Kitsuma tests runners' training (and toughness)

Doug Hay
Special to BMN

At the end of Ridgecrest’s Royal Gorge Road, just feet away from Interstate 40, sits the unassuming Kitsuma/Youngs Ridge trailhead.

The parking lot is small and often littered with trash. A fence separates people from noisy trucks zipping down the highway. But on the other side lies a window of sorts that looks towards the Black Mountains. On its left is Montreat’s East Ridge; the stunning Heartbreak Ridge is up ahead. It’s those views and the challenging trail - not the highway noise - that draw people to this trailhead.

Local runner and running coach Doug Hay takes a corner on the Kitsuma Trail, a favorite trail of local runners and hikers.

The Kitsuma/Youngs Ridge Trail is a 4.5-mile, point-to-point trail located in Pisgah National Forest, which summits Kitsuma Peak and follows Youngs Ridge all the way down to the Old Fort Picnic Area.

When starting from the Ridgecrest trailhead, the trail skirts alongside the interstate for nearly a quarter mile before switch-backing up to the Kitsuma Peak summit. From there it’s another mile of rolling ridge before a 2.5-mile, 1,500-foot descent to Old Fort.

Because of the short initial climb and exhilarating descent down to the picnic area, the Ridgecrest to Old Fort Kitsuma route has long been a popular trail for area mountain bikers. Each year two mountain bike races, the Pisgah Enduro and the Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell, utilize the trail, drawing bikers from the Southeast and beyond to Black Mountain.

But in recent years Kitsuma has also become a popular training playground for trail runners looking to challenge themselves on the tough terrain.

Adam Hill, a local trail runner from Black Mountain, started running the Kitsuma route more than nine years ago. “When I first started running the trail, I only knew of a few people that would run on it, as it was mostly just mountain bikers. There are certainly more runners tackling and using it now for training. It really is a fantastic trail for all kinds of training.

“(Kitsuma/Youngs Ridge) isn't a very technical trail, aside from a couple of very short stretches, so you can focus a little more on rhythm and cadence in your form, which is helpful,” he said.

As word spreads about the trail, runners from all over the Swannanoa Valley have begun testing themselves on the out-and-back route. Instead of returning to Ridgecrest from Old Fort via the paved and gradual Point Lookout Trail - a popular return route for bikers - many runners turn  around at the Old Fort Picnic Area to go back up the mountain along the same trail.

That makes for a muscle-blasting 9-mile route with more than 2,650 feet of climbing.

In 2009, Hill and his running partner Matt Kirk became fascinated with the route. “For the first year or so of many out-and-backs, we would run it casually," Hill said. "At some point in 2009 Matt and I pondered the challenging nature of the back half of the run and became curious about how quickly we could do the out-and-back trek. We started breaking it up into categories of time and decided that going under one hour and twenty minutes seemed to be the benchmark.”

They began tracking their own timed attempts of the route online. Before long, others started joining in on the friendly competition by posting their own times while trying to beat the other runners.

The challenge quickly took a life of its own, with dozens of runners posting their “Kitsuma Klimb,” as it has been dubbed, personal bests to the WNC Trail Runner Wikispace page.

“It is amazing to see folks post their times on the Wiki," Hill said. "I’m so impressed by anyone's effort out there, whether that be from people running under an hour and ten minutes or a friend that just hit a personal record by running an hour and fifty minutes."

There’s no shortage of trail running routes with challenging terrain in the Swannanoa Valley. But the Kitsuma out-and-back has proven to be a unique trail experience for runners. The ease of access may draw them in, but it’s the thrill of the descent and demanding climb back up that keep them coming back.

“Running a hard effort on Kitsuma always hurts so good," Hill said, "which makes that beer down the street at Lookout Brewing all the more tasty.”

Want to try it?

Access the Kitsuma Trail in Black Mountain from the parking lot on Royal Gorge Road, near the intersection of Yates Avenue and Old Highway 70 East. Follow the trail paralleling Interstate 40 before turning left to climb towards the Kitsuma Peak summit.