May 6-8, 2018
39 miles in 49 hours
Bob’s Last Expedition
I had heard from solid sources that Bob was thinking about selling all his gear and quitting backpacking so I suggested a death march for his last outing. For probably 10 years we have been talking about trying to get into the Sampson Mountain Wilderness just SW of Erwin, TN but there is no easy way to do it and there are only a few trails mostly around the boundary. Bob wanted to do a semi-loop starting at Big Bald on the AT, head south and jump off the AT at Big Butt and make our way towards the wilderness.
I called the shuttle folks and they said they were not allowed to drive to Big Bald because the road was private through the Wolf Laurel ski area, that meant we would have to start at Spivey’s Gap and it would add an additional 7 miles and 2300 foot climb to the route. Hey it was a death march right?
Bob was punctual at 5:30 and we made record time to Erwin by a bit after 9:00 and we had to wait for our shuttle. They had no idea what we wanted to do but we dropped the truck at the Lower Higgins Creek trail head and they drove us up to Spivey’s Gap by 11:00. It was overcast but the forecast was for rain and then clearing in the afternoon. As we trudged up the side of Big Bald we began passing one after another northbound thru hiker. It began to rain seriously so we put on the rain gear, waiting as long as we could. With temps in the 50’s we would get soaked either way.
We pulled into the Big Bald shelter for a late lunch at 2:00 hoping for some dry space but it was packed with at least 10 thru hikers doing the same thing and they were not being hospitable. We carved out some butt space on the front edge of the shelter as more folks rolled in including a couple of pretty elderly section hikers, the thru hikers did not budge. We finished fast and headed on up to the top of the Bald as we were getting a bit chilly too.
There would be no awesome view from 5500 feet on Big Bald for us, 30 mph winds and thick clouds, at least the rain had stopped!
As soon as we dropped off the side into the trees the wind died and within an hour the sun started to come out, damn we started the day too early! We rolled into The Meadow just south of Street Gap about 6:00 and it was a totally clear late afternoon and Big Bald was wide open.
We hemmed and hawed about whether to stay here or push on to the other side of Sam’s Gap. With no water close and still 3 hours of daylight we decided to abuse ourselves further and aim for High Rocks for the good view. We had played this game before, ten years ago, when hiking this section going north, it is hard to break it up on either side of Sam’s Gap and the highway. This next two miles was where we camped on the side of a slope with a log pulled up so we wouldn’t slide downhill all night.
We passed a German thru hiker who was ready to call it a day and we implored him to stay at the Meadow for the view and the meteor shower that was happening this night. It made us feel better about not camping there.
We crossed the highway and made the last 600 foot climb up to High Rocks passing a few more thru hikers but had the top all to ourselves, not a great campsite but indeed an great view.
We were beat after 15.5 miles but had a great fire and because it was his last expedition Bob even brought the high dollar Boars Head perfect food and stayed up until an hour after backpackers midnight!
I “slept in” until 7:00 and when I rolled over Bob already had the tarp down and had fished out my stove and started it himself!!! In 42 previous hikes he has never touched my stove! Must be the last expedition. As we were finishing breakfast the first of the thru hikers started coming by, one at least every 5 minutes.
Off we went into a beautiful morning. We were still walking above the leaf line and the views were plentiful and the wild flowers were about to bust loose.
We pulled into the Hogback Ridge shelter and there had to have been at least 20 people there last night, some still getting going. All morning we kept passing folks, many slackpacking the section and a few really scary ones. We made the long drop down to Devils Fork Gap by noon passing a few waterfalls and more wild flowers.
We made the short climb up to the shoulder of Flint Mountain before stopping for lunch and more thru hikers passed by every few minutes! Long run around the mountain to Flint Mountain shelter and there were already 10 or more hikers setting up for the night at 2:00, with more pouring in. We took a long break at Flint Gap and then began the long and sometimes steep, 1800’ climb up to Big Butt. There was a bit of thunder and it clouded up a some but only a few drops of rain. We stopped for water at the last source before making it to the top and the fields. They have completely rerouted this section to take it off the road and it adds at least a half a mile.
Well after 5:00 we make the top and are eager to head off trail and get away from all the thru hikers, Bob thinks at least 150 today alone! If it is not the famous bubble it has to be close. Looking back at the AT on the other side of the field, ominous clouds.
We look for a trail into the brush and find one at the edge.
It turns out to be a pretty good ATV trail with some huge mud holes to work around. Dense through blueberries, blackberries and rhodos, it would be hell to try and get through it without the trail.
By 6:00 we make it out to the end of the ridge and a place called Buzzard Rocks with great views to the south and east over the new Rocky Fork State Park and the South Indian Creek valley. Thunderstorms are still active over Big Bald but we can see the long Black Mountain Crest to the right and all the way to Unaka and Roan mountains to the left. 14.5 miles today but plenty of climbing and too many people for Bob to talk to.
Another beautiful morning and most of it is spent walking along old wood roads along the ridgeline with steep drops to the north into the Sampson Mountain wilderness. We miss a few side trails that could take us out into the wilderness which we will have to come back and explore.
Our original route would have taken us down an old unused trail along the ridge but it was not really apparent so we dropped down on the old roads to Lower Higgins creek and followed it down to the truck, dropping 2500’ along the way. This area is full of big waterfalls and cascades several of which we saw along the creek.
Back to the truck by 12:00 after 9 miles this morning. Off to Asheville and a BBQ lunch then home. Bob learned so many tips from the thru hikers that he has decided it will not be his last expedition. Two of his favorites were the proper use of Red Bull on long days and if you hammock camp “the world is yours”.