Green Mountain Trail - Middle Prong Wilderness (6-15-19)
The Middle Prong Wilderness is a portion of Pisgah National Forest which I am growing increasingly fond of visiting. Encompassing nearly 8,000-acres of high ridges and pristine mountain streams, the Middle Prong lies just west of the wildly popular Black Balsam/Shining Rock area yet sees only a fraction of the traffic. This has allowed the Middle Prong to retain an air of wildness which precious few places in the southern mountains share. One of the most prominent landmarks here is Fork Ridge, which rises like a massive wall along the eastern boundary of the Middle Prong. Running almost due north-south for nearly six miles this high crest is topped by a minor peak with the rather mundane title of Green Knob, at 5,892-feet. Despite its rather ho-hum name Green Knob nonetheless sports incredible views from the open fields which lie on its eastern summit slopes. The panorama here reaches across the unseen depths of the West Fork Pigeon River Gorge and up to the massive crest of the Shining Rock Ridge, including such famous peaks as Black Balsam and Sam Knobs. Of the relatively few hikers who make the trek out to Green Knob, the majority do so by way of a southern ascent via the Mountains-to-Sea and Green Mountain Trails…the latter being the focus of this hike. The Green Mountain Trail runs nearly six miles along the length of Fork Ridge…the section of trail south of Green Knob being a rolling, high-elevation ridge walk and the section north boasting some of the most dramatic elevation changes of any footpath in the District. Nearly 3,200-feet of vertical separate the summit of Green Knob from the Sunbrust Trailhead 3.5-miles north. Ascending or descending this is a truly punishing grade to travel. It’s unsurprising, then, that a much lower percentage of hikers bother heading to Green Knob from the north. You’d have to be a little nuts to want to climb a route like that, right? Well…I’ve never claimed to be completely sane when it comes to selecting hikes. Thus it was that I, along with a few friends, found ourselves on a sunny Saturday morning standing at the Sunburst Trailhead looking upward.
The northern trailhead for the Green Mountain Trail is along NC-215 just north of where the highway crosses the Middle Prong of the West Fork Pigeon River near the Sunburst Campground. There’s plenty of parking along and between the road and the river here but, don’t worry, most parked here will be heading for the water not the inconspicuous footpath entering the rhododendron across the way. There’s no sign marking the start, just a small hole in the foliage on the other side of which is a small “bear awareness” sign the likes of which seem to be popping up all over Pisgah of late. Within a dozen feet the trail makes a hard left and heads UP. You may find yourself peering up at the route, amused and intimidated by the grade, and thinking “yeah this looks bad but surely it can’t be like this the whole way.” In short, yes, surely it can. The first half mile is nothing short of silly, climbing 900-vertical feet. Only on the vaunted Pinch-In Trail at Linville Gorge have I experienced such a climb. The next half-mile is a bit better, “only” climbing another 400-feet. Happily though at this point you’re rewarded for the first time for your efforts. A short spur trail leads to an east-facing ledge with some really nice views across the southern end of the West Fork Gorge in the direction of Birdstand Mountain. It’s a good place to catch your breath before continuing on.
The next two-and-a-half miles is an unrelenting and brutal 1,800-foot climb. The trail never bothers with switchbacks it simply heads straight up the crest of the ridge, much of the time monotonously under cover of laurel or rhododendron. There are no views to be had for nearly two miles above the first overlook, though watching the forest change from predominately hardwood to a more high-elevation type mixed with spruce and fir is interesting to see. Nearing the three-mile mark there’s another nice overlook to the right, this one facing west over the heart of the Middle Prong Wilderness. Beyond this second overlook the trail finally regains a bit of sanity, rising in only short bursts as it makes its way the final three-quarter miles to the summit of Green Knob. The trail arrives along the upper edge of a large brush-covered field extending down the eastern summit slopes. A short spur trail leads down into the shrubs a hundred yards or so before breaking out into a small grassy opening with a grandstand view of the mountains to the east. Across the 2,000-foot deep gorge rises the massive green wall of the Shining Rock Ridge. Visible south to north are Grassy Cove Top (6,040’), Tennent Mountain (6,040’), Black Balsam Knob (6,214’) with Sam Knob (6,050’) and Little Sam Knob (5,862’) in the foreground, Chestnut Bald (6,025’), Devil’s Courthouse (5,719’), and Mount Hardy (6,110’). It’s a majestic scene worthy of the effort to reach it. Sit down, rest your weary legs, and appreciate what you’ve just accomplished.
After soaking up the scenery atop Green Knob head back to the Green Mountain Trail and continue south. The views continue as the trail begins a short descent through tall shrubs. Keep an eye out for small outcrops just off the trail offering spectacular views to the south of Devil’s Courthouse, Mount Hardy, and the two unnamed knobs along Fork Ridge which you’ll shortly be crossing. Your surroundings along this stretch will alternate between tall bushes, stunted hardwoods, and stands of high-elevation spruce-fir. Much of the way the trail is heavily overgrown. Thick grasses underfoot hide large rocks which could turn an ankle on the unwary hiker. Still, it’s degrees of magnitude more enjoyable than the trail which has come before. Two-thirds of a mile after leaving Green Knob you’ll top the first major knob to the south, descend, and then make a rolling climb up a second knob of equal height. At this point the route gets a bit tricky to follow. Large stands of pure red spruce create a bare forest floor which frequently camouflages the direction of the path. In addition, numerous side paths begins to be seen breaking off towards the western side of the ridge. Your best bet to stay heading in the correct direction is to ignore any path seeming to lead off the crest of the ridge. In open spruce stands try to keep heading in a generally straight direction. You’ll know you’ve stayed on the right path when you break into a grassy opening atop a suddenly steep descent. Mount Hardy will be seen rising directly ahead. At this point there will be a spur trail breaking right uphill into the adjacent open fields. This is a spur trail you won’t want to skip out on as it leads to a huge, grassy, open field on the west side of Fork Ridge. I’ve dubbed this spot Fork Ridge Meadows (though I’ve also seen it referred to as Mount Hardy Meadows) and the scene which stretches out before you here is nothing short of magnificent. To the west, across the heart of the Middle Prong Wilderness rises the impressive Great Balsam Range topped by 6,410’ Richland Balsam. To the south and west countless peaks and valleys stretch away towards the horizon while rising alongside you is the high green dome of Mount Hardy. The large grassy lawn invites you to drop your pack and stretch out for a spell. It is a picture perfect spot to cap off the day.
After the meadows there is still a couple miles to go, however. Returning to the Green Mountain Trail continue south for another tenth of a mile or so to the paths northern terminus at an unsigned junction with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. A right turn here would follow the MST along the southern boundary of the Middle Prong Wilderness, for the purposes of this hike however you’ll want to make a left. The MST immediately begins a moderate descent down the eastern side of the ridge. About a mile from the Green Mountain Trail the route passes a large open field with some nice views of nearby Herrin Knob and back towards the steep east face of Mount Hardy. It then turns to back north to descend the valley which contains the headwaters of the West Fork Pigeon River. Keep a close eye out through the trees to your left. At a point just before the first left-hand switch back a distant glimpse of Mount Hardy Falls can be seen through the spruce. Cascading off the east face of Fork Ridge, the cascade is at its best after a good rain but is worth the short pause regardless. After a couple short switchbacks the MST now descends alongside of, and then crosses, two of the tributaries which form the headwaters of the West Fork. Rock hopping the creeks, the path now descends along an old rail/roadbed before reaching yet another open field at the base of the ridge. Curving south once again the trail now ascends gradually, before dropping to a crossing of tiny Bubbling Spring Branch, and then climbing the remaining hundred yards to the MST crossing at NC-215. Hike complete.
This is, without a doubt, one of the premier hikes you can enjoy in the Pisgah Ranger District. The views rival any found in the far popular Black Balsam area nearby and you’ll never have to share them with more than a tiny fraction of the people. The downside (if you can call it that) is that the Middle Prong is a true wilderness, so therefore may not be an appropriate place to head out to for the novice hiker. Per wilderness standards there are no trail blazes and no signs so a good map and/or GPS is essential. This is also relatively untraveled country, so a certain amount of self-reliance is necessary as well as help could be at best hours away in an emergency. The Green Mountain Trail is fantastic but it will test you. Hiking it from north-to-south as I did poses what might be the most serious and brutal climbs found anywhere in the Pisgah Ranger District. In the opposite direction, south-to-north, you’ll save yourself some climbing but, I assure you, going down is unlikely to be any more pleasant than the opposite on this trail. That said, anyone who has the ability and determination should absolutely add this hike to their list. It offers all the beauty, challenge, and solitude one could ask for in the Southern Appalachians. So, with that said, I invite you along with me on a hike of the Green Mountain Trail in the Middle Prong Wilderness of Pisgah National Forest…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!
Sunburst (Lower) Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.373496, -82.937511
MST (Upper) Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.303891, -82.908960
Hike Length: 8.4 miles Hike Duration: 7:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 3,100' Max. Elevation: 5,892'
Total Vertical Gain: 3,250' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 387'
Trails Used (blaze color): Green Mountain (unblazed), Meadow Spur (unblazed), Mountains-to-Sea (unblazed)