Mountains to Sea Trail to Fork Ridge, Middle Prong Wilderness

Back to Rough Butt Bald Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and another visit to the Mountains to Sea Trail. The MST follows, or remains close to the Parkway through much of Western North Carolina, so there are a number of easily accessible jumping off points that head into the backcountry. Middle Prong Wilderness was designated in 1984 and spans rugged high-elevation ridges with old growth forest and grassy balds like Fork Ridge. This is a short out-and-back hike in the high country that explores murky, mossy evergreen forest on its way to the sedge and oat grass western slope of Fork Ridge. The hike occurred on Thursday, April 18, 2013 from 9:10am to 11:35am. My plan was to take the Mountains to Sea Trail at Rough Butt Bald Overlook to the junction with Green Mountain Trail on Fork Ridge, then return the same way.

Hike Length: 4 miles Hike Duration: 2.5 hours

Hike Configuration: Out and back Hike Rating: Easy Blaze: White

Elevation Gain: 510 feet Elevation Start: 5,395 feet

Trail Condition: Easy to follow but many, many wet slippery roots and rocks.

Starting Point: Rough Butt Bald Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Trail Traffic: I did not encounter any other hikers on this day.

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.

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I started the day by picking up trash at my “Adopt an Overlook” spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway. For the most part, those who travel the Parkway are good about litter. Most want the Parkway to remain beautiful for all to enjoy. I will usually find about a half dozen beer bottles and cans over the hillside though, and there are always 40-50 cigarette butts to pick up after the motorcycle riders who pause along their journey for a smoke break. With that done, it was onward to Rough Butt Bald.

This makes the third trail report here at Meanderthals that starts at the Rough Butt Bald Overlook. First we took you down Buckeye Gap and back up Haywood Gap, then showed you how to access Rough Butt Bald itself. That’s the great thing about the Mountains to Sea Trail. There are a number of spokes or cogs that spin off the MST enabling deeper exploration of the surrounding forests and wilderness.

The access trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway into the forest is just on the other side of the road from the Rough Butt Bald Overlook. You will cross a small stream and go no more than a couple hundred yards before coming to the Mountains to Sea Trail at Buckeye Gap. The photo at the top of this post was taken at this junction. Turn to the left to take the hike to Rough Butt Bald mentioned above, or take a right as I did and head into the heart of Middle Prong Wilderness. In fact, you’ll come to the wilderness boundary sign in just a matter of minutes.

The Mountains to Sea Trail is always blazed with white markings, but you will notice once you enter Middle Prong Wilderness that this stretch also has orange ribbons hanging from tree branches just overhead. It’s a little off-putting, but I suspect the ribbons are there to aid with snowshoeing when the ground is snow covered. That certainly wouldn’t have been a problem this past winter.

The forest here is unlike any other in Pisgah National Forest, except perhaps in the Black Mountains. It is mostly to do with the elevation. This is a totally evergreen forest with multiple species of pine, spruce, fir, even some old hemlocks that were killed by the woolly adelgid infestation. There is old growth spruce, some as tall as 70-80 feet, with trunks 30″ in diameter.

But the green doesn’t stop with the trees. Everything that has fallen to the ground is covered with a thick carpet of moss and lichens, many decades old, making for a spongy understory. Colorful fungus attaches itself to the trunks of the old trees. Hanging mosses are in the higher limbs. It’s a verdant playground.

The forest is extremely thick and dense, sometimes making navigation of the trail a bit dicey. There are exposed roots everywhere. They are quite slippery, especially on days like this one following a prolonged rain. Another feature common in the month of April up in the high country is the near constant fog layer. This murky air also contributes a general dampness to the terrain. Combine that with a number of creek crossings, and let’s just say it’s important to watch your step.

The trail hangs on a ridge, with the shadow of the imposing 6,110 foot Mt. Hardy to your right and the steep drainage from Buckeye Creek and other small streams to the left. I saw no evidence of wildflowers yet. Still a little too early in the season for this elevation. Regardless, there is still a remarkable beauty.

About a mile and a half into the hike you’ll come to an unmarked fork in the trail. The left path takes the Buckeye Gap Trail down into the depths of Middle Prong. I’ve written about that hike before. The right fork continues the Mountains to Sea Trail in an easterly direction to Fork Ridge.

Not long afterward you will reach the grassy bald western slope of Fork Ridge. Grassy balds are relatively blunt summits covered by dense native grasses. Grassy balds are normally found at the summit of hills, but can also be found on broad upper slopes. Such is the case with this area of Fork Ridge. The trail skirts the bald so I continued on with a plan of climbing the grassy slope on the way back.

Middle Prong Wilderness

Next I came to a moist squishy mountain bog zone. The trail is supported by small logs and rocks to keep it from completely succumbing to the bog. It’s a good idea to have waterproof hiking shoes through here as you are guaranteed to step in mud and quag in this scenic wetlands area.

This last quarter mile is really the only part of the trail that does much climbing. Even so, it is still quite moderate as you push up Fork Ridge. You will again enter a dense forest, then come to a junction with the Green Mountain Trail heading off to your left (north). If you’re curious, you can read about that hike as well. You must treat yourself some day. It is one of the best hikes in the region.

This trail junction was my turnaround point for the day. I’d had a little bout with dehydration a couple days prior, so I didn’t want to push my luck and over do it. Besides, I still wanted to climb the grassy bald on the way back.

I tip-toed my way back down through the wetlands, managing to avoid any nasty slips or falls. You may have noticed up top that I took nearly two and a half hours to go four miles. Part of that was stopping frequently for pictures, but some of it was simply being very careful in the wet and slippery stretches I encountered. I’m not as nimble as I used to be… also not as dumb.

When I reached the western slope of Fork Ridge I started up through the tall grass in a northerly direction. This was the perfect time of year to do this traverse. There was no winter snow, and also no summer briars and stickers. The grass was quite wet, so my pant legs worked to repel the moisture. But the turf below was surprisingly firm. I expected it to be seeping, but apparently it drains quite well.

Since I was by this way half an hour earlier, an even heavier fog layer had moved in. I rounded the ridge top and could see the northern side ahead, but I didn’t want to get too far away from the trail in case I got disoriented in the gloom. There are a few small trees, as well as some rocky outcroppings, all surrounded by luscious greening grass. The outer rim of the bald clearing is ringed by stunning spruce trees that will one day be giants. I found a nice flat rock to sit on and enjoyed a snack and the peaceful arena.

Grassy Bald on Fork Ridge

On the return trip, I kept my eyes peeled for little spur trails that might lead to campsites. I found probably a half dozen primitive sites 50-100 feet off the main trail. There was one particular site that is encircled by immature beech trees that is quite charming. The tent bed lies under four old growth spruce that provide shelter from the elements, and the beech ring adds an array of color that makes this enchanting. If you’re an MST thru-hiker you might keep this in mind.

I also followed Buckeye Creek a short way off the ridge as it spilled swiftly to its appointment with Middle Prong. As is so common in the Western North Carolina mountains, the creek carves its way over layer upon layer of granite leaving a number of two foot waterfalls in its wake.

As I approached the Blue Ridge Parkway, I wasn’t hearing any traffic at all. No doubt an effect of the heavy fog that was keeping the tourists at lower elevation. Later, it was a little tough driving down out of the high country.

To summarize, I found this to be a totally enjoyable and easy hike. The fog that followed me all morning added an eerie sense of adventure to an already striking scenery. Every hike I’ve done in Middle Prong Wilderness has been exceptionally picturesque. There’s just something about the botany, topography and pallet of the high country that makes it extremely appealing to me. Wear some waterproof shoes and pants, and be careful on the slick roots, and you can have a beautiful brief departure from your journey along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

 

 

Update August 31, 2015: It was time to get back into the high country on a hot, late summer day. I was rewarded with cool, damp air that remained in the 60s all day long… near perfect for hiking. Best of all, unlike my first foray to Fork Ridge, the air wasn’t permeated with fog and I could actually see the forest around me.

Much like any time I visit the Blue Ridge Parkway, I always stop at my Adopt-an-Overlook to pick up trash. The 10-mile trip on the Parkway after that to Rough Butt Overlook was picturesque as usual. You simply can’t beat the Blue Ridge Parkway as a scenic drive, whether for ten miles or 400. I am so fortunate to have it in my own backyard.

I was solo on this day, enjoying the serenity offered by Middle Prong Wilderness. I heard the occasional howl of the hound dogs, out for tracking practice before hunting season begins. I only encountered one other hiker, an Asheville backpacker who was on his third day in the wilderness. Contrast that to the mayhem at next-door Shining Rock Wilderness this time of year when the blueberry pickers invade the hillsides en masse.

While you study the new photos, compare and contrast the seasonal and weather changes. Enjoy.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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