Buncombe Horse Range Trail (M.S.T.) - 5,650'

MST- Mt. Mitchell State Park to South Toe Trailhead


Welcome to the top of the MST…and all of the eastern United States, for that matter. Mount Mitchell, at 6,684’, stands as the king of the Appalachian Mountains and this is the segment of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in which hikers get to climb it. Rising near the midpoint of the 15-mile long Black Mountain Range, Mount Mitchell has some lofty neighbors as well. Some fourteen of the Blacks rise above the 6,000-foot mark, ten of which are included on the Carolina Mountain Club’s venerable SB6K list. Unfortunately, the MST only visits one…but that’s probably enough depending on your direction of travel. East-bounders, which I be one of on this particular section hike don’t have it too bad. With a reasonable elevation gain of around 1,300-feet, all of it in the first 4.5-miles, this is a tough but manageable hike for those in decent shape. West-bounders, however, are going to face a different animal altogether. Starting at the South Toe Trailhead, these intrepid souls are standing down the barrel of one of the toughest sections of trail in the Southern Appalachians. The trail to the summit of Mount Mitchell, from the South Toe, rises a quad-punishing 3,700-feet in just under six miles. It’s a grinding hike and, I’ll be completely honest, one I was happy to skip out on this day.

This eastbound section hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail begins near the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park where the path makes a crossing of NC-128, the summit access road. There’s not a whole lot of parking in the vicinity of the MST crossing but luckily, compared to other trailheads in the park, this one isn’t nearly as heavily used. Getting an early start will assure you a spot at one of the gravel pull-offs just above or below the MST crossing. Leaving the road the trail immediately begins its winding journey north on a wide, overgrown forest track. In a tenth-of-a-mile it joins the oddly-named Buncombe Horse Range Trail at a well-marked junction. For the next 3-plus miles the MST and the BHRT coincide as they make a winding and gradual climb north along the eastern flank of the Black Mountain Range. So gentle is the uphill grade along this stretch, you will barely notice the 600-foot vertical gain between one end and the other. Around the 3.5-mile mark the trail breaks into the open at a T-junction with the Commissary Trail. The MST now makes a sharp left to follow the Commissary a short distance to the site of the former Camp Alice, a logging camp-turned-lodge/restaurant from the early and mid-20th Century, nothing of which remains today. Just after rock-hopping pretty Lower Creek the MST makes another turn, now onto the Camp Alice Trail. Play time is now over.

Though it doesn’t compare to the daunting climb to the summit from the east, the climb from former Camp Alice to the top of Mount Mitchell will still get your attention. Standing at the bottom of the Camp Alice Trail you have little more than ¾-mile to travel to achieve the summit, but it’s still nearly 1,000-feet above you. Needless to say, get you boots laced tight for this next bit. There’s not much to say about this stretch other than that. It’s rough, it’s unrelenting, and it’s thickly forested with no views until the top. However, the forest itself is quite a sight here. As you climb well above 6,000-feet your surroundings will feel decidedly more northern. Here the spruce-fir forest dominates. It’s an environment only found on the highest peaks and is at the same time both beautiful and heartbreaking. The mosses covering everything, the grim tenacity of a forest rooted in stone is all very wondrous. Skeletons are everywhere as well though, telling of a forest which is also sick. This would be work of the Balsam Wooly Adelgid, an invasive pest which, over the last century, has decimated the fir population leaving barren snags and stumps everywhere across the high peaks. It’s a sight which is sad but, also, one that should cause visitors to see the forests of these mountains as sensitive to human presence, and very precious.

Reaching the summit will likely be jarring for some. All of the trails in the park are fairly popular but the paved summit path, on most clear days, is packed. These won’t be people that ‘earned’ the summit either…you’ll inevitably hear a few whining about how hard the climb from the parking lot is. Even so the summit is a special place. The diminutive and well-designed stone tower reaches just high enough above the surrounding forest for stunning views in almost every direction. On the clearest of days the view stretches out for 100-miles. It’s also cool to realize you’re the highest person in the United States east of the Mississippi for a few minutes. The view east provides a look at the next part of the hike, and it’s a view which will make you thankful for so wisely choosing to do this hike in an eastbound direction. Somewhere in the forested valley, nearly 4,000-feet below, is the South Toe River and the trailhead for which you’re heading. Those poor, poor hikers down there looking up…for you, happily, it’s all downhill from here.

Retracing your steps a short distance down the summit path make a right onto the Mount Mitchell Trail, which is signed as the Balsam Nature Trail (with which it coincides a short distance) at the junction. After a brief time along relatively flat ground as the trail circles the summit, the downhill grade gets steep and rugged. You’re now dropping off the end of Commissary Ridge, which forms the summit cone of Mitchell and extends from there to the south east. This is a well-travelled trail, which will be obvious, so please stay on the easily identified trail as you go. A few stray footfalls can be more damaging than you might think to this harsh-yet-delicate environment. In less than a mile-and-a-half you’ll have lost 900-feet of elevation and emerge into a grassy clearing where the Buncombe Horse Range Trail is once again met. In fact, the point where you left it for the Commissary Trail is located just a half-mile east of this spot. Turn left on the BHRT here as it and the MST combine for a few hundred yards, heading north on a level grade for a few hundred yards. There’s a number of nice campsites along this stretch as well. At the Y-junction quickly reached, stay right (downhill) to continue on the Mt. Mitchell Trail/MST.

Within a few hundred feet you emerge into a large power-line cut at the lip of the ridge. You can see the trail twisting back and forth on the impossibly steep slope below. You’re looking down 800-feet of vertical…which the trail covers in the next ¾-mile! Weaving your way back and forth through the cut the punishment your knees take is keenly felt. Grades like this are almost as wearing no matter which direction you’re heading on them. The worst is over for a bit after a mile where the MST now makes a turn onto the Higgins Bald Trail, at its upper junction with the Mt. Mitchell Trail. The MST was only recently rerouted onto the Higgins Bald, which is nice as it’s far less travelled than the Mt. Mitchell and provides for some much-appreciated solitude. The forest is at this point transitioning back to one of mostly hardwoods as the downward trajectory eases after crossing tiny Setrock Creek. In a little over a mile you’ll reach the lower junction of the Higgins Bald and Mt. Mitchell, bearing right on the latter to continue your descent. You’re now dropping off the crest of Long Arm Ridge, and it’s a drops equally as severe as anything that has come before. The campground and trailhead are less than 1.5-miles away, but still over 1,200-feet below. If your knees weren’t feeling it before this point, they’ll probably have some stern words to say after it.  When you finally reach flat ground again the end of the day will be near.  Keep an eye out for blue, yellow, and white blazes as the River Loop (yellow) joins in as the trail turns alongside the South Toe.  Soon the trail enters the Black Mountain Campground from the west, which you'll walk through a short ways before crossing the car bridge over the river and reach the South Toe Trailhead on the other side.  Hike complete.  

This isn't a hike for everyone.  Unless you're in decent shape the climb over Mount Mitchell, the brutal descent, and the high mileage will be too much to enjoy.  Don't be too put off by that fact though, there are plenty of shorter day-hikes you can make utilizing portions of the segment of the MST and the highlight of the hike, the summit of Mitchell, can almost be driven to.  For me it was an amazingly rewarding hike.  Enough of a challenge to feel I had accomplished something but not so much that it ever got monotonous.  My quest to section hike the MST will continue and hikes like this only increase the morale to pursue it..  With that, I invite you along with me on another wonderful section hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail...from NC-128, over Mt. Mitchell, and down to the South Toe Trailhead...as always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.726116, -82.283433  (NC-128 M.S.T. Crossing)

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.751090, -82.220182  (South Toe Trailhead)


Section Length:  10.9 miles     

Difficulty Rating:  EXTREME (Petzoldt Rating: 13.60 )     

Min. Elevation:  2,980' (South Toe River)     

Max. Elevation:  6,684'  (Mount Mitchell)     

Total Vertical Gain:  1,350'     

Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  124'

5-22-2021