Mt. Mitchell State Park & the Black Mountains
Named for the dark evergreen forests of spruce and fir that cover its peaks, the Black Mountain Range is the highest east of the Rockies. Running roughly north to south for 15 miles, these mountains have 18 peaks higher than 6300′.Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak, is named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a professor of sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill who first suggested that the peak that bears his name was the highest in the range. Dr. Mitchell died at a waterfall on the western slope of the mountain while returning from one of many exploratory trips to western North Carolina.
The Blacks were logged extensively during the early years of this century. In fact, Mt. Mitchell State Park was created in 1915 to preserve the fir trees around the peak from the loggers’ ax. Originally only 525 acres, the park expanded through several subsequent acquisitions until it reached its present size of 1469 acres in 1969.
Today, the summit is surrounded by the matchstick remnants of spruce and fir trees that have died in the last 25 years – all of the victims of a one-two punch delivered by an exotic insect and acid rain. The premature death of fir trees is not limited to the Black mountains. It is common above 5500 feet throughout the southern Appalachians. And there is increasing evidence that in some areas an unusually large number of high altitude hardwoods are dying prematurely as well.
Colbert’s Ridge Trail
Despite the ghostly tree skeletons on the summit, the Blacks are a great treat for outdoor enthusiasts. Rising more than 3000 feet above their base, these mountains offer some of the most strenuous hiking in the eastern U.S.. Colbert’s Ridge Trail, for example, ascends from 2750′ at the trailhead near the Carolina Hemlocks campground to 5700′ at Deep Gap in only 3.7 miles. From there, if one heads south along the Black Mountain Crest Trail, Cattail Peak, (6675′) is only a little over a mile away.
Mt. Mitchell Trail
Almost as strenuous is the Mt. Mitchell Trail, a 5.6-mile trek that begins at 3200′ at Black Mountain Campground and ends at the summit of Mt. Mitchell. About two miles from the campground trailhead a side trail to the left leads to Higgins Bald (see right above.) Above Higgins Bald, the trail continues to switchback up the south face of the mountain through an oak-hickory forest (below 4500′), then ascends into a northern deciduous forest of birches and other high altitude hardwoods (4500′ – 5500′), and finally enters the spruce and fir zone just after the trail passes the remnants of an old logging camp from the 1920s named Camp Alice.
Buncombe Horse Range Trail
At Camp Alice, the Mt. Mitchell Trail intersects the Buncombe Horse Range Trail. At 15 miles, it is the longest in the Blacks. For most of its route, it follows old logging roads and the corridor of an abandoned rail tramway that took sightseers to the top of Mt. Mitchell in the early years of the 20th century. It passes through Maple Camp Bald (see right above) near its midpoint, a nice spot to have a sunny lunch on a clear cold day and gaze up at Big Tom and Cattail Peak.
Black Mountain Crest Trail
The Black Mountain Crest Trail begins at the parking lot on top of Mt. Mitchell and heads north along the crest of the Black Mountain Range. During its 12 mile course it crosses Mt. Craig, Big Tom, Cattail Peak, and Potato Hill before descending to Deep Gap (5700.’) Here the Colbert’s Ridge Trail intersects from the right and descends 3.7 miles to Colbert’s Creek Rd. near the Carolina Hemlocks campground. Continuing north the Crest Trail crosses Celo Knob before dropping to the trailhead at Bowlen’s Creek Rd (3000′).
For more info, see the links below or contact the USFS Toecane District Ranger at 828-682-6146. Forest Service campsites, such as Black Mountain Campground and Carolina Hemlocks, can be reserved online at ReserveUSA. Forest Service maps can be ordered at 800-660-0671. For the Black Mountains, order the South Toe River Trail Map.
Summary – The Black Mountains
Location: Yancey County, between Marion and Burnsville.
Access: Hwy 80 north from Marion or south from 19E near Burnsville; or the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Elevation: 2700′ near the base to 6684′ atop Mt. Mitchell.
Ownership: North Carolina owns the 1727 acres that comprise Mt. Mitchell State Park. The area east of the park and the crest of the Black Mountains is under USDA ownership as part of Pisgah National Forest.