Middle Prong – Shining Rock Wilderness Loop

  • Location: Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness
  • Time: 2 days, 1 night,March
  • Temperatures: Low’s in the low 40’s, High’s in the 70’s, clear weather

The first trip back out since I called it quits for a while back in October. I started the trip by telling my hiking partner, K, that my goal was to finish our trip without any knee pain. The plans of the trip changed, we got lost a couple of times, and I got a bit car sick on the drive back down the mountain, but I am excited the say the trip was still a success, as my knee felt great the whole time. I enjoy being a bit long winded, so if you want a quick summary of how the trip was and my thoughts on the route, just skip to the end and save some time.

The trip itself started at the Mountain to Sea Trail parking area, heading west on the trail. After a bit, we turned north on the Green Mountain Trail, which met up with Fork Mountain Trail at 215. The trip ended when we met back up with the Art Loeb Trail around Tennet Mountain and took the Mountain to Sea Trail back to the car.

map

The trip started around 11:30, and I was hoping to reach Fork Mountain trail and camp somewhere just past 215. The first half of Green Mountain trail was pretty great. Unlike many other trails in this area, it wasn’t blazed at all, and it made for some difficult trail finding at times. I could see the trail being very difficult to see if there were snow on the ground at times. There were some great views off to the west throughout the trail. There were even a few solid camp spots along the trail in the section.

west_view2

From there, the trail took a turn for the worse. Down. I should have seen this coming from the contour map, but the next 2 – 3 miles consisted of nothing but constant, unrelenting downhill. Rather than following leaving the ridge and hiking down the side of the mountain using switchbacks, the trail makers decided to follow the ridge all the way down, forcing us to hike what seemed like a rappel at times. Down and down we went, slipping on the build of of leaves and clinging to trees beside the trail. I assumed we would eventually strike oil or water if we kept going down, and our pace slowed to a crawl. When we finally reached the 215 at the bottom of the descent, it was about 5:30, and K and I happily made some dinner and soaked our throbbing feet in the cold river. A week later, I am sitting and writing this article with multiple purple toe nails from this intense descent, and can promise, it isn’t a down climb I would like to make ever again.

down_hiking
The green tunnel can be a relentless hiking location at times.

After dinner, we had to find the trail again. I knew it crossed the river, but I couldn’t see the actual trail on the other side. Looking at the map, I saw the the trail followed the river for a bit, so we decided to simply pick a good spot to cross, and then bushwhack up the hillside until we found a trail. Well it turns out this was our best option anyways. As I scrambled onto Fork Mountain trail and looked behind me, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the 20 or so feet of trail covered by a massive blow down. Even if we had found the actual start of the trail, the blow down would have forced us down into the river again anyways.

With plenty of light left, we passed over the campsite just across the river and decided to keep walking. However, as dark came on around 8, we decided to don our headlamps and hope that at the top of the climb, we would find another spot to camp. Well, we didn’t. At around 9 PM, my body was hurting from this forgotten phenomenon called hiking, and we came to a point in the trail not on the map. The trail split, and widened. Rather than seeing a navigational difficulty, I saw a camping site, which I wasn’t terribly proud of, in the middle of the trail. So we posted up and started fighting a losing battle against gravity as we slid down the trail all night. I woke up at one point with my head somewhere around the middle of the mid and my legs thrown out the corner, but I still slept great.

trail_campsite

The next morning, we started hiking in what I thought was the correct direction, and promptly came to a dead end half a mile down the trail. So we logically turned the other way, and ended on top of High Top, which was definitely the wrong direction. Regardless, the fantastic view and perfect breakfast spot gave me a chance to practice taking bearings with a compass and snap some photos before we started back on our actual trip. The turn we missed was a very sharp, unmarked left from a double wide section of trail, and we made sure to mark it with a cairn to help others find their way more easily. However, if you are looking for a campsite, there is a pretty nice one up there just past this turn (if you keep going straight) that can be used, and you don’t even have to sleep on the trail.

high_top_breakfast

The rest of this morning was ridge walking, with great views and not too difficult of terrain. There were plenty of blow downs along the way, especially this particularly challenging one. A tree came done running along the length of the trail, with maze like branches jutting in every direction. I saw no option but to ditch the pack about halfway through and push it ahead of me as I army-crawled my way to the other side. It was some pretty exciting hiking in my opinion.

blow_down

Once we reached the intersection of several trails, including Fork Mountain and Art Loeb, we had the option of heading north and doing a loop in Shining Rock, but I still lack confidence in my knee, and convinced K to go ahead and move south toward Tennent Mountain. The two of use have both worked at a camp in these mountains for a few years and have had a lot of experience leading trips to Tennent and Black Balsam, and this happens to be one of our favorite adventure napping places every. We found a nice cozy spot between the two peaks and took a solid hour adventure nap without any trouble.

ridgeline

When we got up, the wind had picked up even more and clouds had rolled in, so we decided to get moving quickly to keep warm and I forgot all about taking some pictures. The remainder of the trip stayed pretty uneventful. We were thinking we would camp along the MTS trail between the Black Balsam parkng area and 215, but each site we got to was disgustingly close to unburied TP, which was very disappointing. With what seemed like early incoming rain, and being near the car, we decided to call the trip a night early.

I really enjoyed this trip and was very happy to finish without an injured knee. The trail was a challenging hike and had some great views. We hit it in mid March, when this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was still closed, so the entire area was pretty empty. If I were going to do this trip again, and I think I will, I would go in the opposite direction, starting out east on the Mountain to Sea trail to avoid the intense down hill on Green Mountain. I think it would be more pleasant as a very difficult up hill instead.

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