Temperatures in the upper 60s, sunny skies, summer vacation season in full bloom. All the makings for a miserable day atop Mount Mitchell in the summertime-popular Mount Mitchell State Park. Miserable, that is, if you stuck around the snack bar, the gift shop, the newly yellow-brick-trailed path to the mountaintop observation deck and the parking lot, where an endless stream of silence-piercing motorcycles slowly, loudly lit.
Standing amid the point-and-shoot public elbowing for room on the new platform that now marks the highest spot east of South Dakota’s Black Hills, I looked north and saw the future. The future, as in however long it took to dash down to my car, lace up the Vasques, throw on the daypack and make a beeline north. For while many drive to the top of 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, few ever lose touch with pavement. And there’s no way you could pave the wily 13-mile Black Mountain Crest Trail, which runs from Mount Mitchell north over the rocky, rolling, alpine spine of the Black Mountains.
From Mount Mitchell State Park, the trail starts at north end of the north parking area, passes briefly through a fir-shaded picnic area, then, immediately, becomes enveloped in solitude. Balsam firs scent the air, thick mats of ferns carpet both sides of the trail. A sharp drop-off is made accessible by a stone staircase, which deposits you in another stand of balsams carpeted with ferns and a rich assortment of other understory greenery.
The mile-long hike/climb to 6,684-foot Mount Craig is enough for most of the simply curious. There’s a great view to the south and west and some of that hard-to-come-by solitude. A few more may straggle on to 6,581-foot Big Tom. But once cresting the latter, named for famed mountain guide and bear hunter Thomas David “Big Tom” Wilson — perhaps best known for discovering, on July 7, 1857, the body of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who died in his quest to prove the peak that would eventually bear his name to be the highest in the East — the nylon rope bolted to an especially steep and treacherous section — will weed out all but the most dedicated. Expect to have the trail to yourself from here on out.
You need to be in reasonably good shape to last past Big Tom. A good sense of balance and decent upper body strength are as import as being aerobically fit. You also need to hike prepared. The weather here can change in an instant: It may be sunny and 65 when you set out, but a quickly advancing storm can bring rain and a drop in temperatures in an instant. Pack rain gear and an extra layer. Bring extra water; strenuous hiking at altitude dries a body out. Check sunset, check the time the park gates close, establish a turnaround time accordingly. Do not be mislead by the fact you “usually” cover 2-3 miles on a mountain hike; these are not usual conditions and there is a lot to stop and see.
For planning purposes, here are some key distances from the trailhead at the north end of the parking lot. Including Mount Mitchell, this trip will net you seven 6,000-foot peaks — and there are only 40 in the state, according to the Carolina Mountain Club.
Mount Craig: 1.0 miles
Big Tom: 1.4
Balsam Cone: 2.1
Cattail Peak: 2.7
Potato Hill: 3.0
Deep Gap: 3.9
Winter Star 4.9
The Black Mountain Crest Trail — also called Deep Gap Trail within Mount Mitchell State Park — is a trip from popular tamed tourist destination to isolated outpost atop the East Coast. A trip that begins minutes after leaving civilization.
Crest Trail: Mount Mitchell to Winter Star Mountain
View Black Mountain Crest Trail in a larger map