Blue Ridge Pinnacle to Graybeard Mountain (11-26-16)
So...lately I must admit I have had a bit of an obsession with the Black Mountains and their associated subranges. In the four months prior to this one I had done three trips in the immediate area (Blackstock Knob, the Black Mountain Crest Trail, and the Big Butt Trail) which, if you follow me, is a bit odd as I typically like to spread my adventures out a bit...geographically speaking. Such it was though that I once again found myself the prior weekend looking for a new place to explore and I was once again drawn to the Blacks with a couple of peaks, in particular, in mind. First though a little orientation...
The Black Mountain Range is located just northwest of Asheville and rises from the upper end of the Swannanoa River Valley. The valley, shaped like an inverted letter 'U', is flanked by three massive ridgelines of which the Blacks form the northern boundary. The western ridge contains the peaks of the Craggy Mountain Range which, like the Blacks, rise to elevations exceeding 6,000-feet. It is the eastern boundary of the valley that would interest me this day, however. This ridgeline isn't quite as lofty as the other two but still manages to reach elevations well over a mile high. The three northernmost summits of this ridge would be what interested me this day. Their names (north to south) are Blue Ridge Pinnacle, Rocky Knob, and Graybeard Mountain. All three of these mountains sport magnificent grandstand across the Swannanoa River Valley of both the Craggy Mountains and the southern Black Mountains. Blue Ridge Pinnacle and Rocky Knob, in particular, have spectacular exposed summits where the views are all but unobstructed. Perhaps the biggest draw for me, as with many other destinations that tend to be favorites, is the fact that these peaks are relatively unknown. All the ingredients were thus in place ahead of time for this hike to be a classic.
One of the reasons this trio of mountains is so rarely visited, compared with their busier neighbors, is that most people are only aware of the southern access point to the trail system which reaches them. Originating from the ritzy college town of Montreat a hike to all three of these summits from the south would require well over 10 miles of hiking and a vertical climb nearing 3,000-feet. Not something the average hiker tackles on a regular basis...myself included. Luckily, I had learned of another way to head in. This access point, at the upper end of the Old Mitchell Toll Road, offers an approach from the north. Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway, just east of the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park, this starting point offered the dual advantages of being a more manageable 8-ish miles long hike and a vertical gain total in the less demanding sub-2,000 foot range. The Old Toll Road is easy to miss if you're not looking for it. If you're headed north on the Parkway you want to look for a forest road on the right, guarded by a simple white metal gate, about a half mile beyond the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park. A couple small patches of grass allow for limited parking to either side of the gate. Beyond the Old Mitchell Toll Road heads uphill into the woods and immediately on the right an orange-blazed trail breaks right. This is where the adventure begins.
The unnamed (though I dub it here the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail) orange-blazed path heads south along the crest of the ridge just inside the well-marked boundary of the Asheville Watershed. A quick note...the entirety of the ridge-top route from the Parkway to Graybeard runs along this boundary. You won't miss it, the large orange warning signs seem to be posted every hundred feet, and you DEFINITELY don't want to cross it...doing so risks a hefty fine or possibly jail time if you're caught. Simply put just stay on the trail up there. Anyway...the trail follows the ridge south and the grade steepens as it climbs to the top of Blue Ridge Pinnacle after only about a mile of walking. The payoff is far beyond what you have earned effort-wise on the hike thus far. The Pinnacles summit is wide open and rocky. The panorama west and north of the towering Craggy and Black Mountains is numbing in its beauty. It quite simply is one of the finest high mountain perches I've ever experienced in North Carolina...and the hike was only starting! Beyond the Pinnacle I had read that an un-maintained but passable path continued south along the top of the ridge to my next summit...Rocky Knob. I looked around for a few minutes but couldn't for the life of me spot anything resembling a path dropping off the Pinnacles' steep north face. The only option was to continue on the orange blazed trail as it dropped off the east side of the summit on its way back to the Old Toll Road.
Upon reaching the Toll Road I turned south once again. I figured I could follow the road down the ridge a short distance to the point where it reaches the shallow gap between Blue Ridge Pinnacle and Rocky Knob, at which point I'd once again look for the elusive boundary path. Passing an old cabin and an odd collection of disused trailers as I descended I soon reached the gap. I climbed to the height of land to the right of the road and almost immediately located the path I was looking for. It was faint, but looked easy enough to follow so I turned south toward Rocky Knob. The climb to the Knob along the watershed boundary path was quite gradual, much easier than the climbs to either of the other peaks this day. The summit of Rocky Knob sports the same spectacular panorama that I enjoyed atop the Pinnacle, although somewhat more restricted by the forest encroaching from below. The signature feature of this small peak is the steep open cliff-face which forms its north face however. I followed the trail out to the top of the cliff face and very carefully scrambled my way down. The views from the cliff were almost better than those at the summit.
From this point the rounded summit of Graybeard, my final target of the day, dominated the skyline only a mile or so to the south. I once again intended to follow the boundary path along the ridge. A maintained trail does descend east to the Toll Road off Rocky Knob but that using that route to climb Graybeard would be far longer and involve much more climbing. Descending to the south into the forest beneath the cliffs the boundary path wasn't immediately apparent. Locating it didn't take much time however. I simply located one of the nearby trees adorned with an obnoxious watershed boundary sign and looked around. Sure enough, there was the path, and I was thus on my way toward Graybeard. The path descends rather gently to the gap north of Graybeard then begins its attack of the summit ridge. The route seems to steepen the nearer it gets to the top. Alternating between open deciduous woodlands and thick tangles of rhododendron I huffed my way upwards. The summit was reached in a very sudden manner as the path seemed to literally burst through the roof of the thick surrounding foliage onto the open ledges. The summit is small and the views, while equally expansive as the previous two peaks I had crossed, are noticeably limited by the thick heath surrounding it on all sides. Still, it was a nice place to sit and snack and enjoy what would be the last good views of my hike.
The route I would take back to the car would be along maintained and (mostly) marked trails. I descended by way of the Graybeard Trail which winds its way a steep mile down (about 1,000 vertical feet) back to the Old Mitchell Toll Road. Passing the remote Walker's Knob Shelter on the way the trail was enjoyable if only for the fact that for the first time in a while this day I didn't have to concentrate too hard on what route the path was taking. Upon reaching the Toll Road I made a left, heading north. From this point it would simply be a ever-so gradual three mile long climb along the old motor route back to the Blue Ridge Parkway and my car. It wasn't the most scenic way to end this spectacular day but it was relaxing and I enjoyed it immensely despite the lack of jaw-dropping scenery.
The hike was a complete success overall and I can report that all the rave reports of the beauty offered from the tops of these remote peaks is totally accurate. This hike, as I stated earlier, is destined to become a classic. Ruggedness, remoteness, solitude, and beauty all combined on this trip to create one of the finest all-around hikes I had done in some time...and in this area, which has recently so obsessed me, that's saying something! So without further adieu, please lace your boots tight and grab a hiking stick if you so choose and join me on yet another spectacular mountain hike...ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.712015, -82.274856
Route Type: Lollipop Difficulty: HARD
Mileage Hiked: 8.3 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 30'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 4,480' Max. Elevation: 5,665'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,700' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 205'
Trails Used (blaze color): Blue Ridge Pinnacle (orange), Graybeard (blue), Graybeard-Old Mitchell Toll Road Cutoff (unblazed), Old Mitchell Toll Road (unblazed), Watershed Boundary Path (unblazed)