Hiking Fork Ridge and Maple Camp Bald in Mount Mitchell State Park
Since moving to Asheville, my husband and I have been trying to hit the trails every weekend.
We had met this goal every weekend since we arrived in late June, but we were stymied last week when the haze of smoke from Western wildfires settled over North Carolina.
It was wild to look outside our window and see the mountains obscured by smoke from a different coast. Aside from ruining the views, the air quality was too poor for us to go on an adventure.
Unfortunately, this weekend, things more smoke rolled in. But we decided we couldn't put our lives on pause just because half the world is on fire.
A pandemic mindset at its finest.
My husband—who usually does the bulk of the planning in our house—decided we could tackle the Fork Ridge and Maple Camp Bald loop in Mount Mitchell State Park, which is known for its peacefulness and jaw-dropping scenery.
Here are the high-level stats from HikingUpward:
Projected Time: 5 hours (accounting for 1 hour in breaks)
Elevation Gain: 1,675 ft.
Miles: 8 miles
Though this supposedly isn't a crowded trial, we woke up at 5 a.m. to get an early start.
One of the perks of this hike is the drive. You wind your way over some of the most beautiful parts of Blueridge Parkway. As we approached Mount Mitchell, the sun hung low over the mountain's peak like an orange.
As an aside, on the drive there, my poor husband had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a momma bear and her two cubs crossing across the parkway.
Despite the startle they gave us, they were pretty cute.
The hike starts at the Mount Mitchell Summit parking lot. Usually, this area is overrun with tourists but when we arrived around 7 a.m. it was deserted. The only other soul there was a guy pouring out some water for his two adorable pups.
It was the end of our drive, but the beginning of our adventure.
One of the qualities I liked most about this hike was the varied landscapes. It kept things interesting.
We started on the Mount Mitchell Trail, which is brimming with mossy logs, ferns, and dense coniferous forests that are reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest.
When we descended down the mountain on the Buncombe Horse Range Trail, it was all North Carolina with its tall deciduous trees, emerald rhododendron, and lush grasses.
Even the balds, with their golden grasses and low-lying bushes, are beautiful in their own right.
While Appalachian flowers are in their full glory in April and May, there were still plenty of blooms to spot. Even some wild berries were growing along the trail here and there.
Note for my Maryland friends: I probably saw more Black-Eyed Susans on the Blue Ridge Parkway than I have during my entire time in Maryland. So much for our state flower.
The lushness has its downsides. Some parts of the loop were overgrown, especially the trial out to Maple Camp Bald. Having grasses up to your waist—and sometimes over your head if you're short like me—seems to be pretty common here.
After wearing shorts on the last few hikes, my husband got wise this and wore pants for this one. It saved us a lot of unnecessary bug bites.
Be forewarned: This loop features North Carolina's famously rocky and rooty trails in spades. Your feet, your ankles, your knees, and your mind will get a workout.
We had read some complaints online about parts of the loop being swampy. The rangers seem to have responded to this by putting stump "paths" in these areas.
This added to the fun and variation of the hike for me. Not losing my shoes in the mud was a bonus.
When you reach the base of Big Tom, you have the option to go out to Maple Camp Bald. The Bald sits at ~5,600 feet, facing east.
While we'd already enjoyed a small Fork Ridge Bald on the way, Maple Camp is so close and promises such spectacular vistas that there's really no reason to skip it.
When we got there, we parked ourselves at the end of the Bald for a long water and trail mix break, chatting with another hiker we met along the way.
I can only imagine what kind of sunrise you'd get if you camped here on a clear day. While it was still incredible, the haze of wildfire smoke obscured the view's full glory. We've resolved to return when things are clearer.
My husband actually smelled smoke the entire time we were here. I, for whatever reason, did not.
If you're thinking about doing this hike, don't underestimate the power of Big Tom.
The beginning of the Big Tom Gap Trail may look unsuspecting, but it was all sweat with a little side of pain.
This section of the loop was rocky and steep, with some areas fully exposed to the sun. As you might imagine, this amplified the arduousness of the journey.
My husband and I took a lot of mini-breaks on the way up—pausing on the shady parts of the slope for 20-second breathers every now and again. Once we reached Deep Gap Trail, we were back among the ferns and conifers, but our climb wasn't over yet.
Not going to lie, my husband and I were pretty devastated when we figured that out. At least the rest of the climb was in the shade.
A few steep sections with exposed rock were challenging to climb—even with trekking poles. Luckily, ropes are provided for assistance. Again, this hike kept things interesting.
As is the case with any hard climb, reaching the top of Big Tom felt good.
With the extra height and the sun fully risen, we could see past the smokey haze a little better than we had been able to at Maple Camp Bald.
The summit isn't very open and aside from one large boulder that was already occupied by other hikers, there wasn't much room to sit down and drink in the views. It's also home to an eerie ghost forest, which continues to stand as a chilling reminder of the dangers of acid rain and invasive insects.
A plaque at the top informed us that the mountain was named after Thomas D. Wilson, a famous guide and bear hunter who found the body of Dr. Mitchell (the man Mount Mitchell is named after).
Leaving Big Tom, we began losing altitude. Knowing that we were going to gain it all back soon, I can't say I was excited about doing downhill.
Though the path up Mount Craig was steep, it felt like a minuscule climb compared to Big Tom.
As we approached the summit, we saw logs begin to frame the trial. Signs told us it was to keep people off the surrounding rocks, which are home to endangered species of plants and mosses.
The summit of Mount Craig stands at 6,647 feet. Unlike Big Tom, it's rocky and open, offering breathtaking 180-degree views of the surrounding mountains. It's easily one of the most picturesque views we've seen during our time hiking in North Carolina so far.
Being so close to the Mount Mitchell Parking Lot, I was surprised that we had the summit largely to ourselves. We took a long break here to drink everything in.
Another plaque memorialized Locke Craig, the governor who established Mount Mitchell as North Carolina's first state park and gave Mount Craig its name.
After descending Mount Craig, we knew we had to squeeze out the little energy we had left. The only way to the Mount Mitchell parking lot was up. We knew we were getting closer because we were seeing more and more hikers and the rumble of cars was echoing through the trees.
When we came upon the stone stairs I knew that this would be our final push. I expected it to be painful but compared to the roots and exposed rocks we'd endured throughout this hike, it actually felt leisurely. Plus, the steps were cool. I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings.
We eventually emerged from the woods and found ourselves at the Mount Mitchell parking lot. It was around 1 p.m. and the place was just as I remembered it when we visited last summer: Crowded.
The hike took us a total of seven hours, but we took several leisurely breaks to soak in the views, talk to fellow hikers, and enjoy the snacks we brought along.
We went home, showered, and topped off our day by indulging in some well-earned with steak frites and some cocktails at Bull & Beggar.
We will be returning here for sure. If you want the views without the crowds and a little bit of a challenge, then I highly recommend it.
All-in-all, it was a great way to spend a weekend.