Fork Ridge in Middle Prong Wilderness June 25, 2011Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
Tags: Fork Ridge trail, Middle Prong Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest, Shining Rock Wilderness
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.”
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.
I enjoyed the blossoms of rosebay.
I spotted some high-bush blueberries that weren’t ready for picking, but the colors were nice.
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.