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Richland Balsam the hard way June 30, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, peakbagging, Southern Appalachians.
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Seth battles a blackberry thicket

Note added 7/8/11: When we walked from the Richland Balsam parking lot along the parkway toward Reinhart Knob, I was looking for the big sign that said: “6053 ft. Highest Elevation on Blue Ridge Parkway Motor Road.” I didn’t see it and wondered if I had remembered its location incorrectly. Turns out the whole sign was stolen by vandals. What a terrible shame. It was a beautifully designed wooden sign set into a stone base. Today’s article in the Asheville Citizen-Times describes how theft and defacing of signs has become a big problem on the parkway. It just disgusts me. The sign will be replaced. I wish it could be loaded with some kind of poisonous gas that would be released when someone attempts to molest it.

My friend Seth O’Shields has nearly completed the SB6K challenge (climbing all forty of the Southern mountains over 6000 feet). I offered to join him as he tackled two of the remaining peaks on his list, Richland Balsam (6410′) and Reinhart Knob (6106′). They are located in the Great Balsam range, close to the spot where the Blue Ridge Parkway reaches its highest elevation point, and on the southwest boundary of the Middle Prong Wilderness, which I’d visited just a few days earlier.

Seth had a diabolical plan. Not for him the usual route, which involves linking the two peaks by way of the Mountains-to-Sea trail close to the parkway. No, he wanted to start at Sunburst down on the West Fork and climb 3300 feet to get up to Richland Balsam, then walk along the parkway to nab Reinhart Knob. He’d studied maps and listened to the advice of a knowledgeable hiking friend, and he came up with a route that involved linking gated Forest Service roads to get up to Double Spring Gap on Lickstone Ridge and then following the ridge to Richland. The walk over to Reinhart would, in theory, be merely a postscript.

The network of FS roads he planned to use doesn’t even show up on my Nat Geo Pisgah Forest map, but he had a more up-to-date version that showed not only FS 97 but some obscure tributary roads: FS 97B and 97D. The main 97 road is not accessible to the public, but it is drivable for Forest Service purposes. The side roads are not drivable any more, but we expected they would be clear enough for hiking. That turned out to be true in the lower sections but not the upper.

We parked on a side road near Sunburst and walked up 97B. It was easy to follow, bordered with white bee balm, jewel weed, nettles, and other assorted vegetation starting to close in. Before long we came out on 97.

This looked like a real superhighway compared to the side branches

But our fate was not to walk along this easy road, but merely to cross it and to head on up 97D.

97D where it branches off 97

The grade climbed several hundred vertical feet and then started switchbacking. One end of the switchbacks was always defined by Boomer Inn Branch. With each zigzag, the grade became harder to find. At one point we lost it, returned to the last switchback, and took a bearing off the map to bushwhack up to the next switchback. We found the grade again, but before long it was simply swallowed up in the forest.

At this point we gave up on finding the grade

We could see that blackberry thickets loomed ahead, so we pulled out our gloves and prepared to meet the enemy.

Tall spruces surrounded by tall blackberries

We fought our way through the thickets and emerged for a while into a beautiful area of trickling headwaters embedded in thick moss. Dappled light sparkled in little clearings and a tiny tributary flowed over a cascade. We noticed a spruce that was growing in a peculiar curve, going along the ground and then rising into a vertical position.

The trunk rested on the ground and then lifted up

Before long we reached Double Spring Gap, which was adorned with boundary signs warning against trespassing into property of the city of Waynesville.

Lots of blackberries, and trees with property signs on them

The ridge was broad at that point and not so easy to follow, especially amidst the high green curtain of vegetation. We resorted to the compass once again and proceeded in a southwesterly direction. We encountered the worst blackberries I’ve ever had to deal with. They were over head high, full of thorns, and horribly dense. (See top photo.)

Wherever we could, we took to the shadier edges where the blackberries weren’t quite so dominant. But it was incredibly slow going. Finally we reached a point at about 6100′ where Seth had noticed a grassy bald on a previous outing. Turns out it wasn’t grass at all, but an odd kind of heath. But even though the heath wasn’t easy to walk through, it was a vast improvement over the blackberries and offered wonderful views.

Seth stands in the heath and admires the view

The vegetation here really puzzled me. At first I thought it was blueberries, but it wasn’t, though the leaf was somewhat similar. It was a deciduous shrub I couldn’t identify, uniformly three feet high, with the thin upper branches all snapped off so neatly it looked as though they’d been pruned. The only theory I could come up with was that winter snow covers the growth up to a certain height, and anything taller than that gets sheared off by the wind. (If anyone can shed light on this subject, I’d be interested.)

Our goal was now in sight

Leaving the heath bald, we continued to encounter blowdown and blackberry thickets, but finally we reached the zone of solid spruce-fir forest and made it to the summit. We followed the tourist trail that comes up from the parking lot. It had taken us nearly six hours to go about five miles, of which the bottom two miles or so was easy going.

But for Seth the job was only half done. He still needed to go get Reinhart. We walked along the parkway back to the Beartrail Ridge parking area, where we had left one of our cars. We rested and had something to eat. Our information was that from a corner of the parking area a very rough herd path led up to the summit. So we got to our feet and headed off once again. The obvious path quickly disappeared. We were once again fighting over blowdowns and wading through thickets. The distance was only a half mile, but it had absolutely nothing to recommend it unless you were a peakbagger needing to add this mountain to the list.

About 15 minutes into this journey I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? I’m not working on the SB6K list.” It wasn’t that there would be any routefinding difficulties. Just struggle up the short distance and struggle back. I heartlessly abandoned Seth to his quest, turned around, and went back to the parking area. He turned up an hour later, feeling pleased at having tagged his summit, but saying, “It was frigging horrible.” I felt glad he had done it, and I felt equally glad I hadn’t. And so our long day of hiking was over.



1. AdamB - June 30, 2011

Nice trip Jenny you should have gone up that last one and taken up peakbagging. Why would there be signs warning you about crossing into Waynesville? Is it particularly dangerous there (just kidding)?

Jenny - June 30, 2011

Waynesville is known for killing any intruders! No, actually, this was one of those watershed protection situations. I believe this ridge represents the headwaters of Waynesville’s water supply. As far as peakbagging is concerned, I do have some peakbagging credentials from the northeast, namely the New England 4000 footers (including doing all of them in winter), the New England 100 Highest, and the Catskill 3500 (don’t underestimate this–serious bushwhacking!) But I have decided that I am in a different phase now that has more to do with exploring streams and ridges rather than bagging summits.

2. Thomas Stazyk - July 1, 2011

I would have done the same thing. And probably come to the conclusion a lot sooner 🙂

Jenny - July 2, 2011

Yes, the whole trip was entirely unnecessary, as I realized partway along.

3. Rye Crouton (MV) - July 3, 2011

Offtrail can be fun, it can be exceedingly hard, and it can simply be unnecessary, as this outing was. A lot of offtrail in the highlands in June through August is unpleasant to the extreme point that Jenny reached on this one. Why bother?

If one is 20 years old and committed to attaining goals, then perhaps. The rest of us don’t do this kind of intensely masochistic stuff. Why flog through blackberry thickets doing a 3000 foot elevation climb just for the hell of doing something the hard way?

Glad you blogged about this experience, Jenny. Hopefully it will make some out there reconsider doing this kind of thing this time of year.

Jenny - July 3, 2011

Funny thing is, I have absolutely no regrets about having done this hike! My comment about the trip being unnecessary was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Of COURSE the trip was unnecessary. None of my hikes are necessary! You do make a good point about considering the vegetation of the season. Still, the long daylight hours present an advantage for summer hiking, and the parkway is often closed in the winter.

4. TWO - July 4, 2011

Doesn’t this hike go into the “because it was there” file? In the end, perhaps the best reason for a hike.

Jenny - July 4, 2011

Yes, it does go into that file! But also, I think Seth deserves credit for coming up with a reasonable hike plan that turned out to be harder than expected—but still worthwhile. He had info from map and from a friend familiar with the area suggesting that we could use the FS road network all the way up to Double Spring Gap. We did get fairly high up on FS 97D, but not all the way to the gap, and then of course things slowed down quite a bit. We underestimated the blackberries. Seth had come north on the ridge quite a way on a previous trip, but it was a different season. I must say the blackberries were quite something! But what I like about off-trail is that it’s always full of surprises. I understand where Rye is coming from, I think—that you have to be smart about the conditions at the time of year—but I would not myself use his words of “masochistic” or “unpleasant to the extreme” to describe this outing. Each to his own, obviously.

5. Seth - July 4, 2011

Hopefully it will make MORE people want to do this kind of intrepid exploration. Because we didn’t exactly know what we would be in for is why I wanted to do this so much. That’s why I also wanna climb Plott Balsam from Maggie. I thought this was the reason some of us do the off-trail thing amiright!?! Jenny and I talked that day about the little things you see and experience that are unexpected that make these difficult trips worth the effort, and how you can’t really explain it to someone who wasn’t there. I challenge anyone to find an environment that is similar to the headwaters of Boomer Inn Branch. I know I haven’t seen anything quite like it before.

Jenny - July 4, 2011

One way I have described the totally absorbing nature of off-trail hiking is “Each moment loomed up, engulfed, then receded.” I wish I had devoted more space to the headwaters of Boomer Inn, but unfortunately none of my photos from that section turned out well enough to use (except the curved spruce trunk).

6. Gary - July 6, 2011

Noura and I had hiked near this. I remember lots of berry patches, but we avoided them by staying on trails.

For father’s day Zach took a jog with me on the Mountains to Sea south of Falls Lake. (I jog along and every so often I turn to see that he has slowed to a walk so as not to step on my heels)
I had shorts and no shirt and was carrying
a stick in front to pierce the spider webs. Went okay till we got
off the trail for half a mile. Ticks, spiders, deer flies, black berries, and poison ivy. A few weeks later my skin has not quite so many
spots. Since then I’ve been wearing a shirt in the woods and avoiding sunny “glades”.

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