Big Butt Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway & Pisgah National Forest

Another foray into the Black Mountains led us to summits with names like Point Misery, Little Butt and Big Butt. The Big Butt Trail takes off from Balsam Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway along Brush Fence Ridge, roller-coastering across several peaks and gaps. The forest is filled with floral and fungal oddities, and old-growth spruce and pine that protect the ridge like gentle giants. The razor ridge offers occasional panoramic views of the Black Mountains Range, including Mt. Mitchell State Park, and the vast expanse of Big Tom Preserve down below. A lot of recent hard work has been put into enhancing this trail, making it a delight to explore. We were a trio for this hike on Thursday, August 14, 2014 beginning at 10:15AM and ending about 3:25PM. Our plan was to take the Big Butt Trail from Balsam Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway across Point Misery, Little Butt and Big Butt, returning the same way.

Hike Length: 8.3 miles Hike Duration: 5.25 hours

Hike Configuration: Out and back. Blaze: Yellow

Hike Rating: Moderate/Difficult. Lots of stairs climbing, all above 5,000 feet.

Elevation Gain: 2,015 feet Elevation Change: 575 feet

Trail Condition: Very good. The NC High Peaks Trail Association has done a tremendous amount of work on this trail to enhance the experience and improve the tread and maintenance.

Starting Point: Balsam Gap at milepost 359.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Trail Traffic: We encountered two other hikers, a very friendly mom and daughter.

How to Get There: From any Blue Ridge Parkway access point, head to milepost 359.8. The Big Butt Trail is at the south end (left) of the Walker Knob Overlook parking.

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Balsam Gap, at mile 359.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just happens to be the endpoint of a hike we did on the Mountains to Sea Trail a couple weeks prior. There is another trail there as well. When you arrive at Balsam Gap (at the Walker Knob Overlook), you’ll discover the Big Butt trailhead in a lush grassy area to the left of the parking pullout. What may surprise you is how that nice grass continues alongside the trail as you enter the forest. The Big Butt Trail makes an immediate 60 foot dip after the trailhead. Keep that in mind for later when you’re about to finish this hike. It’s just enough to make sure you’re breathing hard when you return to your vehicle.

This region of the Black Mountains gets a lot of rain and snow, including summer, so we weren’t surprised to find mushrooms and other fungi along the trail. What was a surprise, though, was the sheer volume of the “shroom communities” that dotted the pathway. From start to finish, I have never seen as much fungus growing along one trail ever before. It was truly remarkable, and was a big topic of conversation throughout. Some contained dozens of individual mushrooms grouped together in a form of complex, others growing on trees were as much as a foot wide. There was even coral fungus growing on a downed log.

The next surprise we discovered was the old growth beech, spruce and pine found in the forest on Brush Fence Ridge. As the trail climbs out of the aforementioned dip to the ridge crest, there are scores of the gentle giants reaching nearly a hundred feet into the azure Carolina sky. What more could be waiting for us around the next bend?

When researching this trail beforehand, what limited information I did find was unanimous that the trail was in horrible shape. It was overgrown and required scrambling on all fours to get past some of the steeper rocky crags. All I can say is those trail reports must have been a decade old because Big Butt Trail is now in amazing condition. We discovered via a sign strategically placed at one of the overlooks that this trail is maintained by the NC High Peaks Trail Association. They deserve every accolade in the book, several pats on the back, and the sincerest gratitude of anyone who hikes Big Butt now, or in the future.

The volunteer workers have constructed unbelievably well-done stairways that navigate those steep sections through the outcroppings and crags. The work had to have taken weeks, months, even years to complete. Stairs on other trails are placed just to help you ascend a steep pitch in the terrain with little thought to ease of use. Not so these. The stairs throughout the length of this trail were measured, precisely fitted, even turning corners and switchbacks with just the right amount of lift and separation. In addition, the brush and understory had recently been trimmed, making for a beautiful path. Well done volunteers!

I mentioned all the large rocks that the stairs climb through. As you make your way up to Point Misery, you’ll realize why the mountains along this ridge are called Little and Big Butt. The terrain is quite craggy, with fins and abutments, and well, yes, butts. The photo at the top of this post is a prime example of the terrain. Again, because of the damp nature of the forest, most of these outcroppings are covered with rock tripe, usually a good sign of a very healthy environment.

Mushroom Community

After 1.6 miles we reached the summit of Point Misery, or at least the high point on the trail. We looked all over for a spur trail that would take us to an overlook, but nothing. So, being good Meanderthals, we started bushwhacking in the general direction of the true summit hoping to find a magnificent view of the Blacks Range. At least there used to be an overlook at Point Misery. Apparently not anymore. I lost my will to continue searching after catching a pine bough right in the eye. My companions did find the USGS marker and a flying squirrel box, but no overlooks. So onward we went.

The trail now makes a very steep descent down the north side of Point Misery employing more of those marvelous stairs constructed by the NC High Peaks folks, about 300 feet of elevation loss. Then, it’s right back up the south side of Little Butt, about the same amount of gain. At three miles we reached that elusive overlook we had been seeking, and had our first encounter with other hikers. Sitting on a perfectly placed outcropping enjoying the magnificent view of the Blacks and Mt. Mitchell State Park were a mom and her adult daughter.

Did I mention the view is magnificent? If you want to skip ahead to the pictures at the bottom, I’ll forgive you. While we took lots of photos and traded trail stories with our new hiking friends, we also munched on the luscious blueberries that were ripening along the edge of the outcrop. You can see the entire length of the Black Mountains Range from this vantage point. Additionally, you can peer down below to the hollows and drainages of the Big Tom Preserve. There’s a lot of water that drains off these 6,000 foot mountains. After a half hour of revery it was time to move on.

The passage from Little Butt to Big Butt is about a mile, follows the Buncombe/Yancey county line, and is along a razor thin ridge that drops significantly on both sides. It makes a gradual climb of about another 300 feet. The pathway is basically a tunnel through mountain laurel and rhododendron, so if you’re looking for high country flowers next spring, keep this trail in mind. Every couple hundred yards or so there will be an opening in the laurels on either side.

To the west you can see the mountains of Buncombe County, surrounding Asheville, and to the south is another landmark ridge that includes Greybeard Mountain and Brushy Knob. And of course to the east are the massive summits of the tallest peaks on this side of the Mississippi River.

When you get to Big Butt, the trail doesn’t actually go to the summit, it skirts the eastern flank and then begins another steep descent. You can continue for another half mile to Flat Spring Knob, and then another very steep descent beyond that of a mile and a half to the end of the trail at Hwy 197. That wasn’t on our agenda. Turning around here, we still had four miles to do on the return trip.

Coral Fungus

Just below the Big Butt summit and about 80 feet off the trail is a nice grassy campsite. It had lunch written all over it for us. We took off our packs, settled in for some nourishment, and began looking around at the surroundings. There’s a game trail that heads toward the summit and one of the other guys decided to take a look. What he found were very fresh black bear tracks, and the unfortunate evidence of baiting. The bear’s scat contained almost nothing but corn.

While finishing our meal we discussed the unfairness of the hunt by bait tactic. In the old days, hunters used to go out into the woods and stalk their game. They actually worked for the kill. It seems these days hunters are lazy. They set out bait, wait for the game to come to them, then pick them off from their cozy hiding places. At present, this practice is not allowed in North Carolina, but the Wildlife Resources Commission is contemplating enabling baiting of bears this coming Fall. Apparently whoever spread the corn near Big Butt is getting a head start.

Once we had filled our bellies and saved the world, it was time to head back. This hike isn’t a loop. You simply return the same way you came. So we passed all the same landmarks, saw more of the really cool coral fungus, and climbed all the same stairs. By the time we were done, the 2,000 feet of elevation gain was equivalent to climbing 200 sets of stairs. At least it wasn’t all at once.

Now being past noon, some of the wildflowers had bloomed since our morning passage. The shadows on the ridge lines were more pronounced adding perspective to the photographs. When we returned to Little Butt, one of our guys even activated his super zoom and was able to get a grainy picture of a person climbing the observation platform at the summit of Mt. Mitchell five miles away.

This should be a good mast season for the wildlife. The blueberry bushes were loaded. The pokeberries were coming out and the acorns were making the oak branches droop. There is also plenty of mountain ash in this area, and while the berries aren’t forming yet, it won’t be long. There really is no need for corn here.

Just when we were about back to Balsam Gap we had to make that one last 60 foot climb. Oh well, that’s why we’re here, right?

Alright, let’s summarize. You can’t top the work that the NC High Peaks Trail Association has done on Big Butt Trail. The tread itself is truly a joy to hike. This enables you to totally enjoy your surroundings without worrying about your footsteps. The forest of mixed hardwoods and evergreen is enchanting, and the vistas presented at Little Butt and along the crest to Big Butt are supreme. There is a lot of stair climbing on this trail, so it may not be for everyone, but I wouldn’t consider it to be more than moderately difficult.

We wonder what happened to the overlook at Point Misery, but with the other vantage points found later on the trail, it really wasn’t a great disappointment. The myriad of mushrooms and fungus had us talking all day, and the hundred foot giants of the forest were a sight to behold. I would strongly recommend this trail, particularly during leaf peeping season, as you can see unending forest for literally dozens of miles. You may even run into me out enjoying the colors of Fall.

 

 

Update June 10, 2015: Meanderthals took an early June visit to the Big Butt Trail. The forest was exceptionally green, but unfortunately we happened to catch an extremely hazy day, so views of the Black Mountains Range from Little Butt were difficult at best. The Asheville Watershed side of the ridge was a little bit better. Here are a few new photos that you can use to compare and contrast the forest between June and August.

 

 

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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  • Tom Layton

    One of my favorite hikes, especially since you’re probably following the same route that Dr. Mitchell did in 1835. When I hiked it in October 2012 (trip report on Peakbagger: http://www.peakbagger.com/climber/ascent.aspx?aid=279113) the steps were new, and yes they are impressive, especially being 2 miles from the trailhead. At that time there was a freshly hacked path to the summit of Big Butt, which has a NC Geodetic Survey benchmark. My GPS said the round trip was 6.25 miles, but I think your mileage is more likely.

  • Looks like a fun hike. If its one thing I miss about North Carolina is the mountains. There aren’t any mountains down here in south Texas.

  • Shanti McKinnie

    A friend and I heard of this trail last week via word of mouth. Today we hiked the southern portion. What a treat; we’ll be back for more! I agree with your appreciation of the quality of the job done by the trail maintainers. When I returned home, I searched on the Internet for more info (only knew the location of the trailhead on the Parkway when we began) and found your well-done site. I’ve signed up on your email list and am following your Facebook page. Many thanks!

    • Thanks for all the support Shanti. Glad you enjoyed this hike. I know I have every time I’ve done it.