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October 2nd, 2007
This first week of October is shaping up to be absolutely glorious in my Blue Ridge neck of the woods. Mid to high 70s in crisp, absurdly clear air during the day, low 50s to high 40s at night. Only a few leaves are turning – the sourwoods and sumacs are red-red and the beeches are already turning yellow, the high ridge line is showing signs of color too.
In the Black Mountain/Montreat/ Ridgecrest area there are a number of well-maintained trails into the high country and Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. These include the Old Toll Road cinder trail to Camp Alice that rises at a mellow 7% grade along the old Mount Mitchell Railway bed from just above Black Mountain, the more challenging Ridgecrest Trail that begins near the Baptist Convention Center at Ridgecrest in the Swannanoa Gap, and the Old Graphite Trail that begins at Mill Creek in the tiny settlement of Graphite at the base of the continental divide 5 miles from Old Fort.
All of these trails are convenient to the Inn on Mill Creek “Nature Lover’s Bed and Breakfast” about halfway up the mountain between Graphite and Ridgecrest. There is no better word to describe this place than “incredible.” When you wake up on a morning like this – in a place like this – the first thing that enters your mind is “yet another beautiful day!” Sometimes you’ve just got to lace up the hiking boots and head for the forest.
The Inn on Mill Creek is approximately 2 miles from the Graphite trail head, you can just walk the distance down the gravel fire road or drive and park off the road between the Brookside Baptist Church and SUWS camp. The trail begins right there, rises to the high side of the Norfolk Southern railroad grade over the continental divide (Old Fort Loops), and enters the Pisgah National Forest through a kudzu-covered tunnel on the other side.
The Graphite Trail was originally built for horses and one-mule wagons, used to access the high country ice works in what is now the area of the Black Mountain campground at Mount Mitchell for transporting ice on the piedmont side of the plateau to Marion, Morganton, Hickory and points east (including Charlotte) in the days before refrigeration. This makes the trail wide enough to accommodate 4-wheelers and mountain bikes as well as mule-pack hiking groups planning to take 2 or three days to reach the summit and return. Total length of the trail from Graphite to Mount Mitchell State Park is 9.2 miles.
For mountain bikers, this trail is part of the annual Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell in July, so that’s not a great day to take the hike if you don’t fancy being run over by a lot of cranky guys on 2-wheelers wearing spandex. You’ll also want to avoid the trail during hunting season, or at least wear some day-glo gear and make more noise than usual. Deer are shy enough not to be a problem most of the year, but there are black bears and occasional timber rattlers- you’ll want to walk with a stout staff and stick close to the trail. Carry a little first aid kit with insect sting/bite ointment, bandaids, gauze, ace bandage and a little snakebite kit.
The water’s mostly spring-fed unless it’s been raining hard, and there’s nothing upstream but more wilderness – purification tablets should work fine, so you won’t have to pack gallons to take with you. There are expanses of thick club mosses that make excellent bedding under your tent for a night’s sleep, so you won’t need an air mattress or foam pad. There are native brown trout aplenty, but if you plan to fry any of ‘em for dinner you will need to carry a state fishing license. Even if you catch them by the snatch-and-toss method.
There are several raw camping spots along the trail, both by the creek and in valley expanses that can accommodate many large tents. Of course, always be careful of fires. The campsites do have rock fire pits, and there’s plenty of down wood. The trail follows the creek and fords it in several places, so dowse your fire good before setting off. Don’t pitch your tent too close to the water, as sudden rainstorms on the Blacks (Mitchell and its brothers) can be going on without you knowing, sitting pretty in the dappled shade with a ridge between you and them. When that water drains – and it will drain fast – it is turbulent enough to roll granite boulders of several tons around like pebbles.
In some places the trail has washed out a bit to become skinnier than it was originally, but it’s still plenty wide for hiking. It’s rocky so you will have to watch your step, and unless it’s very dry you’ll probably get your feet wet at one or more of the fords. The higher you get the more you’ll need extra clothing. At the summit it can easily be 30 degrees cooler than it is in Asheville at the same time, and even in the middle of July you’ll need a sweater during the day and a jacket at night. In October it can be below freezing 8 out of 10 nights on Mitchell, and the wind always blows. The park is open in the winter unless the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed due to ice and wind – Mount Mitchell averages 100 inches of snow a year.
But if you’re just out for a nice day-hike in the beautiful forest, the 3-mile hike from the Graphite trail head to the T at Heartbreak Ridge (left goes up to Mitchell, right over the ridge to Curtis Creek, the oldest section of National Forest in America) is a workout but not too much to handle. Pack a picnic lunch, relax at the T listening to the birds and the silence, marvel at the sheer size of some of those tulip poplars and hemlocks!
Then hike back to Graphite – the round trip takes no more than 3 hours with the picnic lunch included – and head on back to the Inn or drive on to Black Mountain for a nice dinner at one of the fine restaurants serving the area.
Once you’ve discovered this breathtaking WNC treasure you’ll be making plans to return again and again, whenever you can. Some guests hold their weddings at the Inn, or at Andrews Geyser on Mill Creek Road just down the road at Graphite. That little mountain lake at the Inn feeds this man-made geyser, which spouts water 100 feet into the air all times of year.
Mountain Goat Epics Mountain Biking
Southern Appalachians Initiative American Hiking Society