Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Favorite Trail

My absolutely favorite hiking trail in all of the Southeast is the Black Mountain Crest Trail which stretches across the highest real estate in the eastern United States. The southern terminus of the trail is Mount Mitchell, the east's highest summit, and the northern end is at Bowlens Creek in the Pisgah National Forest.

A hike on this trail takes you across the two highest mountains in our half of the country and to the summits of several other of the very rare 6,000-foot peaks here in the South. It's a strange place to experience for the average southerner who is accustomed to pines and oaks and sweltering summer weather and an almost non-existent winter. This bit of high elevation country is clothed in spruce and balsam and suffers each year through an actual winter time with long periods of sub-zero weather and heavy snowfall.

I'd heard about the trail since childhood but had never hiked it. I finally did on a particularly warm November day some years back and set out at 10:00 am with the goal of hiking from Mount Mitchell to Winter Star and back to my truck. According to my maps it seemed like a straightforward hike of around ten miles round trip. That's not much trouble for me and I take mountain hikes of that length quite often.

However, what I did not realize was that the trail tackles the slopes between the peaks head on. There are no switchbacks. The trail has not been graded to follow softer and mellower slopes. It just goes at the peaks directly, making for some exceptionally steep hiking and scrambling. Added to this is the fact that there are no dependable sources of water along most the trail above Bowlens Creek. This means that for many miles of very difficult hiking you must depend on the water you bring along.

What this ended up meaning for me is that I badly underestimated the hiking time that I would need, and the amount of water that I would consume. I was okay all the way to my goal at Winter Star. But due to the severity of the slopes (you literally are on all fours at times), the hike took me much longer than I had anticipated. And then I ran out of water on the way back. Now, normally this would not have been a horrible problem, but as the hike was hitting about the 2/3 mark my legs began cramping. I found it impossible to walk, at times. The pain was hideous. Also, there was no one else on the trail, at all. I encountered no one the entire day. In fact, the only thing I saw on the trial that day was a black bear who I frightened and who ran like hell when he/she saw me. (We spotted one another at roughly the same time.)

As things ended up, I barely got back to my truck before nightfall and the gates to the park were locked up. Fortunately (as I've recounted in earlier posts) I had all of my camping equipment in the truck so if I'd been stranded in the park I had the necessities to sleep comfortably. But it was a close call getting back, and I walked the final few hundred yards in the dark.

But I love this trail so much that I've been back a number of times. It's one of my favorite overnight hikes, and I'm actually itching to do it again as a two-day backpack. Looking at these photos makes me want to start planning a trip soon.

The view from near the summit of Mount Craig looking north.

Along Potato Hill looking down into the valleys.

The peak known as Winter Star, one of the coolest named mountains I've hiked.

This was taken on the way back, above Deep Gap, as I began to wonder if I'd underestimated the time the hike would take and whether I'd brought enough water.

The top of Mount Craig on the way back toward Mitchell. The sun was going down and I'd been stopped time and again with hideous cramps in my thighs. At this point I was worried that I wouldn't get to the parking lot before darkness set in.

One of the last photos I stopped to take on the last leg. I was still about a mile and a half from the truck. If you click on the photo you can see the bright white dot in the parking lot that was my old Nissan Frontier. The tower on the mountaintop above the parking lot is gone, now. They tore it down to construct one that is handicap accessible. I walked the last bit of the trail in darkness, but got to my truck before the park closed for the night.

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