Monday, September 23, 2019

Hiking the rooftops of the Carolinas

My long-awaited arrival at the summit of Mount Guyot (Photo by Peter Barr)
 Ten years ago, I had never heard of a county highpoint. I had climbed a few mountains that were the highest in their counties, but I didn't appreciate that distinction until I started registering my mountain climbs into an online database called Then to my surprise, Peakbagger started to list me on computer-generated rankings of "county highpointers."
 Before 2009, nobody had completed all the county highpoints of North Carolina nor South Carolina. That piqued my competitive instincts, so in 2010 I began seriously pursuing the county highpoints of my home states. It took me over nine years to reach them all. 
 In 2014, I was able to finish South Carolina's 46 counties along with Charlie Zerphey, a fellow highpointer from Pennsylvania. By then, I had had climbed to the top of 33 of North Carolina's 100 counties, and Charlie and I realized we had a chance to become the first hikers to complete all 146 county highpoints in both Carolinas.
Green counties indicate a completed state.
Yellow marks my other county highpoints.
Pink indicates counties on my wish list.

Dark green is my home county, Watauga.
 The most challenging one, I knew, would be Haywood County, where Mount Guyot is one of the most remote peaks in the Southeast. In 2014, when Charlie was 84, he surpassed me when he climbed Guyot with the Highpointers Club
 In 2017, Charlie and I slogged to an island in the Great Dismal Swamp that enabled him to claim Pasquotank County and complete the 100 county highpoints of North Carolina. That left me with two county highpoints to climb—Guyot plus an obscure ridge on the Cherokee County line that I reached in 2018 for #99.
 Mount Guyot is named for a 19th-century Princeton professor who was the first to survey many of our Southern mountains. Arnold Guyot was Swiss, so pronounce it GHEE-oh. Guyot stands 6,621 feet above sea level and about 4,400 feet above the parking lot at Cosby Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 
 A Charlotte attorney named Henry Pharr joined me Sept. 20 to climb Guyot. This would be my final North Carolina county highpoint and Henry's 99th. His 100th will be a sand dune on Ocracoke Island, which is not accessible right now because of damage from Hurricane Dorian.
 The 18-mile roundtrip would be the longest hike of my life. The trail doesn't even go all the way to the top of the mountain—the last half-mile is a bushwhack through a dense balsam forest that smells like Christmas trees. 
I was honored that Peter Barr hiked with me.
 Henry and I started up the Snake Den Trail at dawn and hoped to get to the summit by 1 p.m., but I was slow, and it was 4 o'clock before we made it to the top. Along the way, we were joined by Peter Barr from Skyland and Zachary Robbins from Carrboro. Peter first climbed Mount Guyot when he through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2000. In 2015, he became the second hiker to complete the North Carolina county highpoints. I am the fourth, also joining state park ranger Brian Bockhahn in 2009 and Charlie Zerphey in 2017. Henry will become the fifth, once Ocracoke reopens.
 We celebrated my landmark with some photos. I brought a North Carolina flag, and Peter led a recitation of the North Carolina state toast, just as one of his friends had done on his completion day. My favorite line says: "Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great, here's to 'Down Home,' the Old North State."
 Because I was so slow up the hill, we realized we would have to finish in the dark. Under the glow of our headlamps, Peter spotted a couple of snakes on the way down the Snake Den Trail, but they didn't bother us. Henry and I finished about 10 p.m., 15 hours after we started walking.
With Peter Barr and Henry Pharr on the Snake Den Trail, approaching the Appalachian Trail (photo by Zach Robbins)
 If you are interested in pursuing the county highpoints of North Carolina, here is a list that includes my trip reports. (You may have to create a Peakbagger account to read the trip reports.)
 To complete the list, you will visit four national parks, nine state parks, three national forests, three cemeteries, Fort Bragg, an abandoned prison, 11 communication towers, and three water towers. More than half of the highpoints are on private land. If you aspire to be a county highpointer, you'll need to get comfortable approaching strangers and asking them to restrain their dogs while you explore their backyards. 
 In many of the eastern counties (and at least one place in the mountains) you have to visit multiple sites to be sure you have reached the highest ground. One of the most maddening was Edgecombe County, where the USGS topographical maps identified over 30 locations around the town of Rocky Mount that might be the highpoint. I used more modern and precise GPS maps to eliminate two-thirds of those.
 On the other hand, you get double credit when you climb some peaks that are on the county borders. Grandfather Mountain's Calloway Peak is the highest point in Watauga and Caldwell counties, and Standing Indian is highest in Macon and Clay counties. 
 In case you are wondering, the lowest of North Carolina's county highpoints is a pine plantation in Tyrrell County that is only 17 feet above Albemarle Sound. 
 Peter asked me, "Now that you've completed North Carolina, what's next?" Having finished the state where I was born and the state where I now live, I don't have any desire to try to complete any others. I have 268 county highpoints nationally, and I'd like to get to 315, which would represent 10 percent of the nation. The ones marked pink on the map above are among the counties on my wish list. 
 Next year, I may take on another Peakbagger category, peaks with 2,000 feet of prominence. I've climbed all 11 of those in North Carolina, and I need two more in Tennessee (Big Frog Mountain and English Mountain) and one in Virginia (Elliott Knob) to complete the Southeastern "P2Ks." Mercifully, those hikes are just 8 to 12 miles.

Here's where you can find the county high-points of North Carolina:

National Parks
  • Blue Ridge Parkway: Jackson (Richland Balsam), Transylvania (Chestnut Bald), McDowell (Blue Ridge Pinnacle), Henderson (Little Pisgah), Wilkes (Thompkins Knob).
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Swain (Clingman's Dome), Haywood (Mount Guyot)
  • Wright Brothers National Monument: Dare (Kill Devil Hill)
  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Hyde
National Forests
  • Pisgah National Forest: Mitchell (Roan High Knob), Buncombe (Potato Knob), Avery (Grassy Ridge Bald).
  • Nantahala National Forest: Graham (Huckleberry Knob), Cherokee (County Corner).
  • Uwharrie National Forest: Montgomery (Dark Mountain).
Other Federal land 
  • Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: Pasquotank
  • Federal Aviation Administration: Rutherford (Sugarloaf Mountain)
  • Fort Bragg: Cumberland
State Parks
  • Grandfather Mountain State Park: Watauga (Calloway Peak), Caldwell (Calloway Peak)
  • Mount Mitchell State Park: Yancey (Mount Mitchell)
  • Elk Knob State Park: Ashe (The Peak)
  • Hanging Rock State Park: Stokes (Moores Knob)
  • Crowders Mountain State Park: Gaston (The Pinnacle of Kings Mountain)
  • Morrow Mountain State Park: Stanly (Morrow Mountain)
  • Occoneechee State Natural Area: Orange (Occoneechee Mountain)
  • Great Dismal Swamp State Park: Camden
  • Jockeys Ridge State Park: Secondary location in Dare County (Jockey's Ridge)
Other state facilities
  • Hoke Correctional Instititution: Hoke
Nature Conservancy
  • Secondary location in Dare County (Nags Head Woods)

Communications Towers
  • Alleghany (Catherine Knob)
  • Surry (Fisher Peak)
  • Polk (Tryon Peak)
  • Cleveland (Benn Knob)
  • Iredell (Fox Mountain)
  • Randolph (Shepherd Mountain)
  • Rowan (Youngs Mountain)
  • Rockingham
  • Alamance (Cane Creek Mountain)
  • Chatham
  • Harnett (Big Ridge)

Water towers
  • Person (Roxboro Hill)
  • Secondary locations in Harnett, Moore
  • Richmond (Parsons Cemetery)
  • Columbus (Meadow Cemetery)
  • Secondary location in Tyrrell (West Cemetery)
Private land (listed highest to lowest): Madison (Sandymush Bald), Burke (Long Arm Mountain), Alexander (Hickory Knob), Catawba (Baker Mountain), Yadkin (Click benchmark), Lincoln (Buffalo Knob), Davidson (High Rock Mountain), Forsyth, Rockingham secondary location, Davie, Guilford, Alamance (Cane Creek Mountains), Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Caswell (Stony Creek Mountain), Union, Chatham, Durham (Red Mountain), Granville, Anson (Gordon Mountain), Lee, Wake, Scotland, Warren, Halifax, Northampton, Johnston, Nash, Wilson, Robeson, Sampson, Wayne, Bladen, Duplin, Lenoir, Edgecombe, Greene, Pitt, Jones, Pender, Onslow, Bertie, Hertford, Martin, Gates, Brunswick, Currituck, Beaufort, Craven, Chowan, Perquimans, Pamlico, Washington, Carteret, Tyrrell.

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