Day Thru-Hiking the Art Loeb Trail
Trail: Art Loeb
Distance: 30.1 miles
“Wanna go hiking sometime this week?” I ask Sprout. Sprout and I met on the AT back in 2011 and have remained close friends – we now find ourselves living in the same area near Asheville, North Carolina and both craving adventure. She looks over with a hint of amusement in her eye and says, “I was thinking about hiking the Art Loeb on Monday, wanna come?” And thus, a plan was formed.
The Art Loeb is a hiking trail that stretches 30.1 miles through the Shining Rock wilderness located in the Pisgah National Forest of western North Carolina. It is named after an avid local hiker and caretaker of the land. The Shining Rock wilderness is one of the more spectacular areas in the region with jaw dropping scenery and delicious water. It’s one of the main reasons I keep finding myself living in Asheville. The Art Loeb is also named as one of National Geographic’s top 30 trails in the nation, citing gorgeous views, challenging climbs, diverse topography and biodiversity.
The morning of our hike starts off with me groggily groping along the side of the bed trying to smash whatever device is making an upbeat playful alarm tune. The noise stops; first success of the day. It’s 5:30 AM and I amble off to the kitchen to make coffee so that the world will become coherent again. A few minutes later, coffee in hand (second success of the day), I go and finish packing while Sprout gets her new backpacking rig in order. Within ten minutes we’re inside Sprout’s car as it warms up. Outside, the temperature is somewhere under freezing and the wind is kicking up overhead, the nearly full moon highlighting the clouds as they race by, opening up pockets of clear sky and stars. The night before, we’d driven down and dropped off my car at the southern trail head along the banks of the Davidson river. We quadruple check that my car keys are in my pack and set off for the Daniel Boone Boy Scout camp, the northern end and the start of our adventure.
It’s early on a Monday and the roads are populated by early morning commuters and not much else. Jumping onto highway 40 West, we drive into Canton with its lingering fart smell that covers the town (it’s home to a giant paper mill) and then take a series of windy back roads until we finally arrive at our destination. The sun, yet to rise, leaves us fumbling with our headlamps, finalizing our preparations, chugging the last of fruit smoothies and tightening shoes. Around 3,000 feet elevation or so, it’s surprising how cold the air is and even more shocking the amount of snow covering the ground; being late March and at a lower altitude, I find the snow a little weird but attribute it to being on the northwestern side of a mountain range and down in a holler. We start up the mountain. It’s a two thousand foot climb to the saddle and we cut back and forth with switchbacks, hopping over downed logs. The trail is in really good shape, but it’s clear that not many people have been up it since last season.
The area where the Art Loeb traverses, like most of the region, holds historical significance for the Cherokee Nation. A people who, obviously, were the original inhabitants of the mountain range. Cherokee folklore describes the region as the local stomping ground for Tsul’ Kalu (a.k.a. The Slant Eyed or Sloping Giant), a mythological figure associated with hunting rites and rituals. Anyone familiar with the local lore may have also heard of the figure Judaculla, which is really a misinterpretation of Tsul’ Kalu by European settlers. The Great Balsam Mountains are filled with references to this mythical hunter, such as the iconic Devils Courthouse, a jagged rock outcropping where Judaculla would hold court. Any of those he deemed unworthy would then be thrown off of Shining Rock, a collection of brilliant white quartz boulders for which the wilderness is named. Shining Rock, one of the iconic spots that the Art Loeb hits, becomes our first milestone to get to on this trek.
As we continue to climb, we gain views of the surrounding mountains that are occasionally sprayed in early morning sunlight. We also notice a ton of fresh coyote tracks in the snow, and towards the top, spot bobcat tracks where it briefly used the trail as a highway before jumping off into the underbrush. The further up the mountain we ascend, the more the wind picks up and the greater the temperature drops. I was expecting to start losing layers by this point but instead find myself fishing out my hat to cover my ears and picking up the pace to get some blood flowing.
After a long, final push to the top of Deep Gap, Sprout suddenly turns to me wide eyed with an “I got to poop!” Leaving Sprout behind to handle her affairs, I walk over to the eastern side of the gap, squat down and rest on my heel so as to avoid sitting in the snow. It’s around 8:30 in the morning and I find myself really regretting my choice of shorts. I almost always try and wear shorts whenever I hike as it’s how I thermoregulate – my legs are like space heaters with all the blood flow – but this morning it sucks and I’m finding myself shivering. A frigid wind is howling through the gap; there’s no way it’s going to get above freezing for a while, snow blankets the trail, and the coffee I packed in has gone cold. Maybe sleeping in and not undertaking a thirty miler in late March would have been a good bet…
Sprout’s taking forever. I like to pride myself on my fast pooping abilities, especially when it’s raining or super cold. Hike, dig a hole, pants down, business, profit, continue hiking. Contemplating my bowels, I look over at Cold Mountain (yes, the one from that book) and am struck by how literal a mountain it is. Topping in at 6,030 feet, it’s a nice climb for the east coast but damn does it look unfriendly at the moment. The peak is completely obscured in blizzardish looking clouds and the wind is whipping the vapor around it at a tremendous pace. It’s only a thousand feet higher than we are but looks absolutely unpleasant. Normally I find literalism to be super annoying, but that mountain really seems to have earned its name.
Sprout finally shows up as I stare off into the cloud-filled dramatic looking valley. “That was a hands down terrible poop” she stammers. I take a moment, squatting in the snow munching on chips and look up at her to meet her gaze. “Please, do tell” I say, as a smile spreads on my face. Sprout starts in on her enthralling story of nearly frozen, icicle-like excrement and we finish buckling the last of our straps and start walking at a brisk pace. We’re both freezing and looking to get some miles under us – again, I think back to my regret at not wearing pants.
Deep Gap behind us, we approach a segment of the trail called The Narrows, a favorite section of mine. A rocky spine of ridge connects Cold Mountain to the rest of the Black Balsam range, creating a narrow bridge with tremendous views that are labyrinthine in the summer when underbrush begins to fill out. The trek over this mountain is probably the most perilous section of the Art Loeb trail boasting steep climbs over rocks that often require you to climb hand over hand or butt sliding down. Normally this is a section where I like to take my time but me and Sprout book it. Slipping fairly regularly and catching ourselves with trekking poles, we shuffle over snow and ice covered earth, trying desperately not to crack open our skulls while getting out of the wind.
The next section, by contrast, is heavenly. Insulated by giant Fraser firs and red spruce, the wind drops off and we wind our way along the smooth treaded trail. After a while, we arrive at a junction and take a short side path away from our desired direction to climb Shining Rock with its bright white quartz gleaming with hints of pink and green. The rocks are beautiful. I’ve always heard it told that Shining Rock may actually be a gateway to the underworld. I can’t find anything on the internet backing that up, but to me, the area has a vibe of serious juju and I’m more inclined to believe that there’s something to the rocks than not. I’ve been up here at night before, and I swear, the rocks can look like they’re glowing.
We continue on and start across a series of grandiose rolling mountain balds that are the result of extensive logging and fires. I thank Ra for sunglasses as we trek across the snow covered tops, staring out in all directions at the beauty of the western North Carolina mountains. In the summer, this area is the bomb-diggity for gathering blueberries and it’s not uncommon at all to find blue bear scat. Speaking of, I’m starting to get super hungry. Sprout’s metabolism and mine are very different creatures, so she consents to an early lunch. We pick a spot slightly out of the wind and spread out our rain jackets to sit on. Food is broken out and I’m struck by the difference in diet between me and Sprout. She has fruits, vegetables and jerky, where as I rely heavily on carbohydrates. I rip open a box of crackers and fish around my bag for a block of cheese as she slices up an avocado and peels a frozen hard boiled egg. If our diets were reversed on trail, I’d die of anemia after ten miles. She assures me that her day hiker diet is much different than her long term, thru hiker diet.
As I sit munching on one of the last pieces of beef jerky that Sprout traded me for chips, I think of the Donner party and wonder if they had conversations about their last strip of meat or impending dire straits. My train of thought leads me to put myself in their shoes and I think, if I had to rely on cannibalism, which part of Sprout would I eat first? This was a game I enjoyed playing in high school when I got really bored – which of my classmates would I eat if we were stuck on a deserted island? I always weighed the pros and cons based on individual usefulness and ability to contribute to the group versus body mass and delectableness. In this moment, I settle on Sprout’s thighs. They’re super muscular so they wouldn’t be very tender, but they’d have mass and with the way she eats, I’m sure they’d be really nutritious. It’d be like eating one of those turkey legs from a renaissance festival but like three times the size. I mention this to Sprout but she doesn’t seem to share my interest in hypothetical cannibalism so the conversation moves on.
As our lunch nears its end, I lean to the side and absent mindedly snot rocket to clear my nose. “I’ve always been really impressed with people who can snot rocket well,” Sprout says. Being allergic to all things that produce pollen, I’ve had much practice over the course of my life to work on this skill and, in turn, begin to teach Sprout the finer points of shooting stuff out of your nose and looking cool while you do it. The lesson is kind of disastrous but highly hilarious. Sprout tries without success and instead gets snot all over herself while yelling “look, I’ve got it!” We then spend the next ten minutes laughing heartily while pantomiming each other and blowing snot all over the mountain and ourselves.
We continue along the range, traversing through skeletal mountain laurel thickets until we reach the Black Balsam parking area where the Art Loeb intersects briefly with the Mountains to Sea Trail. This connector section is a spot I’ve always been partial to because in college I’d come up to this area, sit under the fir trees and read fantasy novels while drinking beer. Eventually the MST and Art Loeb split and we are dumped out unceremoniously onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. I take a moment to urinate in the middle of the road, cause you know, yolo and stuff and then I stroll over to Sprout where she sits on the guard rail next to an overlook. Plopping down in the grass, I find my coffee and snacks as Sprout cuts a kiwi. She throws me half and we enjoy a companionable silence, looking over the Pisgah National Forest and eating exotic fruit that would be impossible to grow here. Sometimes globalization is pretty cool.
This section from the parkway to the first shelter is a really great haul, especially if you’re headed south because it’s all downhill and runs along the ridge line. In the springtime you can find patches of trout lilies here, a pretty, yellow wild flower that can be harvested for the bulbs growing along its root. It’s not the most substantial snack to throw into your dinners, but it adds nutrition and I find foraging and harvesting food in nature to be novel. The trail steadily starts to lose altitude and the snow that we’ve been trudging through all morning, thankfully, disappears. Both Sprout and I complain of our soaked socks as we amble down the mountain chain, reveling in the steady warm rays of the sun. Eventually, we spot Deep Gap shelter through the trees. The shelters along the Art Loeb are really quite nice – they’re built in an A frame style and even though they’re starting to show their age, they are sturdily constructed and situated in nice spots.
We’re both out of water and so stop to fill up. I tend not to treat my water and just take my chances. I think water treatment is a massive conspiracy and also I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t drink water right out of the mountains. But Sprout, a little more cautious, decides to bust out her Sawyer Squeeze. While she’s being responsible, I walk back over behind the shelter on the western side, littered with old cat holes and find a spot to make my own. Pooping in the woods, I think, is one of the better parts of being in the wilderness. After, I sit sipping flavorful, crisp water and wait for Sprout to finish her useless water purifying rituals. She’s done and we’re off again, starting our ascent of Pilot Mountain. This is the last real climb and it isn’t terribly difficult, especially since we’ve left the sections with snow behind. Once we reach the top, we take a moment to admire the 360 degree view but don’t stay long as we’ve still got plenty of miles left and the afternoon is starting to get underway. Busting down Pilot mountain turns out to be one of the highlights for me since one of my favorite things to do is plug in some heavy metal and see how fast I can go. It’s great fun and I highly recommend it.
Hiking along, I think back to my theme of cannibalism and come to the conclusion that if I were to be cannibalized, my ribs would make a tasty snack. While there’s not all that much meat on them (I’m still trying to put on weight from my last thru-hike this past summer) I think they’d have flavor. With the copious amounts of garlic chili paste I put in my meals doing wilderness therapy, they are bound to have retained a bit of spice. I continue to ponder this as I shove more dark chocolate covered espresso beans into my mouth in recognition that I’m getting hungry. Moments later, still picking out the coffee flakes from my teeth, I jog down a slope and Butter Gap shelter materializes. Sprout’s sitting on a stump looking over her map. “I think we’ve got about seven miles left… maybe ten… let’s say seven…” I agree, adamantly, that there are only seven miles left even though I haven’t actually studied the map. Digging more food out of my pack, I ask Sprout how she’s doing. “Not bad, feelin’ it a little in my butt though. How are you?” I stop mid chew and realize that I hurt. I’ve been back in civilization for months after hiking roughly 3,400 miles last year, but haven’t actually been on a hike over ten miles since November. I recognize that my only desire over the winter was to drink coffee and play video-games. We are probably twenty or so miles in and my legs hurt. My right knee aches from all the impact of the downhills and my left hamstring is super tight. Time for a little trail yoga with my two tried and true stretches: pigeon pose and threading the needle.
It’s now 5:00 PM and sunset is still a couple hours off. I kind of wish I could just stand here for another hour next to this shelter, watching the tops of the trees sway back and forth and the last of the sun illuminating the very tops, giving the appearance of the branches being on fire. At this point, we’re at about 3,300 feet, but it’s still fairly chilly as winter’s dying grasp clings to the mountains in a desperate struggle against spring. Sprout takes off and I am not far behind her, knowing that if I don’t, I will seriously miss having no pants or a sleeping bag within a few hours. I space out and try not to look at my watch – I like to practice mindfulness and stay in the moment as much as possible. Usually though, I just zone out and don’t pay attention.
The next section is really cool and we hike along quickly, nestled up against Cedar Rock Mountain with it’s giant granite slabs. In the summer you can climb up the rock from beneath without ropes and find great places to camp nearby. I reach the point now where my body transforms into a machine, running through the motion of left foot, right foot, repeat. The pains in my legs from earlier fade into the background and I become one with the ground; my trekking poles are simply extensions of my arms, supporting me as I hop a log or slow a descent. Not focused on anything, I simply am and I walk.
A few hours later, I realize that I’m starting to have trouble seeing. The foliage on this section is thicker, I haven’t been paying as much attention to where the sun is, and now I’ve missed it’s dip behind the mountains. I keep walking into the twilight, my stubbornness driving me to ignore the gathering gloom until I notice that I’m no longer having trouble perceiving the world around me. The moon, glorious in its reflective brilliance, has risen and illuminates the path.
I’m starting to run on fumes. I’ve got no food left and my stomach gurgles as I walk. I feel the tightness that’s wound itself into my limbs and weariness covering my thoughts like a blanket. I’m gonna sleep so hard, I think to myself and begin to dream about what type of food I want to eat. Eventually, I begin to see lights through the trees and conclude that I’m seeing the campground where my car is parked and internally rejoice. I stumble down the slope and drop myself onto the ground at the base of a tree next to the winding river to wait for Sprout. About ten minutes later, I hear the shuffling of underbrush and she emerges from the forest and slides down the last bank to join me. It’s 8:30 PM and we walk the last half mile or so back to my car together and talk about how hungry we are. We had originally planned on the barbecue place just down the road, but we speculate that it’s probably closed and come up with contingency plans.
As it turns out, Brevard, NC is a ghost town on a Monday night at 9 PM. Nothing is open. We drive around aimlessly searching for a place that serves food and come up blank. We call a few restaurants – also closed. Finally after googling it for a while, we find a cheap pizza place that, blessedly, is still open. It’s one of those places that really only delivers but has two small tables and the guys behind the counter, while really nice, are clearly trying to clean up so that they can close down. We order a large deep dish pizza and leave, stopping by the grocery store next door to pick up a six pack and go back to my car to feast. Glory be to the creators of pizza and beer. It’s the best thing ever and we destroy the pizza but go easy on the beer since we still have to get Sprout’s car and head back to Asheville. We chat wearily about past adventures and possible hikes in the near future on our moonlit drive back. I stumble into my house at 12 AM, exhausted, but feeling complete in a way I rarely do on a normal day-to-day basis in society.
The next morning I wake and am surprised at how not like death I feel. Cool, go body. I mean, there’s definitely some soreness but nothing too crazy. For breakfast, I decide, donuts. I drive the quarter mile to pick up a half dozen, get back to my house, make coffee and sit on my porch and consume delicious, sugary fried dough and ibuprofen. Life is good.
Whether you’re the spry, adventurous type and enjoy the challenge of hiking 30 miles in one day like Sprout and me, or you’re more the long weekend backpacker, the Art Loeb is a spectacular trail and one that I’d recommend. It’s a trail that shouldn’t be missed and is worth the trip to North Carolina. Plus, there’s a ton of delicious food and beer to be had for the post hike. Sprout and I are already looking forward to the next adventure and plan to conquer the Foothills trail in just a few weeks. Stay tuned and stay fly –
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