ALT 2021: Day 1, Davidson River to Butter Gap

And where do we go from here?

Davidson River in North Carolina

When I completed my thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail, I didn't respond the same way I did when I finished the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn't try to claim I would never go on another long-distance hike. I'd learned my lesson by now.

Besides my thoughts, my body also responded differently. I didn't feel physically beaten down the way I felt after the AT and PCT. I was tired, but there wasn't the same soreness.

These differences must have been why I began to think about another hike soon after I arrived home.

DateFriday, November 12, 2021
WeatherSunny with temperatures from the mid-40s to low-60s
Trail ConditionsWell-marked, with a few spots badly eroded
Today's Miles8.7
Trip Miles8.7

The first trail that came to mind was the Art Loeb Trail. It was a trail I'd wanted to hike for a long time, though it wasn't in the same category as a Triple Crown hike.

The Art Loeb is only 30 miles long, a distance that can be completed in a weekend. After talking to my friend Polecat, we agreed to give that trail a try in mid-November. We knew the daylight would be short that time of year. We also knew of the trail's reputation for being a strenuous hike. That's why we elected to hike it in three days.

The trail crosses some beautiful but rugged landscape. There is about 8,000 feet of elevation gain and a long stretch of exposed terrain. The highest peaks are Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, which stand more than 6,000 feet above sea level.

The trail goes through Shining Rock Wilderness, an area known for changeable and sometimes unforgiving weather. Fortunately for us, the weather for the weekend we chose looked like it would hold up well without rain or bitterly cold temperatures.

Kim and Polecat

Polecat and I decided to start from the trailhead on the Davidson River, which was located near Brevard, N.C. We would follow the trail in an east-to-west direction to start before it turned to go north.

My wife Kim dropped us off at 9:45 a.m., and we were on the trail before 10:00.

Starting from Davidson River on the Art Loeb Trail

The first three-quarters of a mile of the trail was flat. It was also wide as it followed the river around a sweeping bend. The elevation here was just 2,185 feet, by far the lowest spot on the trail.

We passed some day hikers on this section. Some were walking dogs.

Davidson River

The Davidson River is listed among the nation's top fishing destinations in Trout Unlimited's Guide To America's 100 Best Trout Streams. A fish hatchery is located next to the river upstream from where we were walking. The book's author describes the river as "a consistent producer of better than average size browns and rainbows."

The water that flowed by us was shallow and clear.

Polecast crosses a footbridge over the Davidson River

After the first three-tenths of a mile, the trail crossed the river on a sturdy iron bridge, then continued along the other side of the river.

The land we were walking on today once belonged to George Vanderbilt, the youngest son of industrialist William Henry Vanderbilt and a grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. This area was part of his country estate that covered more than 125,000 acres.

To give an idea of how expansive Vanderbilt's land holdings were, his famous mansion Biltmore was more than 25 miles from where we started walking.

Vanderbilt sold a small part of his land to the U.S. government in 1912 and continued discussions for selling a much larger tract until his untimely death at age 51 in 1914. His widow, Edith, completed negotiations for the sale a few months later.

President Woodrow Wilson created Pisgah National Forest in 1916, which included 86,000 acres previously owned by Vanderbilt.

Polecat at the start of a climb

The flat section of trail along the river ended when we left the river and began a climb up High Knob. The trail narrowed here. The next seven-tenths of a mile went steeply up nearly 500 feet.

A climb on the Art Loeb Trail

The footpath was covered in fallen leaves. The oak, beech, and other deciduous trees weren't yet bare but were quickly losing their leaves.

Soon after we started the climb, we went through the first of many thickets of rhododendrons we would see today.

A double white blaze

The trail was marked sporadically with the same style of white blazes used on the Appalachian Trail, a two-inch by six-inch white stripe. Two of these indicated a hidden turn was ahead.

The white blazes, the many ups and downs without switchbacks, and the vegetation were familiar to me from my AT thru-hike, as well as many other hikes I had completed on that trail.

Yet seeing these things also felt foreign to me. I had spent most of my time this year hiking in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and this area was nothing like the CDT.

A tunnel of rhododendrons

Walking through a long tunnel of rhododendrons was another reminder I was close to home. You won't find a section of trail like this in the Rocky Mountains.

Crossing Joel Branch Road

After the trail made a short drop to Joel Branch Road, the climbing resumed. Polecat and I were making our way up the side of Stony Knob. Later, we would reach the high point of the day at Chestnut Knob (3,848 feet).

A deeply-eroded section of trail

There were sections of trail on the climb that were worn into a deep trough. The eroded sections were filled with leaves, making it difficult to see roots and rocks.

Walking through a tangle of rhododendrons

I began to get warm on the steep climb. The temperature still hadn't reached 60ºF, but the strenuous effort made me wish I was wearing short pants. I rarely wear long pants when I hike, but the day started so cold wearing them today seemed like a good idea.

The two knobs we went over were unremarkable. There were no views, even though the trees were partially bare.

Polecat and I stopped for lunch at the top of Chestnut Knob. The temperature was chilly there, and now I was glad I wasn’t wearing shorts.

The leaves on the ground sometimes made the trail difficult to follow. That was particularly a problem where the area was overgrown with rhododendrons. The best way to navigate was to look for openings between trees and shrubs instead of looking at the ground.

Descending a leafy trail

The descents were worse than the climbs because of the leaves, and that wasn't just because they hid rocks and roots on the footpath. They were slippery on the steep slopes.

At one point, I slipped and fell forward. The weight of my pack pushed me into a face-plant in the middle of the trail. I'm certain my glasses would have broken if they weren't double-hinged to absorb the impact.

Later, I sprained an ankle twice within a ten-minute span. I used to do that regularly while hiking the AT but didn't have many sprains on the PCT and CDT. I was beginning to see a cause-effect pattern.

Polecat climbs Cedar Rock Mountain

We arrived at Cedar Rock Mountain at 3 p.m. Again, there were no views to be seen from here, but there was a large slab of exposed rock. I wasn't surprised when Polecat dropped his pack and climbed it. With a degree in geology, he can never resist looking at rocks.

I was feeling a little tired by now and had no desire to follow him up the rock. I just stood and waited for him to finish exploring.

We hadn't seen any hikers in several hours, but as we prepared to leave, we met a weekend backpacker. He told us he was a grad student at Western North Carolina University.

Walking through a tunnel of rhododendrons

More rhododendrons lined the trail after we left Cedar Rock Mountain.

The time was now 3:30 p.m., and I was starting to think we should stop at Butter Gap. It was about a mile away, and we knew camping was possible there. We were unsure if there would be any spots to find beyond that.

Butter Gap Shelter

A shelter constructed in a modified A-frame style was located at Butter Gap. It looked much different than shelters on the AT. It also needed some repairs, so we had no thoughts of sleeping inside. We found flat spots for our tents, and a piped spring was nearby.

It felt odd to set up camp at 4 p.m. after hiking less than nine miles. My brain was still trying to follow my daily routine on the CDT.

At any rate, this was a sensible time to stop. Going any farther would require carrying extra water, and sunset was at 5:27 p.m.

Three backpackers arrived while Polecat and I were pitching our tents. Two said they were from Chattanooga, and the other one was from Tallahassee, Florida. Three women walked into camp later as the sun began to set. We helped them find a place to set up before it got dark.

I thought I would be able to handle this hike with ease, but it was more tiring than I expected. A month ago, I was still hiking on the CDT, but by now, my trail legs had already left me.

Then too, I should have known that hiking in this part of the country, and particularly on this trail, was far different than hiking out west.

Nevertheless, what I saw of the Art Loeb Trail so far was nothing compared to what I would see tomorrow.

Hey, did you rock 'n' roll?
Rock on
Ooh, my soul
Hey, did you boogie too, did ya?

Hey, shout, summertime blues
Jump up (up, down) and down in my blue suede shoes
Hey, did you rock 'n' roll?
Rock on

And where do we go from here?
Which is a way that's clear?
Still looking for that blue-jean baby-queen
Prettiest girl I've ever seen
See her shake on the movie screen
Jimmy Dean
(James Dean)


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.