The Art Loeb Trail
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
To fully understand this story we need to go back a few weeks. I had recently come back from the Wyoming and Montana trip which if you read the last blog you would know was epic and very inspiring for me. Coming back from a trip like that sometimes leads me to being slightly bummed out due to not being able to find those same experiences where I live at the beach where the elevation is negative ten. Fortunately I have a friend, Jackson, who also enjoys a good hike and likes to go camping often.
He and I have gotten into rucking which is essentially walking for varying distances with a good bit of weight in a pack, 45 pounds to be exact. After an hour, hell even after 30 minutes it starts to hurt. This is not just an exercise in physical strength but mental fortitude. It originated from the military who uses it as the basis of their training due to physical and mental benefits it has and the similarities it brings to training of being in a war with nothing but all the gear on your back, which can weigh up 80 to 90 pounds.
The main company that sells these packs, known as rucks, is based here in Jacksonville and after meeting with them and actually interviewing Jason McCarthy, the founder, I was hooked. They also make sandbags which are great for adding some extra suffering to your workouts and also makes you feel like a badass.
Fast forward to a few months of rucking on a semi regular basis, usually trying to go two to three times a week with Jackson. We were feeling pretty confident in our abilities to backpack and carry weight in the mountains which was our ultimate goal. So we decided that we wanted to go backpacking relatively soon. With the decision made it was just a matter of where.
Ideally we would have liked to go out west but that would end up costing too much for a weekend trip so therefore we decided to tackle something on the east coast, somewhere within driving distance. After a couple of days of research I found a trail, the Art Loeb Trail.
The Art Loeb trail was a one way trail that was located near Pisgah National forest in North Carolina. It was about 6 and a half hours away from Jacksonville which wasn't too bad and certainly doable for a weekend trip. When looking up pictures of it I was surprised to see that it appeared to be exposed with less tree cover than usual trail in North Carolina. This excites me because I don’t like it when you're hiking and you just feel stuck in a maze surrounded by trees with nowhere to go or anything to see but the thin path that is in front of you.
I quickly send the trail to Jackson to see what he thinks. He agrees that it looks great and is excited to go. He does mention that the trail is rated as “hard” which I reply with some smart ass comment about how hard could it be? It's North Carolina after all. Little did I know that I would be eating those words later.
So after looking at the route we decided that we would hike out and back which would be 60 miles and we planned to do this in three and a half days. While we were sitting in the comfort of our homes it did not seem too bad. I mean after all we had been rucking two to three times a week for about an hour? Yeah exactly, it didn't make sense at all. But when you're 21 and think you can do anything, you sign yourself up for tasks that may be overreaching your abilities.
With a plan in place I realized I needed gear, the only thing I had was a backpack and that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to backpacking. I had this idea that you can go with minimal gear and not spend that much money, and I am sure there are people who do that. I am not one of those people. It's not like I brought a heated blanket and blow up mattress but I did go into REI and spend some money. All of which on products that were highly recommended by the employees working there (oh yeah it's their job to sell newbies on the top end gear). So I got a new stove, tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a water filter. All of this new gear did make me feel more confident in my ability to complete this hike that had been deemed hard but still did not make me worry, yet…
Fast forward a week and the next day we are rolling out, the plan was to leave around 5:30 which would put us there in the afternoon giving us a few hours to put down some miles and have a solid jump start on the hike.
My alarm goes off before 5 and I make my way out of bed, pack everything up and head to Jackson’s to pick him up. The drive was nice and easy and it was relieving to watch the temperature drop as we drove north. The forecast had predicted the temperature would be in the 40s at night and 50 to 60s during the day which is ideal, especially when coming from Florida where it seems like it only goes below 80 a few weeks out of the year.
We make our way to the parking lot and the trailhead and hop out to start stretching our legs and mentally prepare ourselves for the long journey ahead, we should have prepared more. We get everything situated, packs on, water filled, camera ready to go.
About 30 seconds into the hike Jackson stops and starts feeling around under his backpack and tells me that something is leaking. Moments later his gear is laid out on the trail so that he can get to his water bladder which was hanging from the top of the pack and was in between the padding and the contents in his backpack. He finally breaks it free and removes it to reveal that it is in fact leaking. Coming to the conclusion that there was no way to fix it unless there was a home depot around the corner we decided to leave it thinking that the rest of the water we have would be enough.
Yeah not off to a great start.
I hustle back to the car and throw the bladder in the back and get back to Jackson as he is finishing up getting his gear situated and we trudge on shaking off what might have appeared to be a bad omen.
For a few minutes we are on a pleasant trail that is flat and is well groomed with a nearby stream next to us, everything seems to be going well. But right as we start to think we're in for an easy hike we get to the real start of the trail. An immediate incline leading up past where we can see.
When we come up to this, Jackson reminds me that he read the hardest part of the trail is the first mile which has over 1000 feet in elevation. Which is about 1000 feet more than what we are used to in Florida. I try not to think about it too much and stay positive and quote my dad by saying “this is just a hill for a mountain climber”.
But here's the problem, we aren't mountain climbers…
We begin our ascent, moving one foot in front of the other, carrying our bodies up along with the 50 to 60 pounds of gear that we each carry. As we climb we begin to sweat a lot, it was not in the 60s by any means, it was closer to the high 70s. As we all know when you sweat a lot you need to drink a lot of water, and unfortunately we were starting at a deficit due to our faulty bladder. We also were not positive about where streams would be which meant we could not just start pounding the water.
So what seems like hours goes by and we come to the conclusion that we would not be hitting our mileage goal for the day, which was 15. We began to realize that if we made it to 10 then we would be happy. The chit chat is at a minimum due to our collective energy focused on moving forward at a consistent pace.
There's things that I have forgotten over the years but that trail was not one of them. It was just what I had feared, it was covered by trees and was even more narrow than I expected. The idea that we would be on an open and exposed trail was shattered as I began to realize that much like the elevation gain was not lessening up the trees were not opening up. For hours we continued to go up and down only for a short period of time so that we could go right back up. As the miles grew our spirits did not.
Fortunately we found a small stream around mile 7 that we could get water from. We graciously filled our bottles, feeling more confident knowing that at least we can have full bottles now. After resting for a few minutes we saddle up and continue on our trek, with a new goal in mind, just to make it to ten miles.
We check our gps for any sign of a break from the trees but find nothing so we blindly continue in hopes of catching a break. We pass by a solo hiker and ask if he knows of the view that I saw on the internet. He casually tells us it's about another mile. At that point we are near mile 9 so if this guy is right then we would be right on track to hit 10 and call it a day.
Feeling a slight burst of energy we pursue like a dog after a treat. We get to a point where we have about a quarter mile to get to the top of a hill which we assume is the top and the vista we so desperately needed to see to renew our spirits.
The only problem was that to reach the top we would have to trudge up a steep series of switchbacks that were more steep than anything we had seen yet. Which is saying something because it had been pretty damn tough.
We start making our way, feeling the impact of every step we take, the weight seeming to get heavier and heavier. And remember how I mentioned that this was a thickly covered trail? Yeah it is still like that on this incline, which meant we had no clue how much further this miserable trail went, all we could see was the switchback we were on and then right when we tackled that one we would turn and begin the next one.
In hindsight it probably only took around 10 to 15 minutes to make the little climb, but that's 10 to 15 minutes of hiking at elevation more than what we had done to prepare. 10 to 15 minutes exactly.
Fortunately we did make it up with everything intact, except for our egos, which had been officially shattered. So we make our way to what appears to be the top and a cleared out area which we assume is the campsite, even if it wasnt there was no way we were going any further.
Lets not forget this was where that hiker said it cleared up and you can see the mountains. Yeah I do dont know what that guy was smoking because you couldn't see shit. We were completely covered in a canopy of trees. If you looked through about a 5 inch window in between the trees you could make out the mountains in the distance somewhat, but that was the extent of the “vista”.
So now more disappointed we sit down and just kind of reflect on what had happened on the first day which we had planned to be much easier. I break the silence and say that we don’t have to stick to the plan and we can head back tomorrow. Relieved that I said that Jackson lights up and laughs out loud about how much we got our asses handed to us.
After deciding that we would head back tomorrow we took a look at the alltrails app to try and see if something went wrong somewhere or find out where this view is. When we pull up the map section, which has an elevation plot, we realize that if we were to continue on we’d have a 3000ft+ elevation gain all within a few miles. This would have made those thousand feet feel like a sand dune. And correct if I’m wrong but that sand dune is the reason we were destroyed.
Seeing this made us more confident in our decision and we came up with a motto for the trip; “no ego”. Both of us have done things just out of ego but this was not going to be one of them. We were pre prepared mentally and physically and there was no reason to get injured over a hike.
The rest of the night was a breeze, we made a fire, had dinner, sat around and just talked. This was one of the highlights of the trip, that might also be because it was the only time we were struggling to get up some hill.
The hours before going to bed we kept assuming the temperature would drop and we would be blessed with a cold night. Yeah that didn’t happen. It rained which caused some humidity and the temperature never dropped. Needless to say we did not sleep very well, making the thought of going back even better.
So a few sleepless hours later we wake up and start breaking down camp and cleaning everything up. There was no hanging around that morning, we were on a mission, get back to the car. We were heading out before 7:30 if I remember correctly.
The first section to conquer was going down those switchbacks, and as we descended it was clear to us why they were so hard, they were steep! It also wasn’t super stable with leaves on rocks and roots that had been wet from the night before.
After getting down without any issues though we pushed on, driven only by the fact that we had a car sitting there at the base ready to roll. I do not remember that much of the trip back, my focus was entirely on holding a good pace and getting us back.
One thing I’ll never forget though is the amount of spiders that went onto my face as I led the path. Since we were the first ones on that section of trail I got to be the one who broke down the webs built up the night before.
It got to a point where we would be walking on a flat section so we’d just start running because we were in pain anyways and we might as well get down faster. So on the flats we ran, on the descents we did a slow jog slash tripping over ourselves, and on the climbs we just tried to move our legs. The system worked pretty well and it ended up taking close to an hour off the hike by doing the runs every now and then.
Eventually we made it down and the feeling of relief we had was second to none. It had genuinely been hard and we definitely pushed ourselves. We were proud of ourselves, and also aware of the preparation we needed to do for next time.
Egoes were shattered, lessons were learned, and good times were had.