Summit three peaks of the Swannanoa Rim
The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center’s volunteer leaders will take hikers across the Pinnacle of the Blue Ridge from Toe River Gap to the summit of Greybeard on Saturday, May 20.
The hike, the fifth in the museum's popular Swannanoa Valley Rim Series series, will begin near the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park. Hikers will climb to an elevation of 5,665 feet while summiting Blue Ridge Pinnacle. From the peak, hikers will have an impressive, almost 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains, including Mt. Mitchell, Clingman’s Peak and Potato Knob.
Just below Pinnacle lies the North Fork Valley. The area was once home to a thriving community until the city of Asheville acquired the land for its watershed. North Fork, known as such because it lies across the North Fork of the Swannanoa River, was one of the earliest areas settled in Black Mountain. The closed watershed is off-limits to the public, but wonderful views of the pristine wilderness can be had from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Though the displacement of North Fork families from their homes, well documented by Fred M. Burnett in his 1960 book "This Was My Valley," was controversial at best, the designation of the area as a reservoir has ensured a secure and clean water source for residents around the region.
Besides being home to some of the Swannanoa Valley’s oldest families, the North Fork Valley was also the route that tourists would traverse to Mt. Mitchell’s peak. There were a number of cabins dotting the valley – one owned by the Stepp family and others by the Pattons – which would host overnight guests as they made the trek on horseback to the summit of the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
The hike continues to follow the ridgeline to the 5,240-foot summit of Rocky Knob, which also affords hikers incredible views of the surrounding peaks.
“Rocky Knob was purchased in 1900 by Dr. Isaac J. Archer, who lived in Montreat," said Joe Standaert, the hike’s leader and co-author of two books on Montreat history. "Dr. Archer operated the Royal League Tuberculosis Sanatorium on North Fork Road where Camp Dorothy Walls is now.” The 200-acre tract was purchased from Dr. Archer’s estate in 1991 by the Montreat Cottagers, Inc. and is now protected by a conservation easement through the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
The next peak summitted on the hike is Greybeard Mountain, which is also protected by conservation easement. Once a grassy bald, at 5,408 feet, Greybeard’s peak still offers great views. Much of the property traversed down from the Greybeard summit is maintained by the Montreat Conference Center and Montreat Trail Club.
The hike returns to the Blue Ridge Parkway via the historic road bed of the Mt. Mitchell Railroad (1912-1921) and the Mt. Mitchell Scenic Auto Toll Road (1922-1939). The Mt. Mitchell Railroad, operated by Pennsylvania lumbermen Fred Perley and W.H. Crockett, transported tourists to and from Mitchell when not hauling wood. Because of Mitchell’s steep terrain the railroad bed had to utilize a number of switchbacks, which are still part of the trail today.
The term "switchback," though now much more commonly used when referring to hiking trails, originated with railroads. The narrow-gauge Mt. Mitchell Railroad could not approach the steep summit directly, but instead had to travel back and forth across the mountain, slowly ascending. Since trains cannot negotiate hairpin turns, the track was built so that a train would enter the first switchback traveling forward, rest while the track was switched, and then leave the switchback traveling backward. The train would then back up to the next switchback where it could then continue forward again as it moved up the mountain. Hiking trails today also use switchback to create less strenuous climbs as well as combat trail erosion.
This 8.3-mile hike is strenuous in sections. Preregistration is required.
A major annual fundraiser for the nonprofit museum, the Swannanoa Valley Rim Series consists of 11 hikes that wind around Black Mountain following the more than 30 miles of ridgelines surrounding the upper Swannanoa Valley. Experienced hikers can participate in individual hikes or conquer the entire series, all while learning about the history, geography, and environment of the Swannanoa Valley.
Swannanoa Valley Rim Hike
Hike: Pinnacle of the Blue Ridge
When: 8 a.m. Saturday, May 20
Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 W. State St., Black Mountain
Difficulty: Strenuous, 8+ miles
Cost: $30 museum members, $50 nonmembers
Register: swannanoavalleymuseum.org, 669-9566