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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.

Hurray.