Take a hike on the quiet, east side of Mount Mitchell State Park by following the Buncombe Horse Range Trail to Fork Ridge and Maple Camp Bald, two summits with wonderful views. Although this hike begins amidst the crowds at the Mt. Mitchell summit parking, you’ll soon leave them behind as you descend through thick southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest on the Mt. Mitchell Trail. You’ll leave the state park boundary and follow the Buncombe Horse Range Trail north in Pisgah National Forest, skirting the eastern slopes of the Black Mountains. This lonely trail leads to a bald on Fork Ridge, and eventually Maple Camp Bald. Both landmarks boast excellent campsites and even better views of the South Toe River Valley and central Black Mountains. From there you follow the seldom-used Big Tom Gap Trail to the crest and the Deep Gap Trail south across Big Tom and Mt. Craig. Until you reach Mt. Craig, you’ll be perplexed by the hours you’ve spent in complete isolation while hundreds of people filter through the summit parking. After more outstanding views from Big Tom and Mt. Craig, the loop finishes at Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak in the East. This relatively short full-day trip is jam-packed with more views and variance than almost any hike in the region.
Seasonal Access – The Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Mitchell State Park are normally closed all winter. From late November to early March you will likely not be able to drive in this area. You can create a nice weekend backpacking trip by taking the Mt. Mitchell Trail and camp at Commissary Hill or Maple Camp Bald.
Mile 0.4 – The Balsam Nature Trail meets the Mt. Mitchell Trail  (blue diamond blaze) and Mountains-to-Sea Trail  (white blaze) at a T-junction. Turn left continuing downhill through thick southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest.
Mile 1.7 – Turn left on the Buncombe Horse Range Trail  (white blaze) at a Y-junction. The Mt. Mitchell Trail and MST turn right. The Buncombe Horse Range Trail for the next 1.8 miles is mostly flat as it follows the eastern slope of the Black Mountains.
Mile 6.6 – The trail crosses the rocky, exposed summit of Mount Craig (6,647 feet). Please stay between the log guides, the cliffs are home to very rare flora and are easily damaged. You will still have excellent views from south to north of the Black Mountains and Great Craggy Mountains. On clear days you should be able to see the Great Balsam, Plott Balsam, Great Smoky, Newfound, and Bald Mountains from the summit. Immediately west the notable two peaks are Blackstock Knob and Big Butt. As you walk south you will have an open view of Mt. Mitchell.
Mile 7.5 – The Deep Gap Trail and Black Mountain Crest Trail end at the Mt. Mitchell parking lot. Head towards the museum and gift shop to pick up the paved walkway to the summit.
Mile 8.0 – Hike ends at the Mt. Mitchell parking lot.
Maple Camp Bald Hike Comments
Date of Hike: Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Wow! What a stunning hike! The descent from the parking lot was wet and slippery and my partner obtained a small arm wound from a fall. Be careful! The horse trail was overgrown but absolutely brimming with butterflies--we must have seen thousands, mostly swallowtails. The spur out to Maple Bald was especially bad in terms of vegetation overgrowth but totally worth it for a lush grassy spot with an incredible view for lunch! The climb up Big Tom is rough. Calling it a "trail" is a bit generous--more of a vertical path where water runs off! The final two miles on the ridgeline are great, but the ups and downs are tough after the previous 6 miles! So glad we spent one of our two days in Asheville doing this hike!
Date of Hike: Saturday, April 27, 2019
For my first hike in months I returned to my favorite range in NC, the Black Mountains. I'm trying finish the new Black Mountains Hiking Challenge this calendar year and I'm redoing a lot of the hikes already posted on here, stringing together longer loops where possible. I did a modified, longer version of this hike beginning at the restaurant instead of the summit so I could include the Commissary Trail and Old Mitchell Trail, skipping the Mt. Mitchell and Camp Alice Trails. This adds a couple of miles to the hike but the difference in difficulty is barely noticeable since the Commissary Trail is flat. At the start I added two unnecessary peakbags to Mt. Hallback and Mt. Gibbes, then picked up the Commissary Trail at Stepps Gap. Since there has been recent heavy rain the Buncombe Horse Range Trail was swampy, but it's almost always like this. You should mentally prepare for getting mud in your trail runners if you hike out to Maple Camp Bald.
I spent an hour at Maple Camp Bald then began the dreaded 1,000-foot slog to Big Tom. By the time I made it to Mt. Mitchell it was 5:30 PM, and the last 1.5 miles on the Old Mitchell Trail was brutal. You cannot underestimate the trails in the Black Mountains, other than the forest roads the trail terrain is treacherous. Trails mainly consist of large rocks and roots, typically covered in moss and wet. The Black Mountains and Linville Gorge have the toughest trail terrain in NC, nothing else really comes close.