Christy and I were looking for one more tough hike before our trip to Utah. On Saturday, we met Bob and Laura in Marion for a trip to the Black Mountains. We had planned to hike the MST from Balsam Gap over Potato Knob and on to Steppes Gap. However, we found the Parkway beyond Mt. Mitchell closed. We improvised though, and quickly came up with a backup route. Soon enough we were climbing Potato Knob.
Potato Knob looks like a sheer rock wall from the parkway. In reality, it was steep, though not as bad as you might expect. We followed a narrow ridge, which gave us great views of the Craggy Mountains, the Asheville watershed, The Pinnacle, Greybeard, and Green Knob. Near the top there were several ledges that required some mild rock climbing. This was a little tricky, thanks to wet rocks, and some leftover snow and ice.
We reached the summit just before noon for an early lunch. It was a warm, cloudy day, but the views were still good. The best vista was to the west, toward Blackstack Knob and the Craggy Mountains. After lunch we had our biggest challenge. The route to the north started with a descent of an icy, steep chute. Bob and Laura went first, with much praying and wailing at each step. Christy and I had grabbed our ice cleats at the last second, so we put them on. They actually helped quite a bit, especially in the areas where stepping on the ice was unavoidable.
After the scary descent, we climbed again to follow the ridge north. We soon found ourselves in a dark, beautiful spruce forest. The temperature was probably 20 degrees cooler than it had been on the summit of Potato Knob. To add to the cooling affect, we found ourselves postholing through knee deep snow. I couldn’t believe we were hiking in shorts in the midst of record heat and there was still this much snow.
We reached a clearing on private property, with the remains of a teepee in the center. Beyond that, we arrived at a small but appealing log cabin. From there we followed a trail around the west side of Clingman’s Peak. We passed below all of the towers as well as number of buildings. One of them houses a research facility studying earthquakes. We passed the buildings and regained the ridgeline. A few minutes later we arrived at the summit of Gibbes Mountain. At 6571’, we reached our highest point of the day. The view was very limited though. From there, it was a steep downhill hike on an old trail. The wooded stretches were still snow covered, but the occasional open meadow was completely dry.
We reached the new visitors center at Steppes Gap around 2:30. Here we discovered that the road to Mt. Mitchell was still closed due to the snow. We continued the hike on the old RR bed towards Commissary Ridge. There was no snow along this open route, but plenty of water and mud. Every little rivulet that we crossed was a roaring torrent due to the snowmelt. We sloshed our way for a couple of miles until we reached the MST again. We turned back south here, and practically waded our way 3 miles back to the car. To say that we were soaked when we arrived would be an understatement. It was a great hike though, with good weather, outstanding views, adventure, cool spruce forests, and snow. We didn’t see another hiker all day.
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