The Middle Prong Wilderness is the less-visited half of the Balsams. Shining Rock – just across 215 gets far more hikers. We’ve climbed Mt. Hardy in the past but from the other direction (Blue Ridge Parkway). This time we approached from NC 215.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail winds up to the ridge north of Mt. Hardy. This is actually a fairly confusing area as the long trail to Green Knob and Sunburst branches off as well as several short trails to lookouts and campgrounds. There are no blazes due to the status as a Wilderness Area so it’s pretty easy to get turned around. The ridges towards Green Knob have spectacular views of the Balsam Mountains just to the east.
At 800 ft. high, Glassmine Falls is one of the highest in the Eastern US. It’s seasonal and this overlook off of the Blue Ridge Parkway is about the only vantage point. It drops into the Asheville watershed which is closed to all activity including hiking.
From the Glassmine overlook, the Mountains to Sea Trail runs north to the Black Mountains and Mt. Mitchell. This section crosses over Walker Knob (not to be confused with the Walker Knob above Montreat, which is probably visible from here). In May there are a lot of wildflowers in this area including the painted trilliums above, and the fringed phacelia below.
From the Black Balsam parking lot, it’s about a 5 to 6 mile loop along the Little Sam trail to Chestnut Bald and then back around to the Balsams on the MST and the Art Loeb Trail.
In early August, we were able to collect a bit more than a pint of wild blueberries. We could have almost any number of blackberries if we’d wanted as well but we have plenty of those in the meadow at home.
This is the view south from the saddle between Chestnut Bald and Silvermine Bald, neither of which are particularly bald these days. There are good views further along the Art Loeb Trail and also good open meadow campsites.
This entry could be called Round Butt Bald because that’s the mountain we circled but since we didn’t summit it that seemed wrong.
From Bearpen Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway we took the connector trail to the Mountains-to-Sea trail and followed that to Wet Camp Gap. Wet Camp is a high open meadow filled with blueberries, blackberries and assorted wildflowers. There’s also a small pond in the center but it was mostly empty on our visit except for a couple remnant pools that were packed with tadpoles.
There’s an unofficial but easy-to-find trail leading southwest out of Wet Camp Gap. This eventually becomes a steep manway to the summit of Gage Bald where there are excellent views of the surrounding mountains. We had a bit of a picnic up here. By the way, these little sling chairs are incredibly light but they’re a bit tricky to set up and it’s definately a learned skill to get out of them with any modicum of grace.
Usually we expect to be scratched up after any sort of bushwhacking. We were after this hike but it wasn’t from Gage Bald, it was actually from the MST heading around Round Butt Bald back to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Haywood Gap. This section is narrow and treacherous, especially overgrown with blackberries and nettles. At the high point on this trail we considered hiking up to the summit of Round Butt Bald. The east approach to the top was pretty much a wall of blackberries and after donating some blood to them we abandoned the attempt and decided to try some other time in a less-summery season (like say, winter).
This was actually sort of a composite day in the Pisgah Ranger District. We started out hiking along the MST from Big Ridge Overlook. It looks pretty impressive and much like most of the overlooks around here.
After this hike we went down to Slick Rock Falls which is an easily accessible waterfall. It’s visible from a dirt road in the Looking Glass area. In fact the trail (which we also hiked) goes up to several of the rock climbing routes on the west side of Looking Glass rock.
The first hike of the year, most of the Blue Ridge Parkway was still closed due to recent snows so we just went to the section of the Mountains to Sea Trail that parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway through Asheville. This section, from I-26 to US 25 is not exactly wilderness but it’s very close to town. It’s 3.5 miles between the two big roads but it’s such easy hiking that it seems substantially shorter.
The Shut-In Trail (from the Biltmore Estate to Mt. Pisgah) and the Mountains to Sea Trail run together along the Blue Ridge Parkway west of Asheville. This is the Sleepy Gap parking area. From here it’s about a mile west to Chestnut Cove, not the most scenic hike but there are some camping areas near Truckwheel Knob and those are rare things along the Blue Ridge Parkway trails.
East from Sleepy Gap the trail goes out and around the north side of Grassy Knob where these cliffs are. The parkways tunnels under the far side of the mountain so this section is peaceful and relatively quiet. There are also a couple unofficial trails from here that lead down into the Bent Creek bike trail system although we saw no evidence of mountain bike usage on the MST.
For the most part this is only a good hike if you happen to live in or near Asheville and don’t decide to go for a hike until 3 hours before sunset. Or if you happen to be section hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail. Or if you like the sound of hordes of motorcycles on the Blue Ridge parkway during fall foliage season.
This last picture is apparently some sort of gentian. We spent quite a while trying to convince Melanie’s camera to focus on it before we gave up and continued on.
The Mountains to Sea Trail crosses the French Broad River on the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge.
The Shut-In trail also crosses here on it’s way from the Biltmore Estate to Mount Pisgah. This section of the MST in general is pretty easy hiking and it parallels the parkway closely. In fact, from Asheville this is probably one of the most accessible areas for trail running as long as you don’t mind out and back runs.
The MST website recommends parking at the French Broad overlook for hiking on this section, but unless you’re a big fan of crossing road bridges it’s probably easier to park on the east side of the river at the pull out where the MST heads back into the forest.
This frog (and a garter snake) are about all the wildlife we saw between the French Broad River and the I-26 bridge (bikers don’t technically count). So it’s not exactly much of a quiet wilderness experience but it’s very close to Asheville (and our house) so it’s good for a quick hike. It’s also a good rehab hike (which we seem to be specializing in the last few years).