- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007

Imagine a much larger, less visited and wilder Shenandoah National Park — vast quiet forests, steeper mountainsides, higher peaks, more distant breathtaking views. Picture winding empty roads for cruising on Harleys, scenic driving through curving mountain tunnels and mountain overlooks with views stretching 40 miles.

Think of hiking along shady trails that crisscross streams and cut through remote stands of mountain forests and no one else on the trail all day — or biking on rugged forest trails that can test beginners or hard-core trail cyclists.

How about taking a leisurely scenic drive to the highest point in North America east of the Mississippi River?

With these thoughts firing your imagination, realize that this recreation paradise exists, offering excitement and quiet mountain camping for all comers.

The Black Mountain region of the Pisgah National Forest, northeast of Asheville, N.C., holds all these treasures for visitors. And much more.

The general mountain area frequently reaches near 6,000 feet in elevation and includes some of the highest mountains in the eastern United States. Mount Mitchell, the highest peak at 6,684 feet, is just outside this national forest’s boundary within Mount Mitchell State Park.

One of the main attractions of the area is this state park and its camping, hiking, trail biking and motorcycle and auto touring through forests on rural mountain roads and country lanes.

The views from the park’s summit parking lot and from the peak’s observation tower will not disappoint. The observation tower is well worth climbing for the highest view possible. On a clear day, you can see more than 80 miles. The stairs to the tower and up to the observation deck are not accessible for the handicapped. It is a short but steep walk.

Historic sites from North Carolina’s early days are marked with signs near the summit parking lot.

Books and lifetimes are dedicated to hiking in the Pisgah National Forest. The Mount Mitchell area has three walks well worth considering. From the Black Mountain campground, there is a 5½-mile hike to the top of Mount Mitchell. This is an amazing hike with more than a 3,200 foot altitude gain before cresting in the summit’s parking lot. The trail is steep and quiet, initially running through thick hardwood forests heavily populated with birds and wildlife.

The mountainside overlooks along the trail will routinely astound hikers. The views and steep incline might leave you breathless. Technically, it is not a difficult hike, but the rocky and possibly muddy footing, as well as elevation gain makes this a hike for the experienced.

As you ascend, you may notice the change from a hickory and oak forest below 4,500 feet that rises into a northern deciduous forest of birches and high-altitude hardwoods up to 5,500 feet. The trail finally enters the spruce and fir zone just after the trail passes the ruins of an old logging camp. Hikers may wish to have a car at the summit and only hike up that far, avoiding the more than five-mile downhill return trek to the Black Mountain campgrounds.

On Mount Mitchell’s summit, there are two hikes for those who want something less challenging. The Mount Mitchell to Black Mountain hike is about 2½ to three miles one way. Hikers will be treated to astounding views as they go along the ridgeline from one mountaintop to the other. Hiking in the autumn provides the added treat of enjoying unending valleys and mountainsides blanketed in reds, oranges and yellows. Take the hike in late autumn, and you will experience the entire area without its covering of foliage, allowing the visitor to appreciate the rugged geology and geography of the area fully. At the top of the mountain, close to the observation tower, is a short half-mile nature trail, which provides excellent examples of the local flora and fauna of this alpine summit area.

For those on wheels, the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway is north of the Black Mountain area. Whether riding on two or four wheels, daylong trips on the road throughout the Pisgah National Forest are a must. The Blue Ridge Parkway extends 469 miles along the crests of the Southern Appalachians and links two eastern national parks — Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, crossing the North Carolina-Virginia state line.

Many people might imagine that this parkway in North Carolina would be similar to the Shenandoah section of the road. It is not. This section of the mountain roadway is more of a country road with overlooks above scenic views stretching for miles. The road twists and turns through dark curved tunnels, and under rock overhangs. Small North Carolina villages dot the road along the way. This is a very popular road for motorcycle clubs driving and photographers looking for that perfect North Carolina nature scene.

A scenic drive in this area is not complete until you drive to the top of Mount Mitchell. It is about a 25-minute drive from the Black Mountain campground far below, to the summit parking lot. About two-thirds of the way to the top is a quaint restaurant that serves local cuisine, as well as all-American favorites.

Hikers, road bicyclists, scenic drivers and motorcycle groups all stop here for the local hospitality. The staff will give you friendly smiles, good service and tips on their favorite local spots.

Behind the restaurant, visitors can sit on comfortable wooden rockers, drinking in the huge valley and mountain views while eating salty peanuts and sipping sweet iced tea. Whether the sky is Carolina blue or a storm is rolling in, the view is magnificent.

Continue on the road from the restaurant to the summit. There is ample parking. A snack stand serves fancy coffees, lots of munchies and sells souvenirs. A small museum is nearby.

The museum shows visitors the interesting history of the area and documents the effects of acid rain and parasites on the mountains’ ecology. If you are confident enough to climb steep stairs, be sure to go to the top of the tower at the far end of the parking lot. A panorama stretches in front of you that is hard to match with any other view east of the Mississippi. It is not an exaggeration to say that on a clear day, you can see for more than 80 miles.

The Mount Mitchell-Black Mountain area has three main campgrounds. The Black Mountain Campground probably is the most centrally located.

This wooded and fairly remote 48-site campground is open May through October. All sites offer fire rings and cooking grills, sand tent spots, picnic tables and a large parking space at each camp site. The fee is $15 per day per site. There is also a camp area for groups of up to 50 persons. Firewood can be purchased from the camp hosts for those memorable campfires.

The camp hosts also sell detailed area topographic maps. Well-kept bathrooms, as well as ball fields and a playground are nearby in the campgrounds. There are similar facilities at Carolina Hemlock campgrounds, less than an hour by car from Black Mountain.

The Black Mountain campground also offers the Devil’s Den nature trail, a short 3/4-mile hike that nearly all can complete.

Black Mountain and Carolina Hemlocks campgrounds make for a quiet respite. At night, around the campfire, listen for the hoot owls in the trees calling to one another. After a rain, look for bright orange salamanders searching for a dry spot.

In addition, a short quarter-mile stroll from the group campground at Black Mountain brings you to Setrock Creek Falls. Roaring Falls is a short drive and less than a mile hike from the campgrounds. This is a wonderful place to take family or friends for a picnic, to cool your feet or to explore the woods surrounding this pleasant cascade.

Also while camping at Black Mountain or Carolina Hemlocks, check with the campground host about guided walks and nature programs for children that provide interesting overviews of local wildlife and plants.

If you prefer a less rustic camping environment, the campgrounds at Mount Mitchell State Park just below the summit provide everything needed for comfortable camping.

Whether you are a muddy trail biker or a spandex-outfitted tour biker, this area has hundreds of miles of trails and roads to explore. The road cyclists may wish to push all the way to the top of Mount Mitchell.

That incline will give cyclists everything they want in the way of challenge and an amazing reward upon reaching the summit. The view is spectacular. Be sure your brakes are ready for the big ride downhill.

For another ride, the Black Mountain bike trail is a fantastic experience for challenge and views and is one of the best descents in the Pisgah National Forest. This ride will challenge all levels of riders. Your research may indicate that this is a moderate-skills trail, but this is not a ride for beginners. This is a trail for advanced riders, since the trip is 9½ miles of single track and almost half a mile of gravel Forest Service road.

Although there are many kinds of fish to test one’s skill or luck, trout fishing is king in the Black Mountain area. There are many rainbow and brown trout in the area’s streams. The South Toe River, next to the Black Mountain campground is catch-and-release and is a popular spot to test your skill. Further upstream, the South Toe becomes wild-trout waters, meaning not all fish are from a hatchery and may be native to the area.

Near the Carolina Hemlocks campground, the river is hatchery-supported, and you may have fewer fellow fishermen around trying to hook the big one. Be sure to look for state regulation signs posted along the river because a state fishing license is required.

The small town of nearby Black Mountain offers visitors a good sample of bed-and-breakfast accommodations, as well as authentic mountain pottery made nearby. The local taverns frequently offer well known and skilled regional music and locally made potables.

Arts and crafts of many categories are offered in the boutiques of Black Mountain. There are several unique places to eat in town, but Black Mountain’s vegetarian restaurant, the Green Leaf Cafe, offers excellent dishes that may surprise and satisfy the most dedicated meat eater.

Many people from around the world come to this area to see Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in a previous century that is near Asheville. If you wish to spend time in Asheville, it is about 30 minutes from Black Mountain by car. If you are looking to avoid the crowds and hourly tours and buses, try the town of Black Mountain’s many accommodations.

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Before heading to Mount Mitchell State Park, be aware that the park’s Web site mount.mitchell@ncmail.net displays this notice: “Portions of the summit area and the tower trail will be closed due to construction until further notice. There will also be trail detours on Old Mitchell Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and the Balsam Nature Trail.” The phone is 828/675-4611. Mount Mitchell State Park, 2388 State Highway 128, Burnsville, NC 28714.

Black Mountain Chamber of Commerce: Visit www.blackmountain.org or phone 800/669-2301 for information on accommodations.

Pisgah National Forest: ncnatural.com/NCUSFS/Pisgah

For more information call or write: Pisgah National Forest, Pisgah Ranger District, 1001 Pisgah Highway, Pisgah, NC 28768, or phone 828/877-3265

Pisgah National Forest, Toecane Ranger District, P.O. Box 128, Burnsville, NC 28714, or phone 828/682-6146

Pisgah National Forest, Grandfather Ranger District, P.O. Box 519, Marion, NC 28752; phone 828/652-2144

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