November 9, 2017
Hiking in Shining Rock Wilderness is always an interesting endeavor. The terrain isn’t terribly difficult compared to the Black Mountain Crest or Grandfather Mountain, but the sheer solitude coupled with the lack of blazes makes orienteering a necessity.
According to internet searches, I found only three other bloggers that have posted about this hike and none of it was valuable in terms of the route, the conditions or terrain. For just this reason, I’ve waited to hike the Fork Mountain Trail until I had a companion. With my intrepid brother-in-law in tow, we made our way to the Black Balsam parking area, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The weather was cool, in the 30’s; with last night’s rain still clinging to the trees and plants. To reach the northern trailhead, we hiked for 1.4 miles along the level, but rocky Ivestor Gap Trail. Placed right before the gap on the left-hand side is a nice sign designating the entrance to the trail (pictured below).
I really enjoyed the path between the trailhead and Birdstand Mountain. The trail undulates ever so slightly along a spine-like ridge, before reaching a grassy area. The first big uphill of the day came before Birdstand, a pyramid-like mountain. It was easy to follow, with the leaves trodden upon in a nice demarcated path.
It’s after Birdstand that things change. The trail starts to dwindle, subsequently our pace slowed as we marched around fallen trees and scanned to find the trail. Several times we huddled discussing which might be the right way. I took out my compass and map and saw that we needed to head generally northwest until the border of the Cold Mountain Game Lands and Shining Rock. That turn to the southwest (pictured below) was relatively easy to navigate. Unfortunately, the next hour was not.
The turn then follows a former logging path. There are many fallen trees, and we stepped over them and followed that path along the ridge. According to the map, we knew that the trail then dipped down to the right (west). After 15 minutes, we still hadn’t seen the path. We had a bad feeling about it, so for the next hour we employed a tried and true method of navigation. One of us would stay put on the “trail” we had come in on, and the other would explore down a path. Once we found that this was not the way, he could call out to the person that was stationary to find his way back. We tried this for a while, and soon the sun started to dip down, as sunset grew closer.
I brought up the bread-crumb feature of my Suunto Traverse and compared it to the map, “son-of-a-bitch, we went too far, Doug,” I exclaimed. We decided that we would walk back along that ridge we came in on, and if we didn’t see the trail, we would have to head back the way we came. It would suck to have to retrace almost 7 miles, but it was better than spending the night in the woods without shelter. Sure as the world, just past the turn mentioned above, we saw a sharp turn west. I jumped down and immediately saw the path!
For the next two miles we slipped and slid downward on the wet, steep terrain towards the car. Once we crossed the river, we walked to Sunburst Campground, where a much relieved Emily was there to drive us back to our car at Black Balsam.
Without a doubt, this is one crazy little trail; a feather in my proverbial Pisgah 400 cap.
If you’re going to hike it, I would highly recommend looking at the GPS coordinates below.
Total mileage is 9.94 miles.