Into the wild

Western North Carolina’s magnificent, mineral-rich mountains — estimated to be 500 million years old — support a rare and fragile biodiversity, from creekside bog to hardwood cove forest to grassy bald. Silhouetted against the Carolina-blue sky, the beloved peaks reach as high as the 6,684-foot summit of Mount Mitchell. The mountains are gilded with rubies and sapphires, gold, silver, emeralds and quartz. Even the dust on the mountain roads sparkles with mica, a mineral once mined from the area in large translucent sheets.

The Blue Ridge province of the Southern Appalachians is 200 miles long and ranges from 15 to 50 miles wide. Vast stretches of wilderness still exist in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But escaping the crowds — not to mention the air and noise pollution coming from crowded highways and airways — to stalk the forest’s solitude is not without its hazards. It takes careful planning and educated respect to safely lose oneself in the backcountry wilds of these old mountains.

“You want me to tell you all my secrets?” Tom Bindrim asked with a touch of humor. The retired Ecusta paper-mill worker was happy to talk about his love of the wilderness: He’s been a camper and backcountry explorer in these parts for 20 years, ever since his son became a boy scout, he said. But Bindrim was less forthcoming with directions to his favorite spots for remote camping.

Bindrim — who belongs to both the Sierra Club and the Carolina Mountain Club — is also a Forest Service volunteer in the Shining Rock and Middle Prong wilderness areas. Exploring these wild places, Bindrim said, is how he exercises his constitutionally guaranteed right to “the pursuit of happiness.”

“The wilderness is a happy place to be, but treacherous if you don’t know what you’re doing. It is so easy to get lost, to have an accident,” he cautioned.

With some coaxing, Bindrim revealed one of his favorite places — the Dark Prong area in the Balsam Mountains. “It’s about a one-mile hike in from the parking area at Graveyard Fields, across Yellowstone Prong and up and over Graveyard Ridge,” he said. The cross-country trek on steep terrain through rhododendron thickets is enough of a challenge to protect it from the masses of people who hike the trail at Graveyard Fields for a view of the area’s three waterfalls.

The Dark Prong area is buffered from Blue Ridge Parkway traffic noise by Graveyard Ridge, Bindrim said. “There are a few level spots for camping down by the water. We call it the ‘black hole,’ [because] it sucks up lost hikers.” As with all designated wilderness areas, the Dark Prong area is meant for the experienced backpacker who knows how to read a map and use a compass, Bindrim stressed, advising adventurers to bring a camp stove with them, and either to carry in their own water or to boil stream water before drinking it.

For the less intrepid, Bindrim suggested Curtis Creek, about seven miles east of Old Fort. “Most people coming to the mountains from the east just speed past this area,” he remarked. The site is part of an 8,100-acre tract in the Pisgah National Forest, with three backcountry trails and a bold creek that rushes and tumbles as it flows through one of the first national forests east of the Mississippi (purchased early in the century). It’s also a designated black-bear sanctuary. Still interested? The area features a small campground with pit toilet and seven sites. A little farther on, numerous other designated sites are located on either side of Forest Road 482, a winding, narrow gravel road that emerges between mile post 347 and 348 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“If you’re really looking for the most remote, primitive area, go to Linville Gorge,” revealed Wanda Elliot, an employee of the Grandfather Ranger District in Nebo. Her office issues permits for weekend camping, limiting to 50 the number of campers allowed in the area on weekend days from May through October. Campers must call in advance and get a permit by mail, she said. The total stay can never exceed three days and two nights, and groups must include no more than 10 people. Trails in wilderness areas are not well marked or kept clear, Elliot said; since there are also no warning signs (as are generally seen on the area’s maintained trails), the unwary face the danger of high cliffs.

“Its primitive, very primitive. It’s a wilderness, and that’s what it is supposed to be,” she said. “Hikers and campers should realize the danger.”

“The designated wilderness areas are rather overused,” declared Pat Momich, an interpretive specialist with the Forest Service. For campers seeking a more private wilderness experience, Momich suggested backcountry camping. Hundreds of miles of trails are signed and blazed through large forested tracts for such endeavors, and trail maps for many backcountry areas are available at the Forest Service district offices. Best of all: No-fee tent camping is possible on any off-trail, level site in the national forests.

The Wilson Creek Recreation Area in the Grandfather Mountains, near Linville, is one such backcountry site. Once a Cherokee hunting ground, the area now offers more than 75 miles of hiking trails through diverse hardwood forests, which have recovered remarkably from logging, fires and floods early in the century.

The campground at Mortimer Recreation Area charges a small fee, but it offers visitors a chance to see the legendary Brown Mountain Lights. Flickering, flashing, gleaming and glowing, this luminous and mysterious natural wonder — sometimes visible from a nearby overlook at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 310 — has been enchanting spectators for centuries.

Like Bindrim, most locals are reluctant to reveal their favorite camping sites — the best places remaining well-kept secrets. One longtime mountain resident, an avid camper, talked about a spot near Hot Springs, where she goes seeking solitude.

“No way,” she pronounced, when asked for directions. “I don’t want you to publish that. Do you know how many people are moving here?”

For the newcomer, Forest Service trail maps and recommended backcountry sites are a good way to begin your exploration. In time, perhaps, somewhere along the trail, your own special place will reveal itself — and you, too, will begin to be privy to the secrets of these ancient hills.

For more info

For maps and detailed information about wilderness hiking, contact the forest supervisor at: National Forests in North Carolina, 160A Zillicoa St., Asheville, NC 28801; (828) 257-4200.

Suggested reading: Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains, by Lynda McDaniel (Longstreet Press, 1998).

A few words of caution: As in any area close to large population centers, hazards other than those presented by nature do exist. The danger of assault in national forests and wilderness areas is less than the risk encountered in a shopping-center parking lot, said one Forest Service employee, but there have been murders in the backcountry in recent years, and lone campers, particularly women, say they feel more vulnerable, these days.

Also, during hunting season (now upon us), hikers should wear bright colors for safety (an orange hat or vest is recommended).

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