Trip Report: Middle Prong/Shining Rock Wilderness Area
This trip report is for a hike done by 2.5 guys late 20’s early 30’s from a Friday at 11:15am to Sunday at 10:20am.
This trip had been planned weeks in advance and it just turned out to be the hottest weekend of the year, June 29th through July 1st, but we had the weekend planned and permission to be away from home so we were not going to miss it. This was my first trip of the season so I was extremely anxious to hit the trail.
We started at the end of Black Balsam Road which is just passed Graveyard Fields overlook on the Parkway. The road is paved (roughly in spots) the whole way to the parking area so any car should have no problem making the trip. The trail head was almost exactly a three hour drive from South Charlotte so not too bad of a haul for a weekend trip. At the trail head there is ample parking, drop toilets, and a water source just past the parking area.
We started on the Sam Knob trail and headed for the first 6k foot peak of the trip. The trail was well traveled and passes through a gorgeous meadow on the way. The trip to the peak is an out and back but a short one. We walked up the trail to the top and took in the views and ate a quick lunch. From here we could survey just about every peak we would cross over the weekend, the views were wonderful. We hiked back down to the main trail and continued on our hike. We crossed a small waterfall and came to a trail intersection. Here we turned right and continued to follow the river downhill and past a really nice waterfall. There were several spur trails to get down to the falls and offered some really nice views.
We continued down this trail until we intersected road 215. Up to this point there is plenty of water sources but after crossing the road they become very scarce and when you ascend Green Mountain they are nonexistent. Fill up at this point to be safe.
At road 215 we turned left and followed the road for a few hundred yards until meeting up with the mountains to Sea Trail. We turned right on the MTS towards green knob and continued on. My map refers to the next trail as the Green Mountain Trail but I saw other maps this weekend refer to it as the Fork Ridge Trail. To me that is a confusing name change as the trial on the opposite ridge is the Fork Mountain Trail. My map is probably 5 years old so I guess it is out of date but either way it is the trail that crosses Green Knob and continues on the ridge line. We did not see a sole on the trail after crossing 215 until we reached the end of the Green Mountain trail.
I had read that this trail can be tough to follow at times and it is very true. Finding the intersection of the trail off of the MTS trail was not difficult although it is not marked. From there the ascent was the equivalent of following an overgrown game trail, pants and long sleeves would be recommended here.
When we reached the ridge line we hike to a grove of pine trees just below the summit of green knob. This was a great spot for hammocks with plenty of options of places to hang. Before this point there were not many camping options but there were some. Down along the river there were several established sites as well and would make good hammock spots.
We reached our campsite around 630. There were no big views to speak of but the site was great and the temperature finally started to cool after the sun set.
We slept in more than planned the next morning and hit the trail just before 9. From here the trail follows the ridge line and is a constant up and down and then it is straight down. The trail offers and occasional view of the surrounding mountains which are great but most of the trail is through rhododendron thickets that are not made for anyone over 5’6. I am 6’4 and this trail was brutal. I spent most of it in a low squat or bent over. There was also a ton of dead fall to climb over/under. All this combined with the steep terrain especially going down made for a very very tough hike. We also lost the trail twice and had to bushwhack back to the trail. (in many places it was very difficult to even tell we were on a trail.) There are no switch backs on the decent and we all fell and slid at least twice. We also all left with numerous cuts and scrapes from being in constant contact with tree branches.
This trail reminded me a lot of some of the less used areas of Linville Gorge both in the grade and the difficulty of the trail.
The trail ends back at road 215 and the river we arrived here at 2. This is the first water we saw since getting on the green mountain trail. The area was filled with people swimming in a great little hole and jumping off the bridge. Sunburst Campground is just around the corner (take a left on 215) and they have picnic tables and a water fountain. One of the campers told us his thermometer read 100+ all morning. (this is at 3200 feet) We ate lunch at filled up on water and then rested our feet in the cold water for a few minutes.
The area is obviously a local favorite and was even complete with an alcohol check point run by the local sheriff’s department. There were two campers set up in the campground that between them were displaying 9 variations of the confederate flag. I live in NC and attended college in the mountains but this just seemed straight out of movie filled with hillbilly stereotypes. It was just sad to see such a group of people that obviously draw so much of their identity from the stars and bars and the old south but were obviously not concerned with their own health or in taking care of the land they were enjoying.
The next leg of our trip was a hike on the Fork Mountain Trail. Head south on 215 past the swimming hole and cross the river and look for a small unmarked trail head that goes steeply into the woods. It is just past a big boulder that juts out into the river on the opposite side. There is a spot where there are rocks piled up for crossing but it is also past this point, my best guess is the swimmers made this and is in no way part of the trail.
This first section is about a 2,000 foot climb back to the ridge line that is just opposite of the ridge line we hiked all morning. You will pass water several times on this climb but not much once you reach the summit. We lost a hiker about halfway up. He was dehydrated and feeling sick so he returned to Sunburst to be picked up the next morning. (It was very hot out)
We reached the top and there is actually a small spur trail that summits high top mt. but was not on our map. At times the trail follows an old logging road but most of it is a typical hiking trail. It is in far better condition than the Green Mountain Trail and is easy to follow. The only tricky parts are where the trail leaves the logging road and it looks like you could continue on the old road bed. We followed a group of service volunteers up to the ridge and hiked with them for a short while but they were the last people we would see until the next morning.
There is no water on this ridge line and very very few places to set up camp and hang a hammock. The trail does offer some blueberries and some great views at times depending on what side of the ridge you are on. There are no 360 views on this trail. Fork Mt. Trail is listed at 6 miles. We reached the end of it at 8:05. It seemed longer than 6 miles but it could have been the heat. It took us 5 hours to hike it. From there it bisects are horse trail not far from where we parked. We made a left and headed towards Ivestor Gap and the Art Loeb Trail.
Ivestor is a great place to camp. Tons of places to hang and it offers huge views in every direction. I have raved on here before about what an awesome place to camp this is. We arrived at Ivestor just before 830 and were totally exhausted. With this being kind of a holiday weekend and along a very popular trail I expected the site to be packed. To my surprise we had the entire mountain to ourselves. We watched the sun set over the ridge lines we hiked that day cooked dinner and then went straight to bed.
The next morning we were on the trail at 8 and headed South on the Art Loeb. The trail here is great and easy to follow and offers some of the best views and hiking in the Southern Appalachians. We hiked up Tennet Mountain and then over Black Balsam at 6200 feet. The views are amazing and you can see everything from Sam Knob, Cold Mountain, Looking Glass Rock, Graveyard fields, Shining Rock, and more. We passed several day hikers along this section.
On the next peak past Black Balsam there is a spur trail heading down hill and it ends back at the horse trail just a few yards from the parking area where we started. (you can actually see it from the peak of Black Balsam and is still in the area where the mountains are bald) We arrived at 10:15 back at the car and changed clothes and then headed back to Sunburst via the road to pick up our other hiker. He looked refreshed and was very happy with his decision not to hike until 830 that night with us. From there we headed back on 276 hung a right on 64 and went to the Grand Dragon Chinese buffet. After hiking this place is a must stop. It is the biggest Chinese buffet I have ever seen and it is actually very good, or at least it is after hiking. Plus they have ice cream on the buffet and that is always a welcomed treat. (we have stopped here many times before after backpacking trips)
All in all a great trip but Saturday was one of the hardest days of hiking I have ever had including days where I covered 20+ miles. I do not think I will venture back on Green Mountain Trail anytime soon but I am glad I hiked it as I have now hiked most of the ridge lines on this section of the map.
If you are planning this hike bring plenty of water and plan carefully where you intend to fill up as there are long stretches where there is no access to water. Also please be aware at the limited options of places to hang along the ridges.
Sorry for the lengthy report but I use these reports just as much for my own reference and records. I could not find a ton of info on these trails and wanted to put a good report out for others to reference. Shining Rock and Middle Prong are truly great places to hike I would recommend making a trip here if you can swing it. Feel free to respond with any questions, I will try and get some pictures posted tonight. Happy Hiking!