Jan 03 2017

Black Mountain Crest Trail – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains

North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains

The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of the most renowned and intimidating hikes in North Carolina. Located in the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, the trail crosses the crest of the Black Mountains across five 6,000+ foot peaks culminating in the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mt. Mitchell. This trek is on almost every bucket list for hikers who live in North Carolina, but it is very difficult and a logistical challenge. Hiking it in one direction requires a shuttle and is tough. Hiking the trail in both directions is over 24 miles and 8,000 feet elevation gain, which is difficult for even strong hikers. You’ll encounter steep grades, continuous sun and wind exposure at elevations above 6,000 feet, and a lack of water throughout the entire length of the trail. If you try this, be mentally and physically prepared for the challenge. The views from the Black Mountains are spectacular and definitely worth the exhaustion. You can see most of the state’s notable peaks and mountain ranges in every direction on clear days. The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of my favorite hikes in North Carolina, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

 

The northern trailhead is in the middle of nowhere, and is almost 4-hour drive from me. I woke up especially early for this hike, I’ve been planning on doing this for a while and needed a full day. The weather was supposed to be hot and humid, but sunny and beautiful. I mentioned this is a logistical challenge, and that’s especially true for a solo hiker. I could’ve tried to arrange a shuttle, but that is an annoyance to me. If you are looking to shuttle it is over an hour drive between trailheads, so even the shuttle is a pain. The hike is 12.4 miles north-to-south, with 5,390 feet elevation gain. That is a serious hike, and my plan was to hike it both ways. That would mean I would have to cover ~24.8 miles with ~8,400 feet elevation gain in a day. I’ve covered similar distances before in 8-9 hours, but nothing close to that elevation gain. I was physically able to complete this hike, but I lucked out talking to a couple near Mt. Craig. They offered me a ride since they lived near the trailhead, so after I climbed up Mt. Mitchell I rode with them.

 

I’ll describe this as if you are starting at the northern trailhead like me. From Spruce Pine follow U.S. 19E east for 12.9 miles. Turn left onto N.C. 197 south for 0.7 mile and turn left onto Bolens Creek Rd. Follow Bolens Creek Rd for 2.5 miles to a really tight right turn. The trailhead is at this turn, down the gravel Water Shed Rd. However, the parking area is very tight and may only fit two cars. Continue through this turn and at the next bend left is a pullout above a cemetery. Walk to Water Shed Rd and follow the gravel road south. You’ll pass multiple private drives on the left. The official start of the trail is beside the small, muddy parking area, 0.3-mi from the cemetery. The brown sign indicates the gravel road is for hikers and 4X4 only.

Total distance: 12.94 mi
Max elevation: 6693 ft
Min elevation: 3068 ft
Total Time: 07:49:02
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The Hike

Soon after you pass the sign there is a dilapidated bridge across Bowlens Creek, 0.4-mi into the hike. I thought this bridge looked to be in bad condition, so I rock hopped the creek instead not wanting to risk falling through a rotten plank. After the crossing you’ll see the first brown national forest carsonite sign that simply says “crest.” This may be the official beginning of the Black Mountain Crest Trail [179]. The trail has both orange and white blazes, but you’ll rarely see them. They aren’t needed, there aren’t many trail junctions on this hike. You’ll climb to the left above Bowlens Creek then make a hard left turn away from the creek. Now the serious hike begins. From the Bowlens Creek crossing to the meadows below Celo Knob the Black Mountain Crest Trail climbs nearly 3,000 feet in 4 miles. There are no breaks here. It is a continuous moderate grade along a monotonous forest road. This is “put your head down” territory to bang out some miles. That’s exactly what I did, so I barely remember my surroundings.

Black Mountain Crest Trail

At mile 3.8 is an important turn in the trail. Straight ahead is a side trail to access Bowlens Creek. From here the Black Mountain Crest Trail begins switchbacking vigorously up Celo Knob. You’ll pass the spring that feeds Bowlens Creek twice during this stretch, the second time is the LAST easily accessible water for this hike. The trail keeps climbing, but the switchbacks disappear as you pass through a rich, conifer forest. What’s next, at mile 4.5, is one of my favorite stretches of trail in North Carolina. You emerge from the dense forest into Horse Rock Meadows with phenomenal views of the Black Mountains. The crest trail winds majestically around the southwest side of Celo Knob towards Horse Rock and Gibbs Mountain. The peaks of the Black Mountains undulate before you, giving you a preview of your hike to come. The land drops away thousands of feet to the deep, remote Cane River Valley. The peaks across the valley are the southern and western Black Mountains, notably Blackstock Knob, Point Misery, and Big Butt. You’ll even spy the Great Craggy Mountains popping up behind these peaks.

South view from Horse Rock Meadows of the Black Mountains

The scramble trail for Celo Knob is at mile 4.7 beyond a wooded campsite, I’ve done that previously so I skipped it. The Woody Ridge Trail [177] (yellow blaze) begins on the left at mile 5.0, be sure to turn around at some point to get a great view of Celo Knob. Now the trail skirts the west side of Gibbs Mountain with your view being blocked by a thin line of trees. Next up is one of my favorite spots to take a break, a natural rock bench at mile 5.9 with open views west. You’ll get almost the same views as you had during the Horse Rock Meadows stretch. I took a refuel break here so I could enjoy my little bench. This is also a notable spot because the flat, road grade ends shortly after this spot and the Black Mountain Crest Trail becomes a different animal.

West view of the Black Mountains from the rock bench

Gone is the wide forest road track. Replaced by rocky, rooty, steep, eroded single-file footpath that characterizes the next ~6 miles of the hike. Immediately you’ll climb up and around massive cliff faces to a remarkable unnamed knob on the ridge. This is one of the highlights of the trail, and I’m surprised this knob remains unnamed. It lies between Gibbs Mountain and Winter Star Mountain, and other small peaks along this stretch have names (e.g. Horse Rock & Deer Mountain). The trail hugs the side of steep cliffs with your first big views east of Linville Gorge. The distinctive peaks of the gorge are distant and tiny, they barely register above the landscape. The sky was hazy in this direction due to the Bald Knob Fire. Yet again you’ll have amazing views west of the Cane River Valley and the western Black Mountains. The most impressive and intimidating view is south of the sawteeth rows of peaks I would be climbing later. Winter Star Mountain’s narrow summit sticks above a rounded slope, with the double peaks of Potato Hill and Cattail Peak looming behind.

Looking south at the jagged heights of the Black Mountains

The trail ducks back into the conifer forest, passing by a nice campsite in a saddle between the unnamed knob and Winter Star Mountain. I was dreading this climb, but it turns out the trail was completely rebuilt since the last time I’ve hiked here. The newly constructed trail was excellent and made the trek up Winter Star Mountain easy. Just below the summit there is a good view on the left, looking northeast towards the crest and the Roan Highlands in the distance. Winter Star Mountain (6,203 feet) is the first peak the trail directly crosses at mile 7.3. There is a view north through the dead trees, but nothing special. As you descend steeply towards Deep Gap, Potato Hill and Cattail Peak rise ominously above.

View north from the summit of Winter Star Mountain

The Black Mountain Crest Trail passes through Deep Gap at mile 7.8, a backcountry hub of the mountain range. This is the most popular and suitable area for backpack camping outside of the state park. Deep Gap is situated around the 5,680-foot elevation mark, and is a notable landmark that divides the northern Blacks from the central Blacks. The gap lies more than 500 feet below Winter Star Mountain and more than 750 feet below Potato Hill. You might want to consider grabbing water here although it won’t be easy. You’ll have to descend the Colbert Ridge Trail [178] (yellow blaze) ~0.4-mi to the east, or an unmarked forest road to the west approximately the same distance. Next up is one of the most taxing climbs of the day, an ~800-foot slog up to Potato Hill. When you start this climb you’ll cross into Mt. Mitchell State Park, and the trail is jointly called the Deep Gap Trail (orange diamond blaze). Near the top of Potato Hill is a great section of trail that skirts big cliffs with views southeast of Maple Camp Bald and the South Toe River watershed.

South view from cliffs below Potato Hill of Maple Camp Bald and the South Toe River watershed

There is a quaint trail sign below the top of Potato Hill (6,475 feet). Scramble up the bank to bag the peak. There is northwest view through sparse trees, similar to Winter Star Mountain. The crest trail drops precipitously down Potato Hill over huge exposed rocks. This is the steepest descent of the day and you’ll need to be careful. You’ll get one good view southeast of Balsam Cone and then the trail swings around the west side of Cattail Peak. I was really tired at this point so I plopped down on the trail in the middle of a beautiful stretch of southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest. This section and the stretch below Mt. Mitchell are the best examples of this forest along the trail. When the trail makes it way around the south side of Cattail Peak you’ll see a sign denoting the elevation. This is wrong, the trail never crosses the true summit. Next up is a gentle climb to the summit of Balsam Cone (6,611 feet) at mile 9.9. The crest trail then descends steeply over 400 feet to Big Tom Gap. Before the base of the gap you’ll pass the primitive Big Tom Gap Trail [191A] (blue blaze) on the left.

Big Tom summit marker amidst ghost forest

From Big Tom Gap the trail climbs over exposed rock faces with two sections where a rope is anchored to assist you. I wouldn’t trust these ropes with your full weight, it isn’t sanctioned by the state park. You’ll reach Big Tom at mile 10.7. Just before the summit is a view northwest but I neglected to take pictures. Big Tom (6,581 feet) is really a subpeak of Mt. Craig. The summit is surrounded by an eerie ghost forest. Many of the trees perished due to a combination of acid rain and the woolly adelgid blight. You’ll drop into a narrow saddle and climb up steep boulders to Mt. Craig. The trail across the cliffs of Mt. Craig, the 2nd tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River at 6,647 feet, is one of the most photogenic spots in North Carolina. A series of logs line the trail, keeping you away from fragile plant ecosystems on the cliffs. Due south you can see the manmade structures all over Mt. Mitchell. Further south beyond Mt. Mitchell are the dual peaks of Mt. Gibbes and Clingmans Peak. To the right is the wide Blackstock Knob. The Black Mountains continue curving around the deep Cane River Valley to culminate at Big Butt. My favorite view is north of the jagged Black Mountains where I hiked earlier.

Panorama from Mt. Craig

Panorama from Mt. Craig

As you descend Mt. Craig you’ll begin passing a lot of hikers since this peak is only 1 mile from the parking lot. As you get close to Mt. Mitchell the trail follows a wide gravel path through beautiful southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest. You’ll reach the lower parking lot at mile 11.8 and then climb up the stairs to the main lot beside the visitors center and gift shop. I decided to stop at the bathroom first to wash my hands, then the gift shop to grab a soda and some ice cream. I then made the obligatory walk up the paved path to the observation tower. One of the best photo opportunities is on the walk up, the wood fencing lining the path frames Mt. Craig beautifully. The observation tower was crowded as I expected. The only time you’ll be alone here is during the winter, when the state park is closed. Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet is the tallest peak in the east and has outstanding 360° views. Unfortunately the Bald Knob Fire and humidity made the eastern view quite hazy. Looking south you’ll get your first view of Stepps Gap far below Mt. Gibbes. Pinnacle and Graybeard Mountain are the smaller, noticeable peaks on the lower left. Blackstock Knob looks wide and huge from this angle. Last time I was here in the winter the long-distance views were much better. Summer haze and humidity can be quite a drag.

Yours truly on top of Mt. Mitchell after 12.4 miles of hiking

On the stretch between Mt. Craig and Mt. Mitchell I happened to talk to an older couple who asked me about the hike to Mt. Craig. We got to talking about my full-day hike on the crest trail and they offered to give me a ride back once they finished their hike. They coincidentally lived 5 minutes from the northern trailhead. I told them if I wanted the ride I’ll wait in the parking lot for them to return. After visiting Mt. Mitchell I decided that it would be wise to save 12 miles and 5+ hours of hiking, so I hitched a ride. Thanks to Mike and Joyce for taking me to my car, it was a much shorter, easier day with their help! I had hiked 12.4 miles in 7.5 hours and I think that was enough for the day. The Black Mountain Crest Trail is easily one of the most beautiful, and most difficult hikes in North Carolina. If you decide to undertake the journey it will surely be a memorable hike.

Click here to see my full Google Photos album of my hike on the Black Mountain Crest Trail

 

 

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