Roof of the East: Hiking North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell
By Michael Lanza
At 6,327-foot Celo Knob, on North Carolina’s Black Mountain Crest Trail, I stand in bright sunshine and a chilly October wind gusting to 50 mph, staring at the long ridge stretching for miles ahead of me. It’s both stunning and daunting. Several more summits that top 6,000 feet, and others nearly that high, form a forested, earthen rollercoaster, culminating at 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. There are a few ways one can climb to the roof of the East. I’ve chosen the longest, hardest, and most scenic.
For many reasons—not always easy to enunciate—I find hikes that are challenging are usually also the most satisfying. So it’s with a powerful sense of excitement that, after enjoying the view from Celo Knob of the spine of the Black Mountains and the rumpled-blanket contours of western North Carolina, I continue my solo hike south toward Mount Mitchell.
From the Bowlens Creek Trailhead at 3,000 feet just outside Burnsville, N.C., the Black Mountain Crest Trail racks up about 5,000 vertical feet of cumulative elevation gain over 11.3 miles to the crown of Mount Mitchell. But those numbers only begin to communicate the physically taxing nature of this trail.
Appropriately, hiking the hardest footpath to the top of the East’s highest peak begins with a relentlessly steep ascent of more than 3,000 feet up an old two-track road that gradually narrows to a trail, walking over wet, slick, fallen leaves and through the occasional small pond of mud. From an open meadow on Celo Knob, one can see how the ridge rises and falls in abrupt steps between the multiple summits; and as I’ll discover over the next several hours, the path frequently varies from slick trees roots and mud to granite bedrock. The hike offers up something of a gauntlet of character-building trail conditions lurking in these rough, old Appalachian Mountains.
I’m hiking the long way up Mount Mitchell on the second day of a week of dayhiking and backpacking in the western North Carolina mountains, hitting several summits and visiting some of the hundreds of waterfalls scattered throughout these densely forested hills.
The Black Mountain Crest Trail largely clings to the crest of a ridge narrow enough that, even though you’re usually in the woods, the blue sky visible through the trees conveys how quickly the earth drops off to either side. The trail pokes out of the forest occasionally to give me long views from the brink of sharp drop-offs or small patches of wind-pounded, grassy meadow occupied by boulders and ledges of lichen-speckled granite.
But for most of the trail’s miles, I walk a meandering path through the quietly peaceful lushness of the Southern Appalachian forest. Moss and ferns carpet ground that often appears to be more rock than soil. At times, the trail seems to terminate inexplicably in a wall of earth, granite slab, and exposed tree roots, until I see that it actually continues straight over these obstacles. Today’s relentlessly fierce wind slashes through the pickets of trees, but for the most part, I’m protected from it. I pass at least two dozen backpackers and dayhikers on this sunny Sunday, mostly on the southern half of the trail; I see very few people north of Deep Gap, a 500-foot-deep cleft chopped out of the ridge.
Several hours after I set out from the Bowlens Creek Trailhead, I step off the dirt trail onto the pavement of the parking lot minutes below the summit of Mount Mitchell. The sudden transition from quiet woods to a place noisy with people and cars is a shock. Still, I figure I’ve come all this way, it seems like I should officially finish this hike.
I join the steady stream of people on the short, paved walkway to the top of Mitchell. Standing on the highest point of land in the eastern United States, looking back at the string of summits along the ridge I just hiked, the view is nice—but the journey getting here was much nicer.
See all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in the western North Carolina mountains at The Big Outside.
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Make It Happen
Getting There A shuttle is required. To hike north to south, leave a vehicle in the parking lot just below the summit of Mount Mitchell, at the end of NC 128 off the Blue Ridge Parkway. To reach the Bowlens Creek Trailhead from Burnsville, drive east on US 19E and turn right onto NC 197 southbound. Turn left onto NC 1109 (Bolens Creek Road) and follow it to a hairpin turn to the right; there, turn left and drive a short distance to roadside parking at the Bowlens Creek Trailhead. The hike begins by following the old dirt road uphill.
Map Trails Illustrated Linville Gorge Mount Mitchell no. 779, $11.95, rei.com.
• The only reliable water along the Black Mountain Crest Trail is in Deep Gap, at mile 7.3 when hiking south.
• While much of the trail is in forest and relatively protected from weather, expect temperatures on the summits and ridge to be at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the valleys, and winds to be much stronger.
Contact Mount Mitchell State Park, (828) 675-4611, ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park.
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