The Mountains to Sea Trail spans the width of North Carolina, running from the Great Smoky Mountains in the west, to the Outer Banks of Coastal Carolina. Much of the trail in the mountainous part of the state is near or parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway. This section of the MST along the parkway has been designated a National Recreation Trail. With elevations well above 5000 feet, there are segments in Haywood County that make nice day hikes in the high country. One of those is Rough Butt Bald at milepost 427. This hike occurred on Thursday, March 15, 2012 from 10:15am to 1:30pm. Our plan was to take the Mountains to Sea Trail from the Rough Butt Bald Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway around and over Rough Butt Bald for a view of South Carolina, then return the way we came.
Hike Length: 6.5 miles Hike Duration: 3.25 hours Hike Rating: Easy
Blaze: White Elevation Gain: 490 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back
Trail Condition: Good; some fallen trees from winter wind.
Starting Point: Rough Butt Bald Overlook at milepost 425.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Trail Traffic: We saw three other hikers on this trail.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy. 276 approximately 10 miles to where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 412. Turn south and travel 13.4 miles to the Rough Butt Bald Overlook at milepost 425.4 on the parkway. The trailhead for the Mountains to Sea Trail is across the parkway from the overlook.
We haven’t been up in the high country since winter set in, so it was with great delight that we turned onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to head for Middle Prong Wilderness. It was so wonderful to be back up in black balsam spruce country
— to see the long distance views of the Blue Ridge. Nothing against hiking at 4000 feet, but it’s an entirely different world at 6000 feet.
The Rough Butt Bald Overlook on the parkway has a beautiful view south toward Lake Toxaway and the South Carolina upstate. Directly across the parkway from the overlook, on the north side, is the trailhead for the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST). As we plunged into the shadows of the old growth forest we knew immediately that we were back home. The forest and the terrain are so unlike what we had been hiking in all winter. The smells from the spruce, fir and pine are invigorating. The forest floor is a bed of ground cedar, fern and moss. The trail is covered with evergreen needles rather than leaves. The deciduous trees are mostly birch rather than oak and poplar.
The forest is damp and murky, though there was hardly any snow this winter. We never saw any pockets of un-melted snow hidden in the shade. The moss on downed trees seems as though it has been growing for centuries. Lichens and other fungus have been inhabiting this wilderness undisturbed for a long, long time. There may not have been snow, but there was obviously a lot of wind as there was considerable downed timber across the trail. We tried to move what we could.
After nearly a mile we reached Buckeye Creek and the intersection with Buckeye Gap Trail. We took a hard left to stay on the MTS. The forest changed as we went through stands of new birch that still clung to their dried, crumbling leaves. Like the birch leaves, the trail clung to the butt in spots, with the edge tumbling off to the north. Occasionally the trees would clear enough to catch a glimpse of the mountains of the Great Balsam Range in that same direction.
As the trail winds northwesterly paralleling the parkway, we would get an intermittent peek at the road. The trail is far enough away, however, so you don’t get any of the road noise. All we were hearing was the sound of songbirds and breeze in the treetops, and then suddenly despite a forecast for clear skies until late in the afternoon, we heard the rumble of far-away thunder. It definitely grabbed our attention as it’s not advisable to get caught atop a mountain in a thunderstorm. So we kept our eyes and ears peeled for the slightest sense that the weather was moving any closer.
About a mile and a half in, the trail takes a northerly turn toward Haywood Gap, the other end of the Buckeye Gap loop mentioned above. At Haywood Gap, the MTS turns to the left directly toward the parkway, and the Haywood Gap Trail turns right down the hollow. It’s just a couple hundred yards to the parkway crossing from the gap. The trail crosses the parkway at about milepost 426.5 heading due west. Horsebone Gap is to the south and Rough Butt Bald to the west.
Oddly enough, the forest isn’t quite as dense on this southwesterly side of the parkway. The ground also has more leaves and less needles. There is more sun exposure as the trail begins to skirt the southern side of Rough Butt Bald. Curiosity got the best of me since so many of the mountains around here are named “butt this” and “butt that.” So I looked it up. Butt is a term describing how a mountain breaks off or “butts” off sharply. You can thank me later.
The only real climbing on this hike begins here. The elevation gains almost 500 feet in the next mile, not steep by any means. The higher the trail gets, the more laurel and rhododendron begin to appear. Some of these rhodies are extremely mature with gnarly trunks about four inches in diameter. They’ve been here for awhile. After reaching the plateau of the butt, the vegetation changes again.
We entered a thick blackberry patch that spanned the trail on both sides. It is obviously a trail maintenance nightmare for the volunteers as we noticed trail markers about every 50 feet so they could keep their bearings when whacking the brush. Occasionally we would hear the tell-tale thump, thump, thump of a grouse warning us that we were invading its territory. Despite the stark nature of the late winter season, we were beginning to see just a hint of color in the foliage as evidenced by the picture at the top of this post.
About a mile after crossing the parkway the trail reaches a ledge on the south side of Rough Butt Bald with a semi-clear view of the valleys and ridges far away to the south. We could see Balsam Lake, a small recreation area, and even further in the distance, Lake Toxaway. To our left (southeast) was Wolf Mountain, and to our right the vast expanse of Nantahala National Forest. Way, way off in the distance was upstate South Carolina. This looked like a nice spot for lunch. We couldn’t find any outcroppings so we just pulled up a little piece of trail and took a seat.
We could see more overcast and hear more thunder far to the east, but so far all was well in our neck of the woods. Last week we had lunch under a tree in the rain and wind, but not this time. After lunch, we continued on the trail with a plan to turn around if the trail began a steep descent or if the bad weather got closer. Well, it was only another two-tenths mile before the trail began a steep zig-zag down the south side of the mountain. So this was our cue to turn and head back to our origin.
As we went back around Rough Butt Bald, we found a spot where we could climb farther up off-trail to a small clearing. Turns out we couldn’t see more of the surrounding vistas, but there was a beautiful black balsam stand at the top of the bald. When we got back to the parkway crossing, we could see the sky was beginning to clear considerably. The grey overcast was being replaced with the cerulean blue you get at high elevations, and white puffy clouds.
The return on the north side of the parkway was uneventful, simply a repeat of the awe found within the old growth forest. When we popped back out on the parkway at the overlook, the sun was out in full grandeur. I stopped to take several pictures of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the overlook while my hiking buddy talked with a group of long-distance bicycle riders who were taking a break. The Blue Ridge Parkway is enjoyable recreation for hikers, bikers, and motorists of all sorts. It’s not a destination. Just being there is the adventure and the lure.
As we drove back to our parkway exit, we began to see wet ground, and then white ground. Heh? As we turned off the parkway and onto Hwy 276 for our drive down off the mountain, the white stuff got thicker and deeper. Apparently all that thunder we heard before was a localized hail storm that had dumped enough to completely cover the road about an inch deep. Amazing! I sure am glad the storm wasn’t 10-15 miles further west as we would have been really scrambling to get out of the woods and off the mountain. As it was, it made the drive on the very curvy, very steep Hwy 276 somewhat tenuous.
There aren’t many trails in Middle Prong Wilderness as there are in the adjacent Shining Rock Wilderness. I wish there were more because I love the beauty of the area. This is a very nice three hour hike that is easy to do. You needn’t be in superb physical condition, nor have all the latest hiking gadgets and gizmos. Take some water and a snack and give it a go. Just beware the elevation. If you aren’t used to it, mind your pace, and take time to assimilate.
Update January 19, 2017 – It has been unusual for the Blue Ridge Parkway to be open in winter. For the past several years that has not been the case. So why not take a trip to the high country when the opportunity is available. Much of the forest along the Mountains to Sea Trail near Rough Butt Bald is evergreen, so it doesn’t look much different in mid-January than it did on my previous March visit. See for yourself with the new photos below.