rainbow trout breed and spawn here.

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After taking a few pics and wading in the safer parts of the creek, I climbed back out to the main trail, which required both hands and feet to do so!

After admiring The Narrows a little more, we begin the ascent out of the gorge. It wasn’t as “killer” as I’ve heard some describe, but it wasn’t a cake walk by any means! I was definitely sore the next day, and that rarely happens.

To return, simply retrace your steps. Be sure to enjoy the nice, cool, damp breeze blowing up out of the gorge. You’re going to need it!

Be sure to put this on your “must hike” list.

You can see even more of this hike @ my Facebook page: The Carolina Trekker

See you on the trail!

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The Pinnacle: Crowders Mountain State Park

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I confess I’ve never thought about hiking Crowders Mountain until recently. I’ve passed by it on I-85 for years, and though Crowders Mountain State Park near King’s Mountain, NC is only about 30 miles from my home, it never occurred to me to go check it out. Thankfully, several friends posted pics of their hikes there, so I decided to check it out.

I was glad I did!

I heard the various trails around the park made it a very popular destination, so I got there early. I started my hike at around 9:30 a.m. I decided to take the Pinnacle Trail, which is roughly 2 miles one way. It carries you to the summit of The Pinnacle, a peak in Crowders Mountain State Park (1,705 ft.), which is an ancient monadnock, and the highest peak in Gaston County, NC. In addition to hiking, it is also a popular area for rock climbing/bouldering.

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The Pinnacle is not Crowders Mountain. Crowders Mountain is adjacent, and is accessed by the Crowders Trail.

The first part of the trail is well-graded and easy. After a short while, you begin to climb, but you haven’t seen anything yet.

I laughed to myself when I saw the trail rated as “strenuous” and the mountain less than 2,000 ft. However, the mountain got the last laugh.

At around the halfway point, you begin to encounter numerous boulder fields, and the trail begins to ascend a little more sharply. There are some good views to the left. I spent some time hopping around the giant boulders and exploring. It’ll become evident that you’re walking a craggy ridge line.

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After the boulder field, the trail takes a u-turn. Here’s where the fun began. The next half mile or so is brutal.

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The trail ascends steeply, and is rocky and slick from all the fine sand. The craggy ridge line/summit of The Pinnacle becomes apparent above the right side of the trail. To the left there are some openings and more nice views.

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At around the last quarter mile or so, I noticed several of hikers tuckered out and resting beside the trail. I’ve hiked a lot of high mountains and steep trails, but something about this section knocks the wind out of you. My quads felt like they were going to blow up!

I, too, took a short rest, and carried on. As you get closer to the peak, the left side of the trail opens up for some great views of the valley below. The rocks around you are jagged and weathered.

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Take a right and climb up through the boulders. You’ll pass a familiar overlook on the left where everyone and his mother has taken a selfie. It was kind of crowded here, with maybe 15 other hikers waiting for their turn to get a pic.

But this is not the summit. Continue on up through the rocks.

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You’ll know you’ve reached the true summit when you come to a concrete pad with a pole sticking out of it. There are 360 views here of NC and SC. I climbed down a rock edge and found a nice, private overlook to rest and have a snack. I watched three turkey buzzards circle right in front of me. I sat here for nearly an hour and never saw another person.

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After resting, I explored a bit more, and had a good conversation with an older hiker, a local. He told me about a “secret” trail down, and about the tragic deaths that had occurred at Crowders Mountain/The Pinnacle recently. With all the jagged rocks and drop-offs, this is not a place to take chances.

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We talked hiking a bit more, and went our way. On the way down, several people asked me “Am I close yet?” I’m telling you, that last .25 mile is tough!

On the way down, I turned off at the Turnback Trail. I took this trail down. I didn’t pass anyone on it. I enjoyed complete solitude. When the trail levels out, there is a small stream that follows the trail. I then turned off on the Fern Trail, and took this back to the parking lot. By now the parking area was crowded to capacity. If you want to hike in solitude, get here early!

I made my hike a loop by combining the Pinnacle Trail, Turnback Trail, and Fern Trail. Total hike was about 5 miles.

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See you on the trail!

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