Beyond 6,000 - The Southern Sixers
Even the experts take a while to sort out the jumbled geography of the southern Appalachians. The main crest of the range splits in Great Smoky Mountains at a Sixer appropriately called Tricorner Knob. The western segment is the route followed by the Appalachian Trail, and includes the three peaks in the Roan Highlands. The eastern segment follows Balsam Mountain, and then joins the route followed by North Carolina's Mountain to Sea Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few Sixers lie directly along the main Blue Ridge crest, but most are on one of three major north-south ranges; the Plott Balsams, the Great Balsams, and the Black Mountains. The two segments meet again in southern Virginia, far north of the limits of 6,000, or even 5,000-foot summits, in the southern Appalachians.
Of the 40 peaks, 39 are at least partly in North Carolina. The Plott Balsam, Great Balsam, and Black Mountain ranges are all entirely in the Tar Heel State, while 11 peaks in the Smokies and the Roans straddle the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee. The Smokies' Mount LeConte is the only Sixer that the Volunteer State can claim for its very own.
Each of the ranges has its own character. The Smokies is perhaps the most famous area; after all, the park is the most visited with some of the best known peaks in the region. Clingmans Dome is the highest point of the Appalachian Trail, and is a tourist favorite thanks to the scenic road that ends only one half mile from the summit. Mount LeConte is the range's most revered peak. The top is a long haul by any of the six trails that converge near the summit. LeConte's 6,500-foot-high lodge and trail shelter have comforted thousands of overnighters.
The Plott Balsams are virtually unknown outside the Sixer community. Most of this range is privately owned, but public access is permitted on rough, unmaintained trails along the crest. Highpoint Waterrock Knob is an easy hike up a nature trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Great Balsams sprawl across the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness areas. From now famous Cold Mountain to Black Balsam Knob you'll fight crowds in the popular campsites around Shining Rock. But the peaks in the Middle Prong Wilderness, and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, are little visited.
Trails in the Black Mountains are among the roughest in the region. Most folks take the scenic drive to the top of Mount Mitchell, but there are several challenging trails leading to the summit. The Black Mountain Crest Trail, which connects many of the Sixers, takes almost every hiker by surprise the first time. Most expect this ridgetop route to offer easy going, but underestimate the rough footing, steep grades, and the number of short climbs. Many of the Sixers in the Blacks require bushwhacks, but these are generally short.
The Roan Highlands are a popular range with hikers and tourists alike. The famous rhododendron gardens south of Carvers Gap are packed during the late spring/early summer bloom. The high mountain balds between Carvers Gap and Grassy Ridge are popular year-round.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication