Friday, September 19, 2008

The Black Mountain Crest Trail, My Favorite Trail

My favorite hiking/backpacking trail is also the toughest trail I've ever hiked: The Black Mountain Crest Trail. This trail is located along the spine of the very highest peaks in the eastern United States of America. One terminus is along a stream called Bolens Creek, and the other end is atop Mount Mitchell. Mitchell, at 6,684 feet above sea level, is our highest eastern summit. It's an impressive peak, but with an artificial lookout tower, a restaurant, a large parking lot and picnic area, it's not a wilderness experience. If I had my way, the government would tear up the road that leads to the summit, plant it in native trees, and make access be strictly by foot.

But I rarely get my way.

Mount Mitchell as seen from Mount Craig. Since this photo was taken, the old lookout tower was demolished and a new one constructed.

For a real wilderness experience, though, all you have to do is catch the Black Mountain Crest Trail just below the summit of Mount Mitchell, in the picnic area and hike north toward Mount Craig. Craig is actually a much more impressive mountaintop than Mitchell. There's no overt development there, no roads, and the top has exposed areas and high cliffs that afford some truly breath-taking views of the high country. On a clear day you can see wave after wave after wave of mountain ridges and plunging valleys. It's the Stupefyin' Jones of North Carolina mountains.

But the point of this brief essay is the trail itself. Every time I've hiked the Black Mountain Crest Trail it has kicked my ass. I've hiked it three times, now, and two of those times have been among the most physically painful experiences of my hiking life. Both of those times I ran out of water and my body was leeched of minerals and I ended up not only nauseous, but suffering with leg cramps that locked me in place.

One of my campsites at Deep Gap (from two years ago).

When one looks at the maps of the Crest Trail, it looks rather innocuous. It's pretty much a straight-ish line along the spine of the Black Mountains, crossing a number of the state's "sixers" (that's what hikers call our peaks that meet or exceed 6,000 feet in elevation). Just peering at a map, it looks like a pretty easy hike. In fact, though, it's the single toughest hike that I know of in the Southeast.

The thing that makes it so tough is that it tackles these major southern peaks head on. It goes straight up to the summits and then straight down into the gaps between them before heading right back up to the peak beyond. You drop down from 6,600 feet to 5,800 feet, then back up to 6,600 feet then down to 5,700 feet then up to 6,400 feet then down to 5,500 get the idea. All of that climbing, down climbing, then reclimbing...well, it puts your legs and lungs through one Hell of a workout.

Winter Star, as seen from Deep Gap.

Add to this the fact that there are pretty much no water sources along the ten-mile trail and you can find yourself in trouble really fast if you're not prepared. The only halfway reliable water source along the trail is in Deep Gap, which equates pretty much to the halfway point. It is, indeed, a deep gap between Cattail Peak and Winter Star (one of my very favorite mountain names). There are a couple of usually reliable springs both to the east and west of the gap within a quarter mile or so of the best campsites there.

The times I've backpacked the trail, I've spent the ni
ght in Deep Gap. It's a great place to spend an evening. Even though I've done the Black Mountain Crest Trail a number of times, I intend to hike it again.

I'd like to do another overnight backpack on the trail. And even though it's really the very toughest trail I know of here in the Southern Appalachians, the views and the solitude also make it the finest trail in the southern mountains. At least in my experience.

Looking south from Deep Gap.


Stuart Gardner said...

Ever seen the silent The Lost World? The ninth pic down looks like a shot right out of it.

HemlockMan said...

I have, but not in years. That cliff was rather frightening. I was walking along the trail in thick clouds and the trail is just the edge of a cliff. If someone were in too much of a hurry and not paying attention...they'd go right over.

Chong Lor said...

Very awesome pics! Thanks for these. I always like to know what is in store for me before I do my hikes so thank you for the thorough review. I'm hoping to do this sometime this year.

James Robert Smith said...

Thanks! You'll have a good time on the trail. To me, it's one of the toughest trails in NC...maybe THE toughest. For the best experience, make a backpacking trip out of it and camp somewhere along the trail...Deep Gap is best.