While the Black Mountain Range of North Carolina contains the tallest peak in the Eastern United States, visitors would be surprised to know that it also contains 6 out of the 10 tallest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. As part of the larger Black Mountain Crest Trail, the 3.6 mile Deep Gap Trail traverses all six of them in one of the most scenic and strenuous trails in the region. Beginning just below the summit of Mount Mitchell, this trail travels through alpine spruce-fir forests and craggy mountain tops to the summit of Mount Craig, Big Tom, Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak, and Potato Hill, before ending in the valley of Deep Gap. As one of the most iconic trails in Mount Mitchell State Park, serious hikers would be remise to skip out on the expansive mountain vistas afforded along this adventurous day hike.
Black Mountain Crest Trail | 11.3 Miles
- To Mount Craig | 1.0
- To Potato Hill | 3.0
- To Deep Gap | 3.8
Mount Mitchell State Park Location | Google Maps
With the exception of the Appalachian Trail or the Grandfather Trail within Grandfather Mountain State Park, no other trail in the Eastern United States can compete with the awesome beauty and expansive vistas of the Deep Gap Trail. While most of the trails in Mount Mitchell State Park focus more on summiting the peak of Mount Mitchell from lower elevations, this one focuses on traveling across the crest of the Black Mountain Range. Boulder scrambles, rope descents, and suddenly changing weather are the norm on this 3.8 mile trek through some of the best scenery North Carolina has to offer. Though few visitors venture past Mount Craig, the first summit on this trail, its a right of passage for hikers to make the attempt towards Potato Hill and Deep Gap. More experienced backpackers can even make the full 11.3 mile out and back journey along the Black Mountain Crest Trail, which ends at the outer boundary of the Pisgah National Forest.
Beginning just below the summit of Mount Mitchell, you’ll find the trailhead for Deep Gap at the bottom of the uppermost parking lot just below the Visitors Center. Hikers attempting this hike should pick up a park trail map from the ranger station located right next to the Mount Mitchell State Park entrance. Speaking to a ranger before attempting any difficult day hike is always a good practice to gain some practical information on the area. Recent storms attributed to Tropical Storm Fred (August 2021) caused numerous trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway to wash out, if not completely collapse due to landslides, closing off some of its most scenic recreation areas. Luckily for Mount Mitchell State Park, the affects were minor as the majority of the damage was located westward between the cities of Asheville and Cherokee.
On the walk down to the trailhead, a small sign advises overnight hikers to fill out an overnight form to be left on your cars dash so rangers can keep a tally of who’s venturing into the back country. Several primitive backcountry campsites exist just outside of the parks boundary which are popular with overnight backpackers. For the safety of its visitors, Mount Mitchell State Park closes its main gate every night at 9 p.m. and reopens it at 7 a.m. There are no modern accommodations here except for tent camping which is booked months in advance, so if you don’t plan on staying overnight, you must be out by 9 p.m.
Passing by the picnic area near the trailhead, I catch a totally different glimpse of the mountains that I otherwise might not have seen from the summit. The bare trunks of dead spruce and fir trees fill large swaths of the lower ridges of Mount Mitchell that were once heavily forested. From the clear cutting of forests in the 1900’s, to acid rain from industrial pollution, and the balsam woolly aphid infestation, the forests of the Black Mountain Range just can’t seem to catch a break. Back in 1835, when Elisha Mitchell reached the peak of Mount Mitchell, known then as the “Black Dome”, the forest was so thick that he had to climb to the top of a tree to see where he was. The vistas from here evoke a much different feeling from other postcard perfect images seen on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Once on the trail, you’re sucked back into the ephemeral world of what this landscape might have felt like while exploring it several hundred years ago. The tree canopy is so thick that barely enough sun gets through, allowing the growth of thick carpets of moss to spread on anything that doesn’t move. Walking over mostly gravel, with a few well placed fieldstone steps, this is the most manicured part of the trail. Another hundred yards out and the trail exits the forest out onto another heavily afflicted stretch of forest. This nearly barren part of the trail feels otherworldly. While the slope contains mostly dead tree trunks that are overgrown with heaths and tangles of blackberry vines, it does clear the space to see out over dozens of miles.
Mount Craig This trail does contain nearly 800 feet of ascents and descents, but most of it is on the back half. The trek to the first peak on this trail, Mount Craig, contains maybe a third of that making it much more popular for the average visitor. After a few easy to navigate scrambles, we come upon the first major overlook about 20 feet below the summit of Mount Craig. Looking out over the mountains stretching out into infinity is a humbling experience. Those of us on this craggy outcropping can’t help but notice that at this point we are standing amidst the clouds on the second tallest peak of the Appalachian Mountains.
Walking up the last few feet to the summit, I find that the views indeed get better. From here you can see the entire other ridge of the Black Mountains, clear as day. If I didn’t love hiking as a sport, I would be perfectly content to just sit here for the rest of the afternoon and enjoy the scenery, before heading back to my car. Not very many people venture past this point and those that do turn around shortly thereafter. With that being said, I have a few more peaks to summit.
The Back Mountain Range forms a giant J shape with its main part being the one we are traversing up towards the town of Burnsville and the lower section curving west past the parks entrance around Clingmans Peak, bending back northwards near Balsam Gap, and finally descending into the Cane River Valley. If you look westward, you can make out the end of the range near the peaks of Point Misery and Little Butt. All of this can be seen from the summit of Mount Craig. Despite being nearly a stones throw away, the journey forward to Big Tom is where things start to get more difficult. Even though Big Tom (6,581’) is fifty feet below Mount Craig (6,648’), you wouldn’t know that by all the climbing involved to get there. From pulling yourself over gnarled tree trunks to squeezing between stone ledges, the pace of travel takes a toll on every small cliff that needs to be carefully scrambled over to ascend.
Big Tom Near the last few feet before reaching the last climb to Big Tom, theres a perfectly framed view of Cattail Peak and Potato Hill off in the distance. Reaching the top of Big Tom, you’ll find a partly barren summit afflicted with dead trees surrounding the craggy rock outcropping that officially makes up the summit. Here is a commemorative plaque dedicating this peak to Thomas “Big Tom” Wilson. As a legendary bear hunter and mountain guide, his exploits were well known throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. In fact, if you see anything along the Blue Ridge Parkway with the name Wilson in it, it was probably named after him. When Elisha Mitchell Fell to his death while exploring the Cane River Valley, it was Big Tom who later found his body after 11 days of searching. For his exploits, this summit was named after him, including a whole stretch of protected wilderness that you can see straight across from this peak.
Everything you see in the middle, between the lower Black Mountain ridge to this peak, is a part of the Big Tom Wilson Preserve. This 8,445 acre property protects the Upper Cane River Watershed, which supplies clean water for the brook trout, which are the only native trout species in the Eastern United States. Brook trout prefer to live in the headwaters of mountain streams and lakes at higher altitudes along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once plentiful in the streams all along Western North Carolinas to the cascades of the Great Smoky Mountains, their numbers have subsided considerably due to habitat destruction.
To add insult to injury, as a bandaid to preserve fishing in the region, non-native rainbow trout from the western states were introduced to the area, which now outcompete the brook trout for resources. Now brook trout are seen as an indicator species, used to identify the health and overall quality of the waters they inhabitThose interested in exploring that particular area can do so along The Big Butt Trail, accessed from the Walker Knob Overlook on the Parkway, milepost 359.8. This 3.8 mile trail travels north, ascending the smaller Black Mountain Peaks of Point Misery, Little Butt, Big Butt, and Flat Spring Knob.
Balsam Cone Our journey continues from Big Tom up an incline to the peak of Balsam Cone. In between these two peaks is a small depression in the ridge that must be descended into and out of before making it across. Right away after leaving Big Tom, we hit the craggy slopes taking things one step at a time down until reaching a 110 degree pitch down a sheer rock face wall. Aiding us the 30 feet down the cliff are a set of anchored ropes used to maneuver down the slick rocks along the path. It might seem silly to use the ropes at first until your foot suddenly slides out from under you and you smack down on the rocks as I did. Luckily, I had one hand firmly held to the ropes to help me regain my footing. A small landing in the middle of the descent gives me a chance to fix my grip as I switch from one set of ropes to the other leading the rest of the way down.
From here on out, the crowds become almost non existent. Most of the people I seem to be encountering are backpackers venturing out to Deep Gap to spend the night on their way to travel the entire 6.8 mile Black Mountain Crest Trail near Burnsville. The halfway marker to Balsam Cone is a small trail junction where on a warm sunny day you might run into hikers taking a break, sharing stories of their hike with passersby. This junction is known as the Big Tom Gap. It leads down the mountain to the Buncombe Horse Range. This 17 mile equestrian trail, within the Pisgah National Forest, is also used by hikers to travel from the Carolina Hemlocks Campground on NC Highway 80, up to Mount Mitchell, and back down to the Black Mountain Campground on National Forest Road 472.
Here I ran into about a dozen people, half of which were heading back from Deep Gap. As with most hikers, plenty of opinions were thrown around as to wether it was worth hiking down to Deep Gap from Potato Hill. Nobody seemed particularly impressed with the extra 0.8 mile trek down the mountain, which includes a 330 foot descent. Some thought it was necessary to be able to say they “did it”. After exchanging some banter I headed back off to close the distance on Balsam Cone. It wasn’t long before we were hugging the side of a boulder, attempting to scramble the 35 feet up to what we thought was the summit. Had I not been looking for it, I might have kept going without noticing it flash by. Unlike the other peaks, there is no sign congratulating your climb to the tiny exposed crag of Balsam Cone (6,611’), the seventh highest peak in the Appalachians. You kind of just have to either know you’re here, or look at a hiking app like I did to realize that I was on top of it.
Cattail Peak Without any fanfare, we pushed through Balsam Cone towards the next summit, Cattail Peak (6,600’). They clim down from Balsam Cone is quite gentle as it rolls through a heavily forested part of the ridge that is reminiscent of the start of this trail. Massive boulders and cliff overhangs, which remind me a lot of smaller rock shelters found in my home state of Kentucky, cling to the hillsides here. Depending on the angle of the sun streaming in through the canopy, patches of lichen adorning every tree, appear to glow in the dark like nightlights. Thick stands of spruce and fir, only feet apart ,crowd out most of the sun until we reach a clearing in the forest.
Amid a large span of cleared ground that would make for a great place to camp or simply picnic for the afternoon, I discovered a plain wooden sign marking the summit of the ninth tallest peak in the Appalachian Mountains. As a side note, for “peak baggers out there”, this trail technically skims the southwest flank of the peak, not the actually peak itself. A benchmark located on the true summit can be reached by bushwhacking up the forested hillside to a small clearing contains the metal badge. By this point my body was starting to feel the affects of all the climbing. Up until 2016, Cattail Peak was the tallest privately owned peak in the Appalachian Mountains. Thanks to a federal, state, and private effort, the peak was purchased as part of a 2,744 acre addition that more than doubled the size of Mount Mitchell State Park. A short rest to take a break from all of the pounding on my joints was in order.
The name Cattail Peak, was once derived from the over-abundant presence of mountain lions in the region, which once roamed from Quebec to South Carolina and Illinois. They were once a feature of the North American landscape until bounty hunting in the late 19th to 20th century brought their numbers to extinction. Even from historical records dating back to the early colonists in Connecticut in 1684, bounties were enacted to eradicate these gentle beasts. In the last 100 years, there have only been 127 attacks, 27 of which were fatal, that were attributed to mountain lions. One of their last refuges before being driven out of their native range were rugged and often undisturbed peaks such as this one. Despite being officially classified extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Eastern Puma sightings are common all along the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially in the northern corridor leading from Roanoke, Virginia into Shenandoah National Park.
Potato Hill Potato Hill (6,475’) is a subpeak of Cattail Peak, located a quarter mile away along the same ridge. Despite being 125’ feet below the summit of Cattail Peak, the trail dips down into a steep clearing beforehand. Filled with warming rays of sunshine and a cool breeze, it’s one of the few flat expanses of trail on the back stretch to Deep Gap. This makes what should be an easy walk down to Potato Hill, an exhausting climb up jagged rocks and twisted tree roots. Right as you’re summiting the peak, a few smaller side trails dart off to incredible overlooks on the east and west rim. Looking east over the vast expanse of wilderness, you can make out the South Toe River Valley within the Pisgah National Forest. If you use the zoom lens of a camera or squint just hard enough, you can spot a razor cut clearing near the top, where the Blue Ridge Parkway runs atop the mountain crest. Down in the valley are a few large clearings that are a part of the Carolina Hemlocks Campground.
Walking through the long corridor atop Potato Hill, you’ll find a small path on the left that leads to the true summit. On this particular afternoon the entry to the summit had to be gaped by a fallen tree trunk sunk in ankle deep mud. A minor inconvenience to catch a glimpse of the views from one of the last of the taller peaks of the Black Mountains. Instead of a wide open expanse, you receive a framed view looking straight out to Bearwallow Knob (5,085’), part of the new addition to Mount Mitchell State Park. It’s one thing to summit a 6’er, but to be able to do 6 in a row if you count Mount Mitchell, is an awesome feat that anyone can be proud of. Exhausted, somewhat dehydrated, and hungrier than I’ve been in a while I push on the last 0.8 miles to Deep Gap.
Deep Gap From the top of Potato Hill it’s a straight shot down a 400 foot descent to Deep Gap (6,000’). In some cases, such as right when you leave the summit of Potato Hill, it’s a near vertical drop. The going is a little rough as the trail follows along an exposed rock ledge on its way down. Just the thought of having to climb these steps on the way back hurt my legs. Here, you’ll catch the last few expansive views of the eastern ridges of the Black Mountains and the small village of Hamrick nestled in the valley below. Noticing the quick shifting of shadows, I turn my gaze up to see three Peregrine Falcons soaring through the clouds before disappearing into a craggy nook halfway down the mountain. Mount Mitchell State Park is home to a dozen different species of migrating songbirds, owls, raptors, and the majestic peregrine falcon.
The peregrine falcon became endangered during the 1950’s when the overuse of pesticides such as DDT, caused a lack of calcium in falcon eggshells to greatly reduce the amount of offspring that made it through the hatching process. Adding hunting and illegal egg collecting by poachers to their plight, these creatures went locally extinct throughout much of the eastern United States. After an intensive 20 year effort of captive breeding, and the worldwide ban of DDT, the falcons were officially taken off the U.S. Endangered Species list in 1999.
As you get closer to Deep Gap, your footing slowly starts to soften up as we trade the rocky barren landscape of the high peaks for plush grassy meadows. It’s a welcome respite on my joints and the bottom of my feet. Deep Gap is essentially a large flat notch atop the Black Mountains. If you’re traveling from Mount Mitchell, it’s the first place where you can officially camp overnight along the Black Mountain Crest Trail. Those thinking that you would find a well organized campsite with amenities will be disappointed to find nothing of the sort. This is a primitive campsite with a handful of well dispersed, cleared areas surrounded by thickets.
If you look due north along the continuation of the Black Mountain Crest Trail, you can see the peak of Winter Star (6,203) which is the first of the last three major peaks of the Black Mountains. A trail junction just past the campground offers access to the Carolina Hemlocks Campground downslope to the South Toe River Valley. This 3.8 mile trail following the Colbert Ridge contains a well documented spring for those in need of water, and offers some incredible vistas looking up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once you’re done patting yourself on the back for completing this incredible trail and bagging some peaks under your belt, strap your boots back on and prepare to make the return trip back to Mount Mitchell.
As for me, I’ll be taking a well earned lunch break before beginning the journey back. Next on my itinerary during my trip through Western North Carolina is a stop to explore the peaks and scenic wilderness of Craggy Gardens, including a summit of another 6’er, Craggy Dome (6,079’). Stay tuned and until next time, see y’all on the trails!