Long after Pangaea divided, periodic episodes of folding and uplift continued to push ancient rock formations to the surface. About 65 million years ago one such geologic event exposed a jagged mass of gneiss and schist that had been buried since the earliest phases of continental movement. Between 39°5’ and 39°7’ north latitude (just northeast of the modern city of Asheville), some of the new mountains formed a fifteen-mile-long semicircle that vaguely resembled a fishhook. The odd formation did not conform to the general southwest-northeast sweep of the Appalachians. Instead, the peaks emerged as a cross range, extending at a sharp angle north and slightly west from the Blue Ridge.
For tens of millions of years, while nearby mountains on the Appalachian Plateau weathered into rounded hills, the compressed, superhardened rocks in this cross range proved highly resistant to wind and erosion. By the time humans got around to charting the region, it still contained eighteen peaks over 6,300 feet in elevation. Six of those were (and are) among the ten tallest mountains in the Appalachian chain. Just slightly south of the cross range’s midpoint, one especially durable chunk of mica gneiss stood as the highest spot of ground east of the Mississippi River. Because the peaks were covered with thick, dark forests, early white settlers called them the Black Mountains, or simply, the Blacks.
The book quoted above, Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America by Timothy Silver, caught my attention several days ago with the approach of this weekend’s adventure: a traverse of the fishhook of the Black Mountain Crest.
Carl, Chuck, Mohammed, Isaiah, el Guapo and Uwharrie joined me at Bowlens Creek for the start of our marathon trek. As we ascended a few thousand feet in the first few miles, we left the humidity from low hanging clouds behind and entered the pleasantly cool environs of a boreal forest in early autumn.
Here the gentians, white snake root, goldenrod and mountain ash caught our close attention. In the distance, peaks rose like islands above an ocean of clouds. We did our best to soak in the beauty of this wonderful day, relieved to have a day like this after a week of rain.
Our group stuck together the whole way and enjoyed the technical challenges of the Black Mountain Crest Trail. By the time we reached the summit of Mitchell, we had passed several groups of hikers. We were now among hundreds of visitors atop the highest Appalachian peak on a rather warm and sunny Saturday.
With our stomachs reminding us about lunch, we continued down the Old Mitchell Trail to the restaurant. Over halfway into our traverse, we indulged in the luxury of a hot meal of (veggie)burgers and fries. Not only did this hit the spot, but we would also remain satisfactorily stuffed for the remainder of the journey.
Our goal of finishing at Cane River Gap by 5 PM had already been in jeopardy due to a delayed 8:30 AM start. But it was our extended lunch break, a result of an unexpected backlog of restaurant patrons, which encouraged us to reconsider our options at Stepps Gap. We opted to bypass the actual crest on a familiar and convenient old roadbed to the north.
Back to the singletrack of the Big Butt Trail, we marveled at the ongoing engineering and endurance of a trail work crew assembling extensive stairs over the “butts.” The homestretch was not for lack of scenic overlooks either. Between memorable spurts of trail running, we’d pause to take in the views out across the Ivy and Cane River valleys.
Looking back across the entire Black Mountain Crest, the low hanging morning clouds had long since dissipated. The afternoon was turning to evening. With some cold beverages waiting in the back of Isaiah’s truck, it was time for a quick descent to Cane River Gap by 5:30 PM. Many thanks to those who joined me for the good times! See you at the seven elevens!