Rim Hike explores Grey Eagle, named for an Indian chief

Staff reports

Black Mountain was known as Grey Eagle until 1893 when the town officially incorporated and changed its name.

On Saturday, June 18, find out one possible source of the town’s original name on the Swannanoa Valley Museum’s annual Grey Eagle Rock Hike, the sixth hike in the museum's Rim Hike Explorer Series.

Grey Eagle rock is thought to resemble a great Cherokee chief overlooking his people's  land.

This strenuous 3.1-mile hike takes its name from the impressive rock outcropping that resembles a Cherokee chief, Grey Eagle, seated on the mountainside overlooking Black Mountain. The hike begins at Black Mountain Gap off the Blue Ridge Parkway. During the trek, hikers will cross the summit of Potato Knob, a 6,400-foot elevation.

The toughest part of the entire trip will be the steep ascent up the historic southeast face of Potato Knob.

“Potato Knob sits right above you as you enter Highway 128, the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park from the Parkway,” Van Burnette, one of the museum’s seasoned hike guides, said. “It is the highest point in Buncombe County at 6,420 feet. And to get there, one has to endure a 1,200-foot elevation gain in one mile where literally, at times, you can hold your hand out perpendicular and touch the trail in front of you.”

During a previous hike to Grey Eagle, hikers take in the sweeping views.

After completing the museum’s first Grey Eagle Rock Rim Hike in 2010, Burnette remarked, “We now have a new slogan here - ‘Potato Knob or Bust.’”

In addition to being the roughest section of the Swannanoa Rim, Potato Knob features the highest elevation, most spectacular environment, and the most incredible vistas on the entire Swannanoa Rim.

“We traverse three major climatic zones and go through forests that are usually found as far north as Ontario, Canada," said Wendell Begley, who typically leads the hike.

Burnette remembered the year he made the trek. “There were beech, red spruce, balsam, and Norway spruce trees," he said, "carpeted in spent purple rhododendron blossoms, native grasses, fields of tiny blue flowered ‘Bluets’ and the infrequently found Purple Fringed Orchids. Blueberries, and St. John's Wort were there in abundance as well as about a dozen more blooming plant species.

“At times," Burnette said, "we would venture out from the dark canopy of trees into the wide open vista of the Burnett Reservoir surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Craggy Mountains. One such vista framed the legendary rock known as Grey Eagle with all of that in the background. Grey Eagle was a famous Cherokee chief. His seated image was thought to be silhouetted in the rock cliffs that were traditionally the boundary between the Catawba and Cherokee nations, overlooking his ancient domain.”

The hike to Grey Eagle includes many rock outcroppings that afford great views of the valley.

Besides the prominent Grey Eagle Rock, hikers will also pass many historic sites on the way. Much of the time hikers will be looking down on the Swannanoa Valley and its many extraordinary geographic features. Some of the trek will be along traces of the celebrated 1830s Mitchell Trail.

“After the top of Potato Knob,” Burnette continued, “the trail meanders through a forest of red spruce mainly on the old Mount Mitchell Trail used in the 1800s to gain access to the high mountains from the North Fork Valley below.”

The final mile follows the historic roadbed that was initially built to the summit of Clingman’s Peak 75 years ago. The hike ends at Stepps Gap, the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park.

“(The year I completed the hike)," Burnette said, the hike out along the gravel road that leads to the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park was like a stroll in the park. The one-mile walk was full of smiles and recollections of the already forgotten pains of the previous few hours.”

Due to the elevation, this hike will be like spending a day in southern Canada. Weather permitting, hikers will experience the most scenic and unique environments, such as Fraser fir forest, on the entire Swannanoa Rim.

Swannanoa Valley Rim Hike #6
Hike: Grey Eagle Rock
When: 8 a.m. Saturday, June 18
Meet: Black Mountain Savings Bank, 200 E. State St., Black Mountain
Difficulty: Strenuous, 3.5 miles
Cost: $30 museum members, $50 nonmembers, 669-9566