Weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Day 1 || Hiking Mount Mitchell || Saturday, July 2, 2016
We conquered another State High Point last weekend! Hiking to every single one isn’t a top priority to us (though it’s certainly on our bucket list) but when we realized that the high point of NC also happened to be the highest point East of the Mississippi River – and it was only 5 hours away from us – how could we resist this hike?? I don’t want to say we planned our entire holiday weekend trip around this, but we were definitely looking forward to it all along and it was undoubtedly the highlight of our weekend. Like South Carolina’s high point, and many others out East, there is a road from the Blue Ridge Parkway that takes you right to the top where you can enjoy a lookout and say you were there, but we were in it for the adventure. We like to work for our reward!
That being said, there are multiple ways of hiking to this peak. There’s one trail that begins North of the mountain and is 12 miles one way to the top. We wanted to make the most out of a weekend and didn’t want to take more than 1 day to do this hike, so we decided against that one. Another trail begins at the end of a road that leads up to a nearby mountain, and while the length is around 6 miles one way, the elevation doesn’t change because you’re hiking along a ridge. That would have been easier for us, but less satisfying because of the lack of elevation gain. The path we chose started in Black Mountain Campground off of Toe River Road, to the East of the mountain. This trail was 5.6 miles one way and gained over 3500 feet of elevation – over half of what the height of the mountain is, so we didn’t feel like that was “cheating”. 😉
As for why we chose Saturday, the first day of our vacation to do such a strenuous hike, was mostly based on the weather. The week of our trip, I had noticed that there was rain predicted over the entire weekend. When Friday night came, we saw that the chance for rain on Saturday was greatly reduced and the temperatures looked tolerable, so we decided to go for it in case it rained every other day. (Spoiler alert: it only ended up drizzling briefly late Sunday afternoon. So much for all that “rain”!) It may have been a better idea to do it the second day instead of the first, just to give us a chance to adjust to the higher elevation and not wear ourselves out after the first day, but we made it and that’s what counts!
We rose early in our cabin South of Burnsville, NC (another GREAT AirBnB find, ask me and I’ll send you the details!) and got on the road by 7. One of Curtis’ friends, Lars, joined us for the weekend and we had a great time chatting and enjoying the whole experience together. It was about an hour’s drive from the cabin to the campground, and when we arrived at 8 the trailhead parking lot was mostly full – but only because there were other people parking here to go fishing. We set off on the trail, with Lars in the lead, followed by Charlotte, Curtis, and myself. Our cabin just so happened to also have a very detailed topography map of the mountain range for our use, making us all the more confident in what we were getting ourselves into.
As I mentioned before, this trail gains over 3500 feet of elevation over 5.6 miles, and if you look at Curtis’ Map My Hike App report, you’ll see that the whole thing is basically uphill. There were brief times where the trail was flat, but for the most part we were rapidly gaining elevation – and we liked that. It really felt like we were progressing the whole way up. While there were many thick roots and big rocks on the trail, it was well maintained and it was obvious that people hiked on it regularly – yet it wasn’t so popular that we were constantly running into people, at least on the way up. Having a road to the top of the mountain definitely weeds out a lot of people and lets those who really enjoy hiking find solace on the trail. Again – that was our experience going up. We saw a lot more people on our way down, proving that the early bird gets the worm. By that I mean, the early hikers get the peaceful hike. 🙂
However, I have realized that I like knowing there are other people out there because it makes me feel safer. I know there are many wild creatures that call this wilderness area home, and knowing there are other people hiking makes me think that there’s less of a chance that we would find ourselves in danger without any help. Or maybe it’s just because I think there’s definitely a chance I could outrun the others if it comes down to that. 😉 And as much as Curtis and I love just hiking alone, it was really fun to have another friend to share in the experience and gain a new perspective. I think Charlotte liked having him there too, and she was able to stay better focused on the trail because she wanted to follow this cool new guy around.
The trail was pretty well marked, at one point you come to a fork in the trail where going left is about .4 miles longer, yet less steep, and going right is shorter and steeper. We took one path on the way up and the other on the way back. As you near the top, you briefly meet up with a horse trail but turn off soon after on another well-marked trail to the right. We did like having a map to know to expect these things, but if it weren’t for the cabin having one, we wouldn’t have been able to obtain one. I think we still would’ve made it up alright without it!
At first, the trail reminded me of our hiking in SC over Memorial Day weekend, but as the elevation went higher we very quickly surpassed the height of SC’s high point and it was all new to us. Like I mentioned in my last post, it was so much cooler and less humid on the trail. We even had several vistas before the summit that we really enjoyed and after our hikes in SC did not take for granted. Also as mentioned in the previous post, the environment towards the summit is as if you are 1000 miles North. At first the changes were gradual, but there was a distinct moment in which we realized it was colder and we entered into a whole new world with ferns, pine trees, and mossy trees everywhere. This was my favorite part of the hike, like being in a rain forest or something – not that I’ve been to one so I can’t actually compare it to that. 😉 It was cool and refreshing, and by this point the trail was becoming more flat as we were nearing the summit so we were able to really enjoy our surroundings.
We reached the summit in less than 4 hours after beginning our hike, which was good enough for us considering the elevation gain and the fact that we were at sea level the day before. We were shocked by how many people were at the top… Like I said, there’s a road that goes up there, but unlike SC’s high point which had only a few visiting, this place was packed. We had expected to see people because it was a holiday weekend and all, but it was insanely crowded. Still, we couldn’t let the crowds scare us from reaching the end, so we joined the masses in walking up to the observation point. When people bent down to pet Charlotte and commented on how laid back she was, I was quick to mention she had just hiked all the way up the mountain. For some reason, it’s not important to me to tell them that I did it, but I really want everyone to know how amazing my baby girl is. I’m sure other parents could relate to this feeling.
Normally, we would pick a spot at the top, sit down, and enjoy a lunch and an extended break, but there was just no place to get away from people up here. Instead, we took what pictures we wanted, identified the other peaks that were surrounding us, then started heading back down the mountain to find a quieter spot to eat. It really wasn’t too hard once we started heading down a trail that wasn’t paved. (There are several nature trails around the top that provide an opportunity for those who drove up to acquaint themselves with the flora that grows at the top of the mountain.) After lunch, we began the hike downhill, very satisfied with what we had accomplished.
I had a hard time wrapping my mind around what we had just done. Because we had another friend with us and we had chatted the whole way up the mountain, it made the whole hike seem almost shorter and easier. It was hard to believe we had just gone out and done this hike and it was already almost over. For me on a personal level, I feel like I was really able to conquer mental barriers in my mind that would normally slow me down saying “that rock face is too steep” or “you can’t push through this, you need to stop more”. Generally, I’ve started to notice when we do have chances to go hiking that my balance is improving and I’m better at doing things like crossing wide streams using rocks. I don’t feel like I’ve done much to change this, it’s just the barriers in my mind that are breaking down, and I’m realizing that I don’t have to be afraid of falling all the time. Even without hiking every weekend, I feel more confident when we do get out and take on a new trail. I don’t need a lot of experience or practice, I just need more trust in God and my husband that I will be safe. Now that I’ve realized that I feel like I can enjoy hiking more in the right mindset of enjoying every step and soaking in the beauties of nature around me.
However, I think there are some points of common sense for hiking that didn’t seem to be too common on the hike down. As mentioned previously, we passed a lot more people going up on the hike down than when hiking up. At first, it was mostly backpackers, people planning on through-hiking the area or going up to camp near the top. Then, there were hikers that seemed to be a lot less prepared for this hike. People that asked us “Are we almost there?” when they were only a mile in to the 5.6 mile hike up at 3 in the afternoon. We had to burst their bubble and let them know that they were barely even 10% of the way through with the hike.
I realized though that what really makes us different than them isn’t practice or experience, it’s just simple preparedness that led to us reaching the top on this day. And by that, I don’t mean that we had fancy, expensive gear or anything – we had just done some simple research online to know where the trail began, how long it was, and what to expect along the way. We saw that it was over 11 miles long, so we brought at least a gallon of water between the 3 of us, and all the food we would need to give us energy. Because we knew the trail was so long, we knew to start earlier when the temperature was cooler and we would have plenty of sunlight to complete the hike. Now, it does certainly help that we are in shape and have done similar hikes in the past, but hey, we all need to start somewhere (though this isn’t necessarily the best starter hike). At one point, we too were unexperienced mountain hikers, but because we had friends with experience that showed us the safe and smart way to hike, we have avoided becoming a statistic of those who suffer injury, altitude sickness, or dehydration on the trails. Because we know how to prepare, hiking is a most enjoyable activity for us and something we always look forward to doing. And that’s my simple life lesson learned from today. While experience and practice will always make things easier, preparing and knowing what to expect will always put the beginners a step ahead.
Map My Hike App report. As you can see from our map, there was a fork in the trail along the way and on the way up we chose the less steep, longer route, and on the way back we went for the shorter, steeper trail.
We made it back to the trailhead around 3, making the hike around 7 hours (counting rest stops, time at the top, and our lunch break). While this trail would definitely be rated as difficult, it was not the most challenging we have experienced. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most challenging, it wouldn’t be higher than a 6. I was definitely sore afterwards though, and was glad our plans allowed us to take it easy for the rest of the weekend. Come back later to read about the rest of our time enjoying the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC!