Christy, Saucony, and I met Myron, Dorcas, Wayne, Linda, and Izaak at the trailhead Saturday for a long hike to Cold Mountain. We had attempted this hike last fall, but fog, rain, and heavy winds had forced us to switch to an alternate hike. This time, the forecast called for thunderstorms throughout the weekend. We watched the sky apprehensively as we drove to the trailhead.
It was cloudy and windy at the Black Balsam parking area, but we decided to go for it. We hiked up the Art Loeb trail, quickly leaving the scattered fir trees behind. Soon we were scrambling over rocks, and then climbing through grassy meadows. Although it was cloudy, our view from the top was nearly unlimited in every direction. However, the view came at a price. It was so windy, our pack straps were lashing at us. I probably still have welts.
We descended a rocky trail through mountain laurel to a gap. Then we climbed again, this time to the open summit of Tennent Mountain. The view from here was even better. Looking north, we could trace our intended route over Grassy Cove Top and Shining Rock all the way to Cold Mountain.
We had been seeing people everywhere since pulling into the parking lot. At Tennent Mountain, there was a virtual throng of hikers. I knew this was a popular area, but I'd hoped that the weather forecast would keep the crowds down. Instead, it seemed that Tennent Mountain was the place to be on this day. It was here that a fellow hiker confidently informed Wayne that we'd never make it to Cold Mountain in a day. This was only Wayne's second backpacking trip, and he didn't know what to think.
We descended the narrow, rocky spine of Tennent Mountain, eventually reaching a gap. We then climbed a unnamed but lovely hill, passing through a mixture of meadows and spruce / fir forest. We then dropped down to Ivestor Gap and entered the Shining Rock wilderness. We spent the rest of the morning hiking from gaps to peaks and back along the Shining Rock Ledge. After enjoying the Heath Balds of Grassy Cove Top, we hiked across Flower Knob. Appropriately enough, we saw the first flowers of the day here. Trilliums were everywhere, and although they were past their peak, they were hanging on for a few more days.
We arrived at Shining Rock gap, expecting to see a circus of people. We were surprised not to see a single tent. There were a few other hikers in the area, but it was nothing like Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain. We climbed to the top of Shining Rock for a late lunch. The quartz outcrop made for a nice resting spot before we resumed our hike. The views were nice, but it was impossible to ignore the building clouds.
After lunch, we resumed our hike on the Art Loeb trail. The flat section of trail from Shining Rock Gap was a pleasant change from the rolling ridgeline hiking of that morning. We passed a small spring and an outstanding campsite before climbing Stairs Mountain. As we climbed, the sky darkened and thunder rumbled.
The summit of Stairs Mountain provided a nice view to the west and showed the approaching storm. We hurried off the peak, hiking down the ridge through a beautiful fern covered forest. A few raindrops fell, and we put on raingear and pack covers. This proved to be good luck, as the rain somehow missed us. The storm roared all around us, but there was no rain. It almost seemed as though we were above it.
We descended a steep section of trail into The Narrows. Although it was somewhat wooded, we were on a narrow, knife-edge ridge with sheer drop offs on each side. The ridge was literally only a few feet wide in many places. Talk about somewhere you don't want to be in a thunderstorm!
We scrambled along the ridge, working our way across exposed boulders. It was along this stretch that Dorcas, who had been defying gravity nicely all day, fell over. Fortunately, Myron grabbed her foot, and a few small trees stopped here from sliding all the way to the valley below. Once we were certain she was ok, the jokes began to fly. From now on, that rock will be known as Turtle Rock, in memory of her impression of a turtle trapped on its back.
After Dorcas got back on her feet, we continued on to Deep Gap. The storm had passed us by, but a thick fog hung in the valley below. Although our views had disappeared, we were able to enjoy some wildflowers along the way. We passed mayapples, sweet peas, and countless shrubs beginning to bloom. (they were either azaleas or some type of laurel, but we never decided which).
We arrived at a nice campsite in Deep Gap. The last 2 times I had attempted Cold Mountain, I was forced to camp here due to approaching dark. This time it was only 4:30, and we climbed on. The final climb up Cold Mountain was the toughest of the day. Despite this, we arrived at our campsite shortly after 5:00. The site we chose was in the gap on Cold Mountain ridge, between the two peaks. After setting up camp, we hiked packless to the summit. At the top, there was a USGS marker that said simply "COLD 6030". I took a picture of it, as it
was our 5th summit over 6000' of the day. On the way back down, we stopped at rock outcrop with outstanding views south, east, and west. The rain had restricted the views considerably, but it was still impressive. From that spot, we could see nothing but miles of mountains and trees. There wasn't a single road or house in sight.
We returned to camp, and debated setting up a tarp for cooking. We feared that the rain might return, so we decided to play it safe. We were glad we did. I had just finished cooking our jambalaya when the next rains came. We ate under the shelter of the tarp, before retiring early. That night we had steady rain for several hours. The next morning, we had a few light showers as we packed. By the time we started hiking though, the sun was out and it was getting humid.
We returned to Shining Rock gap by the same route. From there, we took to Ivestor Gap trail for variety. We stopped along it in a nice thicket of spruce / fir for lunch. From here we could hear turkeys gobbling down the hillside, but we never saw them.
The Ivestor Gap Trail provided a nice, easy alternative to the ridge. It was also scenic, and gave us many views west toward the Middle Prong Wilderness. Eventually we reached Ivestor Gap, where we were faced with a decision to make. Should we continue on the old road, or take the high trail back across Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam? We decided to take the scenic route, despite the building clouds.
We reached Tennent Mountain again, and sprawled in the grass for what seemed like hours. Surprisingly, we didn't see anybody else this time. Eventually though, black clouds began to build to the west. I had been caught once in a thunderstorm on Black Balsam, and I had no urge to do it again. I'll always remember running at full speed down the trail, with a full backpack on. That time I had escaped lightning, thunder, heavy winds, and horizontal rain. I had no desire to push my luck again.
We arrived back at the car, narrowly beating another storm. It had been a great trip, and one that I'll be looking to do again soon.
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