The longer I hike, the easier it becomes to take for granted the knowledge I do – and don’t – have when it comes to outdoor pursuits like hiking, backpacking, and the like. I’ve been ambling through the woods of Western North Carolina since I was 16 – 18 years to date – which makes it all the more easy to over confidently approach the thousands of miles of trails within the scope of Asheville.
As I become more experienced, I realize that my hikes and adventures become less about “Could I?” and more about “Should I”? More explicitly, my decisions about where to hike or try new places no longer center around “Can I do the mileage or navigate the area”- questions of experience and capability – but “Am I putting myself in a situation where I can safely navigate the difficulties that will present themselves along the way?” SHOULD I do this hike given the challenges?
The Green Knob Trail in Middle Prong Wilderness is one such trail. To preface – any hiking that traverses a wilderness area is inherently more challenging to hikers as these trails are not marked. There aren’t spray painted trees, colored patches nailed along the way, or significant signage to help point the way. Orienteering – using a compass and map – replace GPS function on phones as service disappears, bar by bar, upon approach of the trail. Hiking skills and experience become an asset, as the visibility of wilderness trails disappears under a layer of poorly maintained overgrowth and confusing spur trails (A trail that branches off the main trail and leads to a dead end – often created by disoriented hikers to the detriment of future hikers).
The Green Knob Trail has been on my list for many years, but I’ve been reticent to explore the area because of its notoriety as a trail that spins hikers in circles on spur trails that dead end in blackberry bushes and dog hobble – making it nearly impossible to hike in the late Spring or Summer. The first of just a few signs on trail warns, “Don’t let your day-hike turn into a night rescue.”
The warning, accompanied by a list comprised of hiking essentials is well place. As I continued along the mud and ice-encrusted path, I found myself navigating a myriad of spur trails that led to confusion, backtracking, and (unfortunately) a bit of bushwhacking (hiking off the designated trail through dense vegetation – often detrimental to the ecosystem of an area, but necessary when you lose a trail). When you hike in a designated Wilderness Area, a level of complexity must be expected – these trails aren’t maintained like those you would find in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As my hiking partner and I climbed the strenuous 12 mile trail through forests of oaks, birches, beeches, then spruces and fir as we got above 5000 feet of elevation, she made an astute point.
“I’m grateful for the maintenance of the trails within the National Park. For safety, of course, but also for the preservation of these areas. Without ambiguous trails, hikers step where they’re supposed to… the wildness of a Wilderness Area deters the masses that enter our National Parks. In this way, the remain more natural… a contrast to the parade of hikers and tourists that flood the trails within the Park, daily.”
As we approached the mountaintop meadow at Green Knob’s summit where the hike officially ends, we caught astounding views of Sam Knob, Little Sam Knob with Flat Laurel Creek cascading out of the high, relatively flat, grassy meadows between the two, and to the right the outline of Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain.
The hike, itself, was one of the toughest challenges to my orienteering skills in my 18 years of navigating the trails of Western North Carolina, in addition to experience with back country navigation in Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and Canada. While beautiful, I hope that it and other wilderness trails like it serve as a reminder to hikers to not only assess fitness levels or mileage when deciding on a hike, but actual skill level when it comes to deciding on a local hike. Not only a question of “Can I do this hike,” but “Should I do this hike?”