by Jerry Weston
Shining Rock Wilderness is located about thirty Blue Ridge Parkway miles south of Asheville. It includes 18,483 acres, which makes it the largest wilderness in North Carolina. The terrain is very steep and rugged with five peaks above 6,000 feet. Cold Mountain (6,030 feet) is not the highest. Height belongs to Black Balsam (6,214 feet), the highest point on the Art Loeb Trail. Almost all the trails are rated as difficult. There are no blazes or trail signs, many intersecting trails and the trails can be difficult to follow…….as we learned Saturday.
We were disappointed that we did not reach our goal, the top of Cold Mountain, particularly on the fourth try. February I posted twice and we were weathered out both times by winter storms. I posted again for May and work conflicts for participants forced a cancellation. This time we made it to the Shining Rock, just not to the top of the mountain. A weekend in the wilderness with friends is still an enjoyable pastime.
Mike, Liz, Jon and I met at Stoney Creek in Greensboro at 8:30. We consolidated gear into Mike’s car and headed out.
Mike had never been to the Moose Café in Asheville and that became our choice for lunch. We arrived around 11:30. Complimentary, huge biscuits with apple butter and molasses, as always, were promptly placed on the table. So many menu choices made selections difficult. We chowed down on the Friday Pollock fish special (three huge pieces, crisply and lightly breaded, and not greasy), BBQ plate, hamburger steak with onions and gravy, absolutely scrumptious sweet potato casserole, collards and slaw.
The weather forecast was very mixed for the weekend. Clouds. Fifty percent chance of showers. Sunshine. We had a shower driving south on the BRP, which stopped by the time we reached the East Fork Parking Lot on NC 276. We learned on Sunday from backpackers in the parking lot who had been there since Wednesday that there had been heavy rain onFriday before we arrived and on much of Thursday.
I made this trip with Steve, who had a work conflict this year and could not join us, and others about ten years ago. There are four options for reaching Chestnut Ridge and the Art Loeb Trail, along which you reach the 1.4 mile spur trail to Cold Mountain. Art Loeb from the Boy Scout camp on the west; Art Loeb from Sam’s Knob to the south; and two choices from the NC 276 parking lot: Shining Creek or Old Butt (so named because it will “kick your butt”) trail. Shining Creek and Old Butt trails share a common start from the parking lot. I chose Shining Creek for our trip because I hiked this trail on my prior trip. Our information indicated that Shining Creek is moderate in the first mile and then climbs 2,300 feet to the Art Loeb Trail on Chestnut Ridge with Flower Gap a short distance to the left. Old Butt forks right off Shining Creek about .70 miles in from the parking lot and then climbs 1,500 feet in .50 miles. Old Butt then levels out, if you want to call it “leveling”, after another mile or so. Several people had warned me that Old Butt is extremely difficult and is known by hikers as “Kick Your Old Butt”.
Geared up, we headed up Shining Creek Trail about 2:00 p.m. The trail initially follows along the Big East Fork of the Pigeon River. The trail leaves the river shortly and ascends to the right. Everything was fine to this point. When we reached the fork in the trail where I expected Shining Rock to go left and Old Butt uphill to the right, that left fork, presumed to be Shining Creek, was blocked with crossed logs. I knew from my earlier trip that Old Butt goes to the right. Crossed logs means, “Don’t go there”. We agreed, even if Old Butt did “kick our butts”, it was safer to go to the right.
After reaching this fork and turning right up what we thought was Old Butt, we never saw another fork to the right. Somewhere after passing Old Butt, that we never saw, the trail descends to follow Shining Creek for about two miles. There are several good swimming holes and camp sites in this section.
Dinah Creek runs into Shining Creek at 3.0 miles at a large, sliding rock…..where Jon went in over his boot tops.
Another .1 mile and we and we crossed the North Prong of Shining Creek.
We followed Shining Creek for another .1 miles, then began a series of switchbacks towards Shining Rock Gap and Chestnut Ridge.
I became more and more puzzled as we continued our climb to the ridge. Ten years ago there had been a fresh rock slide on the Shining Creek Trail. We had had to climb and scramble over boulders. I recall particularly because I slipped on one of the boulders and chipped an elbow.
This year there was no “slide”. We did cross a jumble of rocks from a slide. Blame it on faulty memory or the passage of ten years or the slide had overgrown? The slide did not appear as I recalled from the first trip. Also, things looked familiar now, which they should not have since we were on Old Butt not Shining Creek.
I had this eerie feeling in the last few hundred yards before gaining the ridge that I had seen the switchbacks through hemlocks we were traversing in another life! Saturday, when we untangled the puzzle of Shining Creek and Old Butt trails, we would find out that I had seen before. We were on Shining Creek Trail, not Old Butt.
I did surprise me on the pack-in Friday by keeping the group in sight on what is a tough climb.
Four hours of really tough packing brought us to the ridge. We turned left towards Flower Gap. There are plenty of springs and camping sites along this section of the ridge. Also plenty of people. I was surprised to find so many campers at this elevation. Most, I think from our conversations with them during the weekend, had taken the Art Loeb Trail from either the south or west to reach the ridge, not Shining Creek or Old Butt.
We found a secluded spot 150 feet off the Art Loeb Trail in a small clearing among hemlocks and set camp.
It was 6:00 by the time we reached the ridge and after 8:00 before we had set camp, filtered water and prepared dinner. This made it too late to explore and we were too tired anyway.
We greeted bright blue, clear skies and a temperature of 54 deg Saturday morning.