Great easy hike with views of two waterfalls but you do have to cross a stream toward the beginning of the hike using the rocks in the stream (difficult when iced over in winter). The view of the falls covered in ice is beautiful.

This is a tough yet rewarding day hike. The 1600+ ft elevation drop/gain leads you through a couple of different ecological zones and back again, and the multiple water ways all flowing into the Middle Prong River support a large variety of vegetation and some nice cascades and river views. This is a wilderness area, so trail maintenance is minimal and there are no markers or blazes outside of the Mountains to Sea Trail, but if solitude and a serious workout are what you are looking for this is the place.

Park your car at the Rough Butt Bald Overlook and find the Buckeye Gap Spur trailhead across the parkway on the west end of the Overlook. The going is easy the first 2.5 miles, with conifers dropping needles leaving a spongy path, though rooty and overgrown at times. This is Spruce/Fir forest at its best, with moss covering everything and red squirrels chattering away. It's cool, damp, and shady with a curious amount of grass and blackberries that I assume are remnants of a clear cut from logging. This is a secluded area, and if you start early in the morning be prepared for a lot of spider webs. A lot. After about a quarter mile you will leave the spur trail and turn right on the Mountains to Sea Trail (marked intersection). At about a mile the MST leaves right and you stay left on the Buckeye Gap Trail (no markings). At around 2.5 miles the trail passes through a thick bramble over growing the trail and begins to descend. I don't recommend continuing through the bramble without long pants. As you drop the forest changes with towering poplar and beach dominating. The gradual descent abruptly turns to a vicious winding slick as you continue into the valley, near the point where the river becomes audible. At this point you have dropped close to 500ft, with 1000ft more still ahead. If you aren't in good shape, if you have kids or anyone with you that doesn't have a sure foot and the ability to navigate difficult terrain, or if you aren't properly equipped (good boots, trekking poles, navigation) you should turn back here.

This downhill section is brutal. The steep grade is bad enough, but it's also strait down with no switchbacks. This coupled with the damp atmosphere leads to erosion. It's a slippery muddy mess broken up by roots that often have divots underneath causing you to step or hop down with unsure ground above and below. It's a great recipe for rolled ankles and sprained knees, and I ended up on my butt several times even with good boots and trekking poles.

When you reach the valley floor you come immediately to an unmarked intersection. If you are a masochist you can turn left here onto the Haywood Gap Trail and immediately begin the climb back up. I recommend following the path forward where you will come to a large open camp site by the river, a perfect place to recharge, rehydrate, and rest your weary joints while watching the gorgeous Middle Prong River crash through moss covered boulders. After your break retrace your steps and turn right on the Haywood Gap Trail.

You will climb close to 1700ft over the next 2.5 miles. It starts out gradually, with the first mile pretty easy hiking with great views of the river to your right. Then, a sheer rock face about 20 ft tall appears on your left, and land on the right gives way to a 5 ft drop to the rocky river's edge. You walk the narrow path between the two for about 30 yards then come to a place where you have to jump down to the rocks by the river, a drop of about 3 feet. Timid hikers won't be pleased to do this under normal circumstances. When I hiked through the lack of trail maintenance came into play as well. A fallen tree lay right across the rock ledge where you could sit to hop down. There was no way around, and climbing over would have made the drop closer to 7 ft. I tossed down my pack and trekking poles, sat down behind the tree, then swung forward under the tree, laying almost flat on my back and going over the ledge blind. Though 3 ft isn't much of a drop, it was still uncomfortable and slightly nerve wracking.

From here, the climb gets steeper and the path harder to follow. 200 yards or so up trail you cross the river. You can rock hop in the summer on a clear day, but even then the rocks aren't well placed and are slippery. Side trails run off to campsites along the way, so be careful to stay on the main trail by the river. The trail becomes progressively steeper and more rocky and rooty, making it impossible to find a rhythm. Still, the river is beautiful and there are countless places to stop off for a break. A mile or so of this wicked scramble brings you to another Crossing, this time of a side creek, crossing left. You pass back in to Spruce/Fir forest as the river dwindles to its headwaters. The trail becomes regular, though steep, as you begin to hear cars on the parkway. When you reach Haywood Gap turn left on the MST. The last 1.5 miles are pleasant, with a gradual slight elevation gain and several small streams t

Sunday, April 17, 2016

I have been wanting to try this trail for some time as my first chance to explore the Middle Prong Wilderness, and this was a beautiful day for it.

The trail starts at the Mountains-to-Sea trailhead on NC 215, and follows a fairly gradual climb along the relatively well maintained MST for a few miles, until it climbs to the top of Fork Ridge. As with all Wilderness areas, there are no trail markings, but the MST portion is pretty clear in most sections. That can't be said for the rest though.

At the top of Fork Ridge, look for a trail leading right (North). This is not very clear, but if you begin descending the other side of Fork Ridge, you have gone too far. This trail continues for several miles North toward Green Knob. It is quite difficult to follow in a few sections, but always stick to the top of the ridgeline.

Along the way there are stunning views from both sides of the ridge. I really enjoyed seeing the views of Sam's Knob, Black Balsam, and from Green Knob you can even see Shining Rock. Not long after leaving the MST, there is a false trail branching left to the West. It's worth it, as it leads to a large cleared overlook with amazing, long-distance views (all the way into Georgia, on this clear day).

The mileage on multiple GPS units was well over 10 miles, round trip, even though the trail is listed online as 9 miles. This was an enjoyable hike, but one we really had to pay attention to keep on trail.

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