For some reason, we have yet to get motivated to do a winter camping trip. In some ways, it’s silly because we live in the Southeast and spring or fall temperatures at 6,000 feet elevation are often just as cold as anything we would encounter at lower altitudes in the dead of winter. Regardless, we have a mental block about it and just don’t get motivated to gear up and go during the winter. So when spring, in all its wishy washy starts and stops begins to melt and green the landscape, we inevitably feel that the time has come to venture out into nature. This year we had the added pull of friends who invited us to join them. Remembering that semi-spontaneous backpacking is often the only way we end up doing this sort of thing, we immediately accepted the offer and quickly started planning.
On this occasion, we got an amazing recommendation from Bob, a church friend who has spent many years as a scout master and an adventurer at large. We were relaying our customary debate of whether to return to an old, beloved location or explore somewhere new with the risk of disappointment, when he described a place he had nicknamed “the Shire” because of its wild beauty, quiet green paths, and dramatic scenic views. Immediately, we were captivated, and I definitely felt like any place besides the Shire would be a total letdown.
Our friend described where this place was, but with our lack of experience we couldn’t begin to place it. He mentioned something about figuring out more specific details for us, but it was nearing our departure day and I wasn’t sure we would be able to reconnect in time to get the information and make it happen. We were in for a surprise. I don’t think 24 hours passed before my mother-in-law dropped off a map she had received from Bob at a church function. It felt like a treasure map, with its circles and other markings. I poured over it eagerly, and then immediately texted a picture of it to my husband. It was quickly settled that the Shire would be our destination, and looking at the map we found that it was in an area called the Middle Prong Wilderness (not Middle-Earth) near Mount Hardy.
We began to research our travel route and look for various hiker accounts of the trail. The intrigue continued as multiple sources described a place of unmarked trails, gorgeous vistas, stream crossings, and many accidental wrong turns. After printing two detailed accounts of the trails we were planning to take into this area, stuffing our bags and car, and loading up on enough food for 3 days of backpacking, we set out on our 1 night trip. (We tend to overpack in hopes that it will make us feel less unprepared to face the wild.)
Without cell phone service, it was a little tricky to connect with our friends, but thankfully our meeting place and timing worked out perfectly. We had no specifics on where to actually set up camp, but we figured we could just start hiking and keep our eyes open. One of the hiker accounts had mentioned a meadow that sounded promising about 4 miles in, so that was our tentative goal.
The hike was unbelievable. There were lovely streams, carpets of moss, boulder-sized rocks, and dark higher elevation forest growth that added an air of mystery to the whole scene. As the sun was getting ready to set we finally stumbled upon a meadow. We weren’t even sure we had taken the right turn, but the trees opened up and as we continued to climb we came to a stunning clearing. The view revealed mountain after mountain and a softly setting sun. Along the way, we had not passed other hikers, but scattered across this spot a few pairs of other backpackers were also making camp. We settled in for the night, made dinner, hung our bear bag, and slept as soundly as possible.
Ironically, our lovely spring camping trip ended up being about as cold as any we’ve taken. It cooled off dramatically as soon as the sun began to set, and in the morning it felt even colder. We were so grateful for our nervousness-induced overpacking because it had included some hastily snagged gloves and beanies. Our breakfast was a feast with french pressed coffee, eggs, and summer sausage, but even with that we never quite warmed up until the hike down was almost complete. Nevertheless, we all felt that we had indeed found a treasure with the help of our special map, and we are determined to return as soon as possible for more adventures. This place is breathtaking!
Hike or Backpack this trail: This area is not far from Graveyard Fields off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’m posting two of the blog posts we looked at because they were very detailed and helpful to us. There are a lot of different ways to explore the Middle Prong Wilderness, but we found this to be a great entry point. http://www.hikewnc.info/besthikes/middle-prong-wilderness/green-knob http://smokyscout.blogspot.com/2012/04/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-x-none.html
Tips: Always exercise caution when exploring a wilderness area. We found out ahead of time that campfires are not allowed in this region, so that is definitely something to be aware of if you’re camping. This is a decently tough hike, definitely not something you would want to do without water, a map, good footwear, and some careful study beforehand about what to expect. The trails are pretty worn, but it does seem like you could get lost pretty easily since there are no signs. Always take a buddy or let people know where you’re going and when you expect to return.
Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!