My plan was to hike to Big Bald, supposedly one of the finest of all the grassy balds in the southern Appalachian Mountains. If you can get a sunny day in the winter, nothing beats crystal clear views from an open summit. There’s just too much haze in the summer to compare. The forecast started with clouds in the morning, clearing out for sun after noon in the low 40s °F with a light wind. As I drove north on Interstate 26 from Asheville I was beginning to doubt the veracity of the NOAA forecast. Usually they’re spot on, but as I approached Sams Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee border all I could see was a low cloud ceiling covering every peak. Big Bald, at 5,516 feet, is the tallest summit of the Bald Mountains along the state border and the tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail for 148 miles. It requires a long hike from either direction. Sams Gap is the typical hike since it is located right off the interstate. I expected beautiful scenery every step of the way, but what I got was an icy wintry wonderland and an unforgettable experience.
I love the drive to the trail, especially when I have to go up and over mountains instead of diving deep into dark coves. To my knowledge this was my first time driving I-26 north of Asheville, and I was very much looking forward to the views. I-26 north of Asheville travels through the French Broad River Valley and Ivy Creek Valley briefly before gradually climbing to the crest of the Bald Mountains along the North Carolina/Tennessee border. I-26 through the Bald Mountains was nothing short of spectacular. The interstate in many locations is elevated high above the ground, reminding me of highways in the Cascades of Washington. There are overlooks and rest areas to stop at to admire the views, something I would’ve done if it wasn’t so cloudy. I-26 crosses the border at Sams Gap. At 3,799 feet I believe this is the highest mountain pass for a freeway on the east coast. Correct me if I’m mistaken. You’ll be leaving the interstate just before the gap though, taking exit 3 and following U.S. 23A north for 3.1 miles. U.S. 23A basically parallels I-26 across from Little Creek and goes under the interstate at Sams Gap. Just before U.S. 23A goes under I-26 there is a large parking area on the left for the Appalachian Trail.
Max elevation: 5502 ft
Min elevation: 3678 ft
Total Time: 06:16:08
The Appalachian Trail (white blaze) briefly follows I-26 through a field before a switchback takes you high above Sams Gap with a nice view. The AT then turns left heading east into the forest, then turns left again heading north. And just like that in 0.4-mi you go from busy interstate to peaceful forest. The deciduous forest through this section, and throughout the entire trail, was beautiful. I bet it would be an amazing Fall hike. At mile 0.9 the AT vigorously climbs 600 feet in 0.9-miles to the top of unofficially named West Street Gap Peak. This, and the return hike out of Street Gap are the toughest, steepest climbs of the day. As I climbed towards the top the clouds became thicker and thicker. The top of the peak is roughly 4,440 feet, over 1,000 less than Big Bald. I thought the atmosphere was very cool, but the thickness of the cloud cover was worrying. Not only did I think I might not get any views this entire trip, but as I climbed higher I might get much worse weather than the forecast predicted.
On the east side of the peak the trail left the forest winding through a large field. I couldn’t see anything more than 100 feet in front of me, but I knew I was missing out on a view. Still, seeing those wooden sign posts with the iconic white blaze dot the field is a unique sight, something I love about the AT across the many balds of the Southeast. The trail continued to descend steeply through forest again, clearly switchbacking away from an old, eroded trail. You’ll level out at Street Gap as you cross Streets Gap Road at mile 2.3. After you pass the road there is a clearing on the left with a view towards I-26 in Tennessee. For the next ~4 miles the AT gains roughly 1,400 feet of elevation as it climbs to Big Bald. This is not a difficult hike by any means, outside of the Steep Gap section all of the elevation is gained very slowly.
There aren’t many notable features for the next 4 miles. The AT never leaves the forest as it follows the NC/TN border. For the most part the AT stays on the west side of the height of land, offering more exposure to westerly winds. I started noticing the shrubs and trees were covered in rime ice. There was no snow on the ground but every small-diameter branch was frozen solid. The low cloud cover must have been present for a while, allowing the water vapor to freeze on everything it touches. As I climbed the ice got thicker and leftover snow covered the trail. I passed a blue-blazed sign reading Nature Trail on the right, presumably a path to the private Wolf Laurel Resort. At mile 5.1 there was a side trail on the left marked with flagging tape. I figured this was an under-construction reroute of the AT. The flagged trail rejoins at mile 5.3. I read somewhere that a short reroute was underway in this region but could not find the article as of this writing. This hike was almost a year ago so it might be complete. In the middle of this section is a side trail to a utilities compound and service road. I’m guessing the reroute was to bring hikers further away from this private land.
When I passed a Y-junction with an AT Alternate Trail at mile 5.8, I knew I was close. These blue-blazed alternate trails are built to steer hikers away from bald summits during bad weather. As I later found out, this was one of those days when the alternate trail would come in handy for a thru hiker. The AT swings left and climbs over many exposed boulders and roots towards the top. There was a good blanket of snow here and the temperatures steadily dropped while the winds picked up. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw and experienced on the open summit. The trail swings right and leaves the forest behind at mile 6.2, where I entered a stark, bleak winter wonderland. Although the trail looked bare, everything else was covered in a thick sheet of rime ice. It looked as if the shrubs and grasses were frozen in time. The cloud cover was thick and icy, I could see nothing ahead of me.
As I climbed the last few hundred feet of the Appalachian Trail to the top of Big Bald, I started to feel the wind. Big Bald, at 5,516 feet, was fully exposed from every direction to the weather. There were a couple wooden trail posts and a USGS summit marker on the otherwise bare dirt and grass mountain. There were no boulders, and thus no cover. The wind was brutal. I had my fleeces and hard shell on, and my beanie, buff, and gloves. I believe it was 10-15ºF wind chill, and I could barely take any pictures before my hands would go numb. A group of older backpackers also made the summit at the same time. We briefly took pictures for each other then quickly dropped in elevation. I continued north towards Big Stamp in order to find some semblance of shelter. A forest road runs across Big Bald and offered high dirt banks. I plumped down beside a bank to use as a wind shield so I could regain feeling in my limbs, and ate lunch. When I passed back over the summit I took a few more pictures, but my hands couldn’t handle it. The scenery on top of Big Bald was a surreal experience, and I definitely learned a lesson about being heavily dependent on NOAA forecasts.
I hiked the 6+ miles back to Sams Gap at a fast pace. It seemed as I got closer to the end the clouds began to lift a little. When I crossed the field below West Street Gap Peak the cloud ceiling had risen above the peak and I got some decent views. I could see the snowy ski slopes of Wolf Ridge Ski Resort, but clouds still obscured Big Bald and all of the higher peaks. I finished this 13-mile hike in 6 hours, but could’ve easily done it in 5 hours. I stopped a lot to admire the ice on all of the trees. I highly recommend doing this hike, the views from Big Bald are fantastic according to the internet. Just try to time it for a clear, sunny day.