Monday, February 11, 2013

Black Balsam Knob Hike

Our trailhead was located at the junction of US 215 and the Blue Ridge Parkway near Canton, NC. Originally we had planned to take the Blue Ridge Parkway to a different trailhead deep into the wilderness but the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed and we were forced to take an alternate route into the bush.

On our way to the trailhead, we ascended 2000 feet over the course of about seven miles. Along the ascension we got to see several stunning sites including this waterfall just off the roadway.

When we arrived at the trailhead, there was a small parking lot that had some snow on the ground. Being from South Carolina, often times it can be years between seeing real, actual snow.  Thus, seeing some snow on the ground was a bit of a novelty. We were hoping we would get to see some more snow while we were on our hike. And snow did we see.

Find the trail! Don't get lost!
The trails were poorly marked and poorly blazed and it was a bit of a challenge to be certain of where we were going from time-to-time. We looked at our map and got mixed up at some trail junctions (again horribly marked and blazed) and pressed on a different trail then what we thought we were on. Getting on the wrong trail was not the worst thing ever, in fact, were planning on hitting this trail on the way back. After about three hours of hiking we got to an unmistakable trail junction which indicated we were only moving about half the speed that we thought we were. This was horribly depressing. We were trodding through some thick snow and ice which was really slowing us down.

We elected to alter our plans to account for our very slow moving progress. Even though we altered our plans, one thing we definitely wanted to do was hit the top of Black Balsam Knob, which is 6240 feet in elevation. As you can see, from on top of this mountain, we are actually looking down at the peaks of other mountains around us.

We elected to press on to the spot which we had planned to make camp. Except that we were heading straight there instead of taking 7-mile loop around to it.  Our camp spot was beside the Blue Ridge Parkway which was 7.5 trail miles away from our vehicle. Since we were moving at only about 1 mile per hour it was going to take us 7.5 hours to get to our car on day 2, when we had only planned on it taking about 3 hours. Thus, we elected to skip the trails on the way back on day 2 and just hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway which is a beautifully paved highway with absolutely no traffic because it's closed due to snow and ice.  Our plan was formed.

We hit a connector trail heading towards our camp site, which was located in an area affectionately referred to as the Graveyard Fields. The entire time on this 1.5 mile connector trail my buddy was yelling at me that I clearly measured the maps incorrectly and undercalculated our distances grossly. He was convinced there was no way were only moving at a 1MPH pace. We were moving very slowly. Because we had several junctions of bridges with steep descents below us and the bridges themselves were covered in snow and ice, making it very easy to slip and fall.

Deep, Snowy Trail
It took us an hour and a half to walk this 1.5 mile connector trail with my buddy fussing at me the whole time about me measuring our distances wrong. I was vindicated when we reached a major 4-trail junction and a signpost confirmed the trail we had just walked was, in fact, a mile and a half. In fairness to his perspective, the trail literally seemed like it was twice as long as it indicated.  It was a very challenging walk through foot-deep snow at parts.

The sign indicated we were 2.2 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway (and our campsite). So we knew even at a 1 MPH pace we were be there in no more than 2 hours and some change. Luckily that 2.2 mile stretch was the flattest, smoothest, and most "unsnowy" section of trail we saw the entire day and we made it to our campsite in just under an hour.

The camp was in a flat basin called Graveyard Fields.  It was a river basin surrounded by scenic ridges and mountains in every direction.  Because it was a basin it was also very wet. It was sort of like sleeping in a marshland. Having experience with the unpleasantness of a wet tent bottom in the past, I was glad I made the decision to pack the heavy tarp that I did to place under the tent.

Finding wood to make a fire was a real challenge. Finding dry wood was impossible. Nonetheless we got a modicum of a fire rolling although it took nearly two hours and a lot of effort.  We ate our traditional "victory chili" before cleaning up camp so as not to attract any visiting bears during the night and turned in for the night. After the sun dipped behind the mountain ridge, the temperatures plummeted fast. While the fire provided no particular warmth, we picked up a few of the stones that made up our fire ring and brought them in the tent to put underneath our feet in the sleeping bags to keep them them warm. This was especially nice considering yours truly had been sporting sopping, wet socks for the better part of four hours.

The following morning we had about a mile walk to get to the Blue Ridge Parkway which was at the top of the Graveyard Fields basin. The photograph to the right here shows our campsite, which was one of the bare spots in the very center of the picture, which is about a kilometer away from our vantage point.

It was about a 5-mile hike back to our car along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even with 25-30 pounds of gear on our backs, under ideal road conditions we can exceed 2 MPH, even with occasional breaks factored in.

Sunrise on the Blue Ridge Parkway
I was actually kind of excited about hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway even though it was not part of our original plan. Having no traffic to worry about allowed us to casually walk in the center of the road and enjoy some majestic views along parkway and certainly some better hiking conditions. I was not disappointed.

One really neat thing along the parkway were numerous frozen formations that appeared on the rock walls. The most extreme was this completely frozen waterfall.  Needless to say. It was cold outside.

A combination of absolutely no cars on the road and walking through a dark, desolate tunnel got us prepared to enjoy the post-apocalyptic "The Walking Dead" for later that evening. That ice formation on the left-side of the picture was about 10-feet tall.

The Devil's Courthouse
After exiting the tunnel, we snapped a picture of this rock face referred to as "The Devil's Courthouse."

We arrived at our car in a little less than 2 hours after stepping onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, moving at a clip of about 2.5 miles per hour, mostly uphill with a ton of gear on. That also included a 15-minute stop for a mid-morning snack. I learned a tremendous number of lessons on this trip without too much heartache and ultimately hit the two main things I wanted to when planning the hike, reaching Black Balsam Knob, and camping in the Graveyard Fields. Seeing some snow was an added bonus though it added much aggravation onto the trip, causing us to alter plans numerous times.  Still a great trip that we're planning to do again in warmer weather.

1 comment:

  1. Haha! You were grieved at your 1mph? Welcome to winter hiking. I averaged 1 mph on my first day this past hike (afterwards I got it up to 2mph), mostly due to the pack being so heavy at the beginning of the trip, and some steep ascents. 1mph is only shameful during summer hiking!