Mount Mitchell State Park -- Big Tom Gap Loop (10-26-17)
Any planned trip I make to the Black Mountains is one that is always accompanied by a good deal of excitement. As the highest mountain range in North Carolina, and indeed the entire Eastern United States, the experience of hiking here is one of majestic views coupled with challenging and rugged terrain sure to satiate ones desire for adventure. Over my years in North Carolina I've visited the beloved Blacks many times and, honestly, I'm starting to run out of new and unique routes to explore them by on foot. Particularly, in the vicinity of Mount Mitchell State Park. So it was on this day that I'd be seeking out a lesser-used route to make a loop north of Mitchell into a somewhat quieter section of the park. This loop would take me over the two highest summits in the range and then along two of the lesser-used paths surrounding them.
My plan would be to begin and end my hike at the summit parking lot at Mount Mitchell at the Deep Gap (Black Mountain Crest) Trailhead. From the busy summit area I'd head north through the spruce-fir forests covering the ridge, hiking about a mile before summiting the second highest peak in the Black Mountain Range, Mount Craig (6,647'). From Mount Craing I'd continue along the high ridge across the sub-peak of Big Tom(6,581') and then making the extremely steep drop off Big Tom's north face to Big Tom Gap. Here, a bit over a half-mile north of Mount Craig I'd make my turn onto one of the least-used trails in the State Park, the Big Tom Gap Trail. The Big Tom Gap Trail serves as a connector between the Deep Gap Trail atop the ridge and the Buncombe Horse Range Trail which parallels the ridge below. Though only around four-tenths of a mile in length the BTGT is incredibly steep and rugged as it drops over 600-feet in elevation along its brief length. Due to its infrequent use it can also be fairly overgrown, though on this particular visit I didn't find it all that difficult to follow. As it drops of the ridge the BTGT passes some nice open areas with views east before re-enetering the forest and essentially following a rocky ephemeral stream bed the rest of the way to the Horse Trail.
After almost being literally dropped onto the Buncombe Horse Trail my route would turn south (right) and I would spend the next nearly two miles gradually ascending along the east side of the ridge below Mount Mitchell. The Horse Trail makes for an easy walk, especially with what had come before on the loop but there's not much in the way of stunning scenery to be seen along its length...with one exception. About a half mile south of the Big Tom Gap Trail the Horse Trail makes a wide right turn across Fork Ridge through an open grassy area. Here magnificent views of the surrounding forest and the Black Mountain Range to your back can be seen. After around two miles on the Horse Trail the Mount Mitchell Trail arrives from below on the left and the two trails coincide for a couple hundred yards before the Mount Mitchell Trail once again beaks off, this time right, to continue its climb of its namesake peak. To continue my loop I'd also turn right to follow it. After the easy stroll along the Horse Trail it's now back to business on the Mount Mitchell Trail. From the point it breaks off the Horse Trail its about a mile-and-a-half to the summit...nearly 1,000-feet above. The trail does a good job of making the climb manageable, however. It's rugged to be sure, with lots of rocks and roots, but it never seems overly steep as it meanders back and forth up Mount Mitchells summit cone. The forest is beautiful up here too. Above 6,000-feet one is firmly in the spruce-fir zone and your surroundings feel decidedly more northerly. Also, everything up here seems to be covered in a thick layer of moss, the result of this being such a moist cloud-enveloped environment more days than not. No ecosystem in the Southern Appalachians fascinates me more.
Eventually the sounds of civilization begin to meet your ears from above as you approach the summit and suddenly the dirt path ends at the paved road to the summit. The ubiquitous crowds are a bit of a downer after a hike of such solitude but a stop by the magnificent summit of North Carolina's highest peak isn't one to be missed. So I made the quick side trip up to the observation deck and took in the view from the top of Eastern America. It was wonderful as always, despite the crowds. After that a leisurely stroll down the summit road led me back to the parking lot and my car. This was a fantastic hike, full stop. On a busy weekend day in the Black Mountains it can seem all but impossible to remove yourself from the crowds. This loop is a way to do it! Granted you'll still encounter a lot of traffic along the Deep Gap Trail and atop Mount Mitchell but as soon as you step off down the Big Tom Gap Trail I can almost guarantee solitude. Views aplenty...the wonder of wandering for miles through high elevation forests, ridgetops, and meadows...this really is a wonderfully well-rounded hike. So, without further adieu I present to you a loop through a rather unvisited corner of Mount Mitchell State Park. As with all hikes in the Blacks, its a good one so, as always...ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.767329, -82.264666
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: HARD
Mileage Hiked: 6.2 miles Hike Duration: 3:15
Trailhead Temp: 40'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people (excluding summit area)
Min. Elevation: 5,700' Max. Elevation: 6,684'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,300' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 210'
Trails Used (blaze color/shape): Balsam Nature Loop (white triangles), Big Tom Gap (blue diamonds), Black Mountain Crest (orange triangles), Buncombe Horse (white diamonds), Mount Mitchell (blue diamonds)