Ascent of Big Bald on 2011-10-22

Climber: Tom Layton

Date:Saturday, October 22, 2011
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Big Bald
    Location:USA-North Carolina/Tennessee
    Elevation:5516 ft / 1681 m

Ascent Trip Report

If you're looking for big views, devote a day to Big Bald. Not only is it lofty and wide-open, but it sits in the hub of an arc of 6000-footers: the Roans, Blacks, Craggies, Balsams, Plott Balsams, and the eastern Smokies. On a clear day like the one I enjoyed, you can see three state HPs (NC/KY/VA) and almost the entire breadth of the southern Appalachians--from Table Rock east of the Linville Gorge to the ridges that frame Cumberland Gap on the VA/KY line.

Peakbaggers will appreciate that Big Bald counts on 17 lists.

Also making the view worthy is that you have to earn it.

If you're looking for an easy way to Big Bald, rent a cabin at the gated Wolf Laurel resort, where you can drive within a half-mile of the summit. Getting a visitor's pass has been iffy. I have read some trip reports where hikers called a day ahead and had no problem getting permission, But others who followed the same procedure have been turned down, including me.

The lady on the phone recommended that I hike the AT from Sams Gap. "It's a nice walk," she said.

Nice and long.

Whether you start from Sams Gap or Spivey Gap, you're facing a round trip of at least 12 miles. I chose Sams Gap because the up-and-down from Spivey looked more strenuous. But the climbs from Sams Gap are not to be taken lightly. The 12.7-mile round trip included 2300 feet of climbing and took me 8 plodding hours, including a half-hour on top. I finished by flashlight.

To reach Sams Gap, head west on I-26 from Asheville NC toward Johnson City TN, take Exit 3 toward Wolf Laurel, turn L onto US23A, and park at the trailhead where 23A crosses under I-26.

The hike is straightforward: 6.35 miles northbound on the AT. (Mileage is from my GPS. Various online sources say 5.8 to 6.8 miles.)

From Sams Gap, climb 700 feet in 1.8 miles to a ridge that is a ranked summit, unnamed on the topos but identified as West Street Gap Peak on peakbagger and 4460 on listsofjohn. An open field ahead gives you a great view of Big Bald and a a chance to size up the rest of the hike.

At 2.4 miles, reach Street Gap, which is crossed by a gravel road that may or may not be open to the public. I didn't see any traffic, and I have heard that there are access issues on both sides, especially the NC approach. If you can drive up to Street Gap from the TN side (see directions for Hike 276 on you can shorten the hike to 8 miles roundtrip.

At 3.4 miles, pass an unnamed gap (el 4260) and begin the steady 1250-foot climb to Big Bald. Once on the ridge, the AT briefly parallels a paved road in Wolf Laurel within a mile of the summit. The AT climbs through some interesting boulder fields before breaking into the summit bald.

The BM is mounted on a concrete post on the NW side of the trail. Curiously, it was set by the N.C. State Highway Department--even though there is not a highway within miles.

Big Bald is my 91st COHP, my 6th in Tennessee, and one of my all-time favorites.

Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2966 ft / 903 m
    Total Elevation Loss:2966 ft / 903 m
    Round-Trip Distance:12.7 mi / 20.4 km
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
    Weather:Cool, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:2366 ft / 721 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 1766 ft / 538 m; Extra: 600 ft / 182m
    Loss on way in:600 ft / 182 m
    Distance:6.4 mi / 10.2 km
    Route:AT northbound
    Start Trailhead:Sams Gap  3750 ft / 1143 m
    Time:4 Hours 30 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:2366 ft / 721 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 1766 ft / 538 m; Extra: 600 ft / 182m
    Gain on way out:600 ft / 182 m
    Distance:6.4 mi / 10.2 km
    Route:AT southbound
    End Trailhead:Sams Gap  3750 ft / 1143 m
    Time:3 Hours 
Ascent Part of Trip: Big Bald

Complete Trip Sequence:
1West Street Gap Peak2011-10-22 a 
2Big Bald2011-10-22 b2966 ft / 904 m
Total Trip Gain: 2966 ft / 904 m    Total Trip Loss: 2966 ft / 904 m

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