Warning: This trail is not for amateurs and will test your orienteering skills as well as your fortitude.
We met up at the Sunburst Campground area and geared up around 8pm for our usual Friday night jaunt of a few miles in. After gearing up we discussed that this may be an interesting journey and Peter had setup his iPhone with a suitable GPS app. So we set forth on the fire trail road which was to be about 3 miles before picking up our trail and heading in. The hike along the road was easy to moderate in ascent and moved along very quickly chatting away. We came across a sign (pointing uphill) with just numbers on it someone had carved into it TRAIL. So we consulted the map and assumed that the cut in the road was actually the trail and set forth on it. It was more like an old overgrown logging road that quickly turned into a trail. The sound of rushing water quickly grew near and we found some water spilling out of the mountainside and we descended further down to a river. I only showed a small blue line on the map but this was a large creek and the trail was on the other side. So, we stripped off the boots and made our way across in front of some falls into some really chilly water. We booted back up and got back on our way. This trip obviously was going to have some surprises in store. What an understatement that turned out to be.
After the abrupt creek crossing, the trail was decent for about another mile and then we knew a fairly steep ascent was coming but I was not prepared for just how nasty it would be. We ran across a number of areas where the trail just absolutely disappeared before us, we backtracked, traced it out, backtracked and traced it out and finally found the mountain laurel trail (I would not recommend this trail unless coming down it). The trail that goes more around the knob would likely be better although a bit longer. This trail went literally straight up the mountain with no let-up to catch your breath along the way and no switchbacks. This was literally some sort of mountain goat or deer path. We went from traveling around 3 MPH to an absolute crawl. Our goal was to get to the Mountains to Sea Trail that night but the longer we meandered on this maddening trail the further we were from obtaining that goal. I was in absolute agony on this thing scrabbling for purchase, sucking wind, and loosing footing in the leaf covered trail. I inadvertently just made my own trail a couple times and thankfully coming back across the trail by walking towards Peter's headlamp. This was not the well maintained AT trail that I am used to. We climbed and climbed until about midnight and finally the trail leveled out enough to where we could find an area to park for the night. There were no camping spots really so we just camped on the trail itself in a wide spot. The temperature had dropped considerably and I just hopped into my bivy fully clothed and passed out from exhaustion.
I actually got some good rest just from being so absolutely tired from the night before. It was a chilly and breezy morning and again I went with a no-cook meal option when I really could've gone for some hot tea and a warm mug of something. Instead I gobbled down my pickled eggs, pre-cooked bacon, and one my CocoNutter Bars. I just wanted to get moving that morning to warm myself up, so we broke camp and made our way up a little further before running into the MST finally. At least we guessed it was the MST since it's the only one with markings in the wilderness areas even though the trail split in two different directions and not left/right like we were expecting. The other trail eventually joined back in after running through the grassy areas a bit.
I finally got warmed up enough to shed some clothes and we soon came across some other hikers who had no map and had made a late night run similar to ourselves. I couldn't believe anyone was attempting this area without a map and I hope they made it safely to where they were headed. The first part of the morning made for a decent hike along the MST and I was grateful for the reprieve compared to the night before. Again though, we found ourselves questioning the trail as it disappeared around trees or as other side trails met into it. Along the hike somewhere well before Sam's knob we could see a large waterfall in the distance. I am guessing it was something akin to 200'. I am not certain if there is a trail leading to it but it was pretty neat to see it across the mountain and I would've loved to have seen it closer.
Moving along towards Sam Knob area I think we were supposed to take another trail but ended up on another one, thankfully all of them intersect near Ivestor Gap. My original intention was to take the trail up to Little Sam Knob and conquer another 6K peak but somehow we diverged from that path and kept rolling on another trail perhaps bypassing my original agenda. We finally came up what appeared to be a creek bed, passed some young woman with no shoes walking around, and landed in the parking area that we had seen in my previous Shining Rock trip. This place was completely full and overflowing with people hanging out in cars and milling around. I didn't know if we had stepped into a party or what but people stared as the sweaty backpackers made there way though the parking lot looking for the Ivestor Gap trail. Asking people was fruitless as many pointed in different directions so we just kept walking and finally hit the gap trail/road. This portion of the trail was wide open and road-like, full of people, and a very easy ascent where we picked up the pace and made some better time for once. This portion of the trail took us around Black Balsam instead of over like the last time. Finally, on the other side of the gap we found a nice saddled ridge to settle in for some lunch.
Here we debated on where to setup for the night knowing that once we picked up our last trail it was about 6.5 miles back to the vehicles. It was still fairly early in the day so we finally made the decision to try and hike it out that day and maybe sleep in our own beds that evening. This may have been a poor decision but looking at the map it looked like an easy ridge hike and then a fairly severe drop back to our cars. Should be easy, right? Nah,this was the next devil of our journey.
To begin with, from Ivestor Gap this trail was nearly impossible to find. Thankfully a fellow hiker familiar with the area mentioned she had seen an offshoot that looked like a place to drop off for a pee break about a hundred yards back. There were no markings and if not looking for it you would easily miss it. We missed it at least twice and Peter finally armed the GPS and stepped piece by piece until we found a grass covered notch in the road. Once across and through some human high grass, the trail was easily seen.
We got rocking along this trail, spirits were high thinking about making it out of the trail by around 5 and getting home that evening. The trail began very easy, grass covered ridge hike, and we moved along at a great pace for maybe 2 miles in. The trail then turned to a grueling, un-groomed, mess scrabbling over boulders, over and around trees, up and down peaks and around tight boulder passes. Roots and rocks again were exhausting me but I knew soon we'd hit a descent and it would be a quick freefall. This trail went on and on, up and down, hitting every single knob it could with the intent of making us pay for every mile we traversed it. Had we started from Ivestor Gap it may not have been bad but hiking all day and then attempting this was truly testing me physically.
We soon realized that we should've been going down at a faster rate and somehow we were making another ascent. We'd lost the trail by about a half a mile and this one had just abruptly ended. There was no indication that the trail intersected or diverged anywhere on the map. Discouraged yet again I waited for Peter to drag out the GPS and find our way. Again, this trail was nearly impossible to find. The map was little help but we finally found it. Hooray the descent would be here soon and we'd get this thing conquered! This descent was one of the most nerve racking descents I have ever made. Even with switchbacks this was a VERY steep rocky and rooted trail. My feet were killing me from banging against the front of my boots as we were going down at a rough sluggish pace. Even at a sharp down turn this trail kept going and going. This was the most evil 6 miles downhill I can imagine and I don't even want to consider going up that thing either. About a mile or so from the car we did witness a black bear flying out of the tree and running away from us. I guess one of us smelled ripe enough to scare it and I only hoped we wouldn't come across it again further down.
So the trail finally began to level out some or less of a descent (not sure which is more appropriate here) and we could hear signs of life, or vehicles so I knew we were getting close except another hour would pass as the never ending trail never let up. Then as dusk was settling in we came across our last surprise of the day, fording a swollen river. I was hoping for a rock crossing but after looking up and down the river there was no easy way across. I started out on the rocks hoping my gore-tex would hang in there but I soon ran out of rocks. I handed one of my poles to Peter as the water was swift and I just settled into the water and waded across. We only had another quarter mile to go and squishy boots were my least concern at this point. Finally we made it back to the vehicles. Peter said he would settle in for the evening at the campground since he had a longer trip back than I did. I hit the road with haste wanting to be done with the trail and find comfort in my bed (yeah I love the outdoors but I also love my bed when I can have it).
I found out later that night that the caretakers camper was struck by lightning as Peter relayed the wonderful evening's details to me. I was shocked but glad no one was injured and I am glad I went home!
After it was said and done this was a true backcountry experience/adventure that really rocked me. We may have pushed our limits doing about 25 miles in two days, most of it on Saturday. I would not recommend this area to many people other than the hard core. It took everything out of me and is difficult to stay on track. The scenery is beautiful but you definitely pay to see it. It may have been more enjoyable had we not pushed the last trail to the end but I lost the fun factor of it after chasing down the trails all day and facing down some of the worst trail conditions ever. It truly tested my mettle and I am glad I conquered it but I will definitely find a less grueling area to travel in the future.