Elisha Mitchell was a professor of science and mathematics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1825 he was tasked by the state legislature to assess the geography and natural resources of Western North Carolina. Mitchell traveled the Southern Appalachians, mostly by foot, documenting and reporting on the regions scenic beauty and abundant natural resources. It was during these summers that Mitchell began the work that made him famous: measuring mountains. He discovered what he believed to be the tallest mountain in the East in 1844, but his claim was disputed by one of his students. On June 27, 1857, Mitchell revisited the peak to verify his earlier measurements, but he never returned.
“What is that?” Dave asked as we slowed down to cross the bridge at Carolina Hemlocks. He was pointing at the big black mess strapped on a pickup parked farther up the road. “It’s a black bear, I think,” said Mark. “Let’s check it out.”
Dog cages filled the truck bed. Inside them, hunting dogs sulked, licking their wounds. One poked his head out and whimpered; his right eye was freshly missing. There was a black bear tied spread-eagle on top of the cages, and its head hung over the tailgate. Blood slid down its tongue and out its nose and trickled steadily onto the pavement. A small crowd had gathered.
“Biggest bear I ever saw!” exclaimed one of the hunters, beaming. He said it was probably 386 lbs. “Haven’t guessed one wrong yet.”
The hunter soon left to skin his prize. Dave and Mark got back in the car and drove 100 yards up the road to the trailhead. Hours before, that bear had been ambling through the very forest they were about to enter. And years before, back in 1857, it was another local bear hunter – Big Tom – and his dogs that found Elisha Mitchell’s body at the bottom of a waterfall.
With that lost giant in mind so began Mark and Dave’s mystical quest to discover the rocks and plummeting water that snatched the life from Elisha Mitchell, and out of that dark pool to make the ascent to his final resting place atop the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi – Mt. Mitchell.
Mark and Dave parked at the Colbert Ridge trailhead, on State Route 1158 across the river from Carolina Hemlocks campground.
The trail to Deep Gap was 3.8 miles. It climbed steadily for the first 1 ½ mile, and leveled out for the next ½ mile. Galax grew all along the lower elevations of that hike. In the winter, its thick leaves turned a brooding red. Dave spotted an old pit mine – probably for gold – on the side of the trail.
The remainder of the hike to Deep Gap was a sharper climb. The change started with an open rocky outcropping that afforded a wide view of the valley below, and of Cattail Peak and Potato Knob above. The vegetation shifted noticeably there, from an oak-dominated hardwood forest to spruce-fir composition for which the slopes of the Southern Appalachians are known.
Right before reaching Deep Gap was the last reliable water source until Mt. Mitchell. If they needed to, though, Dave and Mark could have drawn from the puddles and snow found along the ridge.
There was another clear habitat shift at Deep Gap. “This is where Rohan borders Fangorn,” joked Dave. Red spruce became the dominant overstory tree, setting this trail apart from others in the state. The Black Mountains are about the southernmost extent of the red spruce’s range. Their bark turns deep red in the mist, while bright green moss covers the ground and creeps up the trunks. The soil in these stands is notably acidic, due to the abundant decomposing organic matter. Taste it and see.
There were two great campsites at the Deep Gap junction [campsite 1][campsite 2], but Mark and Dave continued South another mile or so to camp at the top of Potato Knob. They found a small clearing on the side of the trail overlooking the western slopes. There was just enough room to pitch a tent and build a fire. The sun set as the boys finished setting up camp.
Lights twinkled in the valleys below. The two boys watched the whirling stars until a cloud overtook the ridge; then only that mound of land and comforting fire were visible.
The cloud enveloped the ridge until mid-morning the next day. The boys set out from Potato Knob to Cattail Peak, a mile or less away. There was a fabulous campsite at Cattail, a sanctuary under the trees, with red pillars softly draped in moss, and wisps of cloud floating silently through them.
The trail continued over Balsam Cone, to Big Tom and Mt. Craig. The ascent to Big Tom was very steep in two places, and ropes had been attached to the trail to assist hikers. Those were probably only necessary in icy conditions, though. A plaque at the top of Big Tom commemorates its namesake, the bear hunter who found Mitchell. The summit of Mt. Craig was a rocky bald. The wind whipped the clouds away, letting the sun penetrate, but the exposed summit still felt cold.
Eleven days after he went missing, Elisha Mitchell’s body was discovered below a waterfall on Sugar Camp Fork. He was hiking alone down the steep slopes of the Blacks one June evening to visit the settlements on the Cane River below. It is assumed that he was disoriented by the dark and fell from the top of the waterfall. His pocket watch broke in the accident marking the exact time of his death, 8:19:56 P.M. on June 27th.
The trail from Mt. Craig to the summit of Mt. Mitchell was about a mile. However, the boys instead descended the path-less Sugar Camp Fork (now called Mitchell Creek), deep into the western cove between the two peaks, seeking Mitchell Falls – the site of Elisha’s death. They threw themselves against a rhododendron fortress, sometimes crowd-surfing over the thick undergrowth, to finally reach the falls. Mark and Dave took a bracing, baptizing swim in the icy pool. Invigorated, the two rose from Mitchell’s watery demise to ascend his mountain and undo history.
Their pilgrimage ended atop the highest peak in Eastern North America. There, Elisha Mitchell’s body is interred under a cairn on the summit. Mark and Dave watched the sun set over Mitchell’s bones, over the Blacks, casting the boys’ shadows all the way to the sea. Night fell at the grave, but the boys’ journey continued. And Elisha’s spirit – set free – flew with them.
Mark and Dave descended the peak and hiked east down the Mt. Mitchell Trail/Balsam Nature Trail in the dark. After 2 miles, the trail intersected the bridle trail at Commissary Hill. There was a great campsite at the junction, with a stone fire pit and plenty of tent space. The moon rose – just waning – and cast its magic about the hills.
The bridle trail segment they followed the next day was about 8 miles long and led all the way back to SR 1158, where it came out less than half a mile from the trailhead. The first half of it offered stunning views over the eastern slopes, with several opportunities for the boys to take in all the major peaks they crossed on the ridge trail.
The bridle trail was beautiful, but not heavily used. The campsites on it were stunning. Mark thought, “If you like open skies, wide views, and star-gazing, you’ll want to try to make it to these sites.”
Animals loved the bridle trail too. Besides numerous deer tracks, Dave and Mark also found coyote scat all along way – in the middle of the path, pinched at the ends, and full of fur – often with three or four distinct piles near each other. This suggested that at least one family group used the trail.
Bear scat on the trail was full of undigested mountain ash berry hulls. For better or worse, that was as close as Dave and Mark got to a living black bear.
Signs of human use were clustered around the trailhead and between Mt. Mitchell Trail and Big Tom Gap Trail intersections. The lower elevations were unkempt, choked with fallen trees and groves of rhododendron.
In the last couple miles of the bridle trail, the boys heard bear dogs baying.