35/50: Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina [6684’]

Hurricane Joaquin had taken a last-minute detour out to sea, but left a storm in his stead, fatal flooding sweeping across the Carolinas. Tom and I drove down from Virginia with a plan to camp at Bowlens Creek at the base of the mountain, but upon learning the road was closed for floods we headed east to visit our friends Donnie and Sarah, their delightful toddler daughter, and their charming historic house. Donnie and Sarah had gotten engaged on a through-hike of the AT and spent their honeymoon riding a tandem bicycle coast-to-coast across the US, so we begged them for stories until late in the night. A scant few hours later we woke up on their comfortable couches to the sound of our hometown friend Jason’s laughter from the deck; he and Donnie’s friend Chris had driven in from Durham to hike with us.

We stopped for breakfast before the long drive up the winding and scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, traversing through tantalizing patchwork views of our destination. The locals had warned that Mitchell was shrouded in fog more often than not, so we hurried to load up our packs and head out on the Black Mountain Crest, taking advantage of the clear afternoon skies and epic views.

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The trail was established but rugged, climbing up over rocky outcroppings and down through muddy dips in the shady green spruce-fir forest, occasionally edging close to a cliff where we could see forever through the undulating waves of the Black Mountains.

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At a couple points the slick rock was so steep there were fixed ropes in place, to assist an uphill scramble or a downhill slide. On the first downhill Tom and I each took the rope and cautiously eased down the slippery wet slope. Jason watched us, then planted his giant work boots on the ledge, casually slung the rope around his wrist, and bounded into a swift rappel that looked like a cut-scene from Call of Duty.

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We arrived at our campsite in Deep Gap and just had time to set up our tents before the last of the light bled from the sky and a starless damp blanket of night unfurled over the mountains. The past week’s storms left us without dry kindling, so we huddled around an empty fire ring and told stories late into the night, until the cold forced us into our tents, my sides aching with laughter.

I woke up early but stayed burritoed in my cozy sleeping bag, blinking lazily at the heavy drops of condensation rolling down my tent fly. I could hear Donnie and Chris quietly shuffling outside, and then from the rock above my campsite Donnie softly called out, “hey, you’re missing a helluva sunrise.” I tumbled out into the morning and caught my breath at the view.

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Rosy pre-dawn light glowed beneath the rolling asphalt clouds and slowly bleached them to a faded pewter, the heat chewing away at their pillowy edges until they were just tatters washed across the dome of the sky. An impossibly small sliver of the sun winked over the horizon, at once burning the clouds away and lighting all the foliage to a deep and perfect garnet spiked with dashes of orange-red-magenta, the landscape all around me a swirling pitcher of sangria beneath a silver sky.

black mountain crest trail mitchell NC deep gap sunrise

I scampered around the site in my tights and unlaced hiking shoes, taking pictures and marvelling at the view until the sun was fully up, its heat bursting the clouds into a billion particulates of mist that gradually settled into a chilly flat fog. With shivering hands we shared instant coffee out of my jetboil and packed up our gear for the hike to the summit.

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It was foggy and wet today, with no hint of yesterday’s perfect clear skies. We hiked upwards through the magical mist, summiting “Big Tom” (pausing here for a photo of Tom stretched out against the summit plaque) and then Mount Craig, the second highest peak in the east. We celebrated the small victories of each summit and then hefted our soaked packs for the next downhill-gap-uphill leg of the hike.

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Eventually the rough trail formed into something that was clearly maintained and well-trod, and the trees thinned to reveal picnic tables looming out of the soupy fog. We continued through a parking lot, up the steep but paved path to the summit itself, and with hot coffee and cold beer we celebrated the last of our peaks today, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

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About the beer: 

There are so many good beers in western North Carolina, but for this autumn overnight I selected a classic, Appalachian Mountain Brewery’s flagship “Black Gold” Porter. It’s a fantastic smelling beer, all roasted malts and dark chocolate and charred nutty grains, and it tastes just as good, a rich roasty sweetness of toasted steel-cut Irish oats that goes down smooth and finishes ever so slightly bitter, like a good dark coffee. It’s a solid easy-drinking porter with a wonderful flavor, and perfect for a misty fall campsite in the magical Appalachians.

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