Celo Knob & Gibbs Mountain via Woody Ridge Trail, NC (7-4-18)
The Woody Ridge Trail is widely lauded as one of the steepest, if not THE steepest, foot path in the Southern Appalachians. Over its 2.7-mile length the trail climbs around 3,000-feet giving it an astounding rate of ascent of 1,111 feet/mile (in comparison my hike out of the Grand Canyon last year via the South Kaibab Trail had a rate of 700 feet/mile). Ascending the eastern flank of the Black Mountain Range the trail climbs from the valley of tiny Shuford Creek to a shallow col between Gibbs Mountain and Celo Knob at the north end of the ridge. Needless to say, the Woody Ridge Trail has been on my radar for a while...if for any other reason in that it appealed to me to conquer one of the South's toughest trails. There was another reason to climb it though. As it turns out Woody Ridge offered the shortest access route to the two aforementioned peaks which represented the final summits in the Black Mountains which I needed to climb for the South Beyond 6,000 Challenge. So it was, then, that I set out on a muggy Fourth of July morning to see if I had what it took to make this hike. It turned out spectacularly, if not for my success in climbing Celo and Gibbs but for all the incredible scenery along the way.
The first thing I had to do was to find the elusive Woody Ridge Trailhead. Many websites denote it being located off of White Oak Road in the tiny community of Celo. This is NOT ACCURATE. The trailhead is actually located at the end of a dead end drive named Shuford Creek Road, a side road off of White Oak Drive. Following Shuford Creek Road to its end the trailhead is obvious. The trail leaves the upper end of the parking area and immediately begins to climb. Contrary to what I had heard, I discovered it to be a well-traveled trail that is also well-marked with bright yellow blazes. It also, from the start, doesn't pull any punches. The first mile or so is steep, though perhaps no steeper than many other mountain trails. It's a good test, though, to see if you have what it takes for what lies ahead on the final 1.5-miles...if the first mile beats you up don't even think of attempting the rest! At just past the one-mile mark (about a quarter-mile past a large trailside boulder) the path makes a sharp turn left to attack the ridge directly. This is where things begin to get serious, if not a bit ridiculous. Over the next half-mile the Woody Ridge Trail climbs an incredible 1,000-feet!!! I quickly came to dub it "Hell's Half Mile." With the exception of the now-defunct Sandy Flats Trail in Linville Gorge I've never experienced anything quite like it in the Southern Appalachians. Forget about switchbacks...this trail doesn't have time for those...it simply heads straight for the top of the ridge. Many times I found myself reaching for branches as handholds and, thankfully, some of the steeper spots had ropes to assist. Breaks were frequent. There's no views on this stretch to break things up either. The one interesting feature, I found, was watching the forest surrounding me quickly transitioning from low elevation deciduous to high elevation mixed in such a short span of time. Near the top of "Hell's Half Mile" the trail passes under a huge overhanging rock ledge before, at about the 2-mile mark finally popping out in the open atop a small rocky outcrop. This is a great place to take a breather before tackling the final half-mile of trail. There's a nice panoramic view to the south here as well as of Celo Knob to the north. Continuing upward (there's still another 800-feet to climb in this last half-mile) another, more open, cliff is reached in short order. This overlook offers incredible views to the north of Celo Knob as it towers some 4,000-feet above the neighboring valley of the South Toe River. It's another perfect spot for a rest. The remainder of the trail between the upper overlook and the ridge continues its steep ascent (though its noticeably less brutal than before) through a beautiful high-elevation forest of mixed conifers before finally reaching the ridge as it breaks out into a wonderful open meadow.
The Woody Ridge Trail meets the Black Mountain Crest Trail on the western side of this meadow. From here my hike would transition form one of a brutal climb to a gentle ridge-walk. At the junction my two destinations lay in opposite directions with Gibbs Mountain being about a half-mile south and Celo Knob being a bit more than that distance north. I decided to get Gibbs out of the way first as it was going to require a bushwhack and was likely to be the more difficult of the two. So I made a left and headed south along the Crest Trail. My instructions stated that the summit of Gibbs Mountain lay in a field just off the main trail which circles the summit cone to the west. I discovered this information to be completely inaccurate. The trail does indeed circle to the west but through a thick wood of mixed trees and low heath-type brush. I followed the Crest Trail all the around to the north side of the summit but, finding no obvious path of any type I backtracked to a point about due west of the peak and simply struck out through the woods uphill. It was a brushy but ultimately short bushwhack and before long I found myself standing atop a small rock outcrop at the top alongside a simple wooden sign marking the summit. Number 31 on my South Beyond 6,000 list was complete. There were even some nice views to be had through the trees from the summit which surprised me. After getting the photos I wanted I struck out back downhill towards the Crest Trail which I would now follow north. Passing by the Woody Ridge Trail I now entered perhaps the prettiest section of the hike as the trail passes through an area known as Horse Rock Meadows. The views here are stunning as the open terrain allows for a sweeping panorama encompassing the entirety of the Black Mountain Range to the south as well as the surrounding peaks and valleys to the west. Continuing north from Horse Rock Meadows the trail, as it approaches Celo Knob now visible ahead, makes a sharp right right turn followed almost immediately by a sharp left turn. At this sharp left the unmarked spur to the summit of Celo breaks right into a small grove of spruce. Though unmaintained, I found the spur to Celo fairly obvious and easy to follow. It's moderately steep, though short, and passes a wonderful open rock ledge about two-thirds of the way up offering incredible views of the neighboring South Tow River Valley. Soon, and without much more effort, I was standing at the top of Celo Knob. Another wooden sign and an official USGS benchmark denote the top which sits in a thick stand of spruce with no views. It was my 32nd 6,000 footer and marked my completion of all the 6-ers in the Black Mountain Range. After years of waiting it was amazing to finally realize this goal. Though there wasn't much to look at up there I still took my time sitting and simply enjoying the moment.
After Celo Knob it was time to focus on getting back down. Retracing my steps back down the summit spur trail and then south along the Crest Trail I soon found myself turning back onto Woody Ridge. As difficult as the climb was the descent promised to be just as challenging though in a completely different way. While it was my lungs that were challenged on the climb it would be my knees that would take the punishment on the descent. The silly-steep grade meant watching my steps was a priority and there were many places where I was forced to simply slow down, get a grip on a nearby branch or tree, and watch my footing as I crept slowly downward. It was by no means a relaxing downhill walk but I'm happy to say it passed without incident and a little over an hour later I found myself, a bit sore but otherwise no worse for the wear, back at my car looking forward to air conditioning and a milk shake. There's not much more I can say about this hike I haven't already included here. It was a fantastic adventure but it's in no way a hike I can recommend for anyone other than experienced and extremely fit mountain hikers. If you're not prepared for this trip it will utterly defeat you. On the other hand, though, if you have the ability and determination you'll find like I did a certain satisfaction in completing such a wild and challenging foot path...and I got to visit a couple scenic and relatively unknown summits as a bonus. Overall this was an incredibly interesting and beautiful hike. I don't know that I'll be in a big rush to repeat it anytime soon but I find myself immensely pleased I had the good fortune to experience it this day. Alright...I won't hold things up any longer...without further adieu I present to you my climb of Celo Knob and Gibbs Mountain via the vaunted Woody Ridge Trail. You better lace your boots tight and grab a hiking pole for this one...I haven't done a toughie like this in a while...even so, as always, ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.838439, -82.218897
Mileage Hiked: 7.3 miles Hike Duration: 5:30
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 3,160' Max. Elevation: 6,327'
Total Vertical Gain: 3,300' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 1,107' (Woody Ridge Trail)