August 8 & 9, 2008
20 hours on the highest peak east of the Mississippi
The highest point in the eastern United States is 170 miles from my farm. I can drive to the top in three and a half hours. Mt. Mitchell is the highest point (6684′) in the little known Black Mountain range. A short and narrow ridge line some 20 miles long but with 19 points above 6000 feet and six of the ten highest peaks in the East. Mt. Mitchell itself is in a tiny state park of only 1200 acres but it is surrounded by National Forest land and the NPS managed Blue Ridge Parkway (like the Natchez Trace, a long narrow corridor of a park but this one runs on the ridges). The Black Mountain crest is one of the places I have hiked and climbed around on more times than than almost anywhere. It is my personal playground as I have walked all of its trails in most seasons and it’s my hot weather refuge.
The produce farming season is long and relentless here in North Carolina. We run nonstop, essentially without a day off, from March until the beginning of August when we take a week off. We give the staff a paid week off and we mostly just hide out at the farm and don’t answer the phone. Almost every year I sneak off to the Black Mountains for a night or two to sit on the highest rock around. This year I could only manage one night and just barely 20 hours. The first of the cold fronts that signal the beginning of the end of summer rolled through a day before, clearing the skies and dropping the humidity. Time to head to the mountain.
In the morning I had to make a small delivery, irrigate and then feed and water the turkeys before I left to smooth the way so Betsy wouldn’t have to deal with them (the key to marital bliss).
Left home at 1:00 and was on the trail by 4:45. Almost all the trails on the Blacks are tough and many straight up and down. One can do climbs of 4000′ in five miles. When I don’t have much time I have a short loop out to my favorite campsite. Starting at 6600′ I drop 500′ and then climb back up 500′ in a mile to the top of the second highest point, Mt. Craig.
This is looking South from Mt. Craig you can see the state park facilities on Mt. Mitchell itself
This is looking north along the ridge line
Then in the next mile drop 1000′ down to an old logging railroad grade and out to the campsite on a bald at 5600′. It sits on a side ridge on the east side of the main crest. Awesome, nearly 360, views with no other people or even bugs! Being 1000′ below the mountain top also affords better weather, as like most big peaks, it has a way of attracting its own weather. Into camp by 6:45.
As usual the agenda is to sit and take in the views while enjoying a libation and a nice meal.
Note the backpackers cooler (blue sleeping bag with cold beers snuggled inside) Mt. Craig in the background
Sleep out under the stars, have coffee and breakfast with the first rays of morning sun and then leisurely walk back to the car. It mostly went according to plan. Multiple fine English ales accompanied a Mexican rice dish with chicken topped with sungold tomatoes and serrano pepper from the farm.
Not much of a sunset as it was cloudier than it should have been after a front and I did set up the tarp just in case it tried to rain but I started the night outside. About the time I was really asleep it started to lightly rain, damn, I moved under the tarp and slept through the night.
About 5:30 I was up as usual and moved back outside to a now nearly cloudless sky, the temperatures had dropped into the 50’s. I drifted back off but was up with a cup of coffee as the sun made its way over the ridge behind me.
The wild blueberries and blackberries were plentiful and so I added some blueberries from a bush only five feet from the sleeping bag to the morning’s oatmeal.
More sloth and wandering around until 10:00 when I headed back to the car.
Five minutes down the trail I came around a corner and was stopped by something my eyes and brain didn’t at first comprehend. It was two small black bear cubs laying on the edge of the trail eating the copious blueberries. They were as startled as I was and scampered down the hill. I stopped and pulled out the camera just in case and waited while I heard much thrashing around in the bushes. Seconds later Mom popped out, 10 feet away! She too was shocked and zipped across the trail and up the hill followed by one of the cubs. I waited for the last cub to follow and it did a minute later. I fired off two pictures, missed the cub and barely got Mom’s rear end headed into the bushes. This was only the second time I have seen bears in the East, Wow!
If you look close there is a black rump headed into the bushes on the right side of the trail just above the middle of the picture.
A few minutes later I scared up a large whitetail too. On around the front of the mountain on the old logging railroad grade took an hour and then the 1000′ foot climb up the side of Mt. Mitchell itself and back to the car by 12:30. Barely 20 hours on the mountain but I had to get back to a family dinner. I listened to Robert Earl Keen on the way up the mountain and BeauSoleil on the way back down.