This hike is in one of my favorite areas of Pisgah National Forest along the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. It lies in a little corner between Middle Prong Wilderness and Shining Rock Wilderness where the mountain tops are bald and exceed 6000′. This hike occurred on March 24, 2011 beginning at 10:00AM and ending about 3:00PM. The goal on this day for the two of us was to climb to the top of 6050′ Sam Knob, a bald or treeless mountain with a 360 degree view from its double summit. Following that, we were going to take the trail around Little Sam Knob to Flat Laurel Creek Trail, then on to Chestnut Bald and the Mountains to the Sea Trail. From there we would meet up with the Art Loeb Trail at Silvermine Bald for the return to our starting point. See bottom of the post for additional seasonal updates.
Hike Length: 7 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate Blaze: Blue, yellow, white
Elevation Gain: 570 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Some rough Starting Point: Black Balsam Parking Area
Trail Traffic: We saw only two other hikers on this trail the entire duration.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy. 276 approximately 10 miles to where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 412. Go south on the Parkway to milepost 420 and turn right on the Black Balsam Access Road. Go 1.5 miles to the end of the access road. The trailhead is at the parking area. There is a trail map located in the sign board.
View Sam Knob and Little Sam, Blue Ridge Parkway in a larger map
This hike starts at the parking area at the end of Black Balsam Road off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The first 1/2 mile is a flat stroll along a ridge overlooking Shining Rock Wilderness to the north (counterclockwise on the terrain map above). The trail opens up into a large, grassy meadow that leads to the right trail fork to the summits of Sam Knob. The climb is moderately steep, lasts about 20-30 minutes and is roughly 1/2 mile in length. A unique feature of Sam Knob is its double summit configuration. There are two distinct overlook areas on top. Each has a full 360 degree view of the surrounding area.
The Middle Prong Wilderness is to the west, Nantahala National Forest is south, Black Balsam and Mt. Pisgah are to the east, and the Shining Rock Wilderness is north. Looking southwest you can see Hwy. 215 snaking its way up the West Fork of the Pigeon River valley to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway. The image at the top of this post is of that view. The top of Sam Knob is a botanist’s delight. These balds in NC are literally covered with wild blueberry bushes. Late August brings the pickers out in droves. You will also find strawberry, several types of grasses, rhododendron, and wildflowers, especially bluet.
After descending Sam Knob the way we came, we next took the left fork trail at the large meadow. This is a continuation of the Sam Knob Trail (not the summit trail). After 1/2 mile, it meets Flat Laurel Creek Trail. Be sure to look behind you, there is an excellent view of Sam Knob. Flat Laurel Creek Trail has several creek crossings. On this day after an overnight thunderstorm, Flat Laurel Creek was running pretty swiftly, but the crossings were all navigable due to strategically placed stones. The mud on the trail, however, was another matter. This is a low lying, drainage area. Another 1/2 mile brings you to Little Sam Knob Trail. Unlike its bigger namesake, Little Sam does not have a summit climb. Instead, it goes around the base of the mountain. The next two miles is a winding, rocky trek through a long canopy of rhododendron. Occasionally you will break out of the rhodo forest for nice views of Sam Knob and the wilderness beyond, but it is mostly tough, treacherous stumbling through drainage channels filled with rock.
As you approach the junction with the Mountains to the Sea Trail, look on your right for a large rocky outcropping that stands perhaps 30-40 feet high. The top of the rock made a delightful place for lunch on this day. There were views of Devil’s Courthouse, Fork Ridge in the Middle Prong Wilderness, and the next climb awaiting us, Chestnut Bald. Half a mile up a moderate grade is a saddle between Chestnut Bald and Silvermine Bald. Waiting up top was one of the most remarkable views I have seen in all my years of hiking western North Carolina. The southern edge is a sheer cliff that drops probably 300 feet directly to the Blue Ridge Parkway below. The road is but a ribbon from that height. To your left, eastward, you can see more of the cliffs, a solid wall of granite. To the southeast is an outstanding view of Looking Glass Rock, one of the signature landmarks of Pisgah National Forest. Directly south is the summit of Pilot Mountain, a sharply pointed 5020′ peak along the Art Loeb Trail. To the southwest is Courthouse Ridge running away from the Devil’s Courthouse. And for 240 degrees from left to right lie the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to the horizon. I could have stayed for hours.
Best HikeShortly after this magnificent view, the Mountains to the Sea Trail meets the Art Loeb Trail for the final two-mile stretch to complete the loop. This section of the Art Loeb eases through a beautiful black balsam forest that is soft and spongy from year after year of needles falling to the ground. With about 1/4 mile to go before meeting up with the Black Balsam Road, the trail breaks out into a clearing that affords a nice view of Black Balsam Knob, the highest point in this area at 6214′. Finish the last 1/4 mile of the hike on the Black Balsam Road. As you round the final bend back to the parking area, look for the Shining Rock Ledge to your right, and the Great Balsam Mountains straight ahead in the distance. It took us five hours to make this circuit, but we stopped for lunch, and long breaks at the Sam Knob summit and on Chestnut Bald. I like to take lots of pictures, so that slows down the hike somewhat as well. It was a great day, and I would label this one a best hike.
Update 10/29/2013: Here’s a few more photos from October to compare the seasonal difference.
Update 5/16/2014: There are many ways to explore this area between Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wildernesses that is commonly known as Black Balsam. There are a wealth of trails through the area that make access easy, and discovery enlightening. We decided to try a little different loop, this time starting at Devils Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It included visits to the Mountains to Sea Trail, Chestnut and Silvermine Balds, Flat Laurel Creek, Little Sam Trail, and of course our traditional Lunch Rock.
Below is a new map of the track we took, as well as a few new pictures to give you a sense of the seasonal changes that occur in the Western North Carolina high country.