Thursday, December 12, 2013

A few of my favorite peaks

      I’ve hiked up hundreds of mountains, and people sometimes ask for my favorites. The glib answer is, “This one,” wherever I am at the moment.
      But if you really want to know, here are the ones I've enjoyed most:
      12. Rabun Bald, GA (4,696 feet): The first real mountain I climbed is still a good place to start. The stone lookout tower has a commanding view of upstate South Carolina, where I grew up. The semester I spent at Clemson, getting my transcript in shape for Mizzou, I rhapsodized about the view from Rabun Bald in a little essay for a Spanish class. I’ve forgotten most of my Spanish but I remember reloj because of the clock tower at Tillman Hall, which you can see from way up there and realize that you have dos horas to get back to escuela. Rabun Bald also appears as a blue-ridge backdrop to Tillman Hall in a commercial shown during Clemson football telecasts. This was also the first summit for my son Hall (we were chased off by lightning so close that we could smell it) and the last climb for my dear wife, Mary. Whenever she thinks I have underestimated a challenge, she will gently remind me of what I promised her on the Rabun trail: “Just a hundred more yards.”
      11. Big Bald, NC/TN (5,516 feet): You can see almost the entire breadth of the southern Appalachians—from Table Rock east of Linville Gorge across Tennessee and through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky—as well as most of the 6,000-foot peaks in the Southeast.

Big Bald basking in a late-autumn sunset.
      10. Table Rock: Take your pick of these fraternal twins—Table Rock NC (3,920 feet) towering over Linville Gorge or Table Rock SC (3,124) jutting out of the Blue Ridge. These are two of the steepest mountains in the Southeast. Forest fires recently ravaged the NC peak, so I’m anxious to see how it looks. Where I grew up, climbing Table Rock was a rite of passage.
      9. Beartown Mountain, VA (4,689 feet): It’s not bears that make this one so daunting, but rather the lack of trails. The first time I tried, we got within 200 vertical feet of the summit but were thwarted by cliffs and rhododendrons. Once you find a way through those cliffs (thanks, Rick Shortt), you discover that the cliff-tops make great balconies to admire western Virginia. Beartown was my last stop on the list of 13 Virginia peaks over 4500 feet.
      8. Black Balsam, NC (6,214 feet): Balsam is the mountain name for fir trees, but there are none up here to block your 360-degree panorama. If you visit Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway, follow the nearby Black Balsam Road up to an easy half-mile walk to the top. This is also the start of a 10-mile round-trip ridgetop hike to the spectacular quartz outcropping called Shining Rock.
      7. Mount Washington, NH (6,288 feet): Between the road, the cog railway, the weather stations, and the gift shop, you won’t find much solitude on top. But look the other way, and wow! Consider taking the train—tickets are not much more than the brake job you’ll need after you drive down.
      6. Three Top Mountain, NC (5,000 feet): This one is so intimidating that I’ve only climbed one of the three major tops so far. A steep old jeep road through hunting land makes it simple enough to reach Huckleberry Rock, which is a worthy peak on its own. But I wouldn’t go solo to the other two tops—Big Rock requires rock-scrambling and bushwhacking, and the unnamed third peak is out across a knife-edge ridge. Let me know if you want to go with me, or if you know the way.
The five frosted tops of Three Tops, as seen from my living room. On the left is Black Mountain, adjoining the forbidden Long Hope Valley. On the right is Bluff Mountain.
      5. Mount Washburn, WY (10,243 feet): I don’t get out West much, but for a day hike it would be hard to top Washburn. Mike Hembree and I walked up the old road from Dunraven Pass, a 7-mile round-trip that was breathtaking both in terms of altitude as well as views of Yellowstone National Park. We were warned to be on the lookout for grizzlies, and on the way down we saw one in a meadow a half-mile away.
      4. Mount Le Conte, TN (6,593 feet): Several people have climbed Le Conte over a thousand times. I’ve done it four times and there are still three routes I have not explored. If you want to climb a vertical mile, you can start near Gatlinburg. Le Conte Lodge was established near the summit in 1925 to muster support for a national park in the Great Smoky Mountains. You’re welcome to stay overnight, but it’s best to plan your trip a year in advance.
Tom Layton, Rick Shortt, Ralph Phillips, Larry Trivette, Mike Hembree

      3. Wilburn Ridge, VA (5,520 feet): This is the little brother to Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. When it comes to views, though, Rogers hides its head in spruce and fir, while Wilburn exudes colossal outcroppings above miles of meadows.  Along your hike, you’re almost certain to meet some of the wild Wilburn Ridge ponies.
      2. Grandfather Mountain, NC (5,964 feet): Hugh Morton loved this mountain like a doting grandfather and essentially gave it to the people of North Carolina. The crest trail across MacRae Peak to Calloway Peak is the most spectacular landscape I’ve ever walked. If not for the ladders and cables, you couldn’t get to the top without technical mountain-climbing skills. Even with these, it takes nerve—the first time I climbed Grandfather, I stopped a few feet short of MacRae Peak, because I was scared to step off the last ladder.
      1. Elk Knob, NC (5,550 feet): It’s not the highest nor the hardest, but Elk Knob is my favorite—and not just because I spent so many Saturdays working on the family-friendly 2-mile trail to the summit. The views are unparalleled. On the clearest of days, you can see the highest points in North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky, plus the second highest point in Tennessee*, plus a bit of South Carolina, plus the skyscrapers of Charlotte and Winston-Salem, plus my house near Boone. (*Mount Guyot in the Smokies is 98 hazy miles away—I’ve been able to see it only twice in over 30 summit hikes.) And I know a few people who will appreciate that you can see up to 41 county high points from Elk Knob. As far as I know, no mountain in America can top that.

      This list is limited to mountains that I have climbed. There are two peaks visible from my home that I omitted simply because they are off limits to climbingOld Field Bald and Pilot Mountain. 
      Determined to hold this list to 10 (and then to a baker's dozen) I am asking myself: How did I leave out:
      Buck Mountain/High Rock, VA (4,670): Wilburn Ridge without the ponies or public access.
      Roan Highlands/Grassy Ridge, NC/TN (6,285): If you go just to see the rhododendrons, you’re missing most of the show.
      Chimney Rock, NC (2,280): Best time to visit is the Easter sunrise service. Last time I did that, admission was free and you could stay in the park all day. Otherwise, tickets are $15. 
      Snake Mountain, NC/TN (5,560): The one place I got dangerously lost.
      The Peak, NC (5,160): A hike to be proud of, with views and solitude to match.   
      Big Tom, NC (6,560): Of course. 
Big Tom


  1. Great post Tom! I didn't even know you had a blog until just now. Nice!

  2. Hi Tom! I've done many of these hikes and definitely have to agree with you, great choices! I saw "The Peak" when I was at Elk Knob last but didn't know what it was called until searching around on google maps - do you have any suggestion or information on the trail to... the peak? Cheers!

    1. Jeremy, The Peak is challenging to get to. Here's a report on my hike: Also, see the Elk Knob Master Plan discussion at The map shows a proposed trail to The Peak, which is probably years away.