Max Patch via Brown Gap – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Southeast view of the Newfound Mountains from Max Patch
Southeast view of the Newfound Mountains from Max Patch

It had been an unseasonably warm February, and the weather on Sunday, Feb 19th looked perfect for a hike with big views. Surprisingly I’ve never been to Max Patch Mountain. Despite its fame, it is really out of the way for me unless I’m staying in the Asheville area. After two hikes earlier in the day to Chambers Mountain and Little Fall Branch Falls, I decided to cap the day off with a nice hike on the Appalachian Trail to Max Patch. Many people drive close to the summit on the long, gravel SR 1182. If you do this, the hike is around 2 miles total which is far shorter than I prefer. I chose to begin deep in the Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area of Pisgah National Forest, taking the Appalachian Trail north from Brown Gap. This is a pleasant hike through deciduous hardwood forests along ~4,000-foot ridges and at 7.1-miles round-trip is manageable for many types of hikers. The weather was in the mid-50s °F with bright sun and little wind. I’ve seen so many pictures of Max Patch but I was still blown away by the views from the summit. You are surrounded and dwarfed by some of the tallest peaks in the Appalachian Mountain. It is truly an awesome feeling. I highly recommend a trip to Max Patch, it is one of the best grassy balds in North Carolina.

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Big Bald – Appalachian Trail, TN

 

Approaching summit of Big Bald through ice, wind, and clouds

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.

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Mt. Cammerer and Big Creek – Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC

 

Mt. Cammerer lookout tower perched on the ridge
Mt. Cammerer lookout tower perched on the ridge

You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve never had an overwhelming desire to hike in the Smokies. Our treasured national park attracts the most visitors per year of any national park in the country. Hovering just under 11 million per year, that is a lot of people. That means a lot of car traffic, a lot of confused tourists, overcrowded parking areas, and a lot of crowded trails. In fact I see the national park as a perfect magnetic field pulling tourists away from my favorite hiking areas in Pisgah National Forest. However, I’ve been banging out hikes in a 4-hour radius for years and new spots are drying up. It was time to revisit Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time since I was 9 years old. I wanted something with waterfalls and views, and preferably a loop hike. I settled on the Big Creek region because it was close to I-40 and offered two big loops to Mt. Cammerer and Mt. Sterling, and would include at least one waterfall. Both mountains have lookout towers and thus are prized peaks by peakbaggers.

 

For some ridiculous reason I chose to do this the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, which meant the parking lots and trails were packed. I ended up choosing the Mt. Cammerer loop because I thought it would be easier and more scenic. My plan was to hike the Chestnut Branch Trail west to connect with the Appalachian Trail where I would head south to the Mount Cammerer Trail. After visiting the historic lookout tower I would continue south on the Appalachian Trail connecting with the Low Gap Trail. This trail descends towards Walnut Bottoms where it meets Big Creek where I could take the flat Big Creek Trail back to the parking lot passing by Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole. It was a long but fantastic hike and I am itching to get back to the park as soon as possible.

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Roan Highlands – Appalachian Trail, NC

 

Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain
Thru hikers descending Hump Mountain

There were less than 15 cars parked at Carver’s Gap which I took to be a great sign. Originally I thought there would be more people hiking today. It was beautiful outside and just past 11:00 AM. When I stepped out of my car, I felt a chilling gust and immediately questioned my clothing for the hike. A couple of days prior I had seen the weather should be mid-50s and sunny and failed to check the weather the night before. Even with clear skies it was definitely in the 40s and the wind was blowing steadily. All I had were shorts, T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, pullover fleece, and my hoody I wore in the car. I made the conscious decision to bring all of my layers even though the hoody added a lot of extra weight. This reminded me that even if Spring is here, the wind and elevation can still make a hike quite cold. It had been years since I last visited the Roan Highlands, arguably the crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast. (I would personally claim Mt. Rogers as a solid 2nd place). During my last trip I backpacked to the Overmountain Shelter, day hiked to Hump Mountain, and returned the same day to Carver’s Gap. This time I was essentially doing the same trip, in one day. Not one section of this hike is extremely strenuous or technical, but it still covers more than 19 miles and that is always a tough undertaking no matter what kind of topography you encounter. I think I planned this perfectly excluding my clothing choices. And the thing about the Roan Highlands is they are freakin’ beautiful. Once you are hiking atop these open grass summits you seem to forget how many miles and how much climbing you have done. With these kind of temperatures and the lengthening Spring days it is easy to cover many miles. If you live in the Southeast you have to put this hike on your list, even if you can’t cover everything I did here.

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Crabtree Falls to Spy Rock – George Washington National Forest, VA

 

East view of The Priest from Spy Rock
East view of The Priest from Spy Rock

I don’t get to Virginia enough. From afar I look down on it but when I hike there I enjoy it just as much as North Carolina. After 3 hikes I’ve come to love the mountains around VA-56. The Tye River crashes through a narrow gorge which highway 56 follows through the Blue Ridge Mountains on its way to the foothills. Around this area the Appalachian Trail crosses dramatic peaks through The Priest Wilderness and Three Ridges Wilderness, and other trails follow steep water drainages to popular or secluded waterfalls. There’s a lot to see, and trail access is easy. Crabtree Falls is billed as the highest waterfall on the East Coast. This is decidedly untrue because Crabtree Falls is actually 3 or 5 waterfalls (depending on your source), and when combined would become the tallest waterfall in the East. However, it is still an incredible series of falls that in my opinion is unrivaled in the Southeast. Beyond the top of the waterfall you can continue up a rare hanging valley to meet the Appalachian Trail. During my previous visit to the area, I hiked north to The Priest. My plan on this day was to hike south on the Appalachian Trail to Spy Rock, an incredible rock dome with 360° views. You can easily be satisfied with a short hike to either Crabtree Falls or Spy Rock but I love combining trails for a long day. If you are looking for a hike in this area of Virginia, Crabtree Falls is the place you should start.

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Little Wilson Creek Wilderness – Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, VA

 

Summit of Stone Mountain
Summit of Stone Mountain

The day did not end as expected. I spent a wonderful hour exploring cascades and waterfalls along Wilson Creek before meandering up Stone Mountain taking in the panoramic views. Despite being chased away from my lunch spot by an irritated wild pony, the fall colors and perfect temperatures made it a great hike so far. Per norm the sights in Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area exceeded expectations. That changed beyond Stone Mountain as I entered the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. What followed was a boring and sometimes painful 3.5 hours of hiking through the quagmire of horse trails in the wilderness. These trails were always extremely rocky, and at times very muddy. To end the day I slipped in Wilson Creek and ended up wading the creek and Wilburn Branch multiple times as I got lost trying to connect the Big Wilson Creek Trail to Upchurch Road. I eventually found my way out though after a few trial and errors and lots of exploratory running.

 

So, to summarize – the first half of this hike was awesome and the second half left a lot to be desired. My hiking plan was to take the Wilson Creek Trail from the Hickory Ridge campground/amphitheater parking in Grayson Highlands State Park then connect to the Appalachian Trail north towards Scales compound. From there I would loop around through the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness via First Peak, Kabel, Big Wilson Creek, and Upchurch Road trails. This loop is 13.1 miles without getting lost – I hiked 14.4 miles – but I would recommend turning around at the summit of Stone Mountain and taking an easier return trip. I also was trying out my new footwear combination of La Sportiva Ultra Raptor’s and Mont-Bell Stretch Short Spats (gaiters). They worked really well but I’ll need to try them a few more times before I write reviews.

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Pine Mountain and Wilburn Ridge – Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, VA

 

Southeast from Wilburn Ridge
Southeast from Wilburn Ridge

It was the perfect day to visit a spot I hadn’t hiked in years. I have backpacked here twice in March 2010 and October 2010 but never a day hike. I drove out to Grayson Highlands State Park planning to do a big loop in the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. Most of the hike would be on trails I’ve never touched and I was excited because it was sunny and mid-70s. Once I got started though and started ascending Stone Mountain towards Scales, I could not resist doing a loop I did years ago backpacking. The views and weather were too good to pass up. I started at the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands State Park and took the Appalachian Trail north past Scales before using the Pine Mountain Trail to form a loop with the AT. After a quick out-and-back to the Thomas Knob Shelter I trekked over Wilburn Ridge and said hi to some ponies on my way to the car. This loop hike is one of the best hikes in the Southeast and everyone should try to experience at least a portion of this area.

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