Appalachian Trail Run : Newfound Gap to the Jump Off and Beyond

IMG_2313

IMG_0596

Elk spotting in the park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The name sounds as grand and imposing as the mountains it encompasses. Surprisingly close to the glaring lights and endless man-made entertainments of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, sits this pristine beacon of natural beauty and real adventure. The first time I visited, my husband and I were on a couple’s retreat with friends from church in the Pigeon Forge area. We were banking on getting some running in and knew the park was not far away, so we decided to check it out.  Little did I know how truly spectacular this place is, how intense the trails can be, and how common it is for spring snows to linger at those elevations. We got a couple runs in on that trip, one of which was extremely icy, and another that has become a particular favorite. The Appalachian trail section from Newfound Gap to the Jump Off is a moderate but steady climb that challenges and awes us every time we go. I still vividly remember the woodsy perfume of the pines that surrounded us as we passed into the higher elevations that first day. This, combined with plummeting views on both sides as we reached the apex of the Jump Off, created a stunning impression; even so, nearly four years passed before we managed to make it back to the Smoky Mountains and more specifically that trail.

IMG_1874

Ironically, we were returning from another couple’s retreat with church friends when we came within range of the park again. On a whim, we decided to detour in and re-attempt the Newfound Gap run. As we climbed the section of Appalachian trail leading to the Jump Off we quickly began to encounter a good bit of snow and ice. It was magical, but slow going and we ended up turning back before reaching the summit we had hoped for.

IMG_0571

Nevertheless, the bug to run in the Smokies had taken hold and a couple weekends ago we managed to return.  With cool, sunny weather we plowed through the 3+ miles to the Jump Off much more quickly and enjoyed absolutely spectacular views. Though the drifts of several weeks earlier were melted away at the base of the trail, this ridge line still boasted fantastic snow-capped trees that looked as if they were perfectly coated with thick glistening icing.

IMG_2319

The wind was whipping through them ferociously creating a refrigerator effect that was kind of incredible, but also intensely cold. It was an exhilarating experience that reiterated the way in which each visit to an area can feel unique. So much can change the landscape and allow for different beauty, sights, and sensations.

IMG_2294

We returned from the spur trail that led to the Jump Off and kept plunging forward on the main trail to get in a bit of extra mileage. Signs pointed to Mount LeConte and we discussed the possibility of returning for a long run up and back to that famous peak, but for that day we just added a couple of extra miles before returning to the Newfound Gap parking lot.

IMG_2338

This run is so much fun. You are rewarded with great views along the way, the intoxicating smell of firs as you gain elevation, and a panoramic view on the Jump Off that is quite an epic finale (or intermission).

Getting Here:  This place is relatively easy to find. Just follow directions to Newfound Gap parking lot and take the Appalachian trail heading east toward Boulevard Trail and Mount Leconte. There is a sign for the Jump Off shortly past the Boulevard Trail. The trail climbs pretty steadily over the first half of the run, but you can enjoy a nice downhill on your return since this is an out-and-back route.

What to Eat: You have several options depending on your preferred route home and where you call home. If you’re heading back to the Upstate area, you can come through Asheville and hit any number of wonderful spots or if you get detoured off the Blue Ridge Parkway and end up in Rosman, NC (like we did) you can take your starving self over to La Casita. This was a delicious hidden jewel of a place in our book. We got the “special” guacamole, delightful endless chips and salsa, and split a trio of different enchiladas (chicken mole and verde) and a steak taco with a stuffed poblano instead of rice and beans. Everything was so good!

Good to Know: Cell service (at least for Verizon) is very spotty in this area. Make sure you have your directions pulled up and figured out before you enter the park. There are bathrooms here which is always a nice perk. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on this trail. It seems like that is pretty common knowledge, but we didn’t know until this trip that it is actually illegal and carries a hefty fine if you’re caught. Yikes!

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh! Even when your smile is frozen 😉

Art Loeb Trail Run- Black Balsam to Shining Rock Loop

Art Loeb Trail, Tennent mountain near Black Balsam Knob in Shining Rock Wilderness, Trail Running

Location: This is an amazing trail with stunning panoramic views of the mountains, Shining Rock Wilderness, and Pisgah National Forest. The section of the Art Loeb Trail beginning at Black Balsam Knob, is beautiful and challenging.  There are ups and downs, technical footing, and a lovely variety of sceneries.  It is great for hiking or running. We completed a roughly 9 mile loop that included one section of out and back running. The exact route we took is detailed below.

Getting There: Black Balsam Knob is about 1 hour 45 minutes away from the Greenville area. If you’re leaving Greenville, take 25 N towards Hendersonville to 26 W. Get off at Exit 37, turn left NC-146 W. Take a right on Clayton road. Continue 1.3 miles. Slight right onto NC-191 N. Continue 1.2 miles. Turn left onto the Blue Ridge Pkwy. Continue 26.8 miles. Then, turn right onto Black Balsam Knob Rd. Continue to the end parking lot or park in one of the designated spots along the road. The Art Loeb trail begins on the right side of Black Balsam Knob Rd. as you’re driving in towards the parking lot. There are parking spaces beside the trail head and it is well-marked.

What to Bring: Running shoes- preferably trail shoes, lots of layers- It is always colder here than in the valleys and the weather can be very changeable at this altitude (around 6,000 ft), water/snacks (for during or after since you’re a bit isolated from restaurants and stores), change of clothes if you run it and don’t want to feel sweaty or chilled all the way home

Where to Eat: We love having a fun meal to look forward to after a big run. Farm Burger in Asheville, NC is one of our current favorites and an easy detour on the way back from Black Balsam (roughly an hour from Black Balsam). West First Pizza in Hendersonville, NC is another awesome post-run stop (also roughly an hour). We’ve enjoyed Mayberry’s Soups and Sandwiches in Brevard on several occasions too (around 45 mins away).

Art Loeb Trail to Shining Rock Wilderness

What an enchanting run this is. David and I have run and hiked parts of this loop on multiple occasions, but until this day, we had never delved very far into the Shining Rock Wilderness. We needed a longer run since we were training for a trail half marathon and we always like having a goal destination to run to, so we decided to try to find Shining Rock. Until planning this run, I didn’t know that there was in fact a “shining rock” which gave the wilderness area its name. As it turns out, there is snow white quartz at the top of a mountain in the wilderness area which is rather eye catching amidst the other more common rock features in the area.

IMG_1873

View from the top of Shining Rock including some of the unusual snow quartz.

We parked at the trail head for the Art Loeb Trail which is found on Black Balsam Knob road. Our run took us up and over Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, through a large gap-like clearing area with signage pointing towards Ivestor Gap and then through Ivestor Gap itself where we were welcomed to the Shining Rock Wilderness. Here we decided to stay to the right on the Art Loeb trail instead of taking the left fork onto Ivestor Gap trail. We tried to stay on the Art Loeb for our entire outward journey just to keep it simple and avoid getting lost.

IMG_1856

This led us around and over another mountain which I believe was Flower Knob. It was kind of hard to tell because once you’re in the wilderness area nothing is signed. We got to a smallish grassy clearing eventually where there was a piece of orange/pink tape dangling. This seemed to mark the spot where Ivestor Gap trail emerged from our left, but we weren’t positive about that either. We kept going along a bit of a ridge line until we started climbing once more. We had begun to wonder if we were still headed the right direction when we hit over 4 miles with no sign of the white quartz that would mark Shining Rock, but at last it started to appear scattered along the path. We hit the top around 4.5 miles which was what we had hoped would be the case based on our research of this route. After some pictures, we turned back retracing our steps exactly until we came to the clearing at the base of Tennent Mountain. Instead of ascending on the trail to the left, we took the lower trail to the right which circumvents Tennent and Black Balsam returning you to the parking lot at the end of Black Balsam Knob road. This path is pretty wide and flat, however there are a ton of loose rocks, and if it’s rained lately the whole thing can be somewhat flooded. This does not make it impassable, but it can slow you down if you don’t want wet feet.

The only bummer about looping back like this is that you have nearly half a mile on the road once you reach the parking lot if you parked at the Art Loeb Trail head. We always dislike ending on pavement after longer runs. It just hurts, but finishing the loop is satisfying and at least the footing was super easy! If you need a great day hike, trail run, picnic or backpacking spot, this one is hard to beat. You could go out for a much shorter distance and still enjoy stunning views and wild beauty. Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

IMG_1832

Sam’s Gap to Big Bald Trail Run

Big Bald, Appalachian Trail, near Asheville, North Carolina

Big Bald in the distance

This is an awesome trail run or hike. The views from the top are outrageously stunning. Follow the white rectangular blazes to stay on the AT. The hike is 6.5 miles out and 13 miles round trip. There are a couple of springs along the way which are nice for rehydrating your canine friends. We carried hydration packs, but I guess you could also treat the spring water and carry less in. The run took us about 3 hours and 20 minutes. That included a decent number of photo stops along the way, but not our time at the top. More details about the run can be found below.

Getting here: Head north out of Asheville on I-26 N until you get to the Wold Laurel ski lodge exit. Take a right off of the exit. Go over the bridge and take a left on 23. You will pass Little Creek Cafe and continue a couple of miles until you see a parking area on either side of the road right before it passes under an overpass of I-26. We parked in the parking section on the right and jumped on the gravel walking path that led to the AT. Across the road (on the left side), the AT heads south to Hogback shelter. If you end up there, then you have gone the wrong direction.

Where to eat: Treat yourself to Farm Burger or any of the other amazing Asheville restaurants that you will pass on your return journey.

IMG_8763

View from the top

Today, I want to talk about a run from this past weekend that is definitely one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring excursions we have ever done. As previously mentioned, my husband and I absolutely love trail running. It is exhilarating, interesting, challenging, and satisfying in different ways each time we go; however, some runs really reinvigorate your whole perspective on the sport and get you excited about exploring and pushing yourself to new limits. Our run to Big Bald, one of many stunning spots along the famous Appalachian Trail, did exactly that. We first heard about it as a running destination through an awesome blog called iRunfar.com. Here it is listed as a moderate run about 30 minutes outside of Asheville. One picture was enough to make us drool and instantly decide we had to find this place. Once found, it did not disappoint.

IMG_8771

Running off the edge

The trail to Big Bald from Sam’s Gap is around 6.5 miles long one way, 13 miles round trip. It is replete with the characteristic ups and downs that the AT is known for and sprinkled with different terrain and teasers of the big views ahead. A couple sections are particularly steep, one about a mile in and the other about 5.5 miles in, but much of the trail is just rolling or gradual incline.
IMG_8716

Though our goal was to run the entire thing, some power walking had to happen in places. We have learned to embrace that part of mountain running instead of feeling defeated by it. Sometimes walking is more efficient and sometimes it is all you can do to keep moving forward. It’s a killer workout any way you slice it. Power hiking a mountain doesn’t exactly make it a cake walk…unfortunately.

Dogs on Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail

When we hit the last steep section before the bald, we began to wonder if we would ever arrive at our destination and if it could really be worth all this effort. We had gotten a kindly tip from a descending hiker that we were “close”, but obviously that means different things to different people. So when we had continued another quarter mile without evidence of Big Bald, we started to feel our burning legs more keenly and lose some momentum. As so often happens, this low point hit as we were finally nearing the goal. Just a few minutes later we emerged from the forest into bright sunshine, waves of mountains, and a grassy slope that disappeared into the bluest sky dotted with cottony clouds. It took my breath away and made me want to cry it was so beautiful. The fact that we had been running for over 90 minutes, just heaved up one final hill and been on a small emotional roller coaster (thinking it was just around the corner only to find out it was not) might have been playing into my feelings a bit, but even as I sit here remembering that moment, I am moved. The whole scene was magnificent, unbounded and for several minutes, we were the only ones in the world experiencing it.

Near the summit of Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail

Throughout the whole hike we passed only a handful of hikers and one group of people camping about 2 miles in. After reaching the top, we were joined by a solo backpacker and two other day hikers. Since it was Saturday and the weather could not have been more perfect, I’m assuming that was a busy day and it was still very peaceful. If you are in the Upstate or western North Carolina, this is a must run and/or hike. It is so worth the effort.

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

Grassy Meadow Summit of Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail near Asheville, NC