Black Mountains XVII (the Great loop), 5/15

May 24-26, 2015

~30 miles

I have never gone backpacking in May, ever.  But Bob was turning a significant number on the birthday odometer and I suggested we should go walking to mark the event.  He said OK but he wanted high elevation for views, waterfalls and no people.  It was Memorial Day weekend, no people is a tall order along with waterfalls at high elevation.  Only one place that could qualify, the Black Mountain range, once we get past Deep Gap we should see almost no one.

The weather forecast was perfect with cool temperatures and clear skies.  Even though I have walked all or parts of the Crest trail on eight different occasions it has never been totally clear and usually we were walking in the clouds.  This would be the ideal time to walk the “Great Loop” which starts with the 7 rugged miles of the Crest trail out to Celo Knob, 12 miles back along the west side and then 6 more miles along the east side.

Here a link to a map, if you right click on the route line and then “terrain statistics” you will get the elevation profile.  Each day is a different color but day one is in two parts.  In total we gained and lost about 13,500’!

We left on Sunday so that I could go to Saturday market but Stan and Bob were here at the farm right on schedule at 5:30.  Parking at the top of Mt. Mitchell we headed north on the Crest trail about 9:30, temps in the 50’s.  This would be the hardest day with lots of elevation gain and loss but it would afford us the best chance for views.

This trip was also a good lead into Stan’s trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire to do the Presidential Range traverse.  We primed him all weekend so he could tell those Yankees that he had just walked the highest ridge in the east and that Mt. Washington only ranks #14.

Not quite as clear as we would have hoped for with the distant views fairly hazy but the close ridges very clear.  Bob and me on Mt. Craig looking south, Mt. Mitchell behind us and Clingman’s peak with the radio towers on it.

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Looking north along the ridge.  Big Tom behind Stan, with Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak and Potato Hill in order with Celo Knob at the far end of the range peaking over the shoulder of Cattail Peak.

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We encountered at least 20 people hiking back towards Mt. Mitchell, most of whom were camped at Deep Gap.  The wildflowers were abundant the whole trip but there were large swaths of these in this first section.

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We rolled into Deep Gap at 1:00 after 3.5 miles and took a leisurely lunch.  Bob says “we are not talking about my birthday!”

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After the break we headed into what is my favorite section of the Crest trail from Deep Gap out to Celo Knob.  The initial steep climb up Winter Star Mountain is the worst of it but it does roll along the ridge with many good open areas for views, as promised we left the crowds behind and only saw 3 folks along this stretch.  Winter Star on the left and Deer Mtn. on the right of the foreridge.  Potato Hill, Cattail and Balsam Cone behind.  Every peak you can see is over 6000′

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Stan at one of the roller coaster drops off the side of the ridge.

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We amble out to the base of Celo Knob and take a short break before we drop left (west) off the crest down an old road that connects to another old logging road that leads to the abandoned Mica mine.  When Bob and I came up this way 5 years ago it was totally overgrown in brambles.  Smooth sailing now.

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Walking along a series of old logging roads we contour south along the side of the range for about 4 miles, dropping about 1000’ to the lowest point of the trip to around 5300’ and stop for the night at a grassy site somewhere below Potato Hill.  Stan cooks up a great birthday meal for Bob including a bottle of fine wine!  About 12 miles today but 3000’ of elevation gain and 4200’ of loss.

The second day dawns beautiful with a view of Cattail Peak.

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We are now on the unofficial trail that connects between the old logging roads that go up to Deep Gap and the State Park boundary.  This is Bob’s and my third time across this mystery trail so we let Stan lead.  Not too difficult to follow this time as someone has recently been through and flagged it heavily.  We easily hit the old road along the park boundary and sidle along at an easy rate.  Occasional good views of the Big Butt ridge.  Surprisingly we run into one couple out doing a bird inventory, we have never seen anyone along this section.

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We cross the park road at Steppes Gap over to the east side of the ridge and head back north on the Commissary Ridge trail stopping at Lower Creek to have lunch and soak our feet.  A family showed up and we decided to move down the trail to the camping area at Commissary Hill for a long break because we were so far ahead of schedule.  Stan said he had never just laid down in the grass in the middle of the day!  There is some spring in the birthday boy’s step!

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We finally, leisurely, head on out the Buncombe Horse trail, passing a few small waterfalls on the side of Mt. Mitchell.  We stop at Thee creek and fill up with water for tonight’s dry camp and then walk the last bit out to camp.  14 miles today with 2200’ of elevation gained and 1900’ lost.  As usual a great view.

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The birthday boy has a pre-dinner nap

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We put the tarps up just in case of an overnight shower.  Stan has never been rained on while backpacking.  I make a second birthday dinner while the Stan collects fire wood.

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After dinner while the fire is being organized I secretly make chocolate birthday pies with shaved dark chocolate on top!  Because we are not saying how old Bob has become the candles say 69 as an indicator that he is now pushing 70.

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Balmy evening around the fire, much brown liquor was had and we start the night out under the stars.  About 3:00 it begins to rain and we scamper under our tarps for the rest of the night and it dumps rain.  The rain is slowing as it begins to get light but Stan votes to pass on breakfast and just head to the truck, walking by 6:00.

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We head back south on the horse trail, passing many waterfalls after the big rain, to Commissary ridge and then  the 1000’ up to the top of Mt. Mitchell in the clouds.  Back to the truck by 9:00 and down to Marion for breakfast.  About 5 miles this morning.

Great trip, and a great way to celebrate a birthday. Bob got most of what he asked for.

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