Alan Kent Wilson remembers the toughest mountain he’s ever climbed in the South. “It was Reinhardt Knob. We didn’t have a good map, we started at the wrong place, it’s in a wilderness area so the routes aren’t marked, and it’s one of the most difficult bushwhacks around. There just isn’t a good way up that mountain.”
The 6,080 foot Reinhardt Knob is part of the South Beyond 6000 (SB6K) hiking challenge offered by the Carolina Mountain Club and the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club. There are 40 recognized peaks east of the Mississippi that top out above 6000 feet, and these two hiking clubs want to know if you can climb them all.
All but one of the 40 peaks is in North Carolina (LeConte in Tennessee is the only recognized 6000 foot mountain outside of the Tarheel State), making the challenge logistically feasible for anyone with a car.
If you just look at the numbers, you might think the SB6K is a piece of cake. After all, we’re not talking about snow-capped fourteeners here. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
“Half of the peaks don’t have trails that lead to the top,” says Wilson, who became the “score keeper” of the SB6K program after completing the challenge himself. “You have to bushwhack if you want to truly attain these peaks. And believe it or not, going up these mountains is the easy part. Going down is when it gets tricky. There are 360 different ways down the mountain when you bushwhack, and almost all of them are in the wrong direction.”
To date, only 146 hikers have qualified for the SB6K badge, which along with a certificate, serve as the only bounty for attaining all of the peaks. Ask any of the hikers and they’ll be quick to tell you it was the hardest badge they’ve earned since they were in the Scouts.
But we’ve come up with a cheat sheet for the SB6K challenge. Do the three day hikes listed below and you’ll bag 13 sixers in no time, and be over a quarter of your way through bagging all 40 peaks in the SB6K challenge.
– The Art Loeb Trail, Black Balsam Range –
Four Peaks: Black Balsam (6,214), Tennent (6,060), Grassy Cove (6,040), and Shining Rock (6,010)
Hike section three of the Art Loeb from the Parkway to Shining Rock. The 10.5-mile out and back traverses the ridgeline of the Black Balsams, taking you from one grassy bald to another. Short spur trails leave the Art Loeb to the peaks of each of the four SB6K mountains.
Bonus: The 360 degree views. In addition to bagging four peaks in one hike, the trail passes over some of the tallest balds in the South, offering mega views and ideal picnic opportunities. Looking Glass Rock is particularly picturesque from the trail.
Directions: From the parkway, take FS 816 at mile post 420. Go one mile and park at the crest of the hill where the Art Loeb meets the Mountains to Sea.
– Black Mountain Crest Trail, Black Mountain Range –
Six Peaks: Mount Craig (6,648), Balsam cone (6,596), Potato Hill (6,475), Winter Star (6,212) Gibbs Mountain (6,512), Celo Knob (6,327)
The hike begins at Mount Mitchell parking area at 6,550 feet above sea level and heads north along the crest of the Black Mountain Range (thus the name), the tallest mountain range east of the Mississippi. You’ll get a lot of peaks in the bag on this 14-mile out and back, but you’ll work for every one of them. Some summits require rock scrambles and bushwhacks.
Bonus: The challenge. The Black Mountain Crest Trail gains and loses elevation faster than Oprah gains and loses weight. It’s often considered one of the toughest trails in the country, so you’ll be knocking off two hiking feats in one.
Directions: Take BRP to NC Route 128 and drive to the top of Mount Mitchell. Trailhead starts at the north side of the parking lot.
– The Appalachian Trail, Roan Mountains –
Three Peaks: Roan High Knob (6,285), Roan High Bluff (6,267), Grassy Bald Ridge (6,160)
The hike starts at Carver’s Gap and there is some mandatory backtracking and route variations, so mileage is subjective. Roan High Knob is 1.5 miles south of Carvers Gap on the A.T. From Carver’s Gap, Roan High Bluff is another two miles south off of the Cloudland Trail, and Grassy Ridge Bald is 1.9 miles north of Carver’s Gap on the A.T.
Bonus: Superlatives. These are the oldest mountains in the world. You’ll pass the oldest rock on the continent and visit the highest trail shelter on the A.T. And many folks say the Roans have the prettiest views along the entire trail.
Directions: Carvers Gap is 14 miles from Bakersville, N.C. on N.C. 261.