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Buncombe Horse Range trail September 6, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
Tags: , , , ,

The "Meadow of Uncertainty"

The Buncombe Horse Range trail is quite a strange trail. First of all, its 17-mile length is divided into three distinct sections that seem completely disconnected from each other. I hiked only the 4.6-mile southernmost portion, which connects the Black Mountain campground road in the South Toe River valley with a point at 5400′ near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The next section is considered part of the Mountains to Sea trail and goes from that point to Commissary Hill. There, the MST departs to share the pathway of the Mt. Mitchell trail. The final section of the BHRT meanders along the lower flanks of the Blacks to end up at Colbert Creek near the Carolina Hemlock campground.

Then there is that weird name. Why Buncombe Horse Range trail? (As a friend of mine asked.) Why not just Buncombe Horse trail? Does the trail feature free-ranging horses? (Not as far as I could tell.) And it should also be pointed out that the trail is not in Buncombe County, it is in Yancey County. Perhaps Edward Buncombe, the Revolutionary War colonel for whom the county was named, rambled the slopes of the Black Mountains on horseback. (Yancey, like Haywood, Henderson, Madison, and McDowell Counties, was once part of Buncombe.)

And finally, there is the silliness of the name Buncombe itself. The Wikipedia article on the county has a good explanation: In the Sixteenth Congress, after lengthy debate on the Missouri Compromise, members of the House called for an immediate vote on that important question. Instead, Felix Walker rose to address his colleagues, insisting that his constituents expected him to make a speech “for Buncombe.” It was later remarked that Walker’s untimely and irrelevant oration was not just for Buncombe—it “was Buncombe.” Thus, buncombe, afterwards spelled bunkum and then shortened to bunk, became a term for empty, nonsensical talk.

It was late Saturday morning when I completed some errands and decided that I had to get out of the house. I got out my South Toe/Mt. Mitchell map and cast my eye over the Blacks, looking for something I hadn’t done before. That southern section of the BHRT jumped out at me. It would be a climb of close to 2000 feet, a very moderate grade compared with, say, the Woody Ridge trail to Celo Knob, but it would get me up into the spruce forest and provide a bit of exercise.

The lower end of the trail follows an old grade that switchbacks its way up the lower slope of Clingmans Peak.

The trail followed an old, wide grade

The forest here was fairly nondescript, but every now and then I spotted some pink turtlehead and a yellow flower that I mentally labeled “heliopsis.” I now realize this was incorrect, but I can’t figure out whether this is helianthus, coreopsis, or rudbeckia (each of which has numerous species).

I'll just call it "a cheery yellow flower"

After a mile or so, the grade became pleasantly grassy.

Grassy grade

Just as I was strolling easily, daydreaming my way along, the trail turned off the grade and entered a meadow (see photo at top). There the trail disappeared entirely—I mean truly disappeared. Crisscrossing the meadow were faint indications that some human or animal had passed there, but there were so many of these barely perceptible indentations that no single one could be used as a guide. I was surprised to see a clump of miscanthus (maiden grass) growing there. It is an ornamental grass frequently used in landscaping.

Out-of-place clump of miscanthus

I knew the trail went west, so I got out my compass and walked to the end of the meadow. Passing through a clump of trees, I entered a second meadow, equally trackless. But I kept going, and at last picked up the trail again where it entered the forest. My surroundings changed dramatically as soon as I exited the meadow.

I suddenly entered galax-carpeted forest

As I continued along, I started encountering wooden steps. They seemed completely unnecessary.

Superfluous steps

Some of the construction was quite elaborate.

Elaborate, and equally superfluous

It was quite odd.

Finally I got up into the spruce forest and reached a pretty viewpoint across the valley of the Right Prong South Toe River.

Mist was closing in

I always like the pointed shapes of the evergreens along the high ridges, and the contrast of those points with the rounded hardwoods.

Up into the pointy trees

It looked as though rain might be on its way, so I headed back down. Recrossing the “Meadow of Uncertainty,” I had a nice view of Green Knob.

Green Knob in the background

I enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by wildflowers of all kinds. The lower section of the trail went very quickly, and soon I found myself back at my car.

Surrounded by goldenrod


1. Robyn - December 13, 2013

Those steps are likely for when horses use the trail. It keeps things from getting as mucky and slippery as they do without them 😉 Thanks for the info! We hope to ride our horses there in the future.

Jenny - December 13, 2013

Honestly, as a longtime horseback rider myself, I don’t see that these trail constructions are helpful, but I perhaps am wrong. My only problem with horses on trails is when they are in areas of poor drainage where the horses really muck things up. These log steps weren’t in an area of poor drainage, but on the side of a ridge where the water flows off. Anyway, I appreciate your visiting and hope for cooperation between horseback riders and foot hikers.

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