Green Knob -- Middle Prong Wilderness (1-14-18)
The Middle Prong Wilderness of Pisgah National Forest is a 7,900-acre piece of rugged mountain land in southern Haywood County. Unlike its more frequently visited neighbor to the east, the Shining Rock Wilderness, the Middle Prong is largely untraveled by comparison. Few trails penetrate into it and those that do are quite wild in character as a result. This is a place of solitude, quite unlike most other places in the Pisgah Ranger District. My destination for this hike is a summit frequently seen but seldom visited...Green Knob. It stands directly west of the wildly popular Sam Knob. Indeed this is why it first drew my interest. Looking across from that summit Green Knob is noticeable as the high point of Fork Ridge which runs in a north-to-south line on the western side of the upper Pigeon River Gorge. From Sam Knob it is an impressive sight and has long presented itself as a desirable destination for me. Thus it was that on this day I'd make one of my longest forays into the Middle Prong, and it would turn out to be a beautiful one.
Green Knob, and the entire Fork Ridge, is luckily traversed in its entirety by the Green Mountain Trail. The GMT, as I'll call it for short, is a true wilderness trail. Following wilderness guidelines it is un-blazed and it is noticeably less traveled than other nearby trails and in places a bit hard to follow. However, with a good map and some helpful directions (like what I hope you'll find in this album) you shouldn't have too much trouble. I'd start my hike from the small pulloff for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail on the west side of NC-215. There's only room for a couple cars here so if needs be you may have to park a short distance further south at another, much larger, parking area. The MST is a well known, fairly well-used path so it's not difficult to locate. From the road the trail immediately drops down to make a rock-hop across the scenic Bubbling Spring Branch. If you'd like there's a couple pretty waterfalls just upstream from this crossing that I'd recommend looking into. As I've visited them a number of times, though, I'd be skipping them on this particular hike. From Bubbling Spring Branch the trail meanders north along the ridge through a high elevation forest of mixed hardwoods and conifers. At a point about a half-mile in it enters a large meadow and begins to reverse direction as it begins to follow south the drainage of an unnamed tributary of the West Fork Pigeon River. The trail utilizes the route of an old forest road so it stays fairly wide and the grade of ascent is rarely anything more than moderate. About a mile in the trail makes a shallow but wide crossing just below where two small branches come together to form the tributary. From that point the trail gets a bit rockier and steeper as it begins to get a bit more serious about climbing the ridge. Making a few wide switchbacks, I passed a nice view across the valley of Mount Hardy Falls cascading off an open cliff on the side of Fork Ridge about a quarter-mile away. It's a nice place to take a breather before continuing on. The trail continues to climb from the overlook of the falls and soon gains the top of the ridge where the more open landscape gives some nice views of nearby Mount Hardy and Herrin Knob. Though atop the ridge the climb still continues, however. Now firmly into the spruce-fir forests characteristic of the high ridges, the trail narrows and becomes more rocky as it switches back and forth seeking out the shallow gap connecting Fork Ridge and Mount Hardy.
The junction with the Green Mountain Trail isn't as hard to spot as you might think. In fact, if your intent is to continue on the MST you might accidentally turn onto the Green Mountain Trail without realizing it. At the junction, where a faded red blaze can bee seen on the side of a red spruce, the Green Mountain Trail goes right in a much more obvious manner while the MST continues straight ahead, though it can hardly be made out as it winds past the trees. Thus the potential confusion. For Green Knob though I'd be making the turn right. Within a few minutes the Green Mountain Trail begins a steep climb into an open area. This is another point where its easy to get off track. The true trail heads straight uphill back into the woods while false, much more heavily used, path goes left. The left hand path leads a short distance out to a magnificent view of the neighboring Great Balsam Range so you shouldn't skip it but just keep in mind to backtrack to where the real trail splits off. There are a number of false spur trails along this section, no doubt created by previous confused hikers, but keeping in mind that the Green Mountain Trail tends to keep atop the ridge I managed to stay on the right track without too much trouble. The farther from the MST the GMT gets the fewer of these spur paths are encountered and thus the easier it is to follow. Between the MST and Green Knob the trail bounces its way over three small knobs which I dubbed First Knob, Rocky Knob, and Third Knob. First Knob is quickly passed and crossed over fairly easily. Rocky Knob is, as my name for it implies, characterized by small ledges one of which offers the first views of the hike across to Sam Knob and the Shining Rock Ridge. Third Knob is the most challenging of the three knobs, though its steeper north face means its more tiring on the return journey.
After the steep descent off Third Knob the trail reaches a shallow gap in the ridge and the surrounding forest thins out. As the trail begins its final climb up Green Knob it enters an environment of low shrubs and briers. No doubt in the summer this section gets a bit overgrown. The views opened up almost as soon as I began the final climb. with a number of opportunities to stop and gaze across the rugged upper reaches of the West Fork Pigeon River Gorge. As expected, though, the real payoff is at the summit. There's no marker denoting it but the top is obvious and a large grassy meadow sits just off the trail on the summits east side. A campfire rings sits in the middle of the meadow and the views it enjoys are nothing short of spectacular. Directly across the gorge rises the steep-sided double summit of Sam Knob and, beyond, almost the entirety of the Shining Rock Ridge can be seen. After 4.5-miles of hiking it's definitely a worthy payoff. As expected, also, I was the only one there enjoying it. It was incredible. I kicked back and relaxed seemingly having the wilderness to myself. After the summit the route back simply involved retracing my steps. It was along this part of the hike, back on the MST, that I encountered the only other person I saw the entire day! Re-climbing the three unnamed knobs of Fork Ridge was a bit tiring but after that it was all downhill. It was a wonderfully pleasant way to finish up the day.
All that said this is a hike I'd highly recommend though not necessarily for the beginner. The remoteness combined with the lack of signage and the sometimes difficult to locate trail mean that to fully enjoy this hike you have to be comfortable dealing with these challenges. If so, then this is a great one. Especially if you're as big a fan of the joys of wilderness solitude as I am. So, without further adieu, come on along with me into the wilds of the Middle Prong...and as always...ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.303906, -82.909435
Mileage Hiked: 9.6 miles Hike Duration: 4:15
Trailhead Temp: 20'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 5,100' Max. Elevation: 5,892'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,200' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 125'