Hiking The Yellow Mountain Trail In North Carolina

Or As I Like To Call It; The Trail Of Tears

This Sunday, a few of us hardy hikers decided to hike the Yellow Mountain Trail near Highlands, NC. This trail leads you to the top of Yellow Mountain and to a fire tower with spectacular views.  The length is supposed to be 9.6 miles round trip, but may actually be closer to ten.  Our group consisted of Martha, Pam, Pat, Cynthia, myself and John Ray.  BTW, If you’ve ever hiked the Bartram Trail and used the trail guide, you’ve got John Ray to thank for it.  John, together with Malcolm Skove, wrote the guide.

Passed this large tree early in the hike
I passed this large tree early in the hike

The trail ahead
The trail ahead
Some remnant snow on the ground
Some remnant snow on the ground

Life Has Lots Of Ups And Downs, Kinda Like This Trail

We parked at the trail-head at Cole Gap.  The elevation at the gap was about 4,300 feet and it was quite windy and cool. Considering the fire tower is above 5,100 feet, we wondered just how much more windy and cool it would be up there.  The hike started with a moderate climb up and over Cole Mountain (that’s the only thing moderate about this trail).  Next was a series of steep switchbacks that lead to the top of Shortoff Mountain and an elevation of about 5,000 feet. After-wards, the trail descends for a while before climbing over Goat Knob.  The trail then descends further until you reach Yellow Gap.  At this point, we were at an elevation of roughly 4,100 feet and were actually a couple of hundred feet below our vehicle at the trail-head.  This meant, of course, that we had a climb of more than a thousand feet between us and our destination.  It was on this climb that Pat couldn’t go on and had to turn around.  Martha, who has done this hike five times before (why, crazy lady?), also decided to turn around, so that she could keep Pat company on the hike out.

Nearing the top
Nearing the top
Yellow Mountain fire tower
Yellow Mountain fire tower
View roughly Southwest
View roughly Southwest

I Should Have Known Better

I had hiked ahead and was nearing the top.  The last half mile or so of this trail is very poorly maintained. This section parallels a gravel road and most people follow that to the fire tower.  I’ve done this hike once before and had taken the road. I decided that this time, I would attempt to stay on the trail the entire way. BIG MISTAKE!  At first the trail was just a little brushy, and I was able to push that aside.  Soon though, it became so brushy that I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl underneath all the twigs and branches. They were grabbing at my clothes and had torn a hole in my pants.  There was also no sign of the tread anymore, the trail had disappeared.  I couldn’t see the tower or the road through the thick vegetation. I wasn’t lost though. I knew that I could continue to follow the ridge uphill and if I needed to, I could bushwhack down to my right and shortly find the road.  I spotted little pieces of blue ribbon that had been tied to trees a few yards apart and decided to follow those.  The ribbons led me to a clearing.  From there I was able to make my way back to the road.

I think that's Shortoff Mountain straight ahead
I think that’s Shortoff Mountain straight ahead
The view Southeast
The view Southeast
View from fire tower
View from fire tower

At The Top

When I finally reached the fire tower, the views were as spectacular as I had remembered them.  The views from here are literally million dollar views.  In fact, there are home-sites nearby that can be purchased for a mere few million dollars each. Just a bit out of my price range.

While I waited for the others to arrive, I took some pictures and then climbed a ten foot wooden ladder up into the tower.  I had planned on eating my lunch up there, but the wind was brutal so I only stayed for a few minutes before climbing back down to the rocks at the base.  It was actually comfortable on the rocks. They were protected from the worst of the wind by the tower and by a line of trees.

When the others arrived, we ate our lunch together and chatted while taking in the beauty of the mountains that were spread out before us.  We tried to name some of the peaks and tried to retrace the path that we had followed in getting there.

Watch out for this large tree snake
Watch out for this large snake tree
Nice open woods on the hike out
Nice open woods on the hike out

Time To Head Back

After lunch, we put our packs on and began the hike back to the trail-head.  The hike out is almost as difficult as the hike in.  It starts with a steep descent down Yellow Mountain, which was made slippery by all of the fall leaves that carpeted the tread.  That’s followed by the long climb back over Goat Knob and to the top of Shortoff Mountain.  From there, steep switchbacks lead you down the other side.  After-wards there are two or three more short climbs before the final bit of downhill to our waiting vehicle.

When we finished the hike, Pam jokingly quarreled with Martha for having earlier described the trail to her as being only moderately-strenuous.  I suggested that we should describe it as strenuously-strenuous.

All kidding aside, it’s a very nice trail and a beautiful destination.  It’s definitely worth doing – ONCE. Hikers are notorious for having selective memories, so just in case a few months from now I’m thinking that I might like to do this hike again, let me leave a brief message to myself;

Joe, buddy, don’t do it! Don’t even think about it! Please!

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