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Rip & Go: Black Balsam Knob to Cold Mountain – Pisgah National Forest, NC

Trek 18.2 miles from the South's best view to its most famous mountain.
september 09 ripngo black balsam 445x260Old Butt Knob Trail (Kevin Adams)

Key Skill: Reading the Clouds
The pastoral valleys, rhododendron-filled hillsides, and end-of-the-earth views may make you feel that all is well with the world, but don’t be fooled. This range is notorious for thunderstorms, and even snow, any time of year. The movement of the clouds foretells the arrival of a storm-bearing frontal system if you know how to read it. Use this guide to help you decide whether to retreat to treeline or amble on.

1. Towering cumulus
When white, cotton ball-shaped clouds (fair weather indicators) gather, darken, and swell into towering anvils, rain and lightning are likely within 12 hours. Skip exposed highlands by taking the Ivestor Gap or Tennent Mountain Trails.

2. Cirrus and cirrocumulus
These wispy clouds indicate fair weather for the next 24 hours, perfect for shooting photos on a ridge traverse.

3. Stratus and nimbostratus
If you’re not already wet, you will be soon. These long, gray, shallow clouds often bring several days of rain and drizzle–but no lightning. Throw on a shell and hike on.

Camp Chat
Black Balsam Knob, the 23rd highest peak in North Carolina, is part of a string of open summits within the Blue Ridge Mountains called the Balsam Range. The grassy, gently sloping summits are renowned for their sweeping views. But these mountaintops weren’t always bald. Extensive clear-cut logging denuded some, and fires in 1925 and 1942 that burned so hot that they destroyed the mineral rich topsoil got the others. This slowed reforestation or stopped it altogether. Discuss: Would you support a reforestation effort to rebuild this area to its original condition, even it meant losing the incredible vistas?

See This
Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel

This two-ounce, endangered squirrel glides tree to tree in the cool highlands on flaps of skin that stretch between its front and back legs. It drops its hind end to brake and uses its tail to steer itself to soft landings. The squirrels make homes of shredded bark inside dead pine trunks or in abandoned woodpecker nests and are mainly nocturnal.

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