Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cold Mountain and the Shining Rock Wilderness Area

Every year, I try to make at least 3 major hikes. One in the spring, because I enjoy the new greenness while still enjoying the brisk evenings, one with an old friend of mine, because we just love talking about everything and anything, and one in late October, because you still get color in the lower altitudes, but the peaks have dropped all or most of their leaves, and the views are amazing, when they are otherwise hard to see in the summer.

This year, I was able to drag along two friends with me, one who had never hiked backcountry in quite some time and one that had never hiked backcountry at all. I wanted a decent challenge for myself, a peak with views, a good taste of backcountry hiking for my friends and someplace completely new to me. After some researching, I finally decided on the Shining Rock Wilderness area with its famous peak, Cold Mountain. This area of the Blue Ridge Mountains has great views plus some reasonably high peaks for the area. The challenge was the unmarked trails and having to rely on maps, compass and my smart phone (yeah, not a wild stretch). The peak was obviously Cold Mountain, the Art Loeb trail would provide a wonderful up and down trail over balds on the way to the mountain and I had never visited this area at all, despite having heard plenty about it.

 Our trip began on Wednesday evening, as I rocketed through Coats, NC to pick up Thomas, then a quick shuttle to Raleigh to pick up Mike and then heading out towards Asheville where we would crash that night right at the exit on the eastern side of Asheville next to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We learned all about Thomas’ problems, probably more than he intended to talk about, but he just kept on talking and talking (this is a recurring theme on this trip). Thursday morning, we got on the Blue Ridge Parkway
and headed up the mountains through countless tunnels up past Mount Pisgah and that homely inn up there I had never noticed before (marked for future checking out). A few miles past Wagon Gap, we came across the turn off for Black Balsam Knob and the Art Loeb trail. Parking at the trail head, we picked up the Iverson Gap trail, a trail that paralleled the Art Loeb trail along the western side of the mountains.

It was a far flatter trail that allowed us to get used to our packs. It routinely intersected with the Art Loeb trail that was going up the tops of the balds in the direction Cold Mountain. It probably functions as a really good service road for rangers if needed. We followed that trail for about 4 miles. It intersected the Art Loeb one more time before it turned into a nice narrow trail following the side of the mountain. The view towards the west was amazing. In lower levels, the color was vivid. The ultra clear sky (this was gonna change) allowed us to see far beyond the initial mountains in front of us. The temperature was a wonderful 60, allowing for the best hike I had had in a long time. We took a time, in the section of the Iverson Gap trail that narrowed to sit down for a bit, take pictures, talk, snack and it was so relaxing we all nearly fell asleep. Of course, we were then attacked by a bumble bee (another theme, attacks by wild animals). It never bothered me but it kept going back and forth between Thomas and Mike. Continuing our hike, we reached the end of the Iverson Gap trail, ending at the Art Loeb trail once again.

This intersection at Flower Gap had what appeared to be nearly seven trails coming in and out of that little area. This area was also a well used campsite. It was just underneath shining rock and seeing that it was nearly lunch, we hiked the short yet very tight and cramped trail up the Shining Rock. At this point, the brush around the trail was extremely thick. My pack was packed rather high and kept getting caught in the branches above me. I had to nearly crawl many times. Shining Rock was a great climb though, and once again, the views did not disappoint. We had our lunch here and enjoyed the view, and the quickly changing weather. Clouds came up and over us and the sun vanished into gray skies. We knew we’d want to get as close to Cold Mountain as we could because there were calls for rain the next day. After cleaning up our lunch we hit the trail. This is where the fun began.

The trail got incredibly thin, although still very clear. The brush was thick and sharp and I have several scratches and rips on my pants. At one point, the brush got caught on a zipper, opened a small pocket and stuff spilled out. The trail continued though, opening up over the top of a few balds to allow for great views. Then, as we started down the second bald, the trail vanished, just stopped. There simply was no clear path onwards. Our backcountry experience became something else. I fired up the smart phone to see just where we were and tried unsuccessfully to find the trail. At one point, with the brush being so thick, Mike and I stood up on some rock formations we had found and let Thomas walk around the brush with his hiking stick held high to see if we could find the trail. We didn't. I fired up the smart phone again after about 2 hours of hunting for the trail and began to hack our way through the brush just following the map. We came upon a very clear campsite but no clear trail off after this. Once again, we began going through the thick brush in the direction of the trail marked on my phone. At one point, we were nearly scuttling along on our stomachs through the thick brush. Then, we heard it. At least Thomas and I did. A low growl. We both looked at each other and I said “its time to go back”. We high tailed it out of there back to that campsite we had found earlier.

(Edit 11/21/2011. Look below in the comments for a website that shows how to find the trail.)

We debated staying there and going on the next day, as it was already almost 5, but after looking around, we could find no water source. So we hiked out of there back to the campsite at the end of the Iverson Gap trail at Flower Gap. There was a stream nearby and a really good covered area with plenty of space to camp. We were quite disappointed. We were still a good 4 miles from Cold Mountain with no idea where that trail was, a day of rain on the way and time running out. We were scratched up, sore and beat up. We camped, set up our tents and hammocks, ate some good hot food and sat around to enjoy the darkening skies, smoke our pipes and enjoy the talks. That is, of course, till we were attacked by wild forest creatures (a mouse). It attacked Mike first, attempted to bite off his entire hand (it walked over its hand), then a few minutes later, it came bounding at me trying to cut my jugular (it jumped towards where I was sitting). We were terrified, debated setting up traps to capture this monstrosity, but settled with just going to bed.

 The next morning greeted us with a strong fog. I was able to pull a smidge of reception to see that the radar was bringing rain. We decided to hike on out of there back to the car, regroup, and find another way up to Cold Mountain. We packed up quickly and this time took the Art Loeb trail back towards the car. Unfortunately, there would be no views this day. The fog gave us possibly ten feet of visibility, making for an eerie hike through the balds. On the top of each bald, the trail got tricky. Was it the trail or a washed out section? You could never know. After the second bald, the rain began picking up. Even with rain gear on, you got cold and wet and hypothermia was an instant concern. I kept the guys going and we decided to forfeit the last section of the Art Loeb and just take the quick Iverson Gap trail back to the car.

Just as we got on that trail, the wind and rain came in a fury. All I could do was put my head down and keep walking. Thankfully, at this point, the path was nice and wide, so I just looked down and kept on going. After a few miles, the rain stopped long enough for me to get out some dry clothes, change my shirt and at least get some dry clothes underneath it all. My pants were ultra water resistant, but I was sweating so much that it was chilling me there anyways. We met a pair of older hikers who were, in their own words “out here just screwing around”. They picked an awful day to do that. We made it back to the car just as the rain was really coming down even harder. We crawled into the car, cranked the heat and headed back down into Asheville.

 After a bit of research, I found another way up to Cold Mountain that we could do in one day. We camped out at a Comfort Inn, dried all of our gear, ate Mexican….and then ordered a pizza and got ready for the next day.

That Saturday, we headed out towards the Daniel Boone Boy Scout camp just underneath Cold Mountain. The Art Loeb trail ends (or begins) there and goes up to the ridge that leads up to Cold Mountain. It was a very brisk (freezing) morning, ice on everything, clouds over everything. We were determined to get up to the top to at least say that we did. We did ditch a lot of our gear and only took essentials, water, snack, camera and a lunch, cold and rain gear, and off we went.

 The way up can be divided into three segments. The first segment is the initial climb from the camp. It goes up very quickly over very rocky terrain. The climb did warm us up quickly though and we were out of the wind. The trail continued like this for about one mile, going up steeply as we gained about 2000 feet. Then, we went around one bend and the mountain was in view, albeit covered in clouds. And then the wind hit us.

This was the cold side of the mountain. The wind hit us with ice. Granted that it was cold, ice at least bounces off rain gear and doesn’t get anything wet. We got our gloves on and kept going. The trail was very rocky, and covered by leaves to hide those slippery rocks, but there was no hiding where the trail was here. This segment continued for about two miles, sometimes picking up what appeared to be really old roads no longer used and at times getting very thin, mountain on one side, a good fall on the other. We did find a good stream where we refilled and knew wed have water on the way down.

 We ran into a couple that was on their way down who were woefully underdressed. She had his gloves on and tights and they both were red and looked miserable. We traded quick stories but they clearly wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

We took the Art Loeb trail up to a ridge that is next to Cold Mountain and met another group there, these dressed for the weather. They had spent the night up on Cold Mountain (we were jealous) but it had been a cold one and they had no views as the peak was still covered in clouds. At this point we got off the Art Loeb and took the Cold Mountain trail. The trail was covered in ice, but the views began to open up. We could easily see the peak from the trail now, as the sun was now shining clearly and the clouds were gone. We were estatic; we were a mile away and we were going to get our views. We took a quick break to snack up and Thomas continued telling us all about himself (this had gone on pretty much non-stop all the way up so far).

The last final mile up to the top followed the southern side of the mountain up around the west, but when it reached the northern side and we followed the ridge up the top, we were attacked by wind and ice. It was bitter on the northern side, but when the trail dipped into the southern side, the sun warmed us up quickly. The views opened up routinely, with amazing views in every direction. We followed the thin trail all the way up to the geological marker and found an amazing view point facing south (and in the warm side).

The view was great. I can really only let the pictures do the talking.

We stayed up there for about 30 minutes, just talking, enjoying, and smoking pipes. Mike let us know that he did have a heights issue and Thomas broke out the camera and went crazy. The pictures of the views from up here are all his. We had seen a very small stream and some wonderful rocks to sit on just on the southern side of the mountain on the way up, and Mike and I headed back down to cook up some rice to eat there before we headed back down. Thomas stayed behind a bit to take more pictures.

The way down was eventful because we ran into many people that were on their way up to camp at the top. Then, the final animal attack. A bear. Yes, a bear. Well no, it was actually a really big fluffy dog that really looked like a bear coming around the trail for a split moment. My breath was certainly taken away for a few moments until I realized that this “bear” was wearing a collar and carrying a pack of his own. We joked with his owners for a bit. We encountered another couple headed up. I envied their night on the peak and the possible clear sky view of Asheville and our universe.

The race was on to get to the bottom. We didn’t have much time left with sun light left so we upped the speed a bit, all the time staying careful of slippery rocks. Going downhill is no fun when you have to watch every single step you take. I managed to slip on one and really scrape up my shin and Mike nearly went off the edge once when he stepped on a false pile of leaves (there was nothing underneath). (Michelle, I debated putting this in lest you not allow your husband to do this again with me). About 40 minutes from the bottom, the sun dipped down behind the mountains in front of us. We had about that much time left. Thomas also suddenly was very quiet. I took one look at him and could tell that he wasn’t doing well at all. From that point on, no one said a thing until we could smell people cooking down below us and we could hear kids. We made it back down in time, crawled into the car, Thomas holding on to his stomach contents the entire time.

Once on the road, we commiserated on the whole trip, the wonderful first day, the misery of losing the trail, the rain and wind, but the amazing hike up to the peak and the wonderful views. We stopped at a Crackel Barrel (my official post hike restaurant of choice) and we destroyed a large meal each. We then decided to actually go home that night, with my final destination in Fayetteville being reached at 2 AM.

The trip was an amazing one. I’ve had many difficulties in trips before, but never with others with me. I was truly disappointed in not being able to find that trail and have already vowed to return there and complete that trail in its entirety. Cold Mountain of course, was a special treat. The hike was challenging, yet very rewarding. The views were amazing. I was disappointed that I didn’t find Nicole Kidman, but I am overall very satisfied.

And now, I await the spring. Next year I have trips planned in the Rockies, the Clingman’s dome from Deep Creek campground, Mt Mitchell from the very bottom, and some section of the AT I have yet to plan. I hope Mike and Thomas enjoyed themselves and are willing to go with me again.

The winter comes, and Id love to do snow hike, but, my wife is due any day now, and I believe I will stay home this winter and enjoy the addition of a new hiker to my family.

Cheers for 2011 and happy hiking in 2012.

That's me, if anyone is curious.


North Carolina Hiker said...

As an addendum to this trip, fellow hiker Brenda pointed out that lost trail that we simply could not find. Credit goes to her and her great website. If you find my site before heading out, read this one out as well.

North Carolina Hiker

Lowell Thomas Ferguson III said...

Great summary of our trip. Although...I mainly continued talking about my "problems" because you guys kept nudging. [Probably because you were enjoying making fun of my confusing love life and chaotic life choices]. HAHA. Next time I will bring myself a muzzle...or some duct tape. It was a FANTASTIC trip and I will definitely join you again in the future if life permits.