Mt. Mitchell State Park Trail System

This hike will introduce you to a good cross section of the trails found in Mt. Mitchell State Park high atop the Black Mountains in Western North Carolina. Mt. Mitchell is the highest point in the Eastern United States at 6,684′, in fact six of the 10 highest peaks are found in the Blacks. The climate of the Black Mountains is more like Canada than North Carolina. Millions of years ago extreme cold enabled the plants and animals of the north to extend their range, so the botany of Mt. Mitchell is akin to a northern alpine environment. Along the trails on this hike we crossed the summits of three peaks above 6,500′ enabling magnificent views of the surrounding Pisgah National Forest. We ventured into Mt. Mitchell State Park on Tuesday, July 1, 2014 beginning at 8:30AM and ending about 1:30PM. Our plan was to take the Balsam Nature Trail to the Commissary Trail, then the Mt. Mitchell Trail to the Buncombe Horse Trail, climb back up to the ridge on the Big Tom Trail, then cross the major peaks on the Deep Gap Trail.

Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours Hike Configuration: Loop

Hike Rating: Most difficult. Significantly steep descent and ascent.

Elevation Gain: 1,550 feet Blaze: White, blue, orange

Trail Condition: Fair to poor. Very rocky and rooty in places. Somewhat overgrown in summer and very slippery when wet. Buncombe Horse Trail is extremely muddy. Big Tom Trail is nearly bushwhacking.

Starting Point: Major parking area at the summit of Mt. Mitchell.

Trail Traffic: We saw about a dozen other hikers on the majority of the trails, but as we neared our return to Mt. Mitchell we encountered probably three dozen more.

How to Get There: From the Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 356 take NC Hwy 128 into Mt. Mitchell State Park. It is approximately four miles to the parking area near the summit.

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Elisha Mitchell (1793 – 1857) was an American educator, geologist and minister. His geological studies led to the identification of North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell as the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Mitchell completed a geographical survey of North Carolina in 1828 and observed a peak in the Black Mountains he believed to be higher than Grandfather Mountain, thought to be the highest in the region at that time. In 1835, he first measured the height of this mountain, and through subsequent measurements in 1838 and 1844, proved it was higher than even New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.

Elisha Mitchell unfortunately fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls in 1857. He had returned to verify his earlier measurements, which had been challenged by state senator Thomas Clingman, a former student of Mitchell’s at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was originally buried in Asheville, but was reinterred in a tomb on the mountain in 1858. In 1881-82 the U.S. Geological Survey upheld Mitchell’s measurements and officially named his peak Mt. Mitchell.

Until the late 1800s, the Black Mountains remained largely in a wilderness state. The only apparent influence of man upon the environment was a reduced animal population caused by increased settlement and hunting. This lack of exploitation of natural resources was not to last, however. By the early 1900s, extensive logging operations had denuded much of the Black Mountain range. Logging activity had expanded rapidly by 1913 and citizens began to voice their alarm about the destruction of the forest. Foremost among them was Locke Craig, governor of North Carolina from 1913 to 1917.

In 1915, a bill was introduced in the state legislature establishing Mount Mitchell as the first state park. The legislation passed both houses quickly and on March 3, 1915, the North Carolina State Parks System came into being. In appreciation of Governor Craig’s efforts, the second highest peak east of the Mississippi, with an elevation of 6,647 feet and also in Mt. Mitchell State Park, was named Mount Craig.

When you arrive at Mt. Mitchell State Park you will drive steeply up this massive mountain. You will pass a Visitor Center, a restaurant, and employee quarters before finally arriving at a large parking lot very near the mountain’s summit. There is a snack bar and restrooms there, and a handicapped-accessible pathway to an observation platform at the top. The park nicely accommodates the tourists. But you’re a Meanderthal, right?

If you’ve been reading Meanderthals for long, you will know that the best features of any recreation area are found off the beaten path. The state park has constructed a fairly robust trail system around the property, albeit not in exactly the best condition. This hike is quite difficult, even dangerous at times, not necessarily because of the elevation (although that is tough too), but because the trails are troublesome to navigate and remain upright.

In the southeast corner of the parking area, look for the trailhead of the Balsam Nature Trail. Blazed with white triangles, this will be your connector to the rest of the trails that circumnavigate the eastern side of the Black Mountains ridge line. The Nature Trail itself is three quarters of a mile in length and is surrounded by a stunning black balsam forest that takes one back to medieval times. When shrouded in morning clouds, as it frequently is, this region assumes a murky visage that seems off the pages of centuries-old novels.

Soon after entering the forest you will come to a T on the trail. There is a spring to the left that isn’t particularly noteworthy, and the Nature Trail continues to the right. This is the only right turn you will make the rest of the hike. Keep in mind that all subsequent trail junctions you will want to take the left fork to continue this counter-clockwise loop.

After winding up and down, round and round along the fern-lined Nature Trail you will come to another junction. Remember to bear left. Sometimes called the Mt. Mitchell Trail and sometimes called the Commissary Trail, this next pathway is marked with blue diamonds and steeply descends the eastern shoulder of Mt. Mitchell to a campground a mile below.

This descent of Commissary Ridge is disconcertingly dangerous. I felt like I could slip and fall at any moment for the entire half hour. Actually kind of stressful. It had rained quite a bit in previous days, and the igneous rock that forms the trail bed was incredibly slick. Canted at odd angles, wrapped with exposed roots and other obstacles, this rock strata made me feel like I was on skates. Neither one of us went down, but we skiied off a few boulders along the way. Especially if you aren’t young and spry, I suggest you take your time.

Where the trail levels out and you emerge from the forest momentarily, you will come to a camping area, overhead power lines, and the next trail junction. Continue to bear left on the Mt. Mitchell Trail. A mere hundred yards, or so, later there is another split. This time the Mt. Mitchell trail goes right and down, and the Buncombe Horse Trail (designated # 191) bears to the left. This very level track on the left will be your home for the next three miles.

Balsam Nature Trail

This old railway bed skirts the eastern flank of Mt. Mitchell and follows the state park boundary. Look for the occasional railroad tie buried in the soil, remnants of the logging days at the turn of the 20th century. Otherwise, expect mud… serious, serious mud. Quagmire doesn’t begin to tell the story. I stepped in some muck so deep it covered the tops of my hiking boots. It isn’t just from rain. There are numerous seeps and small streams that run off the contour of Mt. Mitchell keeping this trail in a perpetual state of mire.

If you keep a positive attitude, however, this Buncombe Horse Trail affords the first long distance viewing. There are numerous breaks in the forest that offer nice peeks at the… fog. Yep, it was still pretty foggy at mid-morning. Expect that to be the spring and summer norm. We could tell though, that it was beginning to lift, and we hoped for crystal Carolina blue skies later once we returned to the ridge.

About half way along the Buncombe Horse Trail you will come to a larger clearing that is on a point that makes a nice overlook, and a nice spot for a break. There are rocks to sit on, tall grass to wipe the mud from your boots, windswept foliage, and a decent view of the Black Mountains ridge above and to your west.

After the point, it’s another mile of muck and mire to the end of the Buncombe Horse Trail. There is a small clearing in the forest, with a very small sign pointing upwards and left for the Big Tom Trail (#191A). It is next to impossible to follow the lower stages of this trail. An occasional orange ribbon hanging on a tree bough will sort of mark your way, but the best thing you can do is follow Thee Creek drainage (yes, it’s Thee Creek, not the creek). Get used to that, because the creek is your pathway to the ridge several hundred feet above.

We were somewhat lucky on this day because there were a couple of state park employees out with weed eaters knocking down the overgrowth. We could hear the engines a couple hundred feet above us, and witnessed the crumpled ferns and tattered nettle as we climbed the very steep drainage. After about 20 minutes of climbing we passed the workers and were on our own the rest of the way to the top.

The Big Tom Trail was severely overgrown. Weeds standing shoulder height, grass growing at ankle and knee level that made the trail bed nearly impossible to discern. Not only that, but we had to be aware of rocks and holes in the drainage that made each step a mystery. I felt like I was post-holing in a snow field as my lower legs would disappear nearly up to my knees.

And steep. This trail is steep. Steep. Steep. Steep! It doesn’t waste any time with switchbacks or other modern trail techniques. Straight up the mountain… hobbling over rocks, roots and puddles… knocking down overgrowth as you go. I’ve never hiked in a jungle before, but it can’t be much worse. Big Tom Trail may win the prize for the most difficult trail I’ve ever been on. When you do stop for a breather, at least be sure to turn around, because the views behind you are superb. So there is that.

When you finally return to the balsam forest that rings the ridge, know that you are almost to the gap. The terrain becomes more reminiscent of Commissary Ridge from earlier, and the daylight almost disappears. The understory changes from grass and weeds to galax and clover and wood sorrell. The trail tread is a nice bed of evergreen needles. And then you reach the gap. Relief! We each parked on a nice rock, caught our breath, and enjoyed lunch.

Be sure to turn left (south) on Deep Gap Trail when you resume. It may seem like you can’t go much higher, but there is still another 300-400 feet up to the summit of Big Tom Mountain, named for Thomas “Big Tom” Wilson, the man who discovered the body of Elisha Mitchell at the base of Mitchell Falls. Big Tom was a wilderness guide and bear hunter who knew the Black Mountains like the back of his hand.

Mt. Mitchell from Mt. Craig

The Deep Gap Trail is blazed with orange triangles. The payoff for all your effort and exertion previously is found on this trail. It climbs to the summits of 6,581′ Big Tom Mountain and 6,647′ Mt. Craig before returning to the parking area at Mt. Mitchell. The distance from the Big Tom Trail junction to the end is approximately 2.5 miles.

The Deep Gap Trail is what some hikers call “technical.” There is lots of metamorphic rock and krummholz, high stepping, even some rope climbing to get up the north face of Big Tom. Again, because of the recent rain, all those rocks were very wet and very muddy making progress quite dicey at best. If you fall, you aren’t going to plummet off a cliff, but you can be sure it will leave a mark. Patience is your best asset as you make your way through the nooks and crannies of rock that is the Deep Gap Trail.

As you near the summit of Big Tom, look for a spur trail on your right that will take you to a rock outcrop overlook that is magnificent. To the north you can follow the peaks of the Black Mountains, and the path that Deep Gap Trail takes on its way to Balsam Cone and Cattail Peak. To the west is the wondrous expanse of the Big Tom Wilson Preserve, a conservation easement held by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Soon after, when you reach the rocky summit, there is a plaque in the stone honoring Big Tom himself.

Prepare yourself for some roller coaster hiking as you drop down in the gap between Big Tom and Mt. Craig, then back up, and another gap between Mt. Craig and Mt. Mitchell, and back up. As you approach the northern side of Mt. Craig, there are signs asking you to stay on the trail, and off the rocks, because they are trying to recover the native vegetation. That didn’t seem to register with some knuckleheads we passed, but perhaps as they get a little older they’ll begin to comprehend the principles of conservation.

The views from the summit of Mt. Craig are much the same as Big Tom, except of course, now you can also see Big Tom. We noticed there was quite a bit of dead timber on the west face of Big Tom. Another hiker that we were chatting with said this was very recent, mostly attributable to extremely cold winters, and not another blight attacking the forest. The photo at the top of this post is the northward view from Mt. Craig. Click it for a larger image.

On the summit, the trail is lined with logs, another effort at trying to keep us off the rocks and enable the vegetation to regrow. On the south side of the summit you will get your first glimpse of Mt. Mitchell, and the hundreds of cars that are now there that weren’t early in the morning.

With those hundreds of cars, also came a sudden influx of hikers. Apparently the short half-mile trek from Mt. Mitchell to Mt. Craig is very popular, because we encountered at least three dozen other hikers going the opposite direction we were. Once you reach the gap between the two, the final climb back up Mt. Mitchell is on man-made stone steps, at least a couple hundred. It will take one final toll on your legs and lungs.

The Deep Gap Trail terminates (or starts depending on your direction) at the Mt. Mitchell Picnic Area. Since it was early afternoon when we arrived, this picnic area was quite busy (even on a weekday) and it seemed a little awkward hiking through the various families. Once we dodged the scurrying children and whiffed the grilling burgers, we popped out on the lower parking level. It’s about 30-40 more demoralizing steps to the upper parking where we had left our vehicle.

OK, let’s summarize. Mt. Mitchell State Park has been around for nearly 100 years. In fact, 2015 is the centennial. The views from the Black Mountains are simply stunning, but you are just as likely to get socked in with fog as not. Mornings are most likely to be foggy, afternoons less so, but then you run the risk of thunderstorms. The forest that surrounds Mt. Mitchell is amazingly beautiful, more like something you would find in Canada or northern New England.

Then there’s the trails. The Mt. Mitchell trails are, quite frankly, bad. They are difficult and dangerous, are falling into disrepair, and require constant attention to detail to avoid becoming an injury statistic. Another example of governmental budget cuts taking their toll on our most treasured recreation areas.

You make up your own mind about risk vs. reward. Perhaps the photos will help.

 

 

Updated July 13, 2016: Dave and I made another visit to majestic Mt. Mitchell for a hike along the Deep Gap Trail, sometimes known as the Crest Trail. It starts at the Mitchell summit, drops into the gap below 6,663′ Mt. Craig, climbs back up to the top of this 2nd tallest mountain in the East, then drops down the other side. From this gap it climbs another top 10 mountain called Big Tom as is continues along the ridge line of the Black Mountains.

Early morning fog contributed to a stunning mirky forest along the way, and warming air and sunshine combined to burn off the cloud cover as afternoon approached, presenting us with bluebird sky and puffy white clouds framing the peak of Mt. Mitchell on our way back. As you will see from the pictures below, we had a grand time.

 

 

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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  • NC Culture

    Great! Just read directions in email, and found I could share to my page via this spot (had not realized that)
    So glad …although not sharing this one, as I think it’s probably too difficult for most of my followers, there have been several I would have liked to share, so nice to have found the option. Am really enjoying the insights I get from this blog..thank you!

  • Mark Oleg

    Is the path seen some on the Big Tom Trail? I would love to do this loop in a couple weeks, but I was wondering if I could not lose the trail? As far as I understood, it is better than the Brush Creek trail in Cherokee National Forest you did a while back, right?

    • Mark, especially since they were weed-eating while we were there, it should be better than Brush Creek. That trail was simply played out. Even if it has a couple weeks growth, it should still at least be visible. Just follow the creek drainage.

      • Mark Oleg

        And does the creek drainage go all the way to the Crest Trail?

  • Tim Truemper

    Been wanting to take the Big Tom trail for some time and your post is very helpful. I will avoid most of your route and just go on Big Tom and return. I have been on the Black Balsam trail and while short, it is very interesting. I have been on a few trails in WV that were very similar. Thanks again Jeff for your valuable info on your “meanderings.”

  • Tim Truemper

    Just wanted to say where in West Virginia are you from. I used to work several summers at a treatment camp in Putnam County (more hills than mountains there). Have been to several locales in Monangohela National Forest. Keep up the postings!

    • I lived a large portion of my adult life on the Putnam Co. side of Nitro.

      • Tim Truemper

        The treatment camp was near Red House not too far from Poca. Interesting area though not mountainous. Gave me a chance to explore New River area, Lake Sommerville and northwards toward Black Rock Canyon.

  • Zachary Robbins

    I’m glad you were able to find the Big Tom Gap Trail. Last year I wasn’t able to even with the aid of my compass and topo map, and an extra set of eyes. It is difficult with or without the trail. I’d like to mention the lesser known Maple Camp Bald is an easy few hundred yards on Buncombe Horse Range Trail beyond the Big Tom Gap Trail – for those readers trying this loop.

  • Brian Grey

    Can you tell me the distance on the Buncombe Horse Range Trail from Commissary Hill to Big Tom Gap trail?

    • Brian, it is roughly 3.5-3.75 miles.

      • Brian Grey

        Thanks Jeff! I’m looking at doing the same loop.