Aug. 5 & 6
Chasing the Bear
The Black Mountains, while appearing to be all tangled up with the Blue Ridge and the Great Craggy mountains, are technically a separate geologic formation that forms a J shaped ridge that runs (north to south) from Celo Knob to Potato Knob then curving back to the north and ending at Big Butt (formerly Yeates Knob), creating the headwaters of the Cane River. While I have scampered all over the ridge I have never walked the whole length from Bowlens Creek to the Cane River Gap, time to do it!
There are multiple ways one could tie trails together to walk the length of the single highest ridge east of the Mississippi with 6 of the 10 highest peaks in the East, including the tallest, Mount Mitchell at 6684′. We decided to not run the whole crest along the top but instead work in some side trails, parts of which we had never walked before, along with some top of the ridge trails.
You can click on the map and make it full size, our route is in blue. If the weather was clear and one hadn’t walked the ridge before I would walk the Crest trail to Mt. Mitchell, then the Old Mitchell trail to Steppes Gap. From there take the access road to Clingmans Peak and follow the ridge across to the MST near Patton Knob.
Trying to escape the brutal 100 degree heat, again, Bob and I decided to go as high as possible and this trip would give us 30 miles, almost all of it over 5500’. We left the farm at 6:30 and got to Rett’s farm a little after 10:00, he followed us up to Cane River gap where we left the car and then shuttled us down to the not easy to find Bowlens Creek trailhead (look for the Watershed Rd. sign in the hairpin turn in the road.) As we were driving up to drop the car we saw a small bear on the side of the road and on the way down we saw another, different, one! Never had that happen before and wondered what it might portend?
On the trail by 11:30 and though it was only in the 70’s, it was steamy as hell and we only made it up the trail a few minutes before we decided we needed to take a dip.
Refreshed we continued on up the 4 plus mile, 3200’ climb to Celo Knob. Sweating like never before the legs were willing but the lungs were complaining. We get a couple of quarts of water just below Celo Knob and finally break out into the open areas near Horse Rock about 4:00. In the clouds, a typical Appalachian experience.
We run the ridge, through the mists, on over to Deep Gap, passing two groups. One camped north of Winter Star Mountain and one right at the junction with the Colbert Ridge trail.
We get to Deep Gap about 7:00 and instead of going on across the crest we decided to drop down the west side on the old logging roads to see if we could finally figure out where the unofficial trail goes that runs across the side of the ridge between the logging roads and the state park boundary. This is the same trail that I have lost twice coming south to north (once with Lee and once with Bob) but ended up finding again after fighting through the rhododendrons on impossibly steep slopes. We thought that if we followed it the other way (north to south) it would take us to it’s apparently secret junction with the state park boundary.
It’s getting late and we are running out of water as we head down the ever diminishing trail. Finally we come across a stream cascading down off the side of Cattail Peak; just past it was nice flat spot for camp. About 9 miles today (a little hard to tell exactly where we were on the map). We set up the tarp as we hear thunder not too far off but end up having a dry and clearing night.
Saturday 8/6– Only a low of 64 degrees and we hit the trail by 8:00 to figure out the connecting trail mystery. The trail gets less and less distinct and finally becomes just a bear trail across the base of some rock outcrops. It finally splits off in several directions and we decide to head down hill and finally come out at the end of the old road, just a few minutes from the park corner. Still a mystery but at least we weren’t totally losing our minds after we lost it twice going the other way.
We start the easy walk around the old logging grade/park boundary and get to where we are directly below Big Tom Gap. There is a piece of PVC pipe stuck in the ground a bit up slope from the trail. We figured it must mark someone’s private trail up to the gap. Instead of following the grade around the mountain to Steppes Gap we decide to make the 500’ climb up to the gap and then drop down the other side on the Big Tom Gap trail to the Buncombe Horse trail. The “someone’s trail” turned out to be yet another bear trail and we scramble our way up through the firs following the bear right to the gap.
The clouds are trying to lift but everything above 6000’ is in the mist.
We run into a bunch of folks at Commissary Ridge and there are the usual flyers up warning about bear activity. We move on past Camp Alice and stop for lunch in a nice opening full of ferns.
After lunch we continue on south on the Buncombe Horse trail/MST stopping to get a couple of quarts of water just before the MST (Mountains to Sea Trail) crosses the road. We start the climb up around the base of Potato Knob and there are small thunderstorms dumping rain over the Asheville reservoir but we stay dry until the last climb up to Blackstock Knob when it rains for about five minutes.
The trail drops a thousand, what seemed like very long feet, down to Balsam Gap (5320’ and the lowest point on the ridge) and the Blue Ridge Parkway where we take a long break about 5:00. We are hoping to find some water down one of the drainages near the gap but there is none to be seen. We start up the Big Butt trail climbing Point Misery and then a very steep climb up the rocky slope of Little Butt. A great view off of the side of Little Butt of the entire Black Mountain range and it’s cleared off enough to see almost every peak.
Click on this panorama and then click on it again to make it really big to see the peak names and elevations of the highest ridge east of the Mississippi.
There is also a really nice campsite right on top, too bad we don’t have any water. The trail runs quite a knife edge over to the side of Big Butt (5960’), the last major peak in the range. We drop down to Flat Spring Knob gap looking for the spring that was described in de Hart’s book. It looked like it was down on the east side (and it was later confirmed by a local to be there) but the stinging nettle is almost waist high and we didn’t feel like wading through it as there was no obvious trail.
One last chance for water on the other side of Flat Spring Knob but no such luck. We are down to maybe a quart between us and we decide to make a run for the car instead of having a very dry camp. We take a long break just before the trail drops off the side of the mountain and then start the 1.5 mile plunge of 1200’ down to the gap. It is getting dark fast and we just keep rolling until we can barely see but make it to the car at 9:00. A 20 mile death march day! The only bear we caught was a long dry waterless ridge.
It is too late to drive all the way home so we go back to Rett’s to sleep and he is home partying with friends. We do the best we can to stay up with them but finally have to roll the bags out in the field and pass out at 12:30, one long day for sure.
While we never caught the bear, all the extra bear activity was confirmed when a few days later the Forest Service and State Park closed all the camp grounds, backcountry sites and even the trails to day hiking because of too many bear encounters!
Due the the recent bear activity in the surrounding area, the MOUNT MITCHELL STATE PARK CAMPGROUND will be closed from August 12 through August 29, 2011.
Due to recent bear activity the USFS has closed the Commissary Ridge Campground, Deep Gap Campground, Briarbottom Campground and the Black Mountain Campground until August 29, 2011. In addition, they have also closed the Neals Creek access road and FS road 472. They have also closed all trails in the area leading to those campgrounds: Mt. Mitchell trail, Buncombe Horse Trail, MST/Commissary trail, Big Tom connector, and portions of the Deep Gap/Black Mt Crest trail.
Mount Mitchell State Park has closed the MT Mitchell trail and the Commissary trail beyond the Camp Alice intersection until further notice. The Deep Gap Trail beyond Mt. Craig is also closed.