Saturday, March 9, 2013

Big Bald - A Commanding Prominence

Wow, where does the time go?! I can’t believe it’s been five years since my last visit to Big Bald - too awesome a spot to visit that infrequently. Big Bald, at 5,516', is one of the better peaks in the Southeast, making both the Southeast Highest 100 list at #59, and the Southeast 50 Most Prominent at #10. But on top of that, the summit is a grassy bald with spectacular views in every direction. This was another great hike with my buddy Tommy Bell, and we couldn’t have picked a better day for it.

 We started seeing snow along the side of the road a couple miles before reaching the trailhead near 3,252’ Spivey Gap. The snow cover was continuous there, and only got deeper as we gained elevation. It was a fairly tough 15 miles, with up to as much as 18" of snow up high, except on the bald, where the wind had scoured it clean. There were some older tracks, but we still had to do quite a bit of postholing and I regretted not having brought my snowshoes.

We had some good views from High Rocks, the first peak the AT goes over on the way, and also found a nice, if limited view from Little Bald (which is not bald). But the big reward comes at the very top of Big Bald. This open summit is every bit as exposed as the alpine summits of the Northeast and can be dangerous in bad weather, but not today. This was a crystal clear day with blue sky and 80+ mile views that dictated spending over an hour on top identifying peaks all around the horizon and getting sunburned in the process. Though the wind had at some time scoured the top mostly clean of snow, there was little or no wind today, the temperature was above freezing, and we were able to lounge in the grass while soaking up the sun and taking in some of the best panoramic views in the Southern mountains.
The Bald Mountains from High Rocks
The dominant feature is probably the nearby crest of the Black Mountains, with its line of peaks above 6,000’ that culminates at Mount Mitchell, the highest peak for 1,200 miles. The rest of the horizon is like a who’s who of the Southern Appalachians. Just a few among the visible sights include the Great Craggies, the steep cone of Mount Pisgah, the Great Balsams, the Plott Balsams, the Newfound Mountains, the Great Smokies (with 6,621’ Mount Guyot very obvious), the Bald Mountains, the Iron Mountains, Unaka Mountain, Mount Rogers, part of the Amphibolite Range, the Roan Highlands, Grandfather Mountain, and Hawksbill and Table Rock on the eastern rim of Linville Gorge. One can also see across the Tennessee Valley to the Cumberland Plateau, Bays and Chimneytop Mountains in Tennessee, as well as Virginia’s Powell Mountain, Clinch Mountain, and even Big A Mountain some 78 miles away. I didn’t try to pick it out, but another hiking buddy, Tom Layton, pointed out that even Cumberland Gap is visible from this amazing vantage point. That would be a little over 70 miles to the northwest on the Virginia and Kentucky border. Also, it would seem that Black Mountain, the highpoint of Kentucky, is also in sight 68 miles away at a bearing of 340°. Not only that, but according to, several South Carolina peaks, including Caesars Head (62 miles), Pinnacle Mountain (68 miles), and Sassafras Mountain (66 miles) are also visible to the south. If so, that means that five states are visible from this commanding prominence. In all likelihood, some of the most distant landforms we could see on the horizon were pushing the 100 mile mark. With a spotting scope, and a day like this, it seems quite likely that one could even pick out some of the tall buildings in Charlotte by looking immediately to the left of Celo Knob. That would be 104 miles or so away! I’ll have to try to confirm that if I’m ever lucky enough to be here on another equally good day.

Tonka and Tommy taking it easy on Big Bald.
Looking northeast towards Unaka Mountain. Mount Rogers was just visible over Unaka's shoulder, some 70 miles away.
The Roan Highlands
A two shot panorama of the Black Mountains and the Great Craggy Mountains from Big Bald. Click to view larger or go to the album.
The view to the southwest from Big Bald takes in the Eastern Smokies, including Mount Guyot. The obvious snow-covered bald is Max Patch Mountain.

The route of this hike. To view a larger map click here.

Hike Stats: 14.8 miles, 4,200' cumulative elevation gain

Pictures from this hike

Other pictures from hikes to Big Bald
March 2008

gpx files and maps

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Trailhead coordinates: 36.03169,-82.42004

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  1. no way you could see charlotte to the left of celo, charlotte is way way to the would be blocked by the balsam crest (shining rock, cold mtn, etc)

  2. btw your photo is stuning, your website is amazing. is it possible i encountered you coming up from Bryson city just NW of newtown bald in the smokies during the late spring in 2010?

  3. Thank you! I checked my journal and I was not in the Smokies anytime during the Spring of 2010, so I guess it wasn't me you met back then. That would have been pretty neat though.

    As for Charlotte being visible from Big Bald, at least the tall buildings on an exceptionally clear day, I still think it is a possibility, but nothing I would claim as fact without verifying from the summit with a spotting scope. I thought I looked at this possibility pretty thoroughly back then, but I just investigated it much more thoroughly and still stand by it. A quick glance at the relief maps on my wall confirms that it may be possible.

    First, it would indeed be just left of Celo Knob and about 104 miles away to the Southeast, not South. Shining Rock is actually southwest of Big Bald at a bearing of 206° and a distance of 48 miles. See this link:
    Use the digital binoculars and look a little to the right of Black Balsam Knob.

    If Charlotte is indeed blocked from view, it is going to be blocked by either Bowlens Pyramid and other peaks just north of the Blacks, or by the mountains on the Blue Ridge crest just south of Spruce Pine, or quite possibly by the lower South Mountains in the vicinity of Walker Top. See this link:

    I did say the tall buildings though, and the tallest is the Bank of America Corporate Center, which is 871' high. The second tallest is the Duke Energy Center which is 786'. This view towards the Blacks and Big Bald is from the coordinates of the Bank of America building and 520' above the ground:
    According to this, Celo Knob would be plainly visible to the northwest at 299° and 90 miles away. I have no doubt that on a clear Winter day this would be true. The peakfinder, however, does not show Big Bald. I don't think that alone means it is not possible though.

    Regardless of whether it is visible or not, it would be interesting to verify it one way or the other. Maybe one of these years one of us will find out for sure.

  4. Well, the links didn't post live, so you'll have to copy and paste them. Sorry.