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Fork Ridge in Middle Prong Wilderness June 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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Bee enjoying rosebay blossom

The more I think about this hike I did today, the less I can explain it to anyone else or even to myself. But it did have several entertaining moments. OK, here’s the basic situation.

1.  I’m planning on doing an ambitious hike in the next few days, and I was in the mood to do an easy hike today plus some things around the house.

2. I’ve been wanting to visit the Middle Prong Wilderness for a long time but never managed to hike there. For my friends in Tennessee, this is the wilderness area in Pisgah National Forest that lies on the west side of the West Fork of the Pigeon. Its much better-known neighbor, Shining Rock Wilderness, lies on the other side of the West Fork, between it and the Big East Fork.

3. I went to bed unsure where I was going to hike the next day. I woke up in the middle of the night, went downstairs and looked at some maps, and decided, “I’m going to start from the north end of Fork Ridge and just go however far I feel like it!” I deliberately did no googling at all on it. As far as trail guides are concerned…I don’t think this hike is in a trail guide. Maybe the south end, but not the north end. Then I went peacefully back to sleep, got up the next morning, grabbed up my Nat Geo Pisgah Forest map and my Sam Knob quad, and off I went.

I arrived at the Sunburst campground on Route 215, saw no indication of a nearby trail, tried a couple of small gravel side roads. No luck. I saw a fisherman getting out of his truck and walked over to him, asking, “Do you know where the Fork Ridge trail is?” He looked down at my feet and said, “Doesn’t look like you’ve got your wading shoes on. You have to cross the river.” Wade across the river! That just didn’t sound right—the map showed the trail starting next to the Middle Prong where it flows into the river, and staying on the same side of the river, never crossing it—but with just this funny little blank space in between the trail and the road. We finally figured out he’d been referring to a completely different trail that goes the other way, into Shining Rock and over Birdstand Mountain. But his pride in his local knowledge was ruffled now, and he started thrashing through some waist-high weeds on the other side of the road. “It’s here! It looks like an old narrow-gauge railroad grade.”

The elusive trailhead

A railroad grade going straight up the spine of the ridge, as the Fork Ridge route indicated? This was getting stranger and stranger. But I was taking up too much of his time, and his son was eager to start catching some trout, so I thanked him and decided I’d just figure it out myself. I changed into my hiking boots and went into the weed patch. Finally I saw my friend’s railroad grade heading straight along the creek, and spotted what had to be my trail, departing the grade immediately and heading very steeply up the ridge.

I liked this trail, actually. No sign at the trailhead—because we are in a federally designated wilderness area. But the footway was easy enough to follow, with a lot of soft duff on the trail. The contrast with Shining Rock was striking to me. Yes, S.R. is beautiful, but its trails are so beaten down and there are so many downtrodden looking campsites everywhere. And no signs there, either. There, the weird conjunction of the wilderness designation and the very heavy usage has created confusing mazes of unofficial trails, and I think it would actually be kinder to the wilderness to have signs there.

The trail climbed a few hundred feet in no time at all. I’d say it rivals the famous Old Butt Knob trail in S.R., at least for the first mile. I stayed in a rhodo tunnel for a while.

Rhodo tunnel

I enjoyed the blossoms of rosebay.

I like the way the buds are pinker than the open blooms

I spotted some high-bush blueberries that weren’t ready for picking, but the colors were nice.

Not quite ripe

I reached an open outlook at 4300′. And there, looking at my USGS map, I realized that I was not going to continue to Green Knob, the semi-bald 5800′ peak that lies about halfway along this six-mile-long ridge. It was just too far for what I had in mind for the day. But it’ll make a nice destination some other time. And yes, I do realize that most people approach it from the Parkway end—a lot less elevation change that way.

I retraced my steps. Just as I emerged from the weedy trailhead, I spotted my friendly fisherman again. He seemed happy to learn I’d found the trail. We chatted for a bit, he showed me some gemstones he’d collected locally, and we shook hands goodbye.

View over Tom Creek valley and Green Ridge

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Comments»

1. Seth - June 25, 2011

“But his pride in his local knowledge was ruffled now”

Love it

Jenny - June 26, 2011

Thanks, Seth!… This guy was from Canton and he clearly knew the area pretty well. When I told him I was from Asheville, he shook his head as if that was in a foreign land.

2. AdamB - June 27, 2011

Wow Jenny you taught me something tonight. I just don’t get out of the Smokies much and I didn’t know they don’t sign the trails in those wilderness areas. I have hiked trails in wilderness areas before like the one above bald river falls in cnf last year and wondered why there were no signs but didn’t put two and two together until your post. I have the pisgah map here and have been looking at the middle prong wilderness for a long time planning a trip to fish laurel fork. Someday I hope to be out there. If I get there I will try to keep from scoffing at any big city Asheville or Waynesville types I see along the way :).

Jenny - June 27, 2011

I’m not familiar with Laurel Fork (I see a Laurel Branch that enters the West Fork a little above Lake Logan), but I will tell you that you do need to have a good map and pay attention! Yes, we city slickers from Asheville need to have pedestrian Walk/Don’t Walk signs, preferably with a vegetarian restaurant and/or a music venue like the Orange Peel nearby.

3. Eric - April 29, 2012

“But his pride in his local knowledge was ruffled now, and he started thrashing through some waist-high weeds on the other side of the road.”

Jenny…check your map again. The fisherman was correct. Fork Ridge Trail does begin on the other side of West F. Pigeon River, and it does go up towards Birdstand Mountain and Shining Rock Wilderness. The trail you are referring to is called Green Mountain and goes up to Green Knob.

So yeah, hate to say it but… you were the wrong one.

Jenny - April 29, 2012

Nat Geo labels the trail up Fork Ridge as the Green Mountain trail (# 113), so in that sense you are right. Nat Geo also calls the trail on the east side of the river (# 109) the Fork Mountain trail. The fact remains that the actual Fork Ridge is on the other side of the valley, and I prefer to call trails by the actual geographical features that are relevant.

4. john - March 18, 2013

I’ve hiked all the trails in both MP and SR WAs. Green Mountain is my favorite. Very, very few users and most of them are solo. The route you took left you at my favorite spot on the GMT… if you think it’s too tough for an out and back, bring a friend with another car. leave friends at BRP Rough Butt Bald overlook then drive you both back to the river where you started before….or you can go s to n it’s a little tricky to find the GMT off of the MST but it’s do-able…just turn left (North) at the base of Mt. Hardy… there is a big rock at this intersection kind of on it’s side.. you will brush it when you turn north. I’ve bushwacked up that ridge in 4 places but only in winter. I assume you are female… wouldn’t recommend going solo if that’s the case… you might meet some strange dudes up there. I have. Friendly but strange none the less.

You should do an overnight as there are several great campsites along the GMT.
theoldpiece@juno.com

Jenny - March 18, 2013

Thanks for the comment—I look forward to exploring more in the area. Regarding the solo hiking, I do that all the time, but I recognize that a very few areas are slightly questionable for a female by herself. I don’t know whether that would stop me, but it might make me think about going a time when “strange strangers” aren’t so likely to be around.


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