Spring had arrived here, a hundred miles south and several hundred feet below my camp at Mt. Rogers, but only just. The cold breeze chilled me as I emerged from my car, but the exertion of setting up camp and assembling my gear soon warmed me up.
|It almost looks like it's May down here.|
And up, and up, and up. Mount Mitchell is not only the high point of North Carolina, you see, but of the entire eastern United States—and, along with our old friend Mt. Washington, one of only two ultraprominent peaks in eastern North America. It’s a tough hike by any standards: six miles and 3600 vertical feet up a steep, rocky trail. Some folks split the trip into two days, camping at one of several sites hidden along the trail; some skip the hike entirely and take the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit. Yet it’s one of my all-time favorite trails, both for the physical challenge and for the ecological transition it showcases: from the sheltered valley floor to the windswept spruce-fir forests of the summit.
The trail was fairly homogenous for the first few miles. I followed its switchbacks up and around the foothills through a deciduous hardwood forest much like you’d find elsewhere in the southern Appalachians—the “woods next door,” so to speak. Every so often it passed through a rhododendron thicket. The thick shrubs closed in around the trail, cutting off visibility on either side. I wondered, as I passed, what hid behind their waxy leaves… songbirds, certainly, and squirrels, chipmunks, perhaps even a bear? These mountains are home to a healthy population of black bears, but though they loom large in my imagination each time I visit, I have yet to see one. Nonetheless, I took to clapping as I neared each grove to announce my presence so they could bumble off and leave me be.
The air was warm and the climbing tough; I soon stripped down to my T-shirt to keep from sweating. I knew it would be cold up top, if the loud winds rushing overhead were any indication. But, of course, I had soaked through my shirt anyway by the time I reached the junction with the trail to Higgins Bald two and a half miles up. I chugged half my water, took some pics:
and, sloshing slightly, continued on.
Past this point the trail took on a different character. The broadleafed trees, battered by the downhill winds, shrunk close to the mountain, then gave way to pines. The trail passed through several wide glades carpeted with needles. Last June I’d heard a pair of Veerys here (the first time I’d heard their echoing, metallic trill), but it seemed they hadn’t yet moved in for the summer.
The trail also crossed a phone-line clearing several times, home to the line that served the summit. Turning back, I took a look at the mountains behind me:
and, increasingly, below me. The wind picked up; I put my down jacket back on.
A fellow with a dog passed me on his way down. I asked him how the winds were up top. Strong, he replied, but dying down—though it’d been an hour and a half since he was there.
Not long after passing him, I spotted something quite unexpected to the side of the trail:
Why, yes, had the mountain ended right there. But I still had a thousand feet to climb.
As I continued upwards, the patches grew. Their meltwater flooded the trail, forcing me to hop from one rock-island to the next. My boots were waterproof, in theory, but I had no wish to test them. Before long it was the dirt that was patchy:
and then the snow overtook the trail.
I scrambled carefully up the slushy, slick rocks. Nothing was frozen hard, but had it been ten degrees colder I would have sorely missed my Micro-Spikes. After several tense minutes, I reached the nature trail encircling the summit.
The way leveled out from here, but the weather more than made up for it. As promised, the winds were sharp and strong, blowing snow-chunks off the trees and into my face. Inch-thick snow coated the ground, and a thin mist of sleet was falling. I passed an older couple (Parkway drivers, I presumed) as they picked their way carefully over the trail—they hadn’t expected this winter wonderland up top either.
At last I made it to the summit area. The paved trail from the parking lot was clear, though who knows if that was the rangers’ work or that of the winds. Ultraprominence makes a peak quite unfriendly in the winter.
The gusts were so painful I didn’t linger past the requisite picture-taking:
|Here again. Not so many tourists this time.|
|Nice view, eh? Three times I’ve been up here, and I’ve never had a clear day.|
|In comparison, I’d taken a leisurely lunch up here last June.|
I was a bit nervous to descend over all those wet rocks, but needlessly so; the way down was uneventful. I squeezed out a few texts in the upper reaches of the mountain, but by the time I returned to the lower Higgins Bald junction, I was out of range once more. That bald, by the way, is almost completely overgrown these days, with only a particularly large patch of rhododendrons to mark where the treeless expanse once was.
|The trail still goes by a nice little creek, though.|
After a break at the former bald, my descent was quick. I hopped from rock to root to patch of dirt, surprised at how much energy I had left. Unlike my last trip up the mountain, I’d stopped for regular water- and snack-breaks this time, both on the way up and the way down. It’s amazing how much of a difference that can make.
And amazed was I when I checked my phone after reaching the trailhead: it was only 6:30. I’d made it up that mountain in about three hours, then down again in another three, with energy to spare. Twelve miles round-trip, 3000 feet up and down… and three months back in time, from May in the valley to February up top. Not bad for half a day’s hike.
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