Ascent of Pond Mountain on 2012-12-08

Climber: Tom Layton

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Saturday, December 8, 2012
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Pond Mountain
    Elevation:4329 ft / 1319 m

Ascent Trip Report

Pond Mountain Trail runs from US321 along Watauga Lake (el. 1980) to FS Road 50, aka Laurel Fork Road and Dennis Cove Road (el. 3360). You can choose an 8-mile round trip that climbs over 2,300 feet from the north (US321) or a 4-mile round trip that climbs a little less than 1,000 feet from the south. You can always find me on the course of least resistance.

However, even the lesser southern approach is not as easy as the map suggests. The blue-blazed Pond Mountain Trail is not often used nor maintained, and it is not marked correctly on the topo. When I first tried it in August, the trail was overgrown, and I wound up attempting a totally unnecessary bushwhack through laurel and rhododendron. Exhausted, out of water and besieged by bugs, I turned back about a half-mile from the summit.

The topo shows the trail following the crest of Rough Ridge up to the Bear Stand trail junction and then contouring around the east side of Pond Mountain. The opposite is true: The first 1.4 miles follow an old road that contours along the W flank of Rough Ridge, and the last 0.7 is an assault on the ridge, gaining 540 feet in just 0.4 miles. The trail does cross directly over the summit.

I followed the blue blazes on the way up (2.1 miles) but took a ridgeline shortcut on the way down (2.0 miles). The shortcut involves less climbing and is not hard to follow, and if you are confident off-trail it is the route I would recommend.

To reach the trailhead from Hampton TN, take US321 south toward Boone NC, turn R onto Laurel Fork Road (NFS sign for Dennis Cove), drive across one gap, and zero your odometer at the well-marked Appalachian Trail crossing. From there, it's 3.0 miles to the unsigned Pond Mountain trailhead, opposite a gravel road to the R. If you watch closely on the L, you'll see a dark blue blaze on a roadside tree that marks the start of the trail. After pavement ends, Laurel Fork Road becomes FR50. It is rough but is passable by a car--just take your time.

At the trailhead, elevation 3360, cross 5 berms to reach an old woods road and a weathered sign-in box. The Pond Mountain Trail follows this winding road, climbing gently. After 1.0 mile on the road, elevation 3660, you’ll see a dip in the ridge on your R. Leave the trail here and climb through open woods to reach the ridge at 3700. Turn L (north) and walk up onto the 3880 ridge that leads N/NE toward the summit.

At 1.5 miles, you’ll encounter the blue blazes again. Off to your left, the Pond Mountain Trail followed the old road a total of 1.4 miles from the trailhead, dipped down below 3700, and then climbed a steep drainage to reach the ridge. By following the ridge, you’ve saved several hundred yards while moderating your climb. (It was along this stretch that I made my ill-fated bushwhack back in August, leaving the road at 1.2 miles to fight my way up to the ridgeline, where my instincts correctly told me I should have been.) I can only imagine that the trail is routed this way to avoid a property boundary, but there are no signs along the ridge.

The next quarter-mile climbs another 360 feet without switchbacks, and at 1.75 miles/4240 you reach boulders on the SW end of the summit ridge. The HP is another quarter-mile to the NE. There are lots of briars and boulders along the ridge, and except for the occasional blue blazes you would not know there is a trail here. It was not too bad on a mild December day, but it could be brutal in summer.

The wooded summit has a weathered BM but only limited winter views. I suspect there are great views of Watauga Lake on the trail up the north side, but I did not explore much further.

To the east of Pond Mountain, there are two other ranked but unremarkable peaks that you can bag while you're out here. Past the Pond Mtn trailhead, continue another 1.4 miles for the half-mile ridge bushwhack up Firescald Knob, and then another 1.8 miles to the junction of FS50 and FS39 for a quarter-mile walk to Walnut BM 3939. From this junction, you can follow FS 39 for 5 miles back down to 321--this road is not quite as rough as FS 50.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:1169 ft / 355 m
    Total Elevation Loss:200 ft / 60 m
    Round-Trip Distance:4.1 mi / 6.6 km
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:1069 ft / 325 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 969 ft / 295 m; Extra: 100 ft / 30m
    Loss on way in:100 ft / 30 m
    Distance:2.1 mi / 3.4 km
    Route:Pond Mtn trail
    Start Trailhead:3360 ft / 1024 m
    Time:2 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:100 ft / 30 m
    Gain on way out:100 ft / 30 m
    Distance:2 mi / 3.2 km
    Route:Ridgeline shortcut
    Time:1 Hours 10 Minutes

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