There’s the hard way to ascend Mt. Mitchell, and then there’s the really hard way to ascend Mt. Mitchell. If the challenge of the Mt. Mitchell Trail isn’t enough for you, then tackle the Black Mountain Crest Trail. Oh by the way, you’ll also cross five peaks over 6,000 feet, including the 2nd tallest mountain in the east, Mt. Craig. Lovingly nicknamed the “Death March” by North Carolinians, this hike may be the toughest you’ll encounter in NC for the distance covered. The crest trail may be beautiful and a peakbagger’s dream, but do not underestimate the difficulty of tackling this from the northern trail head at Bowlens Creek.
You’ll begin the hike with a lung-busting ascent of 3,000 feet in 4 miles to the shoulder of Celo Knob. The trail will ease up for 1.5 miles as you get big views from the ridgeline before beginning its rollercoaster journey along the Central Blacks for the last 6 miles. While there aren’t any big climbs on the latter half of the trip, the crest trail plows straight up and down into narrow gaps hundreds of feet below the peaks. The trail is rocky, eroded, and always tricky footing. The hike described here is a shuttle in the most difficult direction. If you start at Mt. Mitchell the elevation gain is <3,000 feet.
Access to Mt. Mitchell State Park is typically closed all winter. The shuttle hike described here is only feasible Spring-Fall. Otherwise you will have to hike the crest trail both ways for 24.8 miles and roughly 8,000 feet elevation gain. This is ideal for 2-3 days backpacking. A longer shuttle hike is possible during the winter using the Mt. Mitchell Trail. The elevation gain is similar hiking either direction.
Much of this hike is above 6,000 feet elevation and exposed on narrow ridgelines, plan accordingly. During the winter the exposure to the west can be especially harsh. You’ll likely encounter lots of ice beyond Horse Rock Meadows, traction devices are recommended.
There are two good camping areas outside of the state park boundaries on either side of Winter Star Mountain. Deep Gap is the most popular area. Within the state park you can camp at the tent camping area south of the summit parking area. There are 9 sites and they are open May 1-Oct 31 for reservation. During the winter the facilities are closed but camping is allowed without reservation.
Maple Camp Bald and Camp Alice are two great campsites located outside the state park boundary but also require hiking away from the crest trail. They can be accessed via the Big Tom Gap Trail (to Maple Camp Bald) and the Mt. Mitchell Trail or Old Mitchell + Camp Alice trails (to Camp Alice). These sites can be part of a larger backpacking loop using the Buncombe Horse Range Trail.
Water is scarce throughout this hike. There are only 3 reliable locations to fill up. 1) The switchbacks around mile 4.0 below Celo Knob have springs running over the trail. 2) Springs on trails on either side of Deep Gap. 3) Visitors center on Mt. Mitchell (seasonal only).
Mile 0.0 – At a tight turn in the road there is a small pull out beside a cemetery. Follow the road east, going downhill.
Mile 0.1 – Turn right on the gravel Water Shed Rd. Note there is another gravel road beside this on the left which is to private property. There are multiple gravel roads branching off Water Shed Rd, when in doubt stay straight and avoid going left.
Mile 0.3 – Pass a small, muddy parking area on the right just before a sign listing this is a hikers only path.
Mile 0.4 – Old bridge or rock hop over Bowlens Creek. The bridge looks to be in poor shape so it is best to avoid it. On the other side of the creek you’ll see the national forest carsonite sign for the Black Mountain Crest Trail  (orange or white blazes). For the next 4 miles you will be following the forest road track up the northern flank of Celo Knob gaining nearly 3,000 feet in elevation.
Mile 1.1 – The trail makes a hard left away from Bowlens Creek. The forest road grade moderately ascends a ridge high above Bowlens Creek. Occasionally old forest roads will branch off from the main trail. The crest trail in this section has no noticeable blazes but stick to the most defined road heading uphill.
Mile 3.8 – At a left curve is a side path on the right to Bowlens Creek if you need a good water source.
Mile 4.1 – A good spring on trail. There is one more spring above this, but it is tiny.
Mile 4.3 – Last spring on trail, the origin of Bowlens Creek. This will almost always be a small trickle so it is advisable to fill up on water before this.
Mile 4.5 – The trail leaves the forest behind entering a beautiful section nicknamed Horse Rock Meadows. Along this open stretch you’ll have views south and west of the Black Mountains surrounding the Big Tom Wilson Preserve in the Cane River Valley plus distant views of the Great Craggy Mountains and Newfound Mountains. You can trace your future route immediately south as the trail sticks to the west side of the ridgeline.
Mile 4.7 – At a right turn there is a side path to a campsite and the Celo Knob scramble trail at a carsonite sign. This scramble is sometimes hard to follow if you’re looking to climb this peak. There are views from two outcrops near the summit. Just beyond the scramble trail junction a forest road splits right at a Y-junction heading downhill. Turn around for a good view of Celo Knob. The crest trail is mostly flat beyond this junction as it heads towards Gibbs Mountain.
Mile 7.9 – Beyond the Colbert Ridge Trail the crest trail passes through Deep Gap, a large notch in the central Black Mountains. Deep Gap is located at the top of the Colbert Ridge Trail and is also the last place to freely camp outside of the state park, so you’ll likely run into more hikers beyond this point. An old forest road splits to the right just before you enter the state park boundary, there is also a spring down this road but we are unsure of the distance. Beyond Deep Gap the trail is officially designated and blazed as the Deep Gap Trail (orange triangle blaze) by the state park, but is also the Black Mountain Crest Trail.
Mile 9.4 – The trail passes right by a sign indicating Cattail Peak with elevation printed. This is misleading because the trail does not pass over the actual peak and skims the southwest flank. The bushwhack from the trail is easy if you are peakbagging, but to our knowledge there are no clear views.
Mile 9.9 – Trail passes over the forested summit of Balsam Cone (6,611 feet) then begins descending to Big Tom Gap.
Mile 10.3 – T-junction with the Big Tom Gap Trail junction shortly before Big Tom Gap. The Big Tom Gap Trail [191A] (blue blaze) leads very steeply down the mountain towards the Buncombe Horse Range Trail and Maple Camp Bald, providing loop alternatives for doing the crest trail both ways. There is also excellent camping at Camp Alice and Maple Camp Bald.
Mile 10.4 – Pass through Big Tom Gap. From here it is a steep climb to Big Tom with lots of exposed rocks.
Mile 10.7 – Just below Big Tom there are rock outcrops on the right with good views northwest. Reach the summit of Big Tom (6,581 feet), a subpeak of Mt. Craig. While there are no clear views the summit has one of the largest collections of ghost trees on this hike. Many of the trees around the highest elevations of Black Mountains are adversely affected by extreme winter, pests, and disease.
Immediately north Mt. Craig is the closest peak. The northern Black Mountains dominate the skyline as they undulate for miles ending at the conical Celo Knob which you passed earlier. Farther north you can see the tall, gently sloped mountains of the Roan Highlands. In the northeast Grandfather Mountain sticks out as the tallest peak in its immediate area. Linville Gorge and the iconic Table Rock Mountain and Hawksbill Mountain are visible in the east. Due south you can spot Highway 128 curving along the southern Black Mountains, with the radio towers of Clingmans Peak rising beside Mt. Gibbes. Pinnacle is the conical peak to the left of Clingmans Peak. Graybeard Mountain is in between Pinnacle and Clingmans Peak but smaller and more rounded. The Black Mountains are shaped like a J and this is never more readily apparent than atop Mt. Mitchell where you can see the southwestern peaks curve around the Cane River Valley. Due west are the smallest of the Blacks, Point Misery and Big Butt. Towards the southwest Blackstock Knob is the highest peak with a small, rounded summit. Immediately behind and to the left is the distinctive summit of Craggy Dome, the tallest peak in the Great Craggy Mountains. Most of the Great Craggy Mountains are obscured from view by the taller Black Mountains. If you summit on a clear day, you will be able to see tall ridgelines of the Great Balsam Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains running southwest to west.
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Reviews For The Black Mountain Crest Trail Hike (5 Most Recent)
Did this hike as prescribed above from Bowlens Creek to the Mt. Mitchell summit. The climb up Celo Knob is about as tough and unrelenting as I've ever done. I can recall only one small stretch of about 50 yards where it leveled out some, the rest of the climb is up up up. After Celo, you begin your ridge traverse. The climbs and descents are shorter at this point, but still very steep. The terrain also becomes much more technical to slow your pace. I really enjoyed the cooler weather and breeze at altitude. Felt like Autumn at times and was a nice break from the summer heat. The views from the many overlooks were tremendous, though the hike spends much more time under the canopy than I would have preferred. Also, the rock scrambling and variety was not as much as Grandfather Mtn hike provided. My GPS watch had this hike at 13.1 miles with 5600' gain. Surprisingly, there was a steady flow of hikers encountered on the trail throughout the day, and many touristas the closer you got to Mitchell. *We booked a shuttle back to Bowlens creek through Yancey County DOT. Call their office at least 48 hours ahead of time. Cost is $21.60/person. Great service provided by the county and the driver "Junior" was the man! I would do this hike again, but would like to do an out and back in the same day to up the mileage/gain/difficulty. Keep the 6's coming Zach Robbins!