The Challenge of the Black Crest TrailIt had been nearly five years since I had done any hiking in North Carolina and I had developed an itch to get back there, so I planned a four day trip with my nephew Dave. I had a very specific agenda lined up, and the plan was to spend all day Thursday on the Black Crest Trail, hike in the Roan Highlands on Friday, followed by a full day in Linville Gorge on Saturday. For Sunday, a short hike to Linville Falls was planned before starting the 10 hour drive home.
While all of these trails interested me, it was the Black Crest Trail that was my primary motivation for heading back to North Carolina. The trail seemed to offer all that I was looking for in a hike; beautiful scenery and a challenging route. What could be better! Well, for a variety of reasons, weather being the biggest reason, things didn’t go according to plan. No where close, actually! We ended up spending two separate half days on the Black Crest, Thursday morning and Saturday morning, and in the end I would end up having a disappointing initial experience on the Black Crest Trail. But with the extra hiking we were able to do by bailing on the Black Crest, not just once, but twice, we made some great discoveries that turned what could have been a disappointing weekend into a trip worth remembering.
I was intrigued by the Black Crest, not for its peak bagging opportunities, but for the physical challenge it offered. The Black Crest has a reputation for being a challenging trail. More than once while researching for this hike I read that it is the toughest trail in the east (although I always thought that the Devil's Path wins that award). Regardless of its place in the pecking order, due to the constant undulations and the ruggedness of the trail, it is very difficult and I was more than willing to find out first hand how tough the trail really is.
By the numbers, the trail runs 12 miles from trailhead to trailhead, and if you start at Bowlens Creek the total elevation gain is 5,800 feet one way. I did the math a number of times and a complete out and back would mean approximately 8,000 feet of gain.
Celo Knob via Bowlens Creek
I chose to start our adventure on the Black Crest at the Bowlens Creek Trailhead. The hike up to Celo Knob was an adventure, but the adventures started before we even were hiking as trying to locate the Bowlens Creek Trailhead became the first challenge of the day. It would help if there was a trailhead sign on Bowlens Creek Rd., but there isn’t, and most of the directions discuss locating a hairpin turn and a cemetery as the trailhead is right nearby these landmarks. Well, around 5 AM it’s dark and we were tired, going on less than two hours of sleep, and we drove right by the cemetery, as well as a number of hairpin turns. Which hairpin turn could it be? Eventually we came to a crossroad and knew that we had gone too far. Fortunately we flagged down a local that was driving by and asked for directions. She told us to follow her, so we did a u-turn and within a few minutes we were at the cemetery. But we still weren’t sure where the trailhead was. We located the hairpin turn, but there were about three driveways right there to choose from. We saw a street sign that said Water Shed Rd so we drove down that and yes, found the trail. As the entire area looked like private property we decided to drive back to the cemetery and park there. So by 6 AM we finally started hiking! A few hundred yards up Water Shed Rd. we did see a sign reading Entering Pisgah National Forest. But it wasn’t until we crossed the creek a few more hundred yards up the trail that we finally saw the first Crest Trail sign and knew we were in the right place. Adventures in trailhead locating!
The initial climb was pleasant. The trail is nice and wide on the initial ascent and Bowlens Creek is on your right for the first mile as you gain altitude, but unfortunately the trail breaks away from the creek far too early. I always find it a pleasure to hike along a beautiful stream, and Bowlens Creek boasts several nice cascades to enjoy on the ascent.
Above Bowlens Creek the trail narrowed to less than a foot wide due to all the vegetation. The nettles were horrible. We made the mistake of starting the hike in shorts. The nettles were scraping our legs and causing horrible itching. Then there was the poison ivy! It didn’t take long hiking in this mess that we decided to stop and go with full pants. Because of how hot and humid it was we didn’t’ really want to, but shorts were no longer a viable option.
As we continued up, the trail became even more overgrown as the vegetation went from calf high to shoulder high. This is also about the time the downed trees became a nuisance. We spent a large amount of time climbing over fallen trees or finding a way around them. More than once I sarcastically asked Dave if we were hiking or bushwhacking. And while the trail was difficult due to the terrain, I didn’t find it to be as steep as advertised.
Initially the weather wasn’t a problem. There was plenty of fog, but there was no rain. The weather continued to deteriorate though as we got closer to the summit and finally the rain came down hard enough that we had no choice but to put on our raingear. When we finally reached the summit ridge there were no mountain vistas to be seen. The mountains were completely socked in.
Even though it was raining and there were no views we chose to continue. The Black Crest was going to be our big day on this trip and we weren’t willing to give up after a single summit. There were more Southern Sixers to go after and I was at least hoping to get to Winter Star. If we still felt good by then we could descend to Deep Gap and continue for who knows how long.
We weren’t more than a quarter mile down the trail from Celo Knob when we decided that today was not the day for the Black Crest. There were just too many hazards to continue on. We were on a ridge crest and the threat of thunderstorms was high. Besides that, the trail was nearly impossible to see due to the vegetation, and it had turned to rocks at this point, which were very slippery. Not being able to see the trail made the footing very difficult and the risk of a trip, fall or ankle sprain nearly five miles from the trailhead was now a real threat. Both Dave and I had spent enough time hiking in the southern Appalachians to know that it was unlikely that conditions would improve, so dejectedly we decided to turn around and head for the car. Physically I was still feeling great, which disappointed me the most. I knew we could have gone a long way on the trail that day.
On our descent the wheels in my head started to turn and I knew that I had to develop a different itinerary for the rest of the trip. The original plan was out the door. I decided that we would take a day off from the Black Crest. After this morning’s disappointment I needed a day away from that trail, so I decided we should head to Linville Gorge on Friday and then head back to the Black Crest on Saturday. But this time we would start at the other end, at the Deep Gap Trailhead near Mt. Mitchell. We would be able to hike all the way to Celo Knob from there which meant over a two day period we would cover the entire Black Crest Trail in an out and back fashion – a complete Black Crest traverse. A worthy accomplishment I could be satisfied with.
As for Celo Knob, it is definitely a destination hike. There were no mountain views the entire 4.5 miles to the summit ridge. It is definitely a tough walk in the woods, with 3,300 feet of elevation gain! I am sure the views from the ridge crest are exceptional, but unfortunately we didn’t get to see them. That being said, overall I did enjoy the hike. The tough terrain definitely made it a very unique experience.
Wisemens View and Linville FallsWe still had plenty of time on our hands. It was only 11 AM by the time we reached our car so we had a whole afternoon to fill. I decided we should head to our campground at Linville Falls (Blue Ridge Parkway MM 317), where we would be base camping for three nights, and get our campsite setup. Afterwards we could go for the short hike to Linville Falls. By now I had already planned on delaying the Roan Highlands until Sunday morning, as we would be driving that direction on the way home. We had a beer while we set up camp celebrating the crazy adventures that we had already had so far on this trip.
Before heading to Linville Falls I wanted to stop at the Forest Service office so I could pick up their topo map for Linville Gorge and I also wanted to find the Kistler Memorial Highway and the Babel Tower Trailhead. After this morning’s fiasco I didn’t want trailhead locating to delay us on Friday morning. We found the Kistler Highway easy enough, and the Linville Gorge Cabin is right near the entrance, just past the Linville Falls Trailhead. We stopped at the cabin and they had plenty of Linville Gorge paraphernalia for sale, including the topo map I wanted (the best $6 I spent on this trip!). We drove up the road and found the Babel Tower Trailhead and then continued up the road the extra mile to Wisemans View, as we were told that the views into the gorge were spectacular from there. It was a whole 100 yard walk on a paved “trail” to the overlook! And at Wisemans View we were smitten by the gorge. The views were stunning, across to Table Rock, Hawksbill Mountain, and down into Linville Gorge itself. The weather had cleared up since the morning so the views were great. We quickly forgot about the disappointments of the morning as our adrenaline started pumping as we now looked down into the gorge and started looking forward to a big day tomorrow, and what a great day it would be. The 10 hours we spent hiking in Linville Gorge would be the highlight of the trip (deservedly will be getting its own TR soon). We found a few cliffs nearby, which had some severe drop offs, and we climbed around on them having a good time taking photos of each other – as if we worked so hard to reach these stunning vistas! Despite being a popular overlook, we had the place all to ourselves, which made this first short experience at the gorge that much more enjoyable.
We continued the afternoon’s festivities by stopping at the Linville Falls Trailhead. There are several hikes available, to at least three different overlooks, and all of these hikes are quite easy, as well as quite busy. I didn’t really care how busy they were at this point. I was too excited thinking about our big day in the gorge on Friday to care. We hit all the overlooks in short order, snapped quite a few pictures and then headed back to camp. On the way we located Famous Louise's Rockhouse Restaurant as we planned on having breakfast there in the morning before heading into the gorge on Friday.
A Second Try on the Black CrestAfter our hard day in Linville Gorge on Friday we slept a little later than we probably should have on Saturday. But we awoke to clear skies and what promised to be a beautiful day for our second try on the Black Crest Trail. We had about a one hour drive to get to Mt. Mitchell State Park (MM 355) and ended up taking quite a bit more time than that getting there. We stopped at Louise’s for breakfast again and also stopped quite a few times on the Parkway. The open views to the ridgelines were perfect that morning, only accentuated by the low lying clouds in the valleys. The Blue Ridge Parkway can definitely spoil you as you don’t have to work very hard to see some spectacular scenery. Just start driving!
As is so typical in the mountains, by the time we reached the Deep Gap Trailhead near Mt. Mitchell bad weather started to roll in. So much for a bluebird day in the mountains! We headed up the trail and by the time we reached Mt. Craig the weather was still OK as there was no rain and the clouds weren’t lying so low that we couldn’t see the distant ridgelines. I was fine with this so we continued on, hitting Big Tom and Balsam Cone.
The trail quality at this end of the Black Crest was much different than at Bowlens Creek. At that end the trail was overgrown and some easy bushwhacking was involved. But from the Deep Gap Trailhead steep slippery rocks and mud were the order of the day. Two very different trails! This portion of the trail was very difficult as finding good foot placement was essential to keep from a bad slip or fall. It was slow going at times on a tough trail! But these two separate ends of the trail did share one trait in common that surprised me – very few views of the mountains. Once we were past Mt. Craig there was little to see other than a really dense pine forest. As we continued on past Big Tom I kept wondering when the trail would open up.
I started the day hoping to make it to Celo Knob so I could say that I did the entire Black Crest traverse. But by the time we passed Balsam Cone the weather had deteriorated enough that even if the trail did open up to reveal the beautiful mountains around us we wouldn’t be able to see them anyway. And we were also concerned about being up on the ridge crest with the threat of thunderstorms being quite high. We considered continuing on to Potato Hill and Cattail Peak hoping that conditions would improve. It was about this time that we saw the first other hikers on the trail, a couple of college kids that had backpacked into Deep Gap the night before. They made our decision to bail on the Black Crest a second time an easy one as they said the trail all the way to Deep Gap was about the same – mud and rocks on the trail and trees to the left and right. There were only a few open areas. It was early enough in the day that a successful repeat of Thursday was in order. If we turned around now we could get back to the car early enough to go on another hike in the afternoon. So without any hesitation we turned around and headed for the car, and what a great decision that would end up being as we would end up climbing Calloway Peak later that afternoon. As for the weather, it had gotten even worse. The rain hadn’t come yet, but the clouds were now so low by the time we got back to Mt. Craig that there were no mountains to see.
Calloway PeakWhen we got to the car I pulled out my copy of Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and started looking for another hike in the area. With the bad weather a hike to a waterfall seemed like the smartest option. I was interested in hiking to Douglas Falls, a 7.2 mile roundtrip starting at the Graybeard Mountain Overlook (MM 363), but Dave wasn’t interested in hiking that far for just a waterfall, so we headed north on the Parkway. I figured we would end up at Crabtree Falls (MM 339) which we had hiked to on our previous trip to the Parkway, but Dave found information on Grandfather Mountain and made his case for a climb up to Calloway Peak, so we headed for MM 299 and the Boone Fork Parking Area.
The guide said it was a 5.8 mile round trip hike with 2,044 feet of elevation gain. We decided to make a mini-loop out of the hike by going up the Daniel Boone Scout Trail and returning via the Cragway. There was nothing exciting about the hike up the Scout Trail as it was strictly a walk in the forest. But shortly after the intersection of the Scout Trail and the Cragway the terrain changed and the last 1.7 miles to the summit was a rocky, rugged trail that offered some fun hiking as there is some easy rock climbing and a few ladders along the way to the summit.
We had Calloway Peak all to ourselves for a while. The summit allows for a mostly unobstructed 360 degree view, and the views towards MacRae Peak and Attic Window were stunning as well as the views to the east. Shortly after we reached the summit two gentlemen showed up, and I was glad they did. They were descending back down the Scout Trail on their way back from completing the traverse of Grandfather Mountain. They had already been to MacRae Peak and Attic Window, and all the way to the Mile High Bridge, and now they were finishing their round trip on the final descent to the trailhead. They told us about the route and the incredible scenery it offered. Dave and I were now quite jazzed knowing that we needed to plan a return trip to Grandfather Mountain.
We did descend the Cragway, and in hindsight I wish we would have ascended it and descended the Scout trail. The scenery is much better on the Cragway. There are several crags with open views to the ridgelines, and if I am doing a loop route, I enjoy seeing these open vistas on an ascent as opposed to the descent. The Cragway is also a very rugged trail making it a more challenging descent that the Scout Trail. Again, I prefer climbing up a rugged trail than descending one. The Scout Trail route also makes Calloway a destination hike. There is not much to see, other than woods. If I had my druthers, if there are no mountain vistas, I would rather take that path on the descent. Those are just my preferences.
In the end I believe the hike is actually 7.5 miles round trip, based on the mileage documented on the trail signs. I assume the elevation gain of 2,044 feet to be correct.
Calloway Peak easily made us forget about our disappointments on the Black Crest earlier in the day. We were in high spirits as we drove back to our campsite and celebrated the day’s victory with a few very tasty local pale ales.
The Roan HighlandsWe left for home on Sunday morning and stopped at the Roan Highlands. I didn’t plan on a long day of hiking. I hoped to make it over to Grassy Ridge Bald, a short hike that would allow us to get home by early evening. The weather didn’t cooperate so the hike was really short. By the time we reached Round Bald it had started to rain and there were thunderstorms in the area. Not a real safe idea being out on an open bald in a thunderstorm, so in short order we turned around and headed for home. Obviously the Roan Highlands are beautiful and the rhododendron were in full bloom. It would have been a great day if the weather had cooperated.
Thoughts on the Black Crest TrailSo is the Black Crest as horrible a trail as I have made it out to be. Of course not! If the weather would have cooperated I’m sure the tone of this TR would have been completely different, as well as the theme and content. With good weather on Thursday I’m sure we would have logged quite a few miles and made it at least to Winter Star. Probably further.
So do I think the Black Crest is worth hiking? Of course, but I would argue that it depends on what you are looking for! For the avid peak bagger, the Black Crest is an ideal trail, with nine summits from Mt. Craig to Celo Knob, all of them being Southern Sixers. For anyone looking for a tough challenge, again it is a great trail. Between all the elevation gain and the ruggedness of the trail, bragging rights are in order, whether it is the “classic traverse” from Mt. Craig to Celo Knob and back, or the 12 mile one way trip from Bowlens Creek to Mt. Craig. But as for great mountain views, I would argue that there are other trails in the southern Appalachians that offer a much larger volume of open vistas for a lot less effort (Art Loeb Trail, the Roan Highlands, Alum Cave to Mt. LeConte to name a few).
That being said, I will go back to the Black Crest someday. I would like to complete a traverse of the ridge. But considering my experiences in Linville Gorge and on Grandfather Mountain, I will be heading back to those areas first. I already have the hikes for those areas mapped out. The only question left to answer is, when will I be going?