A lot of my hiking friends who like to get out and hit the trails concentrate on seeing waterfalls. I can understand that, and I certainly won't pass up the opportunity to see a nice waterfall, or even a mildly pretty one. However, there is nothing I like more than hiking to the summits of our southern high mountains.
And what do I mean by "high"?
Here in the South, I consider anything at or above 4,000 feet to be a high peak. At those elevations--unless the mountain is at a really extreme southern latitude, you can see the effects of microclimates at the upper elevations. There are big changes in vegetation and sometimes in animal life along the tops of such peaks. Even the southernmost 5,000-foot peaks in the Appalachians will display this if you hike them from base to summit. And our sixers...well, they're the best.
Where we were camping is called the Unaka Mountain Area of Cherokee National Park. That's because Unaka Mountain dominates the local skyline, appearing as an enormous, whale-shaped mass looming high above the village of Erwin, Tennessee. It's an impressive summit. Its base lies at around 1500 feet or so and it climbs until you reach the very top at a shade over 5,200 feet above sea level. It's not only a fiver, it's almost a mile-high summit. Therefor, it was a definite must-hike for me if I was that close to it.
Because of my recovering knee, there was no way that I was going to make the 11-mile round trip from near the bottom of the peak to the top via either the Appalachian Trail or a combination of Rattlesnake Ridge Trail, Unaka Road, and Appalachian Trail. (See? I did my homework.) What I ended up doing was finding out where the AT came close to the Unaka Mountain Road and picked it up nearer the top for the climb. I'd heard that there is a spot below the summit so that you have a two-mile round trip hike, so that's what I was aiming for.
I drove along the Unaka Mountain road one morning looking for the
connector trail. Finally, I saw it, pulled over, loaded by camera, tripod, and water in my pack and headed up. After about 3/4 of a mile of hiking (and about 500 vertical feet of elevation gain) I realized that I'd missed the connector trail I'd been aiming for and passed it on the left. Oh, well. So it goes. I'd only added another 1.5 miles to the hike and some huffing and puffing up a bunch of switchbacks.
Soon after this point the forest changed over from classic southern cove hardwoods to more northern species of trees. I began to see a lot of birches and sugar maples and white oaks. There's a feeling I get when I climb a high southern peak. I can't describe it, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is. But it's a feeling. You get a sensation that you're high, even if you can't see the sky or the horizon; even if mists are pulled in all around you on the shoulders of the mountain. And that's the way it was as I climbed up Unaka Mountain. I felt like I was very high. It wasn't just knowing--there was a feeling to it.
Going up more switchbacks and along the steady grade, I finally entered the evergreen forests that prefer only the very highest elevations of Unaka Mountain. I saw some hemlocks, and then those gave way to mainly red spruce trees which completely dominated the very top of the peak. And by this time I was solidly in the clouds. The mists hung low to the earth and muffled everything as if under a very thick blanket. I wandered off the trail until I found the very highest point on the mountain (or supposed that I did) and I lay down in the rust of years of spruce needles and listened to the silence.
This was quietest place that I have visited in years. There were no people there, so I didn't hear voices. There were no engine sounds and no planes, no jets overhead. All I could hear was the low wind through the spruce needles and some birds calling softly to one another through the fog.
It was amazing.
(I've listed the peak for Unicoi County in Tennessee. However, the mountain does straddle the TN/NC state line and it could be argued that it also lies in Mitchell County in North Carolina. But I accessed it all the week I was there via the Tennessee side, so there I have listed it.)
This is merely one of many way to access the Appalachian Trail to the summit of Unaka Mountain:
From I-26 take the Erwin Main Street Exit (#36), at the end of the ramp turn east toward town and you will immediately arrive at a stop light. Turn right onto Rt. 107 and drive 1/2 mile, turn left at stop light onto Rock Creek Road (Rt. 395) -- continue on for 6.5 miles to TN/NC line (called Indian Grave Gap) and then take the gravel road to the left (you'll need to have a high clearance vehicle for this rough road). After 2.1 miles you'll come to a fork, stay right and you will immediately arrive at the Beauty Spot. Walk up the path that leads to the top of the bald and then turn left and follow the AT north for 1.15 miles to Deep Gap.
Lower Rock Creek Falls.
You could also attain the summit in a neat hike by taking the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail from Rock Creek Recreation Area, then heading north where it reaches its terminus at Unaka Mountain Road and hiking north toward one of the roadside meetings with the AT, then to the summit.
No real red tape. Most of the summit ridges of Unaka Mountain are in Cherokee National Forest and are accessible to all without a fee. Parts of the mountain's slopes and ridges lie with Unaka Mountain Wilderness and there all wilderness rules apply.
Upper Rock Creek Falls
Plenty of back country camping to be had all over the mountain, especially along the AT and on the Rock Creek Trail in the Unaka Mountain Wilderness and on the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail in the Cherokee National Forest.
For those who want developed camping, there is Rock Creek Recreation Area developed decades ago by the CCC and quite popular today. Campsites with electric hookups, bathrooms with flush toilets, sinks, and hot showers. Full service sites are a mere $15 a night.