This grand undertaking was to mark my completion of the Southern Sixers in the Great Balsam Range of Pisgah National Forest and my 15th, 16, and 17th summits overall. I knew from the start I would be pushing my endurance limits with this hike but it made more sense to include all three of these peaks in one giant loop than exert myself on multiple hikes. The three peaks in question were Sam Knob (6,050'), Chestnut Bald (6,025'), and Mt. Hardy (6,110') of which only Sam Knob has a maintained summit trail or, for that matter, summit views. It would be a grueling hike that I would certainly not recommend undertaking unless you're looking to bag 6,000K-ers or are in better shape than, apparently, I was.
The plan was ambitious to say the least. By trail there's no way to make this loop. My only options were to be dropped off at the Flat Laurel Creek Trailhead and hike back to my car or, as I decided, park at Buckeye Gap and then bike the 3-miles down to the Flat Laurel Creek Trailhead where I could start the hike. The biking portion wasn't all that hard as it was mostly downhill but it added mileage to an already long 15-mile+ hike. It had been a long, long time since I had planned such an ambitious day hike but the payoff seemed to outweigh the potential drawbacks. As it was the hike was one of the most beautiful and varied I'd been on in a while. The only problem I ran into, and it was a big one, was the resurfacing of a severe ligament injury to my knee that I had suffered in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore about 10 years previously. Sometime after about the 12-mile mark, past Chestnut Bald, that old familiar pain started to return making the final miles over Mt. Hardy quite a frustrating challenge. Overall, I am glad I was able to accomplish this hike (and, happily, I healed quite quickly afterwards)...it was quite simply an amazing experience. It also did me the service of showing me exactly where my limits are for upcoming hikes as there are potentially a number of these high-mileage days ahead of me before I can complete the South Beyond 6,000 Challenge...
So grab your boots, plenty of water, and a knee brace if you need one...and come on along with me on one of the most epic hikes I've accomplished in quite some time...
Hike Length: 18.0 miles (~3.0 by bike) Hike Duration: 8:30
Trailhead Temp: 55'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 5,040' Max. Elevation: 6,110'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,850' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 220'