Mountains-to-Sea Trail – In the Balsam Mountains

Starting with 206.4 miles, 27,250 ft. ascent

Balsam Gap Maintenance Yard to Old Bald

11.1 miles, 3,150 ft. 7:50 hours
MST - bloodroot

Since we stayed in Sylva, Sharon and I were on the trail by 7:50 A.M. Balsam Gap is very close to US 74. We are not going to start as early again for a long time.

We are now in Carolina Mountain Club territory, my hiking club. The club maintains over 140 miles of the MST, starting from Scotts Creek Overlook to Black Mountain campground. But it has been a hard winter and this area is quite far from Asheville. So it needs a lot of maintenance.

I started to write down where the blowdowns were but couldn’t keep up with them. Also, blazes were missing in several critical area. Blazes were hit and miss until we climbed over Pinnacle Tunnel, a steep section. Then the blazes were gone completely.

But I should not be so critical. I know that this is the best maintained area that we will walk through in the mountains. CMC takes its maintenance responsibilities very seriously.

Spring flowers were blooming in full force. We got excited about the first yellow violet, then we saw:

MST-Squirrel CornPurple violet, bloodroot (shown above), cut-leaf toothworth, toothworth, hepatica, spring beauties, squirrel corn (to the left), trailing arbutus and trout lilies.

Trillium and mayapples were up but not blooming yet. Go out there in a week or so, and the flower show is bound to continue.

The trail paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway and US 74 for quite a while. We may have seen Harrah’s Casino in the distance. We were going slowly, mostly because we stopped for flowers. I have many pictures of the same flowers.

We kept wondering how far we’ve gotten.MST - Knotty tree I didn’t take my GPS because I figured it’s all been documented so well but a GPS would have told us how much we’ve done. Also, it would have been a third data point between Walt Weber’s and Scot Ward’s book. We were also slowed by the blowdowns. They were all easily negotiated but it took time.
At about 11:30, we stopped for a break and Sharon discovered that she had lost her camera, probably as she was going around or over a blowdown. When she saw that her camera was missing, she dropped her pack and sticks and went back to try to find it. I didn’t get the chance to ask her how long or how far she was going to walk but I did at least have the presence of mind to note the time she left.

MST - Sharon's packAfter 30 minutes, I started to blow my whistle in bursts of two, not three – that’s reserved for emergencies. I didn’t want to leave her pack on the trail; an animal could take it and drag it out of sight. I went to look for her. I couldn’t carry her pack so I took out her wallet, keys, glasses and cell phone and started walking back. After 10 minutes, I saw her coming back, hot and out of breath. Of course, she didn’t take water. Another lesson.

1.  Never get separated from your pack. Your pack is you, and you are your pack, especially for women who don’t have their keys and wallets in their pockets.

2.  Always decide how long you’re going to walk and when you’ll return. Tell your hiking companions and stick to the time.

We spent a lot of time discussing this incident. No real problem today because it was a warm, dry day and we had plenty of daylight. But it was a worry. She never did find her camera.

MST - Grassy Ridge Mine OVAt Grassy Ridge Mine Overlook, we found two cyclists and we exchanged picture-taking favors.

The mileage seemed too short for what we did but we decided to stick with Scot Ward’s mileage.

Even with our slow walking and picture taking, we got to Old Bald by 4 P.M.

We had dinner at Soul Infusion in Sylva, a casual tea, beer and great food place. I had a Cobb salad and Sharon had a trout wrap and we shared a pot of herbal tea. The restaurant is only open Tuesday through Friday but it’s doing well. We stopped at City Lights bookstore. The bookstore is open until 9 P.M., a big plus when you want to wander a town. I wanted to see if they needed more of my hiking books but the woman there couldn’t make the decision.

Make Sylva a trail town. It’s about eight miles from Balsam Gap – quite close to the MST. There won’t be a town this close until Asheville – and we’ve already done this part.

The next day, we walked from

Scotts Creek Overlook to the Maintenance Yard

6.5 miles, 300 ft. ascent, 2:50 hrs.

It looked gray and the forecast was of rain, some of it hard. But we had a small section, 5.5 miles from Scot’s book, 6.5 from Walt’s. I should have brought my GPS. We went with Walt’s distance, not because it’s longer but it made more sense, based on how long it took us to walk it.

We started at Scotts Overlook where the CMC section starts on the Blue Ridge Parkway. CMC will eventually be responsible from Plott Balsam OV. A couple of miles are built from Soco Gap but the real start is here.

MST - removing flagging tapeIt’s a new fresh section. The blazes are perfect, the trail is like a boulevard. It’s not easy to turn rocks, roots and trees into a trail. So new that we removed flagging tape as we walk. 

The bridge over Woodfin Creek was very impressive. We didn’t take the blue blazed trail down to the Parkway to see Woodfin Cascade. We’ll catch it on the road.

We reached Greenspire Dr., a gravel road and then we rolled down the road. But the gray finally changed to hard rain. We put on rain jackets and rain pack cover but I was very cold. Finally when we’re good and wet, we stopped for rain pants, thermal and warm hat. I couldn’t find my warm gloves. Nothing to do but hurry down. Obviously we’re not going to do another piece of trail today – we’re soaked. 

We comment on the houses perched on the mountain overlooking the Parkway. Why would anyone want to live up there? How many of these houses are now in foreclosure? What do they do up there?

The trail drops down to Orchards Overlook, crosses the Parkway. We walked on the side of the Parkway for a while. It’s official MST. I understand that the CMC crew member are having trouble planning around Waterrock Knob. It’s high and very rocky. I bet that in a couple of years they’ll decide that putting a small section on the grassy side of the Parkway is probably a good idea. 

Then the trail plunged into the woods – that’s a surprise. We thought it would just parallel the parkway until we cross the overpass over US 74 because we saw the blazes on the bridge. But no, the trail works itself below the Parkway. This is not a wasted trip; we find more bloodroot there.

Sharon, who to be fair, doesn’t have a camera just whizzes by but I quote her Samuel Johnson who said When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
I say

“When a hiker is tired of flowers, she’s tired of hiking – and I’m not tired.” So I stop and take more pictures of bloodroot. They’re no better than any of the others. They’re just today’s flower, along with yellow and purple violets.

Cumulative after Day 18 224.1 miles, 30,700 ft. ascent

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