No coffee tastes as good as the coffee you have to work for. I first tasted this superior coffee on a camping trip years ago, heating water in a cheap metal percolator over a fire, the smell of burning wood hanging in the air. On road trips, I use a mini stove screwed onto a propane canister to boil water and have found that a Starbucks via packet tastes amazing.
At this point, I have my mornings down to a science.
On this particular morning, however, what was meant to be a two-hour drive to Mount Mitchell State Park turned into a four-hour patience-draining nightmare when Google maps took me down an unpaved, one-lane mountain drive. At least an hour in and fully committed, I was none too pleased when, for no observable reason, the “road” was blocked with a closed sign.
Should you be directed toward Stony Fork Road, be forewarned that you may end up backtracking. Needless to say, by the time I pulled into Mount Mitchell State Park, my mood had taken a hit.
Mount Mitchell State Park is home of the first and second tallest peaks east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell (6684′) and Mount Craig (6647′). Of the ten tallest peaks in the east, Mount Mitchell State Park contains five. My plan was to begin at the Old Mitchell Trailhead, hike up Mount Mitchell then catch the Black Mountain Crest Trail to bag Mount Craig, Big Tom (6581′), Balsam Cone (6611′), Cattail Peak (6583′) and Potato Hill (6475′).
As a solo hiker, I would then need to turn around and do it all again, thus completing my somewhat bastardized version of the aptly named Death March.
Armed with several liters of water and a collection of energy bars, I picked up the Old Mitchell Trail beside the visitor center. The trail was root-strangled and mica-flecked rocks reflected gold in the sun. I felt lucky to have arrived on a perfect weather day as most of my research had warned of the unpredictable and notoriously foggy environment of the Black Mountain range.
Following the yellow blazes, I worked my way through heavy forest to the park’s restaurant. Hunter green painted rocking chairs flanked the building’s long porch. The trail began again across the clearing.
After two miles, the trail intersected with the short paved path up to Mount Mitchell. I took a right here to bag my first peak and was joined by fellow visitors who *cough*tooktheeasywayup*cough*.
Once at the peak, I backtracked, left civilization behind and headed toward Mount Craig on the Black Mountain Crest Trail/Deep Gap Trail. In places, the path was more rock scrambling than hiking and ropes had been installed, which to a self-described flatlander was the closest to rappelling I had ever been.
I was on a mission, and started crossing off peaks like tasks on a to-do list.
Not wanting to give my body the opportunity to get tired, I turned around and started back the way I came, stopping only briefly at the gift shop near Mount Mitchell for a souvenir mug which I snuggled into my backpack and trekked the last two miles back to my car.
The total distance for this hike, from the Old Mitchell Trailhead to Potato Hill and back, came in at right around 10 miles.
With its diverse, heavily-vegetated forest, Mount Mitchell State Park is a unique alpine-like oasis in the heart of the American south. The trails, though rugged, are well maintained. Just an hour and a half drive from Asheville, Mount Mitchell State Park offers a true mountain experience and, with a few hours’ effort, one can establish bragging rights for a lifetime and still make it home for dinner.