Final Thoughts: Benton MacKaye Trail Potential Appalachian Trail Alternate

Now that we’re home from the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), I’ve had some time to think about what useful information I could impart on others regarding this trail.

Here are my final thoughts:

I think the BMT is an excellent choice as an alternate for the first ~300 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), especially for folks with prior backpacking experience as well as folks looking for a little more solitude at the beginning or end their thru-hike.

The BMT easily intersects the AT at the beginning (Springer Mountain), in the middle (Fontana Dam), and at the end Davenport Gap, so you can pick and choose your route.  I really think more long distance hikers should consider using this trail instead of the AT because of how crowded that section of the AT is during thru-hiker season.

The BMT is definitely a bit more difficult than the AT, but I think it was more of what we would have been looking for at the beginning of our AT hike.  There are practically no thru-hikers (we met only one), and not even many section/day hikers in many of the areas, depending on the season.  I think we would have enjoyed the solitude of this trail instead of the abundantly crowded beginning of the AT during thru-hiker season.

The BMT was better marked and somewhat better maintained that I expected, but in all honesty, expectations were quite low.  In some sections it’s well enough marked that you don’t need a map, but you definitely will in some of the less well maintained sections.

Given the blackberry bushes and green briers along with other weeds, I wouldn’t recommend this trail in season (late spring through early fall).  There are enough sections that would be completely overgrown to make the hiking less than enjoyable during the normal hiking season, and probably quite a bit harder to follow as well.  I recommend either early spring, late fall or a winter thru-hike– which lines up well with AT thru-hiker seasons in that area.

The easiest sections were northern GA (basically the first 100 miles of trail), and the Smoky Mountains (basically the last 100 miles of trail).  In both of these sections, you can up your mileage and even do some night hiking if you’re so inclined.  In the middle 100 miles, the trail was overgrown, narrow, harder to follow, significantly harder in terms of steepness, and I would not recommend trying to night hike, unless you enjoy wandering around lost in the woods at night.

Water was not an issue.  The longest stretch without water was maybe 10 miles at most (Topoco Lodge to Fontana Dam), but more commonly 5-7 miles at most, and often times you’re crossing many streams in a valley for half the day.  There are at least 3 stream fords, all in the Smokies, but there may be more if there has been any significant rain.

Camping spots are not all over the place like on the AT, sometimes you have to be a bit more creative about finding a spot.  A map is somewhat handy for this to find where there are gaps, or somewhat flat spots to aim for.  There are two shelters on the trail, one in Cherry Log, GA, and one in the Smokies (Laurel Gap Shelter).

The BMT is quite remote, and resupply options can be limited in the off season.  Depending on how many resupply points you plan on, I would definitely send a box to yourself at the Reliance Fly and Tackle and Fontana Dam Village (the front desk, not the post office).  These spots are easy walking distance off the trail, and are roughly well spaced if you only need to resupply every ~100 miles.  If you need more resupply points, you can hitchhike into Blue Ridge (50 miles in) for a full resupply, send a box to Coker Creek Welcome Center (3 mile walk off trail- hitchhiking is not an option), send a box to Topoco Lodge (on trail), or hitchhike into Cherokee for a full resupply.

We finished the trail in 20 days, averaging about 15 miles a day.  I think this is a fairly cushy pace for someone who is used to long distance hiking– it definitely could be done faster.  We did meet someone going less than 10 miles a day, so there are enough resupply points to make a slower pace feasible too.

In terms of weather, we got really lucky.  No snow, no freezing rain, only two small storms, and they both happened when we were already in our tent for the night.  There is at least one section where I would be worried to be stuck there with snow or ice, and that’s the trail between Topoco Lodge and the Hangover in Joyce Kilmer.  I think if there was snow, we would have gotten completely lost.  I’m sure there are other sections that would also be sketchy, but this one stands out in my mind.

My favorite sections of the BMT included Big Frog Wilderness, walking along the Hiwassee River, Joyce Kilmer, and the section of the Smoky Mountains where the trail moves away from Fontana Lake.

Please let us know if you have any questions about the BMT, and we’ll be happy to try to answer!

Packing and planning and more packing

 

We leave tomorrow for the Benton MacKaye Trail, and we’ve been busy this weekend packing and planning.

The Benton MacKaye Trail is a weird length for us.  We’re somewhat used to planning a 2,000+ mile thru-hike, and we’re also used to planning shorter weekend length trips.  The Benton MacKaye Trail is just short of 300 miles, so we figure it will take us about 3 weeks.

We’ve planned to stop about 5 times to resupply along the way, and we’re sending ourselves packages at 3 resupply points.  We have had to call ahead to make sure that resupply points are actually open this time of year (most were not), and if so, make sure what their winter hours are.

Packing our resupply boxes

Meanwhile, we also started packing for a winter hike.  That means more layers, and warmer sleeping systems.  After considering the gear that we had, we finally decided that we should actually take two sleeping bags each.  After trying to fit all my gear in the backpack that I am most comfortable with, I found that it barely fit.  I had to find an old compression sac (stupidly weighing an additional 5oz) in order to squeeze my two sleeping bags inside.  A larger backpack would have been smart, but I’ll make do with what I have.

We made our final pile of gear and weighed it all.  Here is the outcome:

Dormouse Total Pack Base Weight: 11.4 lbs

Dirt Stew Total Pack Base Weight:  15.5 lbs

Clothes worn
Manufacturer Weight (oz) Weight (lbs)
Tanktop Champion 2.8
Shorts Brooks 4.1
Wool bra ibex 1.6
Socks- short, thin Darn Tough 1.4
Shoes Astral 19.8
Gaiters Dirty Girl 1.1
Ball cap Outdoor Research 1.9
Total: 32.7 2.04
Clothes
Rain pants Lightheart Gear 4.7
Rain jacket Golite (RIP) 6.6
Fleece hat Found in Zion 4 years ago 1.4
Liner gloves Merrel 1.1
Overmits REI 1.2
Down hood Zpacks 1.6
Neck Warmer Outdoor Research 1.5
Long sleeved caplene baselayer Patagonia 4.2
Long underwear bottoms Golite (RIP) 4.4
Socks- short, thick Darn Tough 1.7
Socks- long for sleeping Keen 2.1
Underwear Vanity Fair 1.2
Fleece, R1 Patagonia 10.6
Down puffy Golite (RIP) 6
Clothes stuff sac Sea to Summit 1.1
Total: 49.4 3.09
Gear
Backpack – Gorilla Gossamer Gear 28.3
Sleeping pad- prolite women’s Thermarest 16.4
Pack liner Gossamer Gear 1.2
Sleeping bag – 20 degree Zpacks 17.6
Sleeping bag- 10 degree Western Mountaineering 33.4
Compression sac Alps Mountaineering (found) 4.9
Bandana 1
Headlamp Princeton Tec 3.1
Toothbrush and toothpaste 1.6
Hand sanitizer 1
Dropper bottle with bleach 0.9
Ear plugs 0.2
Chapstick 0.2
P-style 0.8
Tiny towel 0.3
First Aid Kit 6.8
Pee bottle 1.8
Shoulder pocket Gossamer Gear 1.6
Folding keyboard iwerkz 5.1
iphone 6 apple 5.4
Wallet 1.3
Onces Pounds
Total Gear: 132.91 8.31
Total Gear + Clothes Carried: 182.31 11.39

Dirt Stew:

Clothes Worn
Manufacturer Weight (oz) Weight (lbs)
Hiking pants REI 12.1
Synthetic underwear EMS 3.2
T-shirt synthetic Hanes 4.8
Socks- long Farm to Feet 2.6
Ankle brace 5.2
Shoes Brooks 28.9
Total Clothes Worn 56.8 3.55
Clothes Carried:
Down puffy Golite (RIP) 6.9
Socks- long Keen 3
Socks – short Farm to feet 1.2
Long underwear top Icebreaker 6.8
Long underwear bottom Icebreaker 5.9
Synthetic underwear EMS 3.2
Backlava wool REI 1.6
Fleece EMS 7.1
Gloves- liner Smartwool 1.7
Overmits REI 1.3
Neck gaiter Columbia 1.3
Rain pants Sierra Designs 7.6
Rain jacket Golite (RIP) 7.8
Hat Mountain hardware 2.6
Stuff sac Big Agnes 1.2
Wallet 1.2
Total Clothes Carried 59.2 3.7
Gear:
Two person Tent- The Two Gossamer gear 29.7
Tent stakes with stuff sac 4.5
Sleeping bag- Humming bird Feathered Friends 28.2
Sleeping bag Zpacks 21.1
Stuff sac Sea to summit 1
Pack liner Gossamer gear 2.4
Backpack  Gossamer Gear 34.5
Sleeping pad- neoair Thermarest 7.6
Pillow Klymit 2.3
1L storage Jar (for cold soaking) Nalgene 6.8
Bowl – plastic 1.5
Spoon- plastic 0.4
Spoon- titanium MSR 0.6
Bandana 1.2
Maps (2 nat geo maps) 6.6
BMT guide book 3.5
Headlamp Princeton Tec 2.8
Toothbrush and paste 1.4
Chapstick (with spf) 0.3
Flip phone 3.1
Camera and case 8.7
Bleach in dropper bottle 0.5
PLB Res Q link 5.2
Chargers- camera, iphone, flip phone 5.2
Umbrella Euroschirm 8.1
Food bag  Lightheart Gear 2
Onces Pounds
Total Gear 189.2 11.83
Total Gear + Clothes Carried 248.4 15.53

The pointless hobby of peak bagging: Mount Mitchell and 11 other peaks.

Friday August 25th 2017: Mileage – not too many (?)

We definitely knew better than to blindly follow our GPS to the trail head, but for some reason we did it anyway.  A 45 minute drive turned into a nearly 2 hour expedition on a windy unpaved road that our GPS claimed had a speed limit of 55 mph.  The number of times you need to make a mistake in order to learn from it is yet to be determined.

The trail head was well concealed.  After searching up and down the road, we finally resorted to asking a local who pointed us down a small road (Watershed Road) marked “private”.  We parked the car in the mud and started up the Crest Trail, starting at around 3000ft in elevation and climbing steadily up to nearly 6000ft.  If you’d like to feel out of shape, this trail is for you.

For some reason, I decided to start at a fast pace, and quickly wore myself out.  About half way up I saw a bear moving among the trees and shouted at it:

“Hey Bear!!”

I banged my poles together to get his attention.

“I’m not a bear,” replied the bear.  That’s exactly the sort of thing a bear would say, I thought to myself.

We approached, and saw a man dressed mostly in black hunched over collecting firewood near his campsite with his wife.  They shared information with us about upcoming water sources.

We made it up to the ridge and started on our peak bagging mission.  Our first peak was Celo Knob, which had a nice trail from the south side which wasn’t too hard to find.

Next, we attempted to climb Horse Rock.  We succeeded, but certainly not in a graceful fashion.  We didn’t find a trail, and bushwhacked through horrible blackberry bushes as tall as John to reach the summit, covered in blood.  The lack of trail should have been a clue that this peak was not one of the official 6000ft peaks on the peak bagging list of “South Beyond 6000ft challenge”.  Who checks these things before heading out anyway?

Then we hit Gibbs Mountain, which had somewhat of a trail to the top.  The top was sort of lumpy so it was hard to tell which point the actual top was.  We put our little tootsies on all of them just to be sure.

Then the Crest Trail continues up and over Winter Star, but we weren’t sure if the peak was on the trail or not, and so we kept scrambling to the top of random things just in case.  Which was dumb.  None of them were Winter Star.

As darkness fell, we managed to find a campsite and ate our lovely Ramen dinner.  As we sat there, we noticed that there was a salamander on a tree next to us.  Upon further inspection, there were salamanders everywhere.  On almost every tree.  Poking their little heads out of holes at the base of trees.  We spent some time taking pictures and baby-talking to our new neighbors.

Our favorite little neighbor salamander


 

Saturday August 26th: Mileage – vaguely doable amount (?)

We got up and immediately investigated whether our friends, the salamanders, where still around, and mostly they had retreated into their holes, but we saw our one friend still poking his head out looking at us with curiosity.   We bid him farewell and hiked out.

Not long after we started hiking, we hit the summit of Winter Star.  There was a bench mark there to prove it.

We passed some folks camping near Deep Gap who were impressed that we had come up from Watershed Road.  I was impressed too.  My legs, however, were less impressed.

We hiked on to the top of Mt Mitchell and spent $5 on some soda, some fudge rounds and a bottle of Gatorade because I had forgotten to bring my pee bottle, and had to begrudgingly get out of the tent the night before to relieve myself.  Yes, I know, I’m lazy.

We got one of the many tourists at the summit to take our picture.


We continued on the Old Mount Mitchell Trail so as to hit Hallback Mt, which had a pretty well defined trail to the top along with a freaking sign post once we hit the summit!  I would have never guessed.

A sign on top of a mountain! Wow.


We collected water at the Ranger Station and walked across the road to a gravel road to try to get to Mount Gibbs.  We left the gravel road and followed a questionable utility line up the mountain until we hit a strange house and from there easily found the top of the mountain.  Back from the house we easily followed the overhead power line trail back to the road, which would have been the more obvious way up to the top (oh well, again, no research).

We then thought we’d hit Clingman Peak, but there was a giant fence around it, so that peak was a no-go.  I’m guessing it’s not on the official list.  I still haven’t checked.

To the right of the peak, the gravel road continued and was marked “private trail” with another sign reading “no trespassing”.  This road lead us to a very fancy house, which we tiptoed up to, looking for a trail.  The trail happened to be right in front of it.  Nobody seemed to be home, thankfully.  We traveled swiftly into the forest to follow the Boundary “Trail” to Potato Knob.   We lost the “trail” many times, but always somehow found it again.

We followed these for way too long

After we hit the peak, the trail was steep, hard to follow and overgrown.  This is probably understatement.  I couldn’t have been happier to have an altimeter.  Upon further investigation, Potato Knob is also not on the official list.  Don’t ask me why we checked.

Rock outcropping near the top of Potato Knob


We finally hit the MST and there was a simultaneous sigh of relief.  Heading away from Mt. Mitchell, we hiked the MST in order to bag our final peak, Blackstock Knob.  Since dark was falling, we decided to camp somewhere near Rainbow Gap.

Sunday August 27th: Mileage – waaaay too many (?)

Sunday: the day of rest; so we slept in an extra 10 minutes and headed in the direction of Blackstock Knob, probably the most unremarkable peak of our trip.  We hit it fairly quickly, but to be sure, hiked down the other side to find the “overhanging rock” as written in the CMC MST data book as being on the other side of the peak.  Mind you, there’s nothing but rocks in this section, so who knows.

Not the “overhanging rock” but one of many rocks near the trail

We turned around to hike the MST in the other direction to the Buncome Horse Trail all the way to Big Tom Spur which got us past the summit of Mt. Mitchell.  It was flat and wet, but our feet were already soaking wet from the rain which had only started to subside since dawn, so it didn’t matter much.  Big Tom Spur was steep, but by this point “steep” had kind of lost its meaning.  The rain subsided, and we reached the beloved Crest Trail once more.

We found these beautiful grass-of-parnassus on the Buncombe Horse Trail

I was feeling fairly tired, but as usual, my mind was doing little mileage calculations and I realized that we could potentially make it down to the car instead of camping another night.  I gobbled some swedish fish gummies and hiked on.  We hiked up and down and up and down and the trail was just as hard as it was two days ago.  We passed several perfectly good camping spots, and each time I looked at my watch and said to John “want to keep going?”

Wondering if we should move on along the Crest Trail

Soon the trail left the crest and started to head down.  Again, thank god I have an altimeter, because my feet and my knees were so sore that every 100 ft felt like 500 ft.  I groaned practically every other step.  We heard a bear, but it ran away before I could introduce myself, so we kept hiking some more.  Darkness was falling, and I started walking like a penguin.  Hiker hobble, they call it.  Too many miles.

Just after 8pm we got down to the car, and we started dreaming of all the things we would eat and drink once we got home.

Afterthought:

Upon returning home, we looked up the “official rules” of the South Beyond 6000ft (SB6K) challenge, and they seem arbitrary and, frankly, too complicated.  Plus on the official CMC rules page, it says “under construction”, so who knows what that means.  I realize that peak bagging, like many other hiking and running pursuits (like being a white blaze purist on the AT, which, of course we were to a stupid degree during our thru-hike), is by its nature a completely frivolous sport.  So, who knows, we probably won’t actually apply as official challenge finishers, even if we do wind up completing the list (and then some). The biggest reason being that it would mean keeping track of all the random details they want you to keep track of.  Plus, who wants to pay $10 for a patch that’ll just weigh us down in the future?  Thoughts about the SB6k challenge welcome!

Hiking with Sciatica

As many of you know, I have been dealing with Hip Dysplasia now for several years since finding out that I was actually born with this hip abnormality.  I have had hip pain since my 2014 thru-hike of the PCT, and subsequently, I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct the problem.  In June I had my last hip surgery to remove the hardware (screws) in my hip, and my hope had been to have the whole Hip Dysplasia saga behind me after this final recovery period, and be back in top hiking shape at this point.

Well, life is never so simple.  About a month before my hardware removal, I started experiencing the symptoms of sciatica: nerve pain down my left leg.  My PT helped to diagnose the problem, and I tried exercises to help it, and then hoped that some forced rest with my last surgery would knock it out.  It didn’t, and the pain persists.

It has been about 12 weeks since I first developed sciatica nerve pain, and let me tell you, it is hard and unrewarding to be in pain for 12 weeks after going through two and a half years of surgeries and recoveries in order to get to this point.  The pain itself is annoying, but what’s worse is the lack of a timeline, the lack of prognosis, and the need to constantly cancel or reschedule hikes and trips due to pain without knowing when or how this will ever go away.  The sciatica pain flares up sometimes making it hard to even walk around the house, and other times it subsides and allows me to do some less strenuous hikes.

After a lot of research, I decided that I would cut sitting out of my lifestyle and try to do some flat walking on a regular basis as pain allowed.  In general, this seemed to be the recommendation for sciatica patients.  I started using a standing desk, and I would lie down instead of sit whenever I wanted a rest from standing.

That was going well until last Thursday when I decided to go to the movies.  I sat for almost 2 hours.  Big mistake.  When I stood up I couldn’t walk without shooting pain down my leg.  That night my mental health plummeted.  I saw no hope.  I would have to cancel another hike I was supposed to guide on Saturday, and cancel my personal hike for the weekend too.  I had no other plans for the weekend besides hiking.  Nothing to look forward to.  Just another day of trying to stand all fucking day long.  It felt like no way to live.  So unfair and so demoralizing.  With every step I was forcefully reminded with an electric shock down my the back of my left leg.

On Saturday I spent the morning lying on my living room floor while Dirt Stew was out guiding a hike.  I decided to take a Gapapentin for nerve pain to see what effect it would have.  I was so bored and depressed, but I did feel somewhat better physically.  I decided I wanted to spend a night in the woods and try to catch up with our friends who had planned a backpacking trip through the Middle Prong Wilderness.

Dirt Stew came home and I told him I wanted to go backpacking..  He tried to talk me out of it, for fear that I would do more damage, but there was no way I was spending the rest of the day standing around annoyed and depressed.  If I was going to do that, I may as well do it in the woods.

We packed up and headed out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We decided to park at Devil’s Courthouse and find the MST and camp somewhere along it.  Once I started walking, I immediately started to feel human again.  It was so good to be outside and in such a beautiful section of trail.  The Hermit Thrushes were singing their mystic songs which echoed through the dense forest. It was surprisingly cool.  It had just rained, and the trail was full of puddles and mud and I was delighted to stomp through them getting my feet and legs dirty.  Sections of the MST were quite overgrown with brambles and the thorny bushes left cuts on my legs.  We wound up hiking for an hour and a half to Silvermine Bald which has some great camping spots.

View of Davidson Valley, Pilot Mountain, and the ridge that the Art Loeb Follows

We got to our campsite just after sunset and I sat on the soft forest floor rummaging through our food bags while Dirt Stew set up the tent.  My legs were covered in wet mud and scrapes and my shoes and socks were sopping wet and muddy, and I was hungry.  For the first time in weeks I felt alive again.

We ate and got into the tent just as darkness fell, and the minute I closed my eyes, I was fast asleep.  I woke up just as it started to get light out around 6AM, and I felt reasonably well rested.  We quickly packed up, knowing that we had to intersect our friends on the MST at Haywood Gap before they passed through there, and we didn’t really know when that would be.  We got up and packed up within 15-20 minutes.  “We’ve still got it!” I said with regards to how quickly we packed up.

We hiked back to our car and drove down the road to Haywood Gap.  We got out of our car and started getting our packs out of the trunk when our friends Donner (AT class of 2010) and company emerged from the forest on the other side of the woods.

“NO WAY!” exclaimed Donner as he saw us.

Good timing!  It was so good to see them again, and we donned our packs and followed the group into the woods to continue on the MST.  We chatted and caught up with friends we had hiked with before, and introduced ourselves to some new friends in the group, and all the while, I felt on top of the world.

We knew this section of trail, but the last time we had hiked it was in April, and the trail looked completely different now.  Back in April, the trail was covered in Trout Lily and May Apples, and now it was overgrown with stinging nettles, black berries and brambles.  It was still fairly flat and fast going, and with the distraction of talking with friends, the miles went by quickly.

We passed on intersection that obviously led over to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then passed another intersection that we assumed did the same thing until we started going downhill quite a lot.  Dirt Stew asked me if I wanted to turn around at this point since I was going to suffer if I had to do much uphill hiking.  We looked at the map and decided that we would keep going until the intersection with the Fork Ridge Trail, which is where the trail would really start to go downhill, and our friends would be taking that route back to their cars which were parked on 215 at the bottom.

Well, eventually we figured out that we missed the turn for the MST at the junction with the Buckeye Trail, and we had been heading down the Buckeye Trail for quite some time now.  We knew exactly where we made the wrong turn.  I wasn’t keen on going back up, and I also was having a great time hiking with my friends, so we decided that we would keep hiking with them down to their vehicles and then get a ride back up to our car.  I felt bad inconveniencing our new friends, but I also knew we could probably hitch-hike if we needed to.  I just wanted to keep hiking.

We got to the bottom of the Buckeye Trail soon after which there is a stream to ford.  Since my feet were already wet, I just walked through it, but others took the time to take off their shoes.  The water was nice and cool, and the stream was beautiful.  Bee balm and Turks Cap and Carolina Lilies were blooming everywhere.

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Eyeing a ford while the dogs lead the way through the cool water.

Stream with a nice waterfall

Do I look as happy as I feel?

Carolina Lily


Bee Balm

We finished the hike on the gravel road leading down to 215 and caught a ride with Lindsay and Taylor back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We certainly owe them a favor for getting us back to our car!

Finishing the hike on a gravel road.  Dirt Stew is eyeing the lilies.

I can’t tell you how good it was to spend the night in the woods, spend a day with friends, and spend a good amount of time in nature walking.  It was the best therapy I could have asked for, and I plan on doing it again very soon.

In a week I will see a Spine Surgeon to hopefully find the source of my Sciatica Pain, and I now believe more than ever that the final cure for this will be another long distance hike.  I hope sooner rather than later I will find myself down that path.

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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Just a narrow footpath lined with Trout Lilies

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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!

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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.

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Larkspur

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.

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Trillium