High above the community of Erwin, Tennessee, the Appalachian Trail follows the North Carolina / Tennessee state line through the Unaka Range. From a grassy bald ridge with the appropriate name Beauty Spot, to the summit of 5,184′ Unaka Mountain, the trail winds northeasterly for a 4-mile section through a continuously changing ecology. Stand on the bald with spectacular views of the Big Bald Mountains and the towns below, then follow the trail through woods filled with ferns to Deep Gap, another meadowy mountain bald, then onward for a near 1,600 foot climb to a dense spruce forest at the summit of the mountain range namesake. This hike occurred on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 from 8:00am to 12:30pm. Our plan was to access the Appalachian Trail at Beauty Spot along Forest Service Road 230, then follow it to the summit of Unaka Mountain, returning the same way.
Hike Length: 7.3 miles Hike Duration: 4.5 hours Blaze: White
Hike Configuration: Out and back Elevation Gain: 1,650 feet
Hike Rating: Difficult, some strenuous climbing on rocky, rooty terrain.
Trail Condition: Mostly very good, some tripping hazard on exposed roots.
Starting Point: Trailhead at Beauty Spot on Forest Service Road 230.
Trail Traffic: We encountered two other hikers on this summer weekday.
How to Get There: Coming from Asheville, NC westbound, or Johnson City, TN eastbound I-26 take the Erwin, TN Main St. Exit (#36). Go right toward town, then turn right at the first stoplight onto Rt. 107 and drive 1/2 mile. Turn left at stoplight onto Rock Creek Road, Hwy 395. Continue for 6 miles to the TN/NC state line at Indian Grave Gap. (If you start heading downhill into NC, you’ve gone too far). At Indian Grave Gap take the unmarked gravel road to the left (Forest Service Road 230 – it is often closed in winter). After 2.1 miles you will come to a fork, stay right and you will immediately arrive at the Beauty Spot parking cul-de-sac.
From the moment I saw the trail climbing the hill, cutting through the tall grass, I knew this was going to be another of those typically outstanding Appalachian Trail (AT) section hikes. After getting all our gear together, my Meanderthal companion and I entered the pathway, almost like stepping onto the yellow brick road. I even started singing, “We’re off to see the wizard…” My friend retorted that there would be no dancing.
When we were driving up the gap from Erwin, we could tell the citizens really take pride in their homes. Every little house was painted just right. The lawns and landscaping were all well maintained and attractive. It’s a pleasant drive from town to wilderness. When you get to the top of Hwy 395 at Indian Grave Gap, take the left gravel road fork. Some descriptions I’ve read say Forest Road 230 is only accessible with high clearance vehicles. I had no problem with my Hyundai sedan.
It is about 150 yards from the parking area to the top of Beauty Spot. Once there, you are presented with magnificent views in every direction. To the west is Erwin, nestled comfortably in the valley below, with Johnson City 30 miles distant. Eastward is the Roan Highlands, that stunningly beautiful ridge at the eastern end of the Unaka Range where I had a delightful hike just a few short weeks ago. On this day it was surrounded by a bed of low-lying valley fog.
Off to the south are the massive peaks of the Big Bald Mountains, the ones we crossed to get from our home in North Carolina to this Beauty Spot. The AT comes from there, and continues to the north where we could see the rounded top of Unaka Mountain, our destination for this hike.
We were certainly tempted to just keep hanging out at Beauty Spot because of the, um, beauty, but we had an appointment with Unaka Mountain. And, we would be back this way at the end of the hike. It’s just a couple hundred yards downhill to the forest, and a fern-lined trail. There were still wildflowers in abundance, even this deep into the summer. We came upon the brightest orange fungus I’ve ever seen, about the size of a soccer ball, clinging to a rotting log.
This was also a good day for wildlife. We’d seen a fawn driving up the forest road, and here in the dense forest, we startled a number of grouse. It seemed every hundred steps we stirred up another one or two. I have to admit being equally startled myself. They sure make a lot of racket when fleeing from the big, bad AT hikers.
The grouse were only a preview however. Another half mile down the trail we surprised a wild turkey hen. Those flapping wings had me jumping for cover. She did stick around close enough for me to capture her portrait.
For a good portion of this stretch of the AT, the trail hugs the forest road. On the other side of the road is the Unaka Mountain Wilderness boundary. There are several trails to hike located in the wilderness, so no doubt we will be back sometime. About 1.2 miles from Beauty Spot the AT pops out of the woods again at Deep Gap, a smaller meadow that offers a clear view of the summit of Unaka Mountain.
You can follow the ridge line with your eye to approximate the trail route up to the top. There are a couple of campsites in Deep Gap, nice spots for the AT thru-hikers who come this way in the spring. As you re-enter the forest on the eastern side of the meadow, the work begins. From here it’s 1,600 feet of climbing.
The terrain here is rocky, and rooty, so watch your step. The ground cover changes from plush green grass, to ferns, and assorted weedy botany. You pass through tunnels of rhododendron and laurel, and big oak shade trees that keep the air pleasantly cool, even in the depth of summer.
As the trail gets near 4,800 feet you begin to see the forest change. The evergreens are mostly spruce, the black balsam variety, with some fir mixed in as well. As you continue higher, the ground has a thick covering of needles and bright green moss, making the track spongy. If not for all the exposed roots, I’d be tempted to take the shoes and socks off to feel the cushiony turf on my toes.
The summit of Unaka Moutain is a large rounded spruce forest. We found a nice comfy spot just off the trail for lunch. Enjoying the refreshing breeze as much as our nourishment, we were in sensory overload. The songbirds were in full force, the scent of the evergreens was heavenly, the moss and spruce needles cushioned our derrieres, and close surveying of the surrounding space revealed spider webs, snails, and butterflies.
Ready to turn around and head for home, I paused a moment to leave a summit stone. The temperature was beginning to warm, yet still an absolutely gorgeous day. I thought of the folks in the desert southwest and New England sweltering in the summer heat. Another advantage of life in the Appalachians.
The mountain seemed a little steeper on the downhill path. I found myself stumbling several times on the many exposed roots and rocks that make footing on the trail a haphazard proposition. I made sure to drink plenty of water just in case my balance issues had something to do with my hydration. We passed a couple guys coming up the trail, one from Atlanta, the other from Johnson City.
After half an hour of descent, we again reached Deep Gap. Since our first foray through, the bright sunshine had opened a whole field of white wildflowers including the lacey yarrow. I never cease to be amazed how out and back hikes can be so different. In the early morning light, the flower blossoms hadn’t yet awakened, but now they were displaying their full efflorescent glory.
It’s a bit of a climb back up from Deep Gap to Beauty Spot, close to 300 feet. By the time we got back to Beauty Spot, the clouds were now above us rather than below us, creating a picturesque perspective for the mountain peaks. We studied the topographic map for awhile, picking a future adventure on the distant Big Bald Mountain to the south.
We stayed on the bald for 15-20 minutes, totally enjoying the sun, the breeze, the scenery, and the Appalachian Trail. I’ve done quite a bit of section hiking the AT this year, always completely inspiring. The bald ridges along the Tennessee / North Carolina state line are particularly impressive. I’m an absolute fan.
The other pair of hikers caught up with us and asked if we had left a summit stone. Why yes, yes we had. The fellow who found it said he had heard of summit stones for years, but this was his first find. He was very grateful. Kinda cool, I thought. It was my first experience speaking with someone who recovered one of DSD’s creations.