BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
I spent the last four weekends at football games. I had a great time watching my Appalachian State University Mountaineers roll to their unprecedented third-straight national championship, but afterwards, I was pretty worn out. More to the point, I needed to get out. Due to those distractions, work obligations, and general laziness, I haven’t done much hiking since returning from Montana and Washington back in October. Fortunately, Joel and I were able to escape for a quick backpacking trip the day after Christmas.
For this trip, I selected a section of the Appalachian Trail I’d never hiked previously. The route I selected would take us from Iron Mountain Gap to Indian Grave Gap along the NC / TN state line. Along the way we’d cross Unaka Mountain, which, at 5180’, is a peak of some significance. We would also pass over the Beauty Spot, which is a natural grassy bald on the crest of the Appalachians. This area is roughly between the Nolichucky River and Roan Mountain. It’s fairly close to Erwin, TN, but surprisingly difficult to access from Charlotte. The long drive is what has prevented me from hiking in this area prior to this trip.
I met Joel in Marion, and he followed me through a windy, tedious drive to Bakersville and beyond. The road got worse the farther we went. By the time we reached the “town” of Poplar – which seems to consist entirely of a single church – I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever get to the trailhead. Beyond Poplar, we found a bit of slushy snow on the road from the Christmas day storm. Fortunately it didn’t cause us any additional problems. We finally reached the top of the mountain, where we found a parking area with room for two cars. Luckily, there was only one other car there when we arrived.
I had originally planned on using a forest road that begins at Indian Grave Gap to run the shuttle. The road was gated though, so we needed a new plan. The idea of driving all the way back through Poplar and then up through Buladean was not appealing. Instead, we improvised a route through Tennessee. Going this way promised better roads, although it would require driving through Erwin. This seemed a little risky, as – and I swear I’m not making this up – an Elephant was executed by hanging in Erwin in 1916:
We made it through Erwin unscathed, and followed highway 107 up to Iron Mountain Gap. There is a larger parking area here, and it was covered in snow when we arrived. Fortunately it was only a dusting, and the blue sky above promised better weather for our hike over Unaka Mountain.
After the long drive and shuttle, it was 10:30 before we hit the trail. Our hike started with a substantial climb, which took us to a ridge that provided winter views of Roan Mountain. After crossing a minor summit, a long and occasionally steep descent delivered us to the Cherry Gap Shelter in time for lunch. We kept our break short though, as we still had more than four miles to go.
Another mile of easy hiking brought us to the base of Unaka Mountain, and the beginning of the hike’s biggest challenge. Over the next 1.7 miles, we climbed some 1300’. Most of the climb was on a reasonable grade though. About halfway up, we passed an impressive spring coming from a pipe. Beyond, we entered a dark spruce forest. This stretch of trail was lovely, even though there weren’t any views. I love hiking through Spruce forest, especially in the winter.
Just before the summit, we passed a nice but dry campsite. It would be possible to camp here and get water from the spring farther down the trail, but getting water would require a long haul. In hindsight, we probably should’ve camped there, but my AT guidebook noted that there was an “excellent” campsite and spring in a meadow about 1.5 miles beyond the summit. It was only 3:30, so we continued on.
Beyond the wooded summit, we descended through grassy meadows and clumps of Beech trees. There were a few limited views here, but the Beech trees were tall enough to obscure most of the vistas. A long descent followed, first along the ridge, and then down countless switchbacks. At one point, we passed within a few feet of the gated forest road that connects Indian Grave Gap with highway 107.
I reached the bottom of Deep Gap (called Beauty Spot Gap on some maps) well ahead of Joel. I had gone ahead so I could begin setting up camp. Unfortunately, there was no campsite to be found here. The trail reaches the gap right next to the forest road, and there was no meadow, or campsites, in sight. There was a spring, and we probably could’ve camped next to the road, but I had been looking forward to an “excellent” campsite. I have no idea what the guidebook was referring to. Perhaps the trail was relocated since the guide was written, but I doubt it. The gap is very narrow, and the terrain drops away steeply in both directions.
I pushed on, climbing the next hill in search of a campsite. Near the top, I found some small meadows, but no water sources. I thought about camping there, but the wind had picked up, and there wasn’t much shelter. I decided to wait for Joel.
He finally arrived around 4:45. We were running out of daylight, and our options were poor. I checked the guidebook, which claimed that another “spacious” campsite was ˝ mile ahead. I wasn’t sure how much I trusted the guidebook at this point, but we didn’t have much choice. We continued on, and I hustled ahead of Joel, again searching for a site.
Around 5pm, I reached the road again at a wooden fence. A blue-blazed trail led across the road to a spring, but I didn’t see any campsites. I was ahead of Joel, so I walked down the road a short ways in search of a site. I did find an overgrown meadow that could’ve been the second site mentioned in the guidebook, but it was exposed to the wind. I returned to the spring, just as Joel arrived. Daylight was fading fast, so we decided to make camp there. It wasn’t really an established site, although we did stumble upon an old fire ring buried under a pile of leaves. We found a couple of nearly-level spots for the tents, and settled in. The spring wasn’t impressive, as it was basically a small pool choked with leaves. Fortunately it was dark enough that I didn’t really have to look at it while getting water.
Cooking dinner was a challenge, thanks to the howling wind. Fortunately our spot was sheltered. Otherwise, I never would’ve managed to boil water for our chili. As it was, I had to hide the stove behind a boulder to generate enough heat. The chili wasn’t the best I’ve ever made, but fresh bread and Christmas cookies added to the meal. Afterwards, we enjoyed hot apple cider spiked with brandy. We stayed up until 8pm, before the wind and wet chill drove us to our tents. It was difficult sleeping that night, as the wind howled through the trees above us. It was hard to relax, listening to the branches moaning and cracking above me. Fortunately I had the dog, Saucony, to help keep me warm. Later, it fogged up, and even rained briefly.
It didn’t last long, and it was beginning to clear off when we got up the next morning. I had a bit of a scare when I got out of the tent. At first I thought there was some sort of hideous beast in camp, but it turned out that it was just Joel. Joel ain’t a pretty sight after a night of winter camping, but then again, neither am I. We had a great breakfast of eggs and bacon, before packing up and resuming the hike. Joel packed up faster than me, so he got a head start on the trail that morning.
From camp, we crossed the road and rejoined the trail. A short climb through the woods led us away from the road. A few minutes later, we reached the meadows of the Beauty Spot. From the bald, we were treated to great views in almost every direction. The best views were probably west, across the Nolichucky River Gorge towards Big Bald, along the spine of the Appalachians.
We lingered for a few minutes before beginning the descent towards Indian Grave Gap. We wandered through more meadows, before re-entering the woods. Some time later, we crossed the forest road and continued to descend. Before long, we saw Joel’s truck just ahead. We reached Indian Grave Gap shortly after 11am.
It was early, so I suggested an extra hike before we headed home. After a bit of arm-twisting, Joel agreed to hike with me out a forest road. I thought we might find some views of the Nolichucky River Gorge from the end of the road. We didn’t go far though. After only a few minutes, we could see a large group of bear hunters and dogs in the road ahead. I wasn’t sure if we were on public or private land, and I didn’t want to take Saucony into a pack of hunting dogs. We turned around and headed back.
On the way back to get my car, we stopped at the Rock Creek Recreation Area. I knew there were some trails there, but my maps and books were in my car at the other trailhead. We didn’t see any trail information in the recreation area, so we headed on. Once we reached my car, we didn’t want to drive all the way back over there. Instead, we decided to do the short hike to Crabtree Falls, on the Parkway near Little Switzerland, on the way home.
After a pit stop in Spruce-Pine, we drove out the Parkway past Little Switzerland. We were still 4 miles from the Crabtree Falls area when we found the road gated. Sigh. Some days, you just can’t win. I gave up on doing another hike, and we headed for home.
It was a good trip, despite the mediocre campsite. I would recommend doing this 11-mile section of the Appalachian Trail as a dayhike, or as a backpack in the opposite direction. If we had gone that way, we could’ve stayed at the Cherry Gap Shelter. This section is definitely best done in the winter, when the forest road is closed. The forest road runs close to the trail for several miles, and significant traffic noise is likely on weekends in the warmer months.
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