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This loop is an excellent hiking, backpacking, or trail running opportunity to explore the little-traveled Middle Prong Wilderness.
Originally logged in the early 1900s, this area became officially designated as a wilderness area in 1984 and provides an excellent opportunity to escape the often crowded trails in the area.
Scattered throughout this loop are remnants of the logging operations, including large cables that almost appear welded into the ground along the old railroad grades. With the exception of the trailhead along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the entire loop is within Middle Prong Wilderness, meaning "...trails are neither signed nor blazed, and are maintained at a low level that results in their treads being difficult or impossible to see at times," according to the US Forest Service. During the winter months, this loop can be accessed from NC-215, both from a dirt road near Sunburst Campground and from a pull-off near the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When the BRP is open, park at the small pull-off near milepost 426.5 and head northeast following the white dot blaze.
Just a few strides in, you will reach the intersection with the Mountains to Sea Trail. You could complete this loop in either direction, but most would choose clockwise as Buckeye Gap can be hard to follow from the top due to its steep pitch.
Keep left at the fork and begin descending Haywood Gap Trail into the official wilderness area.
The trail parallels a small stream that quickly turns into a rushing river, forming the headwaters of Stony Fork River.
At a few points, the trail crosses the river, and you will likely get wet.
In the summer months, take the opportunity to cool off and enjoy having the entire trail to yourself. As the spruce-fir forest begins to give way to the beautiful fields of rhododendron, the trail enters a narrow gorge, where it skirts around a near-vertical rock slab.
3 points of contact will be required to get around it.
On the other side, the narrow, steep trail merges into an old logging road where it parallels the growing river.
Depending on the time of year, you may see a couple of fisherman in this area.
Reaching an opening in the old road, Buckeye Gap Trail is located the right and can be obscured due to how few people travel it.
Again, there is no trail marker or blaze to denote it.
An extremely steep and challenging climb lies ahead and will test even the strongest of hikers and runners.
Within 1.5 miles, the trail levels out and follows another old railroad grade, contouring along Green Mountain to the picturesque overlook at Green Mountain Knob.
To make room for the railroad grade, loggers cleared many of the trees and surrounding foliage over time which now gives way to countless views. If you are looking for an overnight camping opportunity, there are several great options in this area, as well as an old stone foundation used as a building for the aforementioned logging operations.
To connect the two trails, take the right onto the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) and follow it along another railroad grade as it makes its way through the picturesque and rare spruce-fir forest that is found in this portion of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Several partial views, in addition to the beautiful Appalachian flora, line the way as you make your way back to the trailhead. For the most adventurous hikers and trail runners out there, pair this loop with the Green Mountain Trail and visit the bald summit of Green Knob, known as one of the best unadulterated views in this part of the National Forest. Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Prong_Wilderness https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recarea/?recid=48250