My wife and I chose to hike this 9.5-mile route as kind of a “cool down” hike the day after we tackled Mount Mitchell, and it was a great choice.
Starting at the Mount Mitchell State Park information center, we hopped onto the Commissary Trail, which lasts about 1.3 miles before it ends along the Buncombe Horse Trail, a 17-mile trail that is among the toughest hikes in the entire area, if the signs are to be believed. We only hiked a little over 3 miles of the trail, down to the point where the Buncombe Horse Trail met up with another parking lot. This was as far as the route on AllTrails took you, and it lined up perfectly with our desires for the day.
In total, it was just over 9 miles of hiking, with just over 900 feet of elevation. After destroying my knees going down Mount Mitchell Trail the day prior, this was perfect. The first half of this out and back trail is either flat or downhill; the second half is either flat or uphill. None of it is challenging, but all of it is enjoyable.
While there wasn’t a ton to see on the Commissary or Buncombe horse trails in terms of overlooks or peaks, I still had an awesome time on this hike. The slope was gentle at most, and flat 60% of the time. It wasn’t too rocky, there weren’t a ton of roots to deal with, and the best part was that there wasn’t a single soul on the trail.
In one of the most popular hiking destinations in North Carolina, on a saturday morning, on a perfect day, near the end of May? I thought there was no chance there would be a single trail that didn’t have at least a few other hikers. I was fully prepared to share the trail with others, because the only other time I’ve ever seen a truly empty trail was when I was 18 miles deep into North Cascades National Park.
As someone who loves solitude almost as much as nature itself, this was a welcome development. Being alone on a trail is a great way to experience complete peace of mind, and truly immerse yourself in the surroundings, even if the surroundings themselves are nothing special.
And, while it’s true that this trail was “nothing special” in the grand scheme of things, it was one of the highlights of our three day trip to western NC. We were walking through parts of the Asheville Watershed, a truly unique place; over 17,500 acres of land where water runs downhill and helps sustain the largest city in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What this meant for our hike was that we got to walk past a couple of places where the water gathered as it ran downhill – not quite streams, but the beginnings of them – and the sound of water gently crashing on stones made for a wonderfully peaceful lunch.
It also meant that, at some points, we really did have a nice view of the mountains below us. This hike starts pretty high up – the trailhead is only a few minutes’ drive from Mount Mitchell, famously the highest point East of the Mississippi – which meant that all views were looking down. That’s not typical of most hikes I’ve been on recently, where, no matter how high up we got, there was always something bigger to look at. There’s beauty in both – looking down at the valley below or gazing up at soaring peaks. It was just nice to see the world open up beneath my feet for a bit.
Most parts of the trail did not provide such sweeping landscapes. The views and overlooks are entirely relegated to the 1.3 mile Commissary Trail, while the longer Buncombe Horse Trail is wooded on both sides. That’s not to say the Buncombe Horse Trail has nothing to offer, however, as it’s full of trees, flowers, and other “little nature” things to look at.
By the end of this 3 hour hike (it wasn’t hard at all to keep a 20-minute mile pace), I was itching for more, simply because this little walk in the woods was so enjoyable. Nothing special at all about it; but maybe that’s what made it just right for a long morning walk with my wife, talking about life, careers, and what we wanted to eat for dinner.