Sunday, October 7, 2012

Black Mountain Crest Trail Loop


Starting Point: Colbert Ridge Trail Head, Burnsville, NC
Ending Point: Buncombe Horse Range Trail, Burnsville, NC
Distance: 19.9 miles plus short road walk
Break Down: Day 1--3.9 Miles
                       Day 2--16 Miles   
Date: October 5-6, 2012
Trip highlights: Views from Deep Gap and Mt. Craig, Summitting six peaks above 6000ft, Grassy Balds on Buncombe Horse Trail,  Scenic hiking through Hardwoods near a creek, Hemlocks and Fir forests.






I got to the Colbert Ridge trail head at about 2:00pm.  The parking lot was just a gravel pull-off big enough for maybe 4 cars.  A couple of hikers were starting their hike as I pulled into the lot so I took my time lacing up my boots and getting my pack situated to give them a bit of space. 

The trail starts out mellow enough for about half a mile--but don't be fooled;the trail climbs 3000 feet over the next three miles.  Once the trail starts getting tough, it doesn't let up until it ends at Deep Gap.  The trail passes through a scenic hemlock forest and offers good views early on from two rock faces.  The first gives good views to the North East.  The Roan Highlands are clearly visible as is Grandfather Mountain.  Shortly after that another outcrop offers western views.  When I got to the second out crop the couple from the trail head were taking a quick break.  I was determined not to stop till deep gap so I passed by.

This  trail is relentless, but it serves it's purpose--getting you from 2000ft to 5500ft-- very efficiently.  Two miles in there's a 50 foot or so stretch of trail that is fairly level, but other than that it just goes up--making this one of the toughest 4 mile trails I've ever hiked.

At about three miles in There was a pretty good water source and another half mile past that there was a another, not quite as good, trickle.  There is no water on the Crest Trail so it's a good idea to fill up here.

I got to Deep Gap at about 4:00 and two hikers collapsed on the grass.  They had just come up Colbert Ridge and were taking advantage of the soft grass and catching their breath.  I, determined to get first pick of a campsite, Headed South on the Black Mountain Crest Trail.  About a quarter mile down the trail I found a good spot to hang my hammock .  It was nestled in a alcove of fir trees that protected against the wind, but opened up to a grassy meadow and killer views to the east.


I had planned to drop my pack at deep gap and hike North on the Crest Trail to Horse Rock and back..  Regrettably, I decided to call it a day.  The two hikers  that were resting at Deep Gap set up their tent in the meadow and we chatted for a while.

I cooked dinner and enjoyed the sunset with the two hikers who set up in the meadow.  After hanging my food, I headed to bed early hoping for an early start.

I had hoped to wake up before sunrise and hike up to Winter Star Mountain to catch the sunrise from 6200 feet, but by the time I stuck my head out of my sleeping bag the sun was already coming up.  I got out of my hammock at about 7:30.  After retrieving my food I got out my Aeropress, made some coffee and ate a quick no-cook breakfast.  I packed up camp and was on the trail before 9.
AeroPress Espresso Maker



Honestly, I was expecting the Crest Trail to be more difficult than it was.  After hiking up Colbert Ridge, The Crest was cake.  Sure, there are lots of ups and lots of downs but the trail is not too rocky, is well maintained and I found it pretty easy to find a good pace and stick to it with only occasional section where I really had to watch every step.

Potato Hill is the first peak the trail past summits South of Deep Gap.  At 6440ft there are some good views through the trees but the best views are ahead.  Next is Cattail Peak at 6600ft.  A small clearing offers good views to the East.



The trail then climbs Balsam Cone and drops down to Big Tom Gap.  The Big Tom Trail leads East to the Buncombe Horse Range Trail.  The Crest trail them begins to Climb Big Tom.  Two rocky sections employ ropes to help hikers ascend.  Shortly after the ropes comes the first really good chance to catch a great view.  These are the best views from Big Tom, as the summit is densely wooded.

After summitting Big Tom you leave Pisgah National Forest and Enter Mount Mitchell State Park.  If you miss the sign, you'll know you've entered the park by the sudden increase in trash along the trail and the vast number of day hikers.

Soon the trail reaches Mt. Craig.  This is definitely a highlight of the entire trip.  Its rocky summit allows for great panoramic views.  I ate a quick snack and enjoyed sitting on a rock out crop before heading towards Mt. Mitchell.

Once the trail goes down Craig, Mitchell is really close. I made it by 11:00.  The parking lot had a snack bar, restrooms and water fountains.  I followed the crowds up to the observation tower--the highest place east of The Black Hills in south Dakota--and ate lunch.  The views are the same as from Mt. Craig but with WAY more leather jackets.  I wish i would have spent more time on Mt. Craig than I did and I regret spending close to an hour on Mitchell.

Coming down from the Tower, The Balsam Nature trail to the right leads .5 miles to the Mitchell Trail which leads a mile to the Buncombe Horse Range Trail.  At this intersection, there were several good campsites.

I've been warned about The Buncombe Trail while planning this trip.  Hikers and Rangers have said that it can be very hard to follow and it is easy to lose.  Although there are some overgrown sections, there was never a point on this trail that I wasn't 100% sure I was on the trail.  If, however, you do lose the trail; check out the topography on your map.  The trail stays level and heads straight North until Maple Camp Bald so just stay heading North and don't take any sharp turns up or down the mountain.  At least by early fall,  the only challenge this trail presented was mud--and there was lots of it.

The trail has ample water sources.  About every hundred yards or so the trail passes trickles from small to quite substantial.  By time I got about a mile down the trail the fog started really rolling in.  I was thankful to have fairly clear skies from the Crest Trail but any further views were limited.  However, this first section on the Buncombe offers some really great views, despite the fog.  The trail passes a small rock ledge allowing great views of fall colors.



A bit further down the trail there is a small grassy meadow.  The fog was thick but I'm sure this spot offers great views on a clear day.  The trail then intersects with Big Tom Trail.  At the intersection there is a small campsite fit for one or two tents and a couple of possible hammock spots.

After another mile the trail comes to Maple Camp Bald.  This is a cool area to explore, unfortunately the fog prevented me from enjoying its great views.  At the Bald the trail starts descending and switching back.  The terrain is fairly open before coming into a Rhododendron tunnel and eventually a pine forest.  The last really good campsite is just past the Pine forest where the trail kind of opens up and there are some large boulders.  Originally, I had planned a three day hike.  I reached the campsite quite early (at about 1:30) and was not ready to spot hiking.  I decided to keep going and I would stop and camp if I found another suitable spot but if I came to the end of the trail I would be satisfies with making this an overnighter. 

The trail winds through a hardwood Forrest and what had been trickles at higher elevations were now flowing mountain creeks.  This really added to the diversity of the hike and offered some great scenic hiking.

The trail takes a hard left turn right before Simmons Cemetery.  If you miss the turn you will come to private property in about 25 yards.  Turn around. 

The trail crosses a significant creek about a mile past the cemetery.  The rest of the trail is a lackluster wide dirt trail.  It ends at a gravel parking lot with a long drive that leads to the main road.



It's a short walk from there to the Colbert Ridge parking lot, but having reached paved roads, my navigational skills dissipated.  I headed the wrong way and after walking about a mile the road dead ended into a private drive with a "BEWARE OF DOG" sign.  And then came the dogs of whom the sign was referring.  Great.  I was three mean old mutts were growlin' and scowlin'. I backed away but they kept coming towards me.  The meanest one ran towards me and starting barking and showing its teeth.  I threw it a granola bar and it changed its tune.  He followed me for a while then ran back.

I finally got on the right track and made it to my car.  I stopped for a milkshake at Dot's Dario on the way back to the highway.  I recommend it.



I have a few recommendations for this hike and a few things I will do differently next time.  First off if I had a second car or a shuttle I would just start at Bowlen's Creek (the North Trail Head of the Crest Trail).  If starting from Colbert Ridge, Start early and Hike North to Horse Rock Celo Knob.  I really over estimated the Crest Trail.  It's tough but allows for pretty quick hiking for most of its route.  After reaching Mt. Craig I would stop for a while and enjoy the view then turn back to Big Tom Trail.  There's too much concrete on Mitchell and unless you really need a Snickers I would skip it and drive to the top later.  Take Big Tom Down to the Buncombe Horse Range Trail and head North back to Colbert.  Check out what Backpacker has to say!



















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