Western North Carolina is home to the Black Mountains, the highest range in the eastern USA. They top out at Mount Mitchell—6,684 feet above sea level (2037 meters for all of you outside the USA). I visit the range two or three times a year, and go on extended hikes there as often as I can overnighters if I can arrange the necessary time for that.
Over the years, the roughest hikes I’ve taken in the southeastern US have been those I’ve found in this compact range of peaks. Before this past week, the toughest of these trails had been the Black Mountain Crest Trail, which traverses the spine of the range over approximately 13 miles from the base of Celo Knob to the summit of Mitchell. It’s a tortuous route of ups and downs taking you steeply to the very mountaintops and down into deep gaps over and over, hitting a number of the tallest peaks.
But I’d heard that one of the side trails connecting to the Crest Trail was notorious for its difficulty. Setting up a base camp with my fiberglass travel trailer at the Black Mountain Campground (operated by the National Forest Service) in the shadow of Mount Mitchell, I decided to finally see just how tough the Woody Ridge Trail truly is. Early on Monday, June 18, I drove out of the campground and headed for SR1155 a few miles away. After one wrong turn (the map I had showed the trailhead on SR1157, which was wrong) I found the trail at the back of a parking area on the dead end of SR1156.
Loading my pack, I headed up the trail, happy to see the familiar signposts used on trails in the Pisgah National Forest. I do a lot of hiking in wilderness areas where trails are relatively unmaintained and not signed at all, and lacking a certain sense of direction, I’m always happy to see the NFS signage. In quick order I entered a very deep and healthy cove hardwood forest, left behind the stream at the trailhead, and began to climb.
At first, I figured the stories about the difficulty of Woody Ridge were overblown. It was steep, but nothing like I’d heard. The first ¾ of a mile or so were merely a steady uphill slog through a classic southern hardwood forest. The goings was quite pleasant and I was enjoying the woods, wondering what all the fuss was about concerning this trail.
At about a mile the trail met up with a logging road and took a sharp left turn up the ridgeline. Soon after this, I began to learn why the trail had its well-deserved reputation. After passing through a strange and very pleasant section that goes through an extended patch of grasses beneath tall hardwoods, the trail suddenly begins to tackle the steep ridgeline straight-on. There are none of the familiar switchbacks of most Appalachian trailways. You go forward and up, pushing and sometimes having to grasp nearby trees and rhododendron shrubs to continue higher up the peak.
The trail map I had listed the Woody Ridge Trail at 2.2 miles in length. Trying to figure my pace, I soon realized that not only had this map gotten the trailhead wrong, but also the distance of the trail. There was no way this was a mere 2.2 miles. After a couple of hours of constant uphill, some of it tough scrambling over expanses of exposed rock and the twisted root systems of hemlock trees (dying, of course, from hwa), I was nowhere near the summit. Once again, the Blacks were proving to be home to yet another of the toughest trails I have hiked.
Knowing at this point that the map wasn’t right on distances, I realized that I was going to have a longer day than I had thought when I’d started. This wasn’t a problem, as I had loaded about a gallon of water into my daypack, along with the emergency essentials I always take when I hit the trail. A longer day was not going to be a problem. But at 50 years of age, these steep slopes were taking a toll on my old lungs and legs. I pushed on.
Finally, I broke out of the changing forest (it had gone from strictly hardwoods to a mix of dying hemlocks interspersed with oaks and some spruce) onto an exposed ridge. I thought that I must certainly be getting close to the summit, and so climbed out onto a high boulder to get a better look at the heights before me. And I realized I was still a good 1,000 feet from the top. Putting my shoulders into the mountain, I headed on and up, stopping from time to time to catch my breath, wipe the sweat from my brow, and halting now and again to catch my breath.
Once again, the Black Mountains were kicking my ass.
Finally, after passing into the spruce-fir regions of the range, I was near the summit of Horse Rock, the destination I’d set for the day, and the peak nearest Celo Knob. I came out onto a cliff face where I dropped my pack as the only other hiker I’d meet that day arrived with two dogs to join me on the cliff. I chatted for a bit with the young guy—a local who lived at the base of the mountain—and to feed cookies to one of his friendly mutts. He soon headed back down, and I had the cliffs to myself as I rested and waited while cramps traveled the insides of my legs, doing their best to twist me into pretzel of pain. But I just lay there and kept my legs straight, enduring the pain and waiting for the cramps to pass while I drank down water and ate a few cookies and tried to get some minerals back into my system.
The stroll to the very top of Horse Rock was relatively easy from that point, with the exception of having to pick my way through the confusing maze of a spruce forest. There is nothing as confusing to me as having to find my way through a maze of spruce trees. Every trunk looks the same, and the uniformity of the trees and the rusty lay of old needles on the ground produces a daunting sameness that can get you lost in a hurry. I always move slowly and deliberately in these kinds of woods, having gotten lost in this forest type no less than three times in my life.
I then headed back down the mountain, and the Woody Ridge Trail reminded me every step of the way why it has its reputation. I steadied myself on steep slopes with my hiking staff, and halted my downward gait by grasping the odd rock and tree and shrub as I went down and down. Once more I was passing through forest zones, this
time in reverse order. Out of the spruce-fir region and into hemlocks and then hemlock/poplar mix and finally into the familiar and beautiful cove hardwood stands.
At about 4,000 feet or so above sea level, I made my mistake. Gazing up at the big trees, I missed the right turn on Woody Ridge Trail and instead took a logging road in error. It was only as I reached the intersection of this logging road with another that I knew I’d taken a wrong turn and would have to turn back and climb at least a thousand feet back to the intersection. Looking back up the steep slope I just couldn’t bring myself to climb back up the mountain to where I’d made the mistake. I looked at the intersection of old logging roads and saw one that led sharply to the right and figured that would take me back to a point close to where I’d left my truck.
Heading that way I continued to descend the mountain, passing out of National Forest lands and onto what must have been private property, for the forests gave way to a vast expanse of mountainside that had been recently logged to the bare ground. All around me were tree stumps and twisted snags of trees cut and run over by bulldozers and flatbed trucks. I headed into a deep valley and after picking my way down what appeared to be a graveled drive, I found myself in the parking lot of a small Baptist church. Stopping to drink down some of my dwindling supply of water, I pushed on and came to SR1154 and knew I had to take a right to 80S and then another right to SR1155 and then back to my truck.
The four-mile hike along the highways was rough. In the full sun I soon depleted my water and by the time I made my truck, I was feeling totally exhausted and dehydrated. I had four bottles of water waiting in the cab, and soon had emptied those. I sat for a while in the cab of my truck, running my AC full blast and doing my best to cool off. As soon as I felt able, I put my truck into gear and headed back to my campsite at the Black Mountain Campground.
The trails of the Black Mountains almost always get me in ways I don’t expect. I’ve been lost in them twice, have leg cramps almost every time I go, and yet I know I’ll go back. I reckon I just like a challenge.