100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina
by Joe Miller (The Mountaineers Books)
© Joe Miller/The Mountaineers Books. All Rights Reserved.
This is for the section of USFS 179 referred to in the park map as the Deep Gap trail.
The Deep Gap trail runs 4.5 miles from the picnic area just north of the Mt. Mitchell parking area across Mt. Craig, Big Tom, Balsam Cone and Cattail Mountain, down to the shelter at Deep Gap and returning for a 9 mile round trip.
I found this a very strenuous trail, much more so than the Mt. Mitchell trail. It took me 7hr 13 minutes to complete the 9 mile round trip (versus 6 hr 2 min for the 12-mile Mt. Mitchell round-trip), with only 2 short water breaks and 15 minutes for lunch at the shelter. Be aware that the weather atop Mt. Mitchell will be significantly cooler than the forecast for nearby Burnsville indicates. It was 58 degrees when I left just after 8 AM. The ridgeline was shrouded in clouds and there was a constant 20 mph wind from the west swirling the clouds.
The trail often requires scrambles over rock (wet and slick from the high clouds), strenuous climbs and descents and lots of crab-walking over loose rocks and slick roots in gullies. There is one stretch, I believe it's coming down Balsam and about to ascend Cattail where there's a 2' wide trail that makes you hug a rock wall above the slope. I also saw bear sign at several points along the trail. You need to be very careful on this hike. If you aren't sure you can complete it, you probably shouldn't try. In that case, I'd recommend taking the first, easiest leg to Mt. Craig and returning.
For me, the two toughest stretches were descending then later ascending Big Tom, where there are two rope-assisted scrambles, and the long descent/ascent from Cattail down into and out of Deep Gap. Climbing both these makes the return leg, I believe, slightly harder.
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