If starting from Mount Mitchell, begin the trail at the Mount Mitchell picnic area just below the parking lot. If beginning at Bowlens Creek, use the parking area on NC 1109 (graded, but not paved).
Directions to the Bowlens Creek Trailhead are as follows:
From Burnsville go east on 19E for half and mile and turn right on NC 197 (south) at the Texaco gas station. Follow this to NC 1109 (Bolens Creek Road) on the left. Follow this road to the hairpin turn to the right. In this turn is the trailhed. You need a high clearance vehicle to negotiate this spot and drive up and park near the gate (but do not block the gate). If in a car, you can drive down a bit and park near the cemetery, if you ask for permission.
The trailhead is at Bowlens Creek where the elevation is just under 3,000 feet. Following Bolens Creek, the trail climbs steadily and gains well over 3,000 feet to the summit of Celo Knob (6,327 feet) in three and a half miles. Grueling, yes. From Celo Knob the trail drops down and then up to Gibbs Mountain (6,224 feet) and then across Horse Rock, down to another gap, and up to the peak of Winter Star. This trail is considered one of the toughest in the eastern USA. I have to agree. I've only hiked one set of trails that could compare to this one in really socking it to your legs, and those are on Katahdin. If beginning the trip from Bowlens Creek, the total elevation gained is right at 4,000 feet. Total mileage, one way, would be twelve miles. I would not try to do this with a full pack in one day. Best bet would be to climb up from Bowlens Creek, over Celo Knob and Winter Star, and camp at Deep Gap (5,600 feet).
Then make the second leg from Deep Gap to Mount Mitchell the following day. Distance from the trailhead at Bowlens Creek to Deep Gap is eight miles. It's another 4.7 miles to Mount Mitchell.
There are so many climbs and descents along this trail, that I'm not sure how many total feet are gained and lost. I only did the round trip from Mitchell to Winter Star and back, and that's one of the roughest hikes I've made. As I understand it, the drop from Celo Knob down to Bolen's Creek is a real thigh-jarring hike.
Of course the one-way hike is easier (but not a lot easier) if done from Mount Mitchell down to Bolen's Creek. Then you don't have to contend with the long, relentless climb from NC 1109 to the Black Mountain Crest.
Good boots. Hiking staff. Plent of water. After you leave Bowlens Creek, there are no close sources of water along the trail. There are some springs near Deep Gap, but you have to hike down a ways to them. So take plenty of water. In winter, be prepared for the worst. Warm clothing, instep crampons, good winter equipment.
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