Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness

“An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” -Wilderness Act, 1964

Trails within wilderness areas tend to be primitive and sparsely maintained.  The Wilderness Act does not allow the use of motorized vehicles or chainsaws, so trail maintenance in these areas is difficult.

Day 1: 12.5 miles-ish

We parked our car at the bottom of the Fork Mountain trail on Route 215 along the river.  If Dirt Stew hadn’t said there was a trail there, I would never have found it.

We first had to cross the freezing cold river, which came roughly up to our knees.  There were several people fishing along the river, and they watched us with skepticism as we staggered across the river seemingly randomly.  Once on the other side, I saw where the trail went up into the forest.   The Fork Mountain Trail is a 7-mile trail with about 3,000ft elevation gain.  Most of that gain happens in the first few miles.  The trail was steep and rugged and had I been going at a decent pace, I would have become exhausted quite quickly.  Luckily, wildflowers dotted the trail, and I stopped every few minutes to take some pictures.

Blood Root



Bird’s Foot Violet

It was obvious that this trail did not see many visitors.  There were downed trees every once in a while, vegetation encroaching onto the trail, and the tread-way was not well worn.


John hiking on the Fork Mountain Trail

Once we got close to 5000ft elevation, we made a series of wrong turns. We made a wrong turn at an old railroad bed, and again a bit further where we wound up following a trail used by surveyors that dead ended at a survey marker.


We didn’t know it because we were lost, but we were on a trail that only existed because of this survey marker.

We also climbed part of the way up Fork Mountain by accident and hit a wilderness boundary sign before realizing our mistake.  Luckily by studying our map we were able to retrace our steps and find the trail, but we lost a lot of time, and did a good job scraping up our legs bushwhacking around looking for the trail.


We may be lost, but we’re lost in a beautiful spot!

Once we were back on trail and on the ridge, the trail was easier and we heard some voices.  We ran into a couple who had hiked in from the other direction, and we wound up chatting to them for a while while we hiked up to the Ivestor Gap Trail.

Once we hit the Ivestor Gap Trail, we had a lot of options, and it was hard to decide which way to go since we have done a lot of hiking in that area, and wanted to see new things.  We decided to take a very round about way to hit the Mountains to Sea Trail by walking on trails we hadn’t hiked on before.  We hiked toward Ivestor Gap and got water near there, and then took the Graveyard Ridge Trail, which turned out to be mostly a stream.  It was basically impossible not to get our feet wet.  I could see why most people don’t hike this trail.  It’s another old railroad bed, but none of the culverts actually work anymore.

Once we hit the Mountains To Sea Trail I was feeling pretty tired.  We decided we’d hike to Chestnut Bald where we had camped before on the Art Loeb.  This was a section where the Mountains to Sea Trail and the Art Loeb intersect.  My hips were a bit sore, and my leg muscles were tired from the big climb earlier in the day.

We ate a large pot of mashed potatoes and called it a night.

Day Two: 15.5 miles-ish

Our ultimate goal was to hike a loop in the Middle Prong Wilderness where Dirt Stew had seen an amazing wildflower display last year.  We had also intended on hiking Sam’s Knob, but somehow didn’t set ourselves up for it by camping where we did, so we decided to skip Sam’s Knob.  In any case, Sam’s Knob is an easy day hike from the Black Balsam parking lot.

We decided instead to just take the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) over to the Middle Prong Wilderness to hike that loop.

Along the way, we decided to take a side trail to hit Devil’s Courthouse.  From there we got some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.


John checking out the view from Devil’s Courthouse.  Notice Pilot Mountain poking up between the trees!


More views from Devils’s Courthouse

We hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked.  I started getting grouchy.  Why was this taking so long?  The trail was anything but straight.  It winded around practically in circles.  I had somehow thought of the MST as some sort of teleportation trail that would quickly get us over to Haywood Gap and Buckeye Gap Trails in the Middle Prong Wilderness.  We didn’t have any data on the mileage of this section of the MST, but it looked quite short on the map.  Well, it wasn’t, and I was grumpy about it.


Middle Prong Wilderness!

We stopped and ate lunch, and carried on hiking.  I vaguely remember passing the Green Mountain Trail, but we must have missed the Buckeye Gap Trail.  Slowly the MST started presenting clusters of wildflowers until they practically covered the forest floor.  My hips were aching a lot, and I stopped to take Advil.  By the time we got to the Haywood Gap Trail, it was probably 3pm.  The intersection of the MST and Haywood Gap harbored one of the most beautiful displays of wildflowers I have ever seen.  There were Trout Lillies as far as the eye could see, and Spring Beauty, May Apples, Dutchman’s Britches, all carpeting the forest as far as the eye could see.  Flashes of yellow, flashes of red where Trillium had just started opening up.


Trout Lilly and Spring Beauty as far as the eye can see


Just a narrow footpath lined with Trout Lilies


May Apples, more Trout Lilies and more Spring Beauty!

Dirt Stew was giggling, and I was stunned. I kept the camera in one hand and my trekking poles in the other and tiptoed down the trail trying not to step on any flowers.  They were growing in the middle of the trail at points!


Dutchman’s Britches

We decided that since we missed the Buckeye Gap Trail, we would just hike the Haywood Gap Trail to the end and take the gravel road from there to our car.  Hiking down the Haywood Gap Trail was hard.  The trail follows the stream the whole way down, and parts of the trail are washed out, and many sections are very steep.  There was at least one or two fords where we couldn’t rock hop, but the cold water felt good for my tired feet.

Despite my sore hips and tired feet, the wildflowers continued to put on a show for us.  As we descended into the valley, different flowers presented themselves at different elevations.  It was like each flower species got their turn to carpet an area, where normally I would have gotten excited to see one individual.



The trail ended at a gravel road and we walked the road down past a closed gate down to where we parked our car.  We went home a day early, but completely satisfied with the weekend’s adventure.



6 thoughts on “Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness

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