Hiking on state’s highest mountains

Nancy Buckingham and Ken Purdy, both of Wilmington, cross the summit of 6,647-foot-high Mount Craig in early September, second highest peak in the East. At top left is Mount Mitchell.
Nancy Buckingham and Ken Purdy, both of Wilmington, cross the summit of 6,647-foot-high Mount Craig in early September, second highest peak in the East. At top left is Mount Mitchell.

As North Carolina’s highest peak, Mount Mitchell spends more time in the clouds than in the sun.

The celebrated mountain also ranks first in the East with an elevation of 6,684 feet. But where’s the second highest? Tennessee? Virginia? New Hampshire?

Nope. Look closer to home. It’s Mount Craig, just a mile from Mount Mitchell. Craig rises to 6,647 feet, just four feet higher than the more famous Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Mount Craig was named to honor Gov. Locke Craig, who in 1915 led the campaign to protect Mitchell from continued massive logging by convincing the legislature to authorize the mountain’s purchase as the first N.C. state park.

For those who want a cloud-scraping, Canada-like hiking experience, Mount Craig’s an ideal destination. Pick up the Deep Gap Trail beside the picnic area at the lower end of the Mount Mitchell State Park parking lot. The north-bound trail passes through Fraser fir-red spruce forest and crosses a rock outcrop on the summit of Craig.

Mount Craig provides camera-ready views of Mount Mitchell as well as other peaks in the Black Mountains. Looking west, a stunning, wraparound vista runs from the protected 8,500-acre Big Tom Wilson Preserve on the western slopes of the park to the huge, yawning Cane River valley extending north to Burnsville.

A quarter-mile farther is 6,581-foot-high Big Tom peak. It and the preserve were named for Big Tom Wilson, the mountain guide who found the body of Elisha Mitchell, the University of North Carolina science professor for whom Mount Mitchell is named. Mitchell in 1835 determined that the Black Mountains contained the East’s highest peak. He accidentally died during an 1857 trip to the area to verify his measurements.

More lofty peaks lie ahead. A mile away is Balsam Cone (6,611 feet) and, just beyond the northern park boundary, Cattail Peak (6,584 feet).

They, along with Mitchell, Craig and Big Tom, make up five of the 10 highest eastern peaks. Some regard Big Tom as a spur of Craig.

Hiking these giants is no walk in the woods. The roller-coaster Deep Gap Trail is strenuous. And clouds cover the peaks eight of 10 days.

For hikers going on to Cattail Peak, the distance from Craig is three miles. Backpack camping is allowed only at Deep Gap, a half mile beyond Cattail Peak, on Pisgah National Forest land.

In early September, I hiked from Mitchell to a half mile beyond Big Tom, snacking on trail-side blackberries and mountain raspberries, before turning around. In 2002, I backpacked across all four peaks, camping at Deep Gap.

Another of the 10 highest peaks is Mount Gibbes, 6,571 feet, standing at the park’s southern boundary and adjoining the Pisgah forest. The wooded summit has no views. Mount Gibbes lies next to Clingmans Peak, which has a cluster of towers on the top.

More land in the Black Mountains could be protected under a project by The Conservation Fund, a national land-protection group. The group is working to raise money for more than 1,800 acres it has purchased on the western slopes of Cattail Peak adjoining the state park and the Pisgah forest. The Conservation Fund has applied for $2.75 million from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, a state agency, toward the more than $7 million overall cost.

The land, including Cattail Peak itself, would be conveyed to a conservation agency such as Mount Mitchell State Park.

Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”

If you go

Mount Mitchell State Park is open daily from 8 a.m-8 p.m. in September and October. Hours vary in other months. Admission is free. The park has nine tent camping sites, a picnic area and a restaurant. An observation platform on top of Mount Mitchell is a quarter-mile walk from the parking lot. For more information, see www.ncparks.gov.

10 highest peaks in the East

1. Mount Mitchell, 6,684 feet *

2. Mount Craig, 6,647 feet *

3. Clingmans Dome, 6,643 feet **

4. Mount Guyot, 6,621 feet **

5. Cattail Peak, 6,620 feet ***

6. Balsam Cone, 6,611 feet *

7. Mount LeConte, 6,593 feet**

8. Big Tom, 6,581*

9. Mount Gibbes, 6,571 feet *

10. Mount Chapman, 6,417 feet **

* Mount Mitchell State Park; ** Great Smoky Mountains National Park; *** private land