A few weekends ago, we joined with a group of close friends to hike to Stratton Bald, North Carolina, for an overnight, winter backpacking trip. The idea started in October, when we were all too busy working to get outside; we knew if something was on the calendar, we would make it happen.
Immediately, I started to regret our happy-outdoorsy decision as I thought about sub 30 temps and how I would survive. I am by nature warm blooded.
I remembered somewhat post panic-attack that this, too, would be an adventure.
THE TREK – Stratton Bald from Naked Ground at Joyce Kilmer
One story says that this area is where Bob Stratton would hang out and hike, especially in the cold. He loved the remoteness of the trail.This is the former domain of Bob Stratton, he liked cool weather and loved the remote location. He would hike through the bald saying “Hey oh, Hey oh” and that is how the “Haoe Lead” trail at the top was named.
I planned the trek for this trip and I was very nervous doing so for our group. I am happy planning trips for Chad and I, but a group of us made me a bit nervous (especially to areas that I do not know). I started my research with Backpacker Magazine routes, which is how we found our Peru backpacking trek as well. In my planning, I found this loop online, which provided the most detail on a reasonable Stratton Bald hike. Here is another site, with photos, and a bit of info on the cons (one con-the trail is NOT well marked at the top, and washout makes it difficult to find…we did hike off the trail once, as it is a tricky trail to follow).Part of the trail is literally through a creek (or a small creek had formed on the trial due to the copious amount of rainfall we have received in this area) and water is plentiful for the trip. Another site talks about how it is 5.7 miles to Stratton Bald, and mentions the turns that are needed to be made on the trip; very useful! Here is one more site, again saying the trip is about 5.7 miles up to the bald. The trip is steep and the last portion, right before you reach the top is almost vertical, requiring us to climb, on the trail. We trekked with two dogs, who did superbly on this trip, also. The Naked Ground trail, starting to the right past Joyce Kilmer Forest, says it is only 4.3 miles. However, the elevation gain in that relatively short distance is almost 4,000 feet. Once we joyfully reached the top, we hiked another mile or so to the Stratton Bald camping area. The area is ideal and super remote. On our walk from the top to the camping area, we were not convinced that we were at a bald, we kept joking “it’s just around the corner” as we had no idea exactly where we were going nor how long it was going to take. Again, I should have reminded us again and again that it was remote and the trails were not well-marked. A friend said she knew the area, so I trusted her entirely. Honestly, by the time we trekked up and made it to the bald, we were so impressed with the 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and the wide open spaces, that no one cared much how difficult the hike had become. We pitched our tents, made fires, cooked our meals, hung our food and settled in with stories and drinks around the campfire.
I will also say that when you hike a trail for the first time, especially a difficult one, it plays with your mind-I end up thinking it is way longer and harder than it actually is.
I am not entirely sure the distance of this trail is correct, we checked our step counters, our GPS data on our watches and averaged around 6-8 miles that day, while the online sites share that it is much less. Regardless, it was an intense hike and we were well rewarded for it.
While we were at the bald, we met Walter, an avid backpacker and blogger on an 18 day trip. He told us where the spring was at the top (if you face back to the trail from the bald, walk down the hill diagonally to find the spring). Walter knew a lot of the area and was working on some trail cleaning/marking. It made for a very interesting evening all around.
The next morning, we awoke to 17 degree weather, made a fire, ate breakfast, drank our coffee and then packed up to head out. It was very cold and crisp, but we were soon warm and shedding layers as we hiked out. We hiked to the Hangover, stashing our packs behind rocks and in mountain laurel. The views were amazing and the trip out to the Hangover was worth the 1.4 mile trek out (2.8 miles roundtrip).
In all, we hiked, as mentioned by the above sites about 14.3 miles. This is an intensely steep, not very-well marked, trail.
As the month approached prior to our trip, we upgraded our tent to a 3-person Tungsten from Marmot that our friends also purchased after reading the reviews. We are thrilled with this tent, and desperately needed an upgrade since our current tents had been purchased from crappy department stores and were from in our high school days; one of our tents even smelled of mold. We also chose to upgrade after my friend and I spent an overnight in Savage Gulf and a massive thunderstorm rolled through our campsite. We stayed completely dry in her tent. We went with a three person tent because Chad and I are both tall, and we wanted the extra room. (On this trip, we did end up sleeping three people in this tent and had enough room entirely.)
We also updated sleeping bags, got a water filter and Chad finally got fitted correctly for a backpack (outfitting someone who is tall, again, sometimes is not that easy-and he has been through several backpacks, until finally we got it right for him). My original mummy bag had been purchased back in high school. My sleeping bag was still warm and in decent condition, but it was too bulky for backpacking. I upgraded to the Mountain Hardwear Laminina Z, sold only through REI. My other friend also upgraded her sleeping bag to the same one. Even though temperatures on this trip dropped to 17 at night, I stayed very warm. The sleeping bag is rated to 34 degrees, but I had a silk liner, a fleece liner and zipped next to Chad. 🙂 We were all toasty.
Disclaimer: Gear is important for a winter trip, but not essential to backpacking. We have been on many trips where we just carried our own water (including this trip to Stratton Bald) for overnights and used our old tents and sleeping bags. We are not gear-junkies (it is easy to become one!) but we had not upgraded things in 15 years.