Solitude atop the East Coast

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

5 thoughts on “Solitude atop the East Coast”

  1. Always enjoy your posts, Joe. As a fellow NC-adventurer I learn a lot from you and appreciate your effort in keeping people like me informed. I’ve been curious about a Mt. Mitchell backpacking trip and wonder if you have any recommendations for turning this hike into a two- or three-night loop? The more solitude the better. Thanks!

    1. Hey Scott! My favorite Mount Mitchell loop begins at the Colbert Ridge trailhead, which takes you up to Deep Gap. A good camp site (though no water). I like to camp there and do a dayhike north to Winter Star Mountain and on to Celo Knob. With the pack back on head south along the Crest Trail to Mount Mitchell. It’s less than five miles, but it is some wild terrain. Camp at the Mount Mitchell campground or down below, along the horse trail. The trail picks up another, which continues northeast down the mountain, nearly to the Colbert Ridge trailhead. It’s one of the first trips detailed in my “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press). A great trip!

  2. Yesterday, my son and I decided to escape the Raleigh heat and head to the cool mountains so we did this as a day trip. Unfortunately, it was hot there too but not as bad. The trek offered great views, beautiful flowers, etc. and a lot of contour lines very quickly between Mitchell and Winter Star. The hike back was hard (ok, strenuous) and my quads are in big time recovery mode today. Regardless, we had a great time and are ready to go get the rest of the 6K peaks. As always, Joe thanks for your insight.

    1. And with exhausted quads, you don’t mind so much that you can’t go out in the 105-degree heat the next day and play. Glad you two had a good time, Barry!

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