Take the back door into Middle Prong Wilderness

Wilderness areas shouldn’t be the private domain of only the most intrepid swashbuckling types who have no compunction about pushing through where the trail disappears, about fording waist-deep streams, about scrambling through rhododendron hells ever-so-deserving of the name. They shouldn’t be their private playground and they needn’t be. Provided you know how to get in the back door.

At the beginning of the week I made a two-day escape to the Middle Prong Wilderness Area at the western edge of the Pisgah National Forest. If you haven’t heard of Middle Prong that’s likely because it lives in the shadow of its adjacent, better-known wildnerness, Shining Rock. Shining Rock, at 18,483 acres is more than twice the size of Middle Prong (7,460 acres). It’s got stellar mountaintop meadows, hosts the Art Loeb Trail, is home to the famous Cold Mountain and, of course, has Shining Rock itself.

And Middle Prong? It’s got a key ingredient missing at Shining Rock: solitude. And, it that back door.

I discovered Middle Prong’s secret entrance through process of elimination. Six years ago, I was part of a small expedition that tried to go up the gut of Middle Prong in mid-winter. We were rebuffed at our first crossing of Middle Prong, which was running high and cold. In summer, a refreshing crossing. In winter, a frigid hazard that could make us miserable for the rest of the trip, at best. We retreated next door to Shining Rock.

Same thing Sunday, but on a different approach. My plan was to take the 6-mile Fork Mountain Trail — technically in the Shining Rock Wilderness but on its less popular west flank — to near Ivestor Gap, hike west out of the wilderness through the Sam Knob/Flat Laurel Creek area, enter Middle Prong on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, hike three miles to the Green Mountain Trail, then take it five miles down the ridgeline back to the trailhead. Just one problem: The Fork Mountain trailhead was on the opposite side of the West Fork of the Pigeon River, and the Pigeon was up — way up.

I sat, studied the map, saw the back door into Middle Prong: the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

More than six miles of the MST — a trail-in-progress that will one day run 1,000 miles, from Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border east to Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic — runs through the south end of Middle Prong. And while Middle Prong is a wilderness, the MST is one of the state’s Cadillac trail systems. It’s well maintained, easy to follow. Granted, through a wilderness it must forgo blazes and signs (for the most part), but that’s small concession for this impeccably groomed path. Plus, the MST traces the top of the Blue Ridge; what water there is this high up (between 5,500 and 6,000 feet) would be easy to hop across. And according to the topo, there was surprisingly little elevation gain.

The MST, I discovered, also allowed access to the upper reaches of the Middle Prong trails that are impassable below with winter and high water: Haywood Gap Trail, squeezing through a steep canyon choked with rhododendron; Buckeye Gap Trail, a mellow hike along an old roadbed before it drops nearly straight down the mountain; and Green Mountain Trail, which hangs out for a mile or so in ridgeline forest dominated by balsams.

Stunning hiking. And you don’t have to be intrepid to try it. Check out the slideshow.

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Middle Prong Wilderness
Access: From NC 215 south of Canton (take exit 33 off I-40 and closely follow the signs)  catch the lower trails near the Sunburst campground (closed in winter), catch the MST about 8 miles up the road.
Map: Don’t even think about going without “Shining Rock & Middle Prong Wilderness: Pisgah National Forest,” USDA Forest Service, 50-foot contours, 1:24,000. Available at Great Outdoor Provision Co., REI and other outfitters.
More info: Check out the Middle Prong page on Wilderness.net.

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