Wednesday, April 18, 2012

High Peaks around Graybeard

I'm going to skip the first part of the hike on the second day of our trip. Mainly because the first section was hiking to the summit of a mountain I've been talking about bagging for years, but never had until Sunday. More on that one later.

From the summit of that first peak we could see the rest of the day's itinerary. We would be hiking and bushwhacking along the spine of a very high series of peaks that lead up from the towns of Montreat and Black Mountain. They stand as a very high string of mountains going up toward the Black Mountains, the highest peaks in the eastern United States. A couple of years ago I had hike a small section of that area, much closer in to Montreat with Jack Thyen. But on Sunday I was ready to bag a few more, including the highest of the bunch.

The view of the route we were going to hike. And the mountains we would summit along the way.

As we left the first summit we headed down into a saddle toward a peak locally known as Rocky Knobs. They're pretty high and would be considered major peaks here in the East if it were not for the fact that they're surrounded by North Carolina's highest country. Placed in just about any other eastern state and these mountains would be the highest--indeed, they'd dwarf the mountains in places like Pennsylvania, Vermont, Massachusetts, Alabama, Georgia, etc.

At Rocky Knob we found the views to be outstanding. We could see a truly new and impressive profile of the Blacks and all of the other ranges strung out around us. The next summit on the trail loomed beyond: Graybeard Mountain.

By the time we hit Rocky Knob and sat around taking photos and talking, Bob Johnson had decided that he'd had enough of bushwhacking for the day and figured he'd head back toward the vehicle and wait for us. He had been to the top of Graybeard a number of times and didn't feel like wasting the effort for one more hike to the top. So we left Bob on the peak and we headed down. And I do mean DOWN. The other side of Rocky Knob drops precipitously down to the saddle we needed to access to find our way to Graybeard. But Andy picked out the route and we descended safely, stopping once to help Kona, the youngest of the two dogs.

I had been a little worried about the bushwhack between Rocky Knobs and Graybeard, but it turned out to be rather an easy go. The trees were all mature and spaced far apart, so I didn't have to deal with branches tearing at my pack as I had the day before on Mackey Mountain. The rough trail negotiates along the border of the Asheville Watershed. Most mountain towns jealously guard their watersheds, and Asheville is typical in this respect. Trespass on the wrong side and get caught, and you'll spend a night in jail. Believe it.

After the easy walk and a short but steep climb, we came out on the top of Graybeard Mountain. There are some good views there, and we stopped briefly to view the Graybeard Shelter built and maintained by the Montreat Hiking Club. It's rather a nice shelter, and I was impressed with it.

After that we strolled over to Walker Knob, which is a sub-peak of Graybeard Mountain. The views there are good, too, but look down on development in the form of houses, man-made lakes, roads, businesses, etc. and so the experience is not as nice as what we'd already seen.

The hike back toward Andy's SUV was all on the Mount Mitchell Toll Road. This road was first built as a narrow gauge railway for the removal of the virgin timber that clothed these mountains. Constructed in the late 1800s, it's an amazing testament to the engineering capabilities of the men of that era. After the timber was all cut out the rails were removed and the roadbed was altered as a highway, mainly for access to the high peaks of the Black Mountains and, specifically, for Mount Mitchell. In the later 1800s and early 1900s there was a lodge on the summit of Mitchell, and tourists used the road to access the peak.

Today the road is rugged, but in exceptional condition. I hope it remains in its current state, as it's a great way to get to mountains like Graybeard and Rocky Knobs.

Andy Kunkle took this photo of me on Rocky Knobs. The high peak (with towers) directly behind me in Clingman's Peak, one of the highest in the East.

Andy (with Boone) scouts the route we would take down the side of the peak to the saddle separating us from Graybeard Mountain.

Andy carefully picks his way down the steep slope.

I begin the descent down the route that Andy had picked out for us.


I took this one looking back up toward the top of Rocky Knobs.

We found this gnarly old tree in the saddle. The orange sign on the huge limb is to mark the border of the Asheville Watershed and to warn trespassers away.

From Graybeard Mountain looking back toward Rocky Knobs and The Pinnacle.

Andy at the Graybeard Mountain Trail Shelter. He has stayed here a number of times. It's pretty nice as such structures go.

This baffle was built to keep hikers from taking the wrong trail. The easy way is down the peak and to the Mount Mitchell Toll Road. If you go through the fence baffle, you are on the Seven Sisters Trail which is longer and much more rugged. Apparently a lot of people were not paying attention and getting lost on the more difficult trail.

An old dead snag on Walker Knob, a sub-peak of Graybeard Mountain.

A typical view along the Mount Mitchell Toll Road.

And looking back toward The Pinnacle as we get nearer the Blue Ridge Parkway and Andy's SUV.

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