- 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.

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