images/voice_uploads/p2coldmountain.gif">By Nan Chase
At the beginning of December last year, a few weeks before the public release of the film Cold Mountain, I was invited to a Miramax-sponsored press screening in Asheville, N.C. I expected glamor, glitz, klieg lights maybe. But this odd event took place at 10 o’clock one icy morning in a suburban Carkmike multiplex, with bits of trash swirling around the vast parking lot on the wind. No happy speeches to the invited crowd, which was sparse. No cheering, no applause.
The film rolled, and for the next two-and-a-half hours I was uncomfortably aware that I was watching a movie about a real place called Cold Mountain, North Carolina — 25 miles from where I sat — but which was not filmed in North Carolina. I could tell the land was wrong.
The land was wrong and so few people who now watch Cold Mountain the film will know what they’re missing. The real Cold Mountain, at 6,030 majestic feet, is still one of the most remote pieces of land in a region known best for its deep, dark forests, its tumbling thickets of rhododendron, doghobble, and fern. You have to look for Cold Mountain, but then it takes your breath away.
I can’t tell you whether the film was good or bad, just that when the last scene faded to darkness and the credits began to roll there was a dreadful silence as everyone in the theater seemed to breathe the same thought I’d had: “The land was wrong.” There was a communal hurt that the filmmakers had seen fit to take their production to the Transylvania Alps, in Romania, to achieve a look that was waiting for them just down the road.
Romanian Army extras
Film critics have already described the rewards — intentional or not — that came from the decision to make Cold Mountain overseas: drastically lower labor and materials costs in Eastern Europe instead of western North Carolina; large stretches of unspoiled landscape (no plastic grocery bags snagged in the trees like here, no rotting mobile homes in the meadows); and the authentically gaunt Civil War-like appearance of today’s Romanian army, many of whose members served as extras in Cold Mountain, the historical recreation about a Confederate soldier named Inman who deserts the rebel army after gruesome battle in Virginia and makes his way on foot back to his sweetheart on Cold Mountain.
Tough trip to the top
So forget the movie, and come explore Cold Mountain. You can see it, touch it, but to get to the top — maybe, or maybe not. Hardly anyone does, for reaching the summit means an arduous hike by either of two routes: a steep 10.6-mile round trip beginning at the remote Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp, with nearly 3,000 feet of vertical rise, or a gentler 17.4-mile round trip from the Black Balsam Knob trail head at the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trails themselves are scantily marked, if at all, so that an expedition to the peak of Cold Mountain requires serious backcountry skills.
For casual visitors, it’s enough to drive nearby and see the beautiful mountain, or to do a short hike to an unforgettable scenic overlook.
Here’s the lay of the land. Cold Mountain is located toward the northern end of the 18,500-acre Shining Rock Wilderness, which itself sits within the 495,000-acre Pisgah National Forest; that national forest stretches about 50 miles, in bits and pieces, from the Tennessee border in the west to nearly the Asheville city limits in the east.
Asheville makes a good base for a two- or three-day visit to the rustic attractions near Cold Mountain. The industrial town of Canton is a bit closer, as is the small town charm of Waynesville, home to many students attending nearby Western North Carolina University. However, neither has Asheville’s tourist amenities.
Viewing from the Parkway
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, nearing its southern terminus, runs almost north and south near Cold Mountain and affords a wonderful view from a turnoff — the Cold Mountain Overlook — at Milepost 411.9. (During winter, as late as March or April, Parkway access may be closed, so call 828-298-0398 for current conditions.)
Other views from the Parkway are possible, and even better: park at the Wagon Gap Road parking lot at Milepost 412.2, then walk north along the Parkway for just a bit; or invest a few hours in the 3-mile round trip hike from Milepost 407.3 to the summit of 5,721-foot Mount Pisgah.
An added benefit to seeing Cold Mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway is that you will also be near the Graveyard Fields — a series of low waterfalls cascading through a highland bald at Milepost 419 — and the trailhead for Devil’s Courthouse peak at Milepost 422.2. This area, too, is near the Black Balsam Knob trailhead for Cold Mountain.
Shining Rock Wilderness
Leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway heading north, you can take two different roads down, down through the immense forest of Shining Rock Wilderness and hard by Cold Mountain (note that campfires and bicycles are not permitted inside the wilderness areas). One road is US 276, which takes travelers up and over the Blue Ridge Parkway from the town of Brevard, then into the wilderness. Only a few small paved roads leave US 276 north of the Parkway to snake up the flanks of Cold Mountain, and none of them penetrates the borders of Shining Rock Wilderness. This is forbidding territory, with place names like Ugly Creek, Bearpen Ridge, Dog Loser Knob, Raven Cliff Ridge.
Then there’s the other road up and over the Parkway from the south, NC 215, which descends sharply from the Parkway at Beech Gap, Milepost 423.3. This route threads its way between the borders of Shining Rock Wilderness to the right and Middle Prong Wilderness to the left, and leads to small settlements of the type that inspired Charles Frazier’s book, Cold Mountain, notably Inman Church. It’s near Inman Church where State Road 1129 juts into the forest and leads to the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp and the trail head for Cold Mountain’s summit. The mood is set by places like Panther Branch, Scapegoat Branch, Fire Scald Ridge, Wash Hollow.
The two roads, US 276 and NC 215, finally intersect north of Cold Mountain at a little settlement called Bethel. By then you’re practically in Waynesville, and the kind of civilization that the filmmakers wanted to avoid. But there’s almost no limit to the pathways into the forest near Cold Mountain; starting in early spring and continuing through autumn, this region beckons anyone who wants to feel engulfed by the power and mysterious beauty of the woods.
Maybe it’s just as well that Hollywood didn’t really discover the place after all.
Planning a Visit:
For information about seeing Cold Mountain,
check out www.exploreasheville.com or www.romanticasheville.com/coldmountain.htm The essential map for exploring the Cold Mountain area is National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map of Pisgah Ranger District (#780), available from www.nationalgeographic.com, or locally from Outdoor Paths Map Store, in Black Mountain, N.C., www.outdoorpaths.com or 828-669-0022.