What Good Is a Meteor Shower if You Have Clouds? And Other Lessons Learned in Shining Rock Wilderness

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Well, I suppose everyone needs at least one "lessons learned" backpacking trip. Though you could argue every backpacking trip teaches a lesson: don't try to freeze your fingers off in the backcountry (except I'm a slow learner, see examples one and two), make sure you at least *have* a plan (ahem), don't push yourself too hard and too far, stay out of swamps called "Cottonmouth Spa" and don't get stuck in sucking black mud, and definitely avoid Labor Day traffic are all lessons learned that come to mind. But I'm stubborn, and so I continually come across fresh new lessons to learn.

For example:

1) If your tripod breaks and you were planning on doing astrophotography and sunrise shots you're screwed.

2) My dog is an a**hole. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I love him, but he's so passive-aggressive. Seriously, he's giving me a dirty look right now. Jerk.

3) If you've scoped out the best spot for the sunrise, expect company. If you expect company, good luck trying to find a discreet place to relieve your stressed out bladder when you roll out of your tent in the morning. Dang it.

4) Know your intended route.

It didn't help that I started off the weekend on a weird note. I did my long run with my running group and then headed off to my favorite coffeeshop to meet some runners. We were in a mutual running community and, socially awkward as I am, I was finally pushing myself to meet them in person instead of being a figment of the Internet. I showed up, made some small talk, tried not to fidget with my hands under the table, and when one of the runners found out I am a photographer, she exclaimed, "Oh! My wife is going to love you! She's really into photography!" And when her wife arrived some time later my new runner friend immediately exclaimed, "Hey! She does photography!"

“She does pornography?” the newly arrived and still slightly groggy runner asked.

”No! Photography!”

"She does pornography?" the newly arrived and still slightly groggy runner asked.

"No! Photography!"

"What?" the new arrival asked again, not hearing or understanding.

"PHO-TO-GRA-PHY," and the runner next to me put her fingers up to her face as if she were clicking a camera.

"Oh. That's cool."

Awkward and anticlimatic. And that's pretty much how that weekend went. Work hard, go someplace new on your own, try not to freak out about the new place or people or being on your own, and things just play out really awkwardly anyways. Sounds about right for me.

And so I ran away to the mountains where Ryder was a jerk and the sky was cloudy and obscured the meteor shower and my tripod lost its handle and I couldn't find a place to pee and I totally missed Shining Rock.

I arrived late at the Black Balsam parking lot - a familiar sight from my Sam Knob backpacking trip - and hiked up with Ryder to the bald to claim a tent spot. I set up camp in the dark on a site overlooking Brevard. It was a cloudy Saturday night, and with the clouds and the town lights it was difficult to see the Perseid meteor shower even as I lay on the heath bald scanning the night sky for any glimmer of movement that wasn't a satellite and trying to make the photos work with a busted tripod. I wasn't very lucky.

With the clouds and the town lights it was difficult to see the Perseid meteor shower even as I lay on the heath bald scanning the night sky for any glimmer of movement that wasn’t a satellite

View of Brevard and night sky with clouds from Black Balsam Knob

Milky Way night photo

Since the cloud cover was blocking the view of the Perseids meteor shower I played around with taking a photo of the Milky Way

In the morning I woke up to a rosy sunrise and at least five hikers clamoring just outside my tent and Ryder licking my face and whining. I groaned and rolled over in my sleeping bag trying to ignore the red dawn and the grating canine squeal in my ear, but resistance was futile, so I unzipped the tent, threw some photography gear together, and tried to hold the broken tripod steady while Ryder ran around in manic and deranged circles.

Sunrise from Black Balsam Knob. I guess it was worth rolling out of bed for this.

"Wake up wake up wake up wake up"

"Seriously dude, why are you so excited? If you need to pee at least you can just go right there and no one will judge you. Lucky dog," I grunted at Ryder after he got tangled in the leash for the fourth time. From the corner of my eye I tried to gauge how far away the closest hikers were and if they could spy on me in a clump of heath. I decided they weren't far enough away, and once the sun rose fully round and red I packed up camp and headed back down to the car to swap out the overnight gear for a day pack.

"Okay, you can take my picture, but make me look all cool and pensive."

The best hiking breakfast has got to be blueberries right off the bush along the trail. When I packed up the tent I hadn't bothered eating anything more than a granola bar because I just wanted to get moving, but after I found my tripod handle on the trail (hooray for adhering to Leave No Trace! But dang it, I needed that handle earlier) and had found a secluded spot and we'd been on the trail for about an hour those blueberries were decidedly the best tasting things for miles.

The best hiking breakfast has got to be blueberries right off the bush along the trail.

Blueberries along the trail

Summit of Tennent Mountain along Art Loeb Trail

View from Art Loeb Trail

He's the happiest-looking dog right now, but 5 seconds earlier he was trying to drag me down the mountain. Apparently I wasn't hiking fast enough. Jerk.

A sighting of white quartz. There's a big rock outcrop of white quartz that shines brightly in the light, giving the rock outcrop and wilderness area the name "Shining Rock"

$10 to the first person who can correctly identify this flower. I'm not kidding: orange vine, white bell flowers. Go!

Boundary between Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness. Art Loeb Trail and Ivestor Gap Trail converge here - one of a few intersections of these two trails.

I followed Art Loeb Trail all the way from Black Balsam parking lot to a clearing at Shining Rock Gap, and turned left on the spur trail to connect to Ivestor Gap Trail, knowing that was the most common trail for accessing Shining Rock. I figured I'd see the white quartz rock formation after just a half mile or so. I had been spoiled with miles of balds and rolling trail and an all-you-can-eat buffet of blueberries and blackberries on the Art Loeb Trail, but the spur trail was flat and tucked under rhododendron. I marveled at how flat it was, and how long it seemed to go, expecting a turnoff for Ivestor Gap Trail after just half a mile, but then I realized the spur trail had turned into Ivestor Gap  Trail instead of intersecting like the map had implied, and I must have been on Ivestor Gap Trail for a couple miles already. I pulled Ryder aside for a bit of a late lunch and pulled out the map while a group of hikers passed by - the first I'd seen in miles.

“How was the rock?” one of the hikers asked me.

”What?” 

”The Shining Rock. How was it?”

”Oh. Fine,” I answered, too embarrassed to admit I had completely missed it.

"How was the rock?" one of the hikers asked me.

"What?" 

"The Shining Rock. How was it?"

"Oh. Fine," I answered, too embarrassed to admit I had completely missed it. As soon as they'd hiked past I checked my map again to figure out where the hell the rock was, and realized it was a little farther north from the big trail intersection at Shining Rock Gap. The usual route is apparently to take Ivestor Gap Trail to the spur trail to the Shining Rock Gap clearing (where the Art Loeb Trail connects), and hike another mile or so up Old Butt Knob Trail to the summit of Shining Rock.

I must have been within a half mile or so of the massive rock formation and I'd missed it. I looked once more at my map of Shining Rock Wilderness, tracing my finger along most of the trails in the area and realized I've seen most of the wilderness except the actual Shining Rock for which the wilderness gets its name. I shrugged and put the map away before Ryder and I continued down the trail to our car. I did the math: about twelve miles that day (depending on actual trail distance and how much backtracking we did between the campsite on Black Balsam Knob and our car) wasn't bad for a quick weekend hike and a drive back home. And at least I got to eat some blueberries.

Do it:

Trailhead: Black Balsam/Art Loeb trailhead in Shining Rock Wilderness/Pisgah National Forest

Map: National Geographic Pisgah Ranger District map* or Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness map*

Trail guide: RootsRated, Asheville Trails, HikeWNC, Backpacking North Carolina*, The Best Hikes of Pisgah National Forest*

Routes:

Route Option 1: Art Loeb (at Black Balsam trailhead) north to Shining Rock Gap, north on Old Butt Knob Trail

Distance: ~10 miles

  • Less traveled
  • More elevation change
  • Stunning views along Art Loeb
  • Better blackberries/blueberries/wildflowers

Route Option 2: Ivestor Gap Trail (at Sam Knob parking area - go past the Black Balsam trailhead on the same forest road) north to Shining Rock spur trail to Shining Rock Gap, north on Old Butt Knob Trail

Distance: ~9 miles

  • More hikers
  • Fairly flat
  • Views and flora are less exciting

Challenging option 1: Art Loeb Trail from Daniel Boone scout camp via Cold Mountain to Ivestor Gap, north on Old Butt Knob

Distance: 6.8 miles to Shining Rock Gap, plus variable hiking depending on your summit route up from Shining Rock Gap. Total mileage at least 14 miles

  • Side spur trail to Cold Mountain summit is worth it and views are amazing
  • Wilderness seclusion
  • Wilderness trails are unmaintained and can be difficult to navigate. Thorough understanding of the trail and use of topographical map and compass highly recommended.

Challenging option 2: Start at Big East Fork parking, hike loop of Shining Creek trail and Old Butt Knob

Distance: ~7 miles

  • Less hiked trails
  • More elevation change
  • Wilderness trails are unmaintained and can be difficult to navigate. Thorough understanding of the trail and use of topographical map and compass highly recommended.

Note: In my defense, apparently that trail junction at Shining Rock Gap is confusing and unmarked. I'm not the only hiker to have trouble with it, so check out this video for some clarification on the trails at Ivestor Gap:

Family-friendly/easy option: Rather than hiking all the way to Shining Rock, enjoy the easy hike up to Black Balsam Knob. With great views of Brevard on one side and the wilderness area on the other side, Black Balsam Knob is easily accessible and offers a big reward in terms of views. 

Distance: ~1.6 miles out and back

Have you hiked to Shining Rock or done any of the hikes in Shining Rock Wilderness? Let me know in the comments!

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