I noticed on the Mt. Mitchell website that you could "create" a 15.5 mile loop. I convinced a friend to go with me and we set out via the Mt. Mitchell trail at about 12:30 pm. The first few hundred meters of the Mt. Mitchell trail were really hard, but then after that it wasn't too bad the rest of the way. Occasionally the trail opens up to some good views but not too many. We arrived at the summit of Mt. Mitchell at 3:30 pm. We took our pictures with the summit sign and climbed the observation tower and all that good stuff.
At 4pm we set out for Mt. Craig via Deep Gap Trail. it took about 20-25 minutes to reach Mt. Craig. The summit offered some good views, but we thought the best view was a gorgeous girl who was hiking with her boyfriend. They were a nice couple and tried to offer us help by telling us how far to the Colbert Ridge Trail. Notice, I said tried, they told us about 1 mile, but we knew that had to be wrong. We kept hiking towards the other three summits. Eventually we reached Big Tom, Balsams Cone, and Cattails Peak. Were weren't satisfied with Balsams Cone because it didn't have a plaque or a sign welcoming you to the summit. Big Tom had some great rock formations that we had fun climbing on. Cattails Peak wasn't much of a looker either since all you could see were trees all the way around you.
About 1.5 miles after leaving Cattails Peak and over 3 miles since Mt. Craig, we finally reached the Colbert Ridge Trail to descend the mountains back to town. The Colbert Ridge Trail is the worst trail i've ever traveled. It is overgrown and the loose rocks and big step downs make it a little dangerous. At times the trail was about 8 inches wide to trees and bushes were constantly poking and scrathcing you. It was nothing short of bushwacking. As far as the loose rocks and big step downs, well I fell victim to them as I fell and tumbled down the mountain some and got banged up pretty good by the rocks. Also Colbert Ridge Trail has several unmarked turnoffs so you could easily get lost on it. I suggest taking a map. After 3or 4 miles on this trail we reached the road. The instructions said make your way back to Black mountain campground by way of gravel roads. Well these roads were paved and they did not lead back to the campground. Coming off the trail we had to make a right on Colbert Creek Road. We followed this almost a half mile before making a left at a stop sign. We then followed this street about a mile and a half until crossing a swing bridge because our map showed a dead end approaching. We had to walk down the major road through town 1 mile, and then 3 miles down the road to the campground. Oh and all this road walking was between 830 and 11 pm. So it was dark but we thought it was only a few gravel roads back to the campground. Basically our 15.5 mile hike ended up being around a 19 mile hike. Which delayed our return almost 2 hours.
After experiencing this my advice would be to map this out before you do it, especially the walk back to the car. Also, I would not reccommend the Colbert Ridge Trail. I hear there is a trail between Big Tom and Balsam's Cone, I would reccommend taking this trail to descend the mountains rather than Colbert Creek Trail. Overall the hike was fun and worth it, but nearly 20 miles of hiking makes you very sore and tired, so don't do this hike unless you're in good shape.
I was glad to have finally climbed Mt. Mitchell, since this mountain is what my parents named me after.
I just completed this five peak loop this past Friday. On your suggestion I opted to double back to Big Tom Gap & the Buncombe Horse Trail back down the Mt. Mitchell Trail. About 17.5 miles & 9.5 hours of fast paced hiking. 5:30 depart, 9:00 summit, 11:30 Cattail Peak, 12:50 Buncombe/Mt. Mitchell crossing, 3:00 $1 shower at Black Mtn. campground. Great trip.