Sunset in Shining Rock Wilderness

The wind is on fire

Day 2, Butter Gap to Tennent Mountain

Saturday, November 13, 2021

At least one thing makes a weekend backpacking trip better than a long thru-hike. Preparing for expected weather conditions is much easier when you only need to plan for a hike of a few days.

I knew the temperatures on this trip would be mostly in the 30s and 40s. I planned specifically for that and didn't have to be concerned about warmer weather.

That's not to say I don't prepare for weather conditions on a thru-hike. The difference is I must prepare for all conditions on a thru-hike. Compromises are sometimes necessary so I don't add too much weight to my pack.

For a weekend trip like this one, I can dial in my clothing and gear choices for a narrower temperature range. I am less concerned about adding the weight of extra clothing or gear because I am carrying less food.

Weather Fair skies with temperatures from the low-30s to mid-40s; windy in exposed areas with gusts up to 25 mph
Trail Conditions Several poor sections due to severe erosion
Today's Miles 11.2 miles
Trip Miles 19.9 miles

This morning's sunrise was at 7:05. Polecat and I hoped to start hiking soon after that to use most of our short daylight hours.

Surprisingly, I was ready before Polecat this morning. That rarely happens when I hike with him. We left our campsite at Butter Gap 20 minutes after sunrise.

Leaving Butter Gap

The first three-tenths of a mile from the gap was a short climb. It was a modest beginning for a day of nearly constant climbing.

By the end of the day, we will have climbed nearly 3,000 feet higher than where we started, but that was only part of the story. Add in a few descents, and today's climbs totaled 5,100 feet.

Leaves covering the trail

The trail's condition for much of the day was the same as yesterday. A thick layer of leaves covered the trail, making roots and rocks hidden obstacles. I told Polecat I wished he had brought along a leaf blower.

The leaves may have added a challenge to walking, but I enjoyed seeing the diversity of trees. In one short stretch of the trail, I saw tulip poplar, sassafras, maple, oak, and beech trees. The variety was vastly greater than what I was used to seeing on the Continental Divide Trail.

A flat section of trail

The sky was clear with just a slight haze, which made the day pleasant despite the chilly temperature. Besides, with all the climbing I had to do today, I generated plenty of my own heat.

The trail took us over Chestnut Mountain, and that was barely a bump in the road compared to what we were about to climb. We then descended to a mostly flat section for the next mile.

A cooler of drinks

A short descent took us down to Glouchester Gap, and we arrived there at 9:30 a.m. At a Forest Service road that crossed the trail at the gap, we found something so unexpected I almost didn't believe at first I was seeing it.

It was a cooler filled with energy drinks and bottled water. I never thought we would find trail magic on this hike.

A note inside the cooler said the drinks were provided by Mountain High Shuttles, a small shuttle service that primarily serves hikers on the Art Loeb Trail and other trails in Pisgah National Forest.

Roots across the trail

Polecat and I had walked nearly 3.5 miles to reach Glouchester Gap, which put us back to almost the same elevation as our start at Butter Gap.

From this gap, the elevation gain would be much steeper. We had to climb more than 1,700 feet in the next two miles on our way to the top of Pilot Mountain.

A view on the way up Pilot Mountain

We got a partial view of nearby mountains on the climb. This was our first view since we started yesterday, and we would not have seen as much if we had been on this trail during the summer.

I was grateful I didn't have to make this climb in the summer. The heat would have made the effort tortuous. The trail covered in leaves was challenging, but I still thought this was the best time of year to hike the Art Loeb Trail.

A view from Pilot Mountain

An unobstructed view was available when we got to the top of Pilot Mountain (5,095 feet). The pinnacle was small, with just a few places to stand to get a view.

A lookout tower stood here for many years. It was one of five towers in Transylvania County and was part of a network built in national forests for fire control. The tower on Pilot Mountain was dismantled and removed when it became obsolete, but some are still standing.

Deep Gap Shelter

When we left Pilot Mountain, the trail took us on a short descent to Deep Gap. The distance was barely more than a half-mile, with a drop of less than 450 feet.

A little farther, we came to the second of the two shelters on the Art Loeb Trail. It was identical in design to the one we camped near last night at Butter Gap, though this one was in better condition.

The two shelters were built in the late 1970s by members of the Youth Conservation Corps. By now, they were showing their age.

Blue Ridge Parkway

After a short climb over Sassafras Knob and a drop into Farlow Gap, Polecat and I began a long climb to Shuck Ridge. We arrived there at 2:30 p.m.

The trail crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway here before continuing the climb to Silvermine Bald. Shuck Ridge was the only place where the trail crossed the parkway, but we would see it again a couple more times today.

A steep climb to Silvermine Bald

The climb from the other side of the highway was extremely steep. It was hard enough because of its steepness, but the footpath's condition made the effort more difficult. We had to contend with jagged rocks and twisted tree roots.

Gnarly roots on the trail

Most of the way up involved trying to find a place to firmly step on without twisting an ankle or tripping. The distance of this gnarly climb was only about two-tenths of a mile, but it seemed much longer because of the obstacle course.

A view from near Silvermine Bald

Silvermine Bald was at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet. Despite its name, this was not like most balds of the Southern Appalachians. The top was overgrown, with only a few openings in the trees for a view.

The site must have been a bald years ago, but it's unclear if a silver mine was ever located here. The National Park Service says gold, silver, and valuable minerals were recovered from the mountains of this area, but the mining was done on a small scale. Most of the mines were poorly documented or not documented at all.

Polecat inspects a sinkhole

A downside of hiking in late fall is water can be harder to find. This time of year is typically dry in the southeast.

Polecat and I were running low on water when we reached the top of the ridge, and we decided it was time to look for more. A couple of sinkholes covered in downed brush held a little water, but it was murky and stagnant.

We decided we weren't yet desperate enough to try filtering some of that, so we kept walking. We found a better source less than a mile up the trail.

A spruce-fir forest

The trail continued along the ridge, which was roughly 400 feet above the Blue Ridge Parkway. We couldn't see or hear any traffic noise from the road.

The spruce-fir forest we were walking through had a thick bed of pine needles, which dampened all of the road noise. The forest was eerily quiet, but it was also a good place to get out of the wind.

This section of trail was also used by the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The MST is incomplete. For now, there are long stretches of road walking on the 1,200-mile route across North Carolina.

The trail's western terminus is on Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The other end is on the Outer Banks at the Atlantic Ocean.

Our section of the MST was only 1.1 miles long.

Parked cars on Black Balsam Knob Road

The sun was already sinking low by the time we reached Black Balsam Knob Road at 4 p.m. Trees lining the road made long shadows across the road, and I thought for a moment the time was later than it was.

The road intersected with the Blue Ridge Parkway. When I noticed several cars parked on both sides of the road, I realized this was a popular spot for day hikers. They parked here to climb Black Balsam Knob, which was also our next destination.

Climbing Black Balsam Knob

We turned from the MST a short distance past the road. The Art Loeb Trail continued to the top of the mountain, and the MST skirted around it.

Our trail up the mountain slope was deeply eroded. Heavy use and poor maintenance left exposed rocks and deep ruts. The distance from the road to the summit was four-tenths of a mile, with about 260 more feet of climbing.

Polecat stands on a ledge on Black Balsam Knob

A false summit appeared about halfway up. A false summit is where you think you're near the top until you reach it and see you have more climbing ahead.

Though this spot turned out to be just an outcropping of rock, it was a nice place to stop and enjoy the view. We couldn't stay long, however. Sunset would be happening in less than 90 minutes.

Nearing the top of Black Balsam Knob

The summit of Black Balsam Knob is 6,214 feet above sea level, making it the highest point on the Art Loeb Trail.

The elevation isn't high enough for weather conditions to make the mountaintop treeless, like you see in the northern part of the Appalachians and out west. Treeless mountaintops in the southern Appalachians are called balds. Most were intentionally cleared for livestock grazing or farming by Native Americans or early white settlers. However, that isn't the reason Black Balsam Knob is treeless.

There are no trees here because they were all cut down between 1906 and 1926. The logging was followed by a devastating fire the day before Thanksgiving in 1925, which was fueled by the tree debris left behind by loggers.

Another fire occurred in 1942, and that one was followed by severe storms that washed away much of the topsoil. Since then, trees have been unable to gain a foothold to return.

A plaque on Black Balsam Knob honors Art Loeb

After crossing a second false summit, we reached the top of Black Balsam Knob at 4:30 p.m. A plaque had been embedded on a mountaintop rock to honor Art Loeb.

When Loeb moved to the nearby town of Brevard, N.C. in 1936, he didn't come for the mountains. He was 26 years old and was hired to manage a paper mill. It wasn't until he was in his forties that he became interested in hiking.

Following a heart attack, a doctor told Loeb to find a hobby, and he began to walk. Eventually, his walks led him farther from his home and into the mountains.

As he looked for new places to hike, Loeb realized some trails could be connected together to allow a hiker to go from the Davidson River to Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp. Sadly, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1968 and died that same year at age 54.

It wasn't long before Loeb's idea was designated as an official trail by the Carolina Mountain Club and U.S. Forest Service, and it was named after Loeb.

A boulder in the middle of the trail

After a brief stop at the summit, Polecat and I continued walking. We were nearly out of daylight by now, and realized we wouldn't descend from the exposed mountain ridge soon. We could only hope to find a small patch of ground to pitch our tents that was out of the wind.

The way up Tennent Mountain offered no spots remotely like that. The trail's condition was worse than before. Ruts were deeper and sometimes filled with large boulders. A tangle of rhododendrons and other small shrubs closed in tightly on both sides. Finding a tentsite anytime soon seemed unlikely along the narrow trail going up the rugged mountain slope.

The trail was in such bad shape we had to go slowly. As we struggled our way up, Polecat turned to me and said, "Maybe if they build a trail here we should come back someday."

Moments before sunset

We finally got clear of the narrow, eroded section of trail as we approached the summit of Tennent Mountain. Here, the rays of the setting sun made the entire mountaintop glow in yellows, oranges, and reds.

Rocks and grass catch the day's last rays of sunshine

Every rock and blade of grass looked like an ember being blown ever hotter by the wind.

Indeed, I might have wished the rocks and grass were on fire because I could have used some more warmth. Night descended quickly, and so did the temperature.

Tents on Tennent Mountain

Tennant Mountain (6,040 feet) was named to honor Dr. Gaillard Stoney Tennent (1872-1953). A plaque on a rock at the top credited him with establishing organized hiking in North Carolina. He served as Carolina Mountain Club's first president when it was organized in 1923.

Polecat and I found a small, flat patch of ground near the plaque. It was just wide enough for two tents. The space offered no shelter from the wind, but it would have to do.

I crawled into my tent as soon as I could and managed to stay warm inside for the rest of the night.

The wind is on fire
Nowhere to go
Just the deep blue sea
And the devil below

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