Shining Rock SB6K Summit – 5/19/12 – Old Butt Knob Trail/Art Loeb Trail/Greasy Cove Trail – 13+ Miles – 3600’ elev gain
Steadily chipping away at this SB6K hiking challenge. I am becoming more and more enamored of the Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wildernesses on the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina, where a bunch of these SB6K peaks hang out. For all the time I’ve been hiking, I’ve never been to see the namesake of Shining Rock. Well, the time is now. Get ready - this may be my longest, most photo-filled post ever.
I met my hiking good-luck charm, Jeff, and his friend Sharon on a beautiful Saturday morning at our usual meeting spot. Sharon is also a young’un like Jeff, but I told him that he would have to find another way to distinguish us than “old” Sharon and “young” Sharon. All day long he struggled as we both answered whenever he spoke. I don’t think he found an equitable way to address us.
Jeff promised a strenuous summit (always go for the most elevation gain, right?) so we started from the Big East Fork parking area off Highway 276. Immediately after we got out of my car we were approached by three large unleashed dogs, begging for food. They did not seem to hear their owners who were lamely calling them. Welcome to the wilderness, kind of the wild west of the outdoors, where everybody does whatever they want. Some even follow the rules.
By 10:30 a.m. we started on Shining Creek Trail. I forgot my map, but Jeff let me carry his because it’s my security blanket and he has his GPS. One of my goals for the day was to get better oriented via the map, since these wilderness areas are not signed or blazed.
This is exactly where Jim and I got lost about eight years ago trying to do a “quick” hike to Shining Rock before one of our kids’ band competitions at Western Carolina University. Using a guidebook and no other map, we quickly got confused with all the social trails running to campsites along Shining Creek and had to abandon the plan. We experienced that, “Oh, crap, which way did we come” feeling for a few minutes when we decided to turn back. Now I am a little better at reading the trail but not enough to feel comfortable yet out here by myself.
For instance, at an early junction the left trail (very wide and obviously heavily used) was blocked by a large log. Back then I’m sure we stepped over the log without noticing it and hiked merrily on to campsites near the creek. Now I know that a big log or pile of branches across a trail means “you probably don’t mean to go this way if you’re passing through.” And when the Old Butt Knob Trail appeared on the right (no sign) today, I still would have likely missed it if Jeff hadn’t steered us to the turn.
Old Butt Knob Trail is well named. It is extremely steep with sustained stepping up on boulders and climbing up Chestnut Ridge. My poor old butt got a workout. And yet…we were in Shining Rock Wilderness on a spectacular spring day and life was very good.
Mountain laurel bloomed profusely from the get-go
A few steps on a side trail to the left gave long range views of what was coming up, plus a moment to catch our breath and grab a snack. I’m looking at the long stretch of Raven Cliff Ridge.
Brave mountain laurel growing in the rock
Jeff doing the limbo
Purple and pink rhododendron began to appear overhead and only got better as we continued the climb. Get ready for the rhodo show!
Thank you, sir, may I have another?
Up close and eye level for Sharon Appell
Surprise - a white flame azalea
Nearly everyone we saw today had a dog, often more than one, some tiny ones on leashes or being carried, and German shepherds were favorites. We passed one backpacker who actually had bear bells tinkling and two German Shepherds – protection against bears, I guess.
And how did this rock get split so evenly?
I love how every high and low point has a name out in the wild. After all, that’s how the folks from yesteryear kept track of their world. After going over Old Butt Knob, we passed through Spanish Oak Gap, climbed some more up over Dog Loser Knob, hiked down again through Beech Spring Gap, then finally found one of the summit trails to Shining Rock (once again Jeff had to lead us, I wouldn’t have seen it on my own). This is Jeff and Sharon on the summit trail cutting through shoulder high blueberry bushes.
Another SB6K summit!
The white quartz is cold and slippery
My favorite: Sam Knob from the summit of Shining Rock
After the summit, Jeff and Sharon and I continued on Old Butt Knob Trail, passing multiple side trails presumably all going to Shining Rock. Really, how many people get lost here every weekend? We passed through a big camping area on the trail, filled with a Boy Scout troop with lots of equipment.
Onward to Shining Rock Gap, where I have been before on our hike to Cold Mountain. Five or six trails come together here with no signs. I spent a few minutes with our map and Jeff’s GPS, trying to get oriented to the intersection. To continue our loop route we turned left onto Art Loeb Trail, mostly out in the open. We passed the Shining Creek Trail coming in from the left, which is a few hundred feet from the big intersection, although on the map it looks like it’s part of the intersection. Jeez Louise, I think I need to be led here a couple more times before I can feel confident alone.
Flower Gap, looking up at Flower Knob on the left and another big ol’ big Boy Scout troop camp setup. Nice for them, kinda spoils the view for the rest of us.
Just pretty to look at
After a mile or so of open rolling terrain we arrived at the side trail to Grassy Cove Top, an SB6K peak that Jeff and I have already done. We hinted that Sharon might want to do this little side jaunt in case she ever felt enticed to do the challenge, so up we went.
Next Jeff showed us a shortcut to reach Grassy Cove Trail (aka Greasy Cove Trail – some people can’t spell), cutting out about a mile of our loop. The time was getting away from us because of our (my?) slow ascent. Jeff says Grassy Cove is one of his favorite trails, lots of…grassy areas. It really is very nice, some great tucked away campsites…but no water. Gotta plan ahead.
Pretty flowers I have not yet identified (note: I think this is Clinton's lily.)
The downhill was steep in places, knees and feet taking a pounding. Sharon thought she had a stress fracture in her foot that was giving her trouble. A few weeks ago I pulled the top part of my hamstring and it was making me cringe. The walking wounded.
On Greasy Cove Trail we ran into three backpacker guys collecting water at a small spring. They asked us where they were. They were aiming for Shining Rock and had taken verbal directions from someone to “turn right” at a certain spot, but apparently turned right way too soon. I asked if they had a map and one guy sheepishly shook his head and said no. (Cue judgmental thoughts about people who go into a wilderness area without a map - look how nervous I am even with one.) Jeff gave them simple basic advice to turn around and go back to the top of the trail and a left turn would take them back out. I suggested that they ask every person they meet from now on to help verify where they are. They seemed properly equipped for an overnight trip except for not knowing how to navigate.
Our biggest water crossing of the day was at Greasy Cove Prong, a careful rock hop. Jeff and Sharon used my hiking poles. They don’t use poles because they are young and invincible, but they didn’t say no when I offered them to get across the creek.
Greasy/ Grassy Cove Creek
Vasey’s Trillium – bloom nodding beneath the leaves
Not to be confused with wakerobin – bloom standing above the leaves
Soon we reached the crossing for East Fork of the Pigeon River at its confluence with Greasy Cove Prong, and on the other side was a campsite and a right turn onto Big East Fork Trail (this water was wider than the last crossing but with easy rocks to walk across). Now we were following the East Fork, big water, lots of cascades, teasing glimpses of whitewater through the trees, and a couple of times the trail dipped down to the water’s edge. The time was getting late and we did not feel like we had the luxury to take side trails down to the water. I really must explore this trail again.
A parting look at the East Fork
Like most hikes, this one seemed to go on a little too long, but we were back at the car at 6:45 p.m., a little more than 8 hours for this strenuous hike, including two food breaks and lots of photos. We hiked a total of 13 miles with 3,600 feet of elevation gain. All in all, a terrific day in the North Carolina mountains.
“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh