The timing of this trip just worked out with the warm weather, the cloudless skies, the leaves, and every detail. I knew I wanted to do something outside for my birthday and I knew I wanted to get a least one of the 6,000 ft peaks done. It all worked out much better than I had planned.
Boring details: I parked on Black Balsam Rd off of the Blue Ridge Pkwy. I took the Mountains to Sea trail east, then the Bridges Camp Gap trail which turns into the Big East Fork Trail. At the end of that trail I did an insignificantly short (like 75 yards) road walk to the Shining Creek Trail. I camped maybe a half mile from the road. Next day was the Shining Creek Trail to the Art Loeb then back to the truck with a small detour to bag Black Balsam Knob.
It was a pretty sweet loop most of it next to East Pigeon Fork River the first day and it was great dropping down from 5,500 ft and late Autumn to the lower elevations where the colors where much brighter in the thicker forests. The one thing I'd do differently would be taking the Old Butt Knob Trail the second day to add a little distance and from the looks of it much more open ridge walking.
I left my Aqua-Mira drops at the house (whoops!), but luckily I always keep some A-M tabs in my food bag for things like this. The only problem is I had to conserve and only got less than 3 liters of water each day.
The small section of the Mountains to Sea Trail that I did was amazing. I loved it. Lots of waterfalls and plenty of great camping spots.
The Big East Fork Trail was really a good walk. Easy walking along the river. Lots of pools, flumes and waterfalls that made me wish it was summer so I could swim, but the leaves were quick to remind me that autumn (while too cold to swim) has its own greatness.
It was a pretty chilly night next to the river, but I had my 20deg bag and was pretty toasty. In fact I slept in because I was so cozy and warm and didn't want to get up before the sun warmed things up a bit.
The forecast said no chance of rain, but I'm glad I set my tarp up just to keep the falling leaves from waking me up.
It was my birthday so I packed out a sweet treat and a candle to have a birthday breakfast. This Texas cinnamon roll was so sickly and unnaturally sweet it sort of turned my stomach after two bites and I couldn't suffer through the rest.
Shining Creek Trail was quite a climb going up around 2,000 ft, but it was long and nothing real harsh. Easy going with a light pack and strong legs. You really don't need to carry hardly any water for the most of it since you're right along Shining Creek.
A touch of warm colors up high. The weather was great. I'd say high 60's to low 70's. I hiked in nothing but shoes and running shorts the whole time. It was ridiculously windy up high and when I got closer to the road and started running into day hikers with their long pants and hoods cinched around their faces I got some odd looks. I did manage to get a little sunburned though.
The visibility was unreal that day. Not a cloud in the sky and you could see as far as humanly possible. You can click on the photos to get the larger size to really take it in.
Art Loeb Trail looking back north to Tennet Mtn.
Can anyone identify these guys for me? They were everywhere the entire trip (except the most exposed balds and ridges) with entire fields down around 2,000 ft.
All in all I would totally recommend this hike to anyone else in the area and it was a great way to celebrate my birthday. I love Shining Rock more and more each time I visit. You get the views and the experience of the Smokies, but without the crowds as long as you stay away from the parkway. Just bear in mind that there are no signs or blazes inside the Wilderness area and most of the trail junctions can be pretty confusing so bring a map and compass. Just don't use the National Geographic map. I cannot stress how much I hate their maps. I like the map you can get from www.cradleofforestry.com