This is part of our Hiking Guide series rolling out this spring and summer.
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It might sound like sacrilege, but forget the Blue Ridge Parkway, the high point of Mt. Mitchell’s summit or the rolling humps of the Roan Highlands: The best views are to be found on Big Bald.
The 5,516-foot-tall peak rises slowly out of the surrounding landscape, nestled in between the waving folds of the Black Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains, and offers shut-up-and-gasp views of each. The completely unobstructed view of the surrounding, larger mountain ranges gives the sumptuous impression of sitting in an amphitheater of peaks arrayed specifically to impress you.
Of course, “best mountain views” is a highly subjective matter of opinion, and you’re welcome to your own favorites. But I think you could make a solid argument that Big Bald is tough to beat in the Southeast, especially when you factor in how easy it is to find.
Easily accessible from a parking lot off Interstate 26, Big Bald is convenient to Charlotte, only a little over two hours away. The Appalachian Trail that leads to the summit is well-maintained and generally makes for easy hiking — but with enough climb to make it fun. At about 6.5 miles from the parking lot, Big Bald offers just the right distance to make for a satisfying day hike without being crushing, and plenty of options for camping or extending your hike into a longer trip.
Do it as a day hike
From Charlotte, you’ll head west and then north, ending past Asheville just off I-26. Park at Sam’s Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crosses Flag Pond Road. There’s a large parking area just before a highway overpass.
From the parking lot, cross Flag Pond Road and head northbound (actually east in this section) on the Appalachian Trail, which hugs the North Carolina/Tennessee border. The trail climbs sharply at first, before leveling off and heading through a long stretch of forest. For the first few miles, you’ll meander along ridgelines, mostly in the woods, with occasional breaks in the trees that offer glimpses of Big Bald as it looms closer.
You’ll pass a few smaller side trails and a forest road, but follow the white-blazed Appalachian Trail the whole way. After about four miles, you’ll encounter a marked trail to Wolf Laurel Resort, a ski resort with runs down the southern slopes that abuts the trail. After a bit more than a mile, you’ll start climbing more sharply again, this time out of the forest and towards the grassy bald. The trail here becomes rockier and steeper, so watch your ankles.
After a short stretch of more strenuous hiking, you’ll find yourself emerging from the trees and onto a wide open, grassy bald. The trail stretches away for miles ahead of you, dipping onto another, lower bald, while the mountains unfold around you. From here, you can see Mt. Mitchell, the highest point on the East Coast, and its companion peak, Mt. Craig. If the weather is good, the huge bald makes for a perfect spot to sit back, kick up your feet and enjoy lunch.
If you want to go another mile or so, you can hike over to the next bald and check out the view, which is pretty similar, or you can turn around and head back to your car. The round trip is a bit above 13 miles.
Do it as a camping trip
Can’t bear to leave the beauty after just one night? You’ll pass several campsites on your way up to Big Bald, some in the woods and some in the clearings and smaller balds along the way. Not all of them have water, especially the ridgeline sites, but some have great views.
About a mile past Big Bald, there’s an Appalachian Trail shelter with campsites, a privy and water. It’s on a well-marked, short side trail. If you camp here and then head back the way you came the next morning, you’re looking at about a 14.5 mile round trip — a good length for an introductory backpacking excursion.
Or, if you have two cars, you can park one at the above-mentioned parking spot and another at Spivey Gap, off 19 West. Then, hike from Sam’s Gap to Spivey Gap, a 12-mile trip, spending the night a little past the halfway point near the shelter. The main advantage of this route is you won’t have to retrace your steps — but Big Bald is so gorgeous, why wouldn’t you want to?
Featured photo: The summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi, and the Black Mountains, as seen from Big Bald. Photo by Ely Portillo