Trip Report from Shining Rock Wilderness

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.  

Temperatures during the day were mid-70s with a mild breeze, though the air was very humid.

Temperatures during the day were mid-70s with a mild breeze, though the air was very humid.

We were out of camp around 8:00 and headed north on the Art Loeb Trail to Shining Rock, a spectacular quartz wall perhaps 50 to 100 feet high  in places that gives the name to the wilderness area.

The large leaves are Clintonian in bloom?  Trillium and unknown.

The large leaves are Clintonian in bloom?  Trillium and unknown.

This is the south face of Shining Rock.

This is the south face of Shining Rock.

This is the debris field at the base of Shining Rock.

This is the debris field at the base of Shining Rock.

We had a puzzle to solve when we were ready to leave Shining Rock.  The Shining Rock Wilderness Area is a true wilderness area, similar to Linville Gorge.  There is very little trail maintenance, no blazes and no trail signs.  There are a multitude of trails that people have “walked” out and the lack of trail signs makes the area really difficult.  The Art Loeb Trail leads directly to the southeast face of Shining Rock.  We could not find where the trail continued north to Cold Mountain.  We scouted around the sides of the rock and finally had to bushwhack a bit to pickup what we learned, on our way back to camp later Saturday, is actually a “walked” trail and not the Art Loeb Trail.

The trail we found led us to the top of a knob a short distance north of Shining Rock and a four way split in the trail.  We had seen several rock cairns on Friday that pointed the way to Chestnut Ridge.  A small cairn at this intersection indicated to us  that we should turn right, which would be away from Cold Mountain, to continue on the Art Loeb Trail to the mountain.  This did not seem a problem at the moment.  

The trail descended almost immediately turned back north……and then south…..and then east….and then north.  We still seemed to be going in a general direction towards the mountain.  I knew that we had at least 600 to 800 feet of elevation change in crossing Stairs Mountain and the Narrows, and then passing through Deep Gap.  The descent of these traverses did not particularly concern me.  A problem that contributed to our direction finding is that there are limited vistas from the trail and we could not see Cold Mountain, a prominent feature in this area.  We met several groups during the morning   hiking south.  All confirmed that, “Yes, this trail will take you to the mountain”.  It never occurred to us to ask, “Cold Mountain”?  What other mountain would one mean in this area? 

About 12:00 or 12:30 we met a man coming uphill on the trail.  He confirmed to us that we were on Old Butt trail and only about twenty minutes from the parking lot where we had left the car!  What a bummer.  We were within twenty minutes of the parking lot where we had started on Friday and nearly to the bottom of  Old Butt, the really, really tough trail that we did not want to climb because  in the first half mile of leaving the parking lot it gains 1,500 feet!  We had done six miles plus of very difficult trail in the wrong direction.  There was no choice at this time of day but turn around and head back up hill to the ridge and then to our camp.  

We stopped after a short distance and enjoyed lunch on some rocks in the shade.  

This is the view from our lunch spot.

This is the view from our lunch spot.

Lunch finished, we took up the climb again.  Old Butt, now that we knew we had taken Shining Creek to the ridge on Friday and were now on Old Butt, certainly deserves its name.  Its angle, elevation gain/loss, many roots and rock steps makes it far more difficult than Shining Creek.
We found the Art Loeb Trail at the top of the ridge.  There is a short side trail to the top of Shining Rock.   We made the climb for a view.  Not much to see.  Fog had covered the mountains and we were limited to several hundred feet of view.

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We were back in camp by 4:00.  Spritz baths on the lower level of our spring and a power nap renewed our energy for dinner.   We passed the evening until around 9:00 with pleasant conversation and Mike’s stories.  I never understand how Mike can constantly talk from 7:00 a.m. wake-up until 9:00 p.m. tent-time without repeating a story!

We had seen a “Bear Warning” sign at the trailhead kiosk.  A bear checked us out in the night.  It woke everyone with its snuffling and pawing around camp.  Flapping on tents and yelling chased it away.  Sunday morning we found that the only damage was two holes in a Nalgene bottle of water that Mike had left in our cook area. 

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he bear visit came not long before grey light.  We were all awake and talking tent-to-tents by 6:00 and decided to pack out.

The temperature was in the low 50s and this morning we had an overcast sky.

We discussed whether to return on Shining Creek or take the alternate of Old Butt now that we knew its location off the ridge.  We did not know where near the parking lot Old Butt joined Shining Creek, as we had not seen the fork on the way up Friday.  We did know, from Saturday’s mistake, that Old Butt would be even more difficult than Shining Creek due to the rocks and step-downs.  We decided to follow Shining Creek and were back at the car in three hours.

The East Fork Parking Lot is ten minutes from Pisgah Inn (5,000 ft) and highest point on the BRP.  There was dense fog on the BRP.  Our timing was great.  We arrived five minutes before lunch serving.  I had not eaten at the Inn in at least ten years.  I have been by several times since but it is always packed.  The food is still very good.  Three of us enjoyed the chicken pot pie.   Liz ordered a Monte Cristo.  There were several choices of sides.  I had an excellent cream of cauliflower soup.

The fog cleared as we drove north towards Asheville.

The distance and elevation gain from the East Fork Parking Lot to our camp site on Chestnut Ridge made for a long Friday.  Saturday’s mistake that took us almost all the way to the bottom of Old Butt was tiring.  Thanks to Liz, Jon and Mike for making the entire weekend so pleasant in spite of mistakenly descending Old Butt and missing Cold Mountain.

I am working on a return trip in the fall that will take us to Cold Mountain without climbing to the ridge.