Potato Knob Fields Hike
Potato Knob is a rocky, prominent peak visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, many points in the foothills region, and along I-40. It is a well-known area landmark. This hike takes you on a spectacular section of the Mountains to Sea Trail below the peak, with views both up and down. It travels to some scenic meadows on a slope below the summit. You'll go through a pleasant spruce-fir forest, some of which was planted as a reforestation effort after the mountains were logged. The trail itself is a marvel, as gigantic rocks have been moved to form the trail surface. This trail is suitable for families with older children; younger kids may have difficulty on some of the rocky sections.
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Total Length: 2 mi
- Trail Tread Condition: Moderately Rough
- Climb: Climbs Moderately
- Lowest Elevation: 5370 ft
- Highest Elevation: 5720 ft
- Total Elevation Gain: 350 ft
- Trails Used: Mountains to Sea Section 03: Pisgah Inn to Black Mountain Campground
- Hike Configuration: Out-and-back
- Starting point: Parking Area on NC 128, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway
From Asheville, take the Blue Ridge Parkway north for 27 miles to the entrance for Mount Mitchell State Park. Turn left onto NC 128, and go 0.6 mi. The trailhead is at the crossing of the Mountains to Sea Trail; there is a parking pulloff on the right. The trail ascends a set of steps across the road (on the left as you drive in).
Start the hike by ascending the stairs across the road from the parking pulloff. You will see the sign for the Mountains to Sea Trail, and this trail follows white circular blazes. You will immediately pass through a staggered fence designed to keep large animals (e.g., horses) off the trail.
The trail switches back in a grassy area under some spruce trees, then ascends gently to achieve the ridgeline. Immediately you will notice how well this trail was built. Its design sheds water at all possible locations, and the trailbed is "outsloped" - meaning water runs across and off the edge of the trail rather than down the length of the trail. This means the trail is not eroded, making the walk that much more pleasant. The entire trail up to the meadows is similarly built - in fact most new sections of the Mountains to Sea Trail are this way.
As you approach the ridge, you'll notice the tall, straight spruce trees, whose dark appearance from afar in comparison to other trees give the Black Mountains their name. However, many of the spruces on this section are not the native Red Spruce - they are Norway Spruce, imported from Europe and planted after the Black Mountains were logged in the early 20th century. Valuable for its soft, resilient wood, the Red Spruce were logged extensively during World War II and used for airplane propellers, leaving the mountains denuded. You pass through several stands of these now middle aged trees.
The Norway spruce were selected for replanting due to their similarity to the native spruces, but their faster growth rate. The two species can be distinguished (among other ways) by looking at their limb structure. The Norway spruces have conspicuously drooping twigs along the main limbs, while the Red Spruces do not.
Although the Norway Spruce are not natives, they are not really as invasive as some other non-native species in the region - they will survive if planted, but don't seem to readily sprout from seeds on their own this far south. (The problem is worse in the Northeast and southern Canada). Indeed, most of the young trees you'll see - even near the edges of the Norway spruce stands - are native Red Spruce.
A third alpine tree, the native Fraser Fir, is not very abundant in this immediate area but you will see a few of them closer to the fields on Potato Knob.
As you walk up the pleasant, gently sloping ridgeline, you'll pass through several grassy openings in the forest. You'll also pass the boundary markers for the Blue Ridge Parkway property, downhill to your left. Several stands of short, straight American Beech trees, where the ground covered with soft grass, appear at points along the trail.
The beeches are under attack by a non-native disease complex consisting of an insect and fungus working in cohorts with one another. Just like the Fraser Firs, the American Chestnuts (now completely devastated), the Dogwoods and the Hemlocks, the ultimate fate of the beeches after the disease spreads everywhere they grow is still unknown.
Luckily, a few of the beech trees do seem to be naturally resistant to the disease - unlike the Hemlocks, Fraser Firs, and Chestnuts, which experience nearly 100% mortality due to their respective killers. Look for brown or orange colored leaves on affected trees during mid to late summer, often times sprinkled with the bright green of new growth as the trees attempt to recover, while some individual trees remain remarkably unaffected.
The trail swings right to become sidehill again through a boulder field, and this is where some of the more remarkable trail structures can start to be seen. The trail was built by members of the Carolina Mountain Club, who took no shortcuts. At one point a seep or small stream oozes beneath a stone bridge. Massive stone steps carry you up around a switchback and back over the same seep once again. There are more of these types of trail structures ahead.
The trail will round the main ridge once more. The forest you will be traveling through now is more of a mixed high-elevation forest with mostly young trees. Interspersed open areas are at times overgrown with wildflowers and blackberries, but this is where you will catch your first views of the valley below. This valley is the Asheville Watershed, and the large lake below is the Burnett Reservoir. Asheville has one of the cleanest water sources of any city in the country thanks to these forests, and the watershed is said to protect the largest contiguous stands of Red Spruce forest in the Southern Appalachians. The steep, rocky peak above you to your right is Potato Knob (summit elevation 6420').
The trail is well-blazed, and it is not very difficult to follow. The trail passes through some "block fields" - areas where stacks of rocks and boulders have fallen from cliffs or steep mountain peaks. These stone fragments were pried loose by freeze-thaw action mainly during the last ice age. Massive slabs of stone had to be moved to form the trail's surface. There are stone steps at almost every up- or down-hill section, and indeed, it goes up and down a lot in this area. It's hard to imagine just how much effort went into hustling these boulders in to place for us to enjoy a nice, clear path. Luckily, the trail surface here should pretty much never erode, ensuring future generation will be also able to admire this handiwork.
As you round the next ridge coming down from Potato Knob, the trail will switchback once, and then a spectacular view opens up to the left from a rocky outcrop. Here, the emblem of the Carolina Mountain Club has been cemented to the rocks as a tribute to those who built this trail. This is one of the oldest, largest, and most active hiking and trail-related clubs in the region, and their efforts should be greatly appreciated when enjoying views such as this!
Continue just a couple hundred feet further up the trail to an open meadow which, during the spring and summer, is just brimming with wildflowers. You'll find (among others) Turk's Cap Lily, Daisy, Coneflower, Thistle, Bee Balm, St. John’s Wort, and Goldenrod (which blooms early this high up). A large, obvious boulder sits alone in a meadow on the left side of the trail. A small side path leads up to the rock, and with some effort you can climb up on top of it. This rock marks the official end of this hike.
However, if you've still got some energy, the Mountains to Sea trail continues straight ahead and plunges back into deep, dark, mossy green spruce and fir forests as it resumes its (steeper) climb. It ascends to the top of the main Black Mountains ridge west of (a) Potato Knob, before going down through (b) Rainbow Gap and up to (c) Blackstock Knob. These would make nice extended destinations along this section of the Mountains to Sea Trail for longer hikes, with round-trip distances of about (a) 4, (b) 5 and (c) 7 miles from NC 128, respectively.
Enjoy the views, maybe have a snack and take some time to get re-hydrated, and then head back down to your vehicle the way you came to finish the hike.
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