On what is becoming an annual tradition, I decided to get out of the heat of the late summer around Raleigh and head to high elevation for a few days. Shining Rock Wilderness in western NC has a series of peaks running between 5 and 6,000 feet which generally means cooler nights and some wind – perfect escape this time of year.
Although I was heading in late on a Thursday afternoon, I knew it would be crowded at the more popular high elevation access points on the weekend, so decided to climb up from the Big East Fork trail head where I was unlikely to see anyone. Being only a week after the remnants of Hurricane Irma passed through the area, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed near Asheville for maintenance, so I had a slight delay and detour getting to Highway 276 and the trail.
It was late afternoon when I finally had that comfortable feeling of slipping a pack on my back and beginning to walk. The bear canister requirement and camping area restrictions were still in place but I was prepared (although the pack was a couple pounds heavier than usual).
A beautiful and easy climb along the banks of the East Fork Pigeon River was a great start to the trip. I got a preview of how much rain Irma had dumped here during the first couple of stream crossings – both were knee high or above and roaring downstream.
In addition to the high creek crossings, Irma had left a number of blow downs to negotiate…
and also covered the trail in many areas with a carpet of green leaves…
I think folks heading to the western NC mountains next month for leaf watching may be disappointed!
The last part of my afternoon involved a climb up to Grassy Cove Ridge for a camp in the highlands. This was a relatively steep 1,000 ft climb away from the stream, made worse by my loading up on water at the last stream crossing to allow for a dry camp if needed. The turn onto the Grassy Cove trail is hard to find – have to cross the stream through a campsite and head up the hill to the right. However it was not hard for me as a couple of folks were in the campsite – a local guide and a gentleman from my home country of the UK (never got his name but he was from Wolverhampton). If you need a guide in the mountains, I would check out Wildland Trekking – didn’t get the guide’s name but he seemed like a good guy during our little chat.
The climb was at a faster pace than I usually go due to encroaching darkness and wanting to set up my relatively new tent in the light for better practice. I was pretty beat by the top so camped in the first decent spot with a good view after a slight respite along a relatively flat and beautiful section of trail.
It turned out to be a great little spot, although next to the trail which I don’t usually like. Being the quiet side of the wilderness and a Thursday night, I was mercifully left alone.
It took a little while to dial in the pitch of my TarpTent Stratospire 1 on the slight slope (my bed area was flat but the coverage of the SS1 is so large it included a rise in terrain. Nights like this really help me to get more familiar with the shelter and its nuances.
The next morning I got moving after coffee and grits along what turned out to be the theme of the weekend – a wet and muddy trail. My boots (although non-Goretex and easily draining) were continually soaked in the up to 4 inches of water standing or flowing over a lot of the trails. While this sounds nasty to some, it thrilled me as my weekend was going to conclude with applying for the TGO Challenge to walk across Scotland next year…no better time to make sure I am happy with continuously wet feet!
I followed a trail running south under Tennent Mountain and wrapping around Graveyard Fields and after just one minor dead end, wandering down a false trail when the real one turned on a rock outcrop with a nice view…
I arrived at the approach road to the Black Balsam parking lot and immediately hopped north along the Art Loeb Trail. There I finally encountered a few folks and decided to stay on the ALT rather than sidetrack to the top of Black Balsam where I saw quite a few people hanging out.
Instead I continued along the side slope of Balsam until the trail turned up Tennent Mtn, where I stopped briefly to take a few photos and enjoy the scenery, but didn’t dawdle as I was not alone and really wanted to wander in peace and quiet.
A short hop down the ALT north toward the Shining Rock occupied me until my stomach informed me that snacks would no longer suffice and it was time for lunch! Since I woke in a heavy dew and the outer tarp of my tent was pretty wet, I decided to lounge in the sun at Ivestor Gap and dry things out.
The last couple of years I have been bringing fresh stuff for the first 24 hours or so, and enjoyed a wrap with cheese and fresh tomato (along with some bacon bits and hot sauce!). I helped a group of three young men figure out which peak was Grassy Cove Top…they were looking for an old mine shaft! I will have to check the papers and see if they struck it rich…I would think helping identify the right peak would be worth a cut!
Dried out, and satisfied, I headed for the Shining Rock with no real itinerary in mind. After a brief stop for water at a reliable seep, I was approaching the Rock when I began to hear quite a few loud people enjoying a beautiful Friday afternoon. That was not what I was looking for this afternoon, and I decided to circle back south and do some side trail exploring. After darting down a mile or so on a side trail toward Daniel Boone scout camp just to check for camping areas, I decided to stay on Ivestor Trail and head for either the top of Black Balsam or a lower gap site with great views.
As I passed back through Ivestor Gap the balds looked like they were about to be clouded in so I opted for a lower elevation gap on the trail to Birdstand Mtn with great views both north and south.
The extra mile of walking was well worth the effort for a beautiful camp with the aforementioned great views of Shining Rock Ledge to the north and Black Balsam and Sams Knob to the south.
I don’t know if it was more practice or a flatter site, but the SS1 was perfectly pitched first time tonight – very satisfying! I considered not putting up the inner bug net, but there were some seriously large beetles flying around – didn’t worry me but they would wake me up!
I enjoyed Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili and a dram (or so) of Highland Park 12, along with some leftover PIG Mexican Chocolate Mousse – an extravagant meal! I tried to conserve dishes and clean up by boiling water and hydrating the chili in the bag, but as usual didn’t like it and popped it into the pot for a little simmer to make everything just a little more like home cooked food.
The night was incredible – full stars and a crescent moon. After midnight the clouds rolled in but stayed high – I am sure Black Balsam and the other balds were low visibility. The cloud layer sat just above the Shining Rock ledge and with the moisture in the air created a double ringed halo around the crescent moon! My camera phone couldn’t capture it though…
Saturday morning arrived with another damp tent so I hung around camp letting it dry out a bit (the inner bug nest was dry as a bone). Then it was back to Ivestor Gap, up the Art Loeb (with a water stop just south), and onto Cold Mountain.
The Narrows north of Shining Rock and Stairs Mountain are one of my favorite sections of the Art Loeb Trail – a knife edge ridge with great (although intermittent) views west (above) and east, as well as occasional glimpses of Cold Mountain.
On bad weather days this can be a tough hike as there isn’t much shelter and there are a lot of scrambles up and down rock formations on the ridge. I met one hiker coming the other way – trying to do the entire 30 mile Art Loeb trail in a day!!! I hope he fared well.
It took longer than anticipated to get to Deep Gap at the base of Cold Mountain and I decided to stop for lunch and fully dry the rest of my gear. After another fresh tomato and cheese wrap or two, and a casual semi-nap, I realized it was later than I thought. I decided to skip the summit of Cold Mountain (save it for next year!) and get going back to the Rock then head east for an early departure to the car the next day. A couple more shots along the Narrows…
I watered up south of the Shining Rock again then headed onto the trail to Old Butt Knob, which is the trail that actually passes by the Shining Rock. I was not in a big rush to get to my last camp so lingered at the Rock for a while fueling up with a snack, grabbing the obligatory photos, soaking in the view, and chatting with a nice couple from Asheville who were doing a day hike loop from the same trail head on 276.
After the break I hopped east past Old Butt and onto Chestnut Ridge to find a good campsite. I passed the Asheville couple and then confused them thoroughly by passing back again in the opposite direction…a habit of mine to find a campsite then walk about ten minutes further before turning back around…I really don’t like waking up and hitting the trail only to find a better campsite 5 minutes down the trail!
My last camp was a well used site right beside the trail but it was peaceful and allowed an early exit so I could get home with time to spare on Sunday. No-one passed by until dinner time when a couple with 2 large dogs arrived after the killer climb up from the Hwy 276 parking area and asked if there was a bald nearby…once I told them I had hiked another hour downhill (so their trip would be at least an hour and a half) they smartly turned around – nice to see folks make good decisions rather than push on without water and under prepared.
The views weren’t as good from this site, but I enjoyed a home-made pasta soup dinner and the last of the Mexican Mousse followed by the last of the Highland Park 12 – that’s my favorite daily dram when I can’t decide from which part of Scotland I want my whisky.
The next morning I decided to get a quick start so breakfast was a pre-dawn coffee followed by the last of my snacks (3 mini Snickers bars).
The drop down to the stream and parking area was short – about an hour – but steep (the picture above doesn’t do the drop justice). However the views kept cropping up most of the way down…
My knees were thankful for my trekking poles and the larger flat trail along Shining Rock Creek was a welcome relief for the last stroll out.
Overall, I had a great trip – got to test my legs with some good climbs and drops, as well as pull 34 miles over a little more than two days hiking, and really test out my wet and muddy trail feet. Feeling great after that little test I hopped home and promptly threw my hat in the ring for the TGO Challenge to cross Scotland next May. I hope the November lottery is good to me and I get that chance!