Warning: the following words and images will allow you to vicariously see the world with the eyes of Sultan. Read at your own risk. The name Sultan has many meanings, but derives from the peak Sultan Mountain in Silverton, CO!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mt. Mitchell In The Snow

Hiking up Mt. Mitchell is exciting every time I hike it. The weather is always unpredictable. You should always check the weather before attempting a summit hike by foot (see link below).
Current weather conditions on Mt. Mitchell. http://ils.unc.edu/parkproject/webcam/weather.html

Today we had freezing temperatures. It was 24 degrees at the parking lot of the Black Mountain Camp Grounds. At the summit, the temperature was 8 degrees fahrenheit, which is cold. The wind made it feel like it was below 0 degrees however. Mt. Mitchell is exciting in the snow. The purpose of this hike was to see the conditions of Mt. Mitchell first hand for next weeks Mt. Mitchell Challenge – 40 miles.

We ascended and descended the mountain in 3:55.

Description of the hike up Mt. Mitchell via the Black Mountain Campgrounds.

Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi river at6,684'. Part of the appeal of this hike is "summiting" this superior peak. We will be ascending over 3,600' from the Black Mountain Campground to Mount Mitchell's summit, so it is not an easy hike.

Begin the hike by crossing the bridge leading into the campground.Bear left at the first intersection; from here you will follow the signs for the Mount Mitchell trail all the way to the top. Follow the gravel road toward the group camp, then turn right when the trail exits the gravel road. The climbing begins immediately. At this elevation, the forest is mostly cove hardwoods with a few hemlocks thrown in for good measure. You are ascending through a small cove which eats into Long Arm Ridge. Toward the back of the cove you'll bear right through the first of many switchbacks encountered along the way. The trail in this area heads generally north, though at any given moment it my be facing any of the cardinal directions due to the way it switches back upon itself.

Some very large trees grow in the forest here, and as you gain on the ridgeline you enter a mixed oak hardwood forest. A few small Red Spruce trees grow here, although they're out-of-place at this elevation and will likely be shaded out before reaching maturity. The footing on this section is mostly good, with a few rocky or rooty sections. After achieving the top of Long Arm Ridge, the trail follows the ridgeline, swinging back and forth across it as you ascend. You'll break the 4000' mark on this section of trail and begin heading in a westerly direction. The trees along the ridgeline - predominantly oaks and maples - are shorter, stunted by the wind, shallow, rocky soil and lack of water.

Before long the ridge will turn into a high, steep slope of "Little Mountain", which you'll traverse. The mountain won't seem very little at this point, however. You'll reach a trail junction shortly and you can take either fork. The trails come back together soon; taking the left fork extends the hike by about 1/4 mile but takes you across Higgins Bald. At Higgins Bald, which is roughly halfway to the top,you can look down and see how far up you've come - and look up to see how far you have left to go! So it's recommended to take one fork on the way up and one on the way down; it doesn't matter in what order. The ridge looms above this field, which you'll soon begin to climb. There are many switchbacks in this area with some spectacular views back down.

The trail here passes into the northern hardwood zone, and then into the spruce-fir zone. Climbing rapidly, you'll walk through a spectacular virgin forest of tall, straight Red spruce. Seeing them growing here gives you a glimpse of what this forest used to look like, and a glimpse at why the forest was so valuable to loggers. The spruce wood was extremely resilient and sought after, so these trees were prize timber. As you continue to climb, you'll pop out on the old railroad grade that encircles much of Mount Mitchell and provided away for the loggers to get the fruits of their labor off the mountain. Turn left at this intersection. The path for the next few yards is shared with the Buncombe Horse Range Trail and follows the railroad grade.

As you round Commissary Ridge and reach a great campsite, you'll need to turn right to begin the final 1000' climb to the top of Mt.Mitchell. The trail is well-signed. The forest now is mostly composed of imported Norway spruces but native Red Spruce and Fraser Fir soon take over. The ridge is pretty rugged, and you'll pass one nice, deep fracture cave on the way up. Open glades with spruces all around give the area an alpine-like feel. You'll eventually gain the crest of the ridge, and here the forest becomes almost purely Fraser Fir. The trees shorten near the top, attesting to their young age due to the Balsam Wooly Adelgid having taken out most of the tall, mature Firs year sago. Even-aged stands of Fir are quickly growing to replace their fallen ancestors.Once you reach a flatter section of trail with puncheon laid across to keep your feet out of the mud, you know you're getting close to the summit! You have broken the 6000' mark and are on State property having been on the National forest most of the route. You'll reach the intersection with the Balsam nature trail, which leaves to the right. Continue straight ahead; from here the trail sees a good bit more use. You'll pass an enormous,free-standing boulder on your right and a neat cave on the left. You never really get a view of the peak until you're right below it; at this point you're nearly done. Turn left at the old museum building and your there! Enjoy the view, grab something to eat and get ready -because you're half way!
It is important to note that there used to be an observatory tower that was torn down in 2006. This is unfortunate because the tower was over 100 years old, and I consider it part of North Carolina history. The new tower will be wider, and handicap accessible. You can reach the summit by driving a car to the top.

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