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Hike of the Month

BIG BUTT TRAIL

Round-trip: 6 miles
Hiking time: 4 hours
Best time to hike: Spring through fall
High point: 5900 feet
Elevation gain: 600 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Rules and fees: Dogs must be on a leash on Blue Ridge Parkway property, and on U.S. Forest Service land and state game land between April 1 and August 15
Map: USGS Mount Mitchell
Contact: Blue Ridge Parkway headquarters, 828‑271‑4779; automated road and weather conditions, 828‑298‑0398; www.nps.gov/blri

Getting there: Traveling north from the Asheville area, take the Blue Ridge Parkway to milepost 359 at the Balsam Gap pullout on the left. It is about 25 miles northeast of Asheville and 4 miles south of the turnoff to Mount Mitchell State Park.

Once you get past the name of the trail, you and your dog will thoroughly enjoy this lovely, remote hike. Some steep, strenuous climbing sections mean you should make sure the pooch is fit and up for the challenge. Also bring plenty of water because you will find no reliable streams or springs along the way. This trail is best hiked from spring through fall; winter is uncomfortably cold at this altitude and is often inaccessible because the Blue Ridge Parkway is frequently closed then. The trail is at its prettiest in spring, starting in mid-April when it is bursting with wildflowers.

Start at the Balsam Gap pullout on the parkway at an elevation of 5320 feet and start the trail at the south end of the parking area. The Big Butt Trail is blazed with a white circle. Descend into an evergreen forest and a sea of wildflowers, including trillium, violet, bluet, and mayapple. The ground, completely carpeted in flowers, looks white, pink, and purple rather than brown and green.

Keep winding and climbing through an evergreen forest, stepping over many tree roots and gliding through a sea of wildflowers. The trail leaves Park Service property a few minutes into the hike and passes into the Pisgah National Forest and North Carolina Game Lands, where hunting is allowed in season, generally November through April. Putting a hunter orange vest on your dog (as well as the people on the hike) during those times is advisable.

At 0.4 mile enter an area dense with rhododendron, rocky footing, and a lot of downed trees on the sides of the trail. Soon you are walking along Brush Fence Ridge. In the spring and summer, when the weather is warm and the flowers are abundant, this trail is not frequently traveled, so you can often find solitude, even on weekends.

At 1.6 miles, you will arrive at Point Misery at 5715 feet elevation. You will understand the name a little better on the return, since the climb is steep. From here, descend rapidly on a muddy, rocky path riddled with tree roots and switchbacks, heading in a northwesterly direction.

Keep descending, dropping down into a hardwood forest and, from April to June, passing through fields dotted with red-flowered trillium, also known as wake robin. At times it feels as if you are traipsing through someone's perfectly unkempt flower garden—there are so many blooms. At just over 2 miles begin a very steep ascent, where in some places you will have to use your hands to hoist yourself up. Older or overweight dogs or those with short legs might have trouble here. Enter a rhododendron and mountain laurel-framed trail with beautiful views spread left of the narrow trail as it hugs the ledge.

Dogs with their noses to the ground will no doubt sniff out a slightly less trampled spur trail that veers off to the right at about 2.3 miles at Little Butt. It leads to a rock ledge that provides perfect seating to witness a perfect, sweeping view of the Black Mountains to the east. Hold on tightly to dogs if they are prone to wandering—the drop-offs are steep and sudden.

This is a good spot for a rest and a drink after the arduous climb. A backtrack from here will make for a nearly 5-mile round-trip hike. Or, continue on the main trail for nearly a mile more to Big Butt. You can see the destination ahead as the trail starts to narrow and become overgrown with dense, thorny underbrush, almost to the point of bushwhacking in places. You are walking along a ridge, and when the vegetation thins out in places, there are long-ranging views on either side of the trail. The actual Big Butt summit is hard to access due to the thick, overgrown vegetation, but you should arrive there at about 3 miles. Retrace your steps to the trailhead.


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