Frequently. That is how many times I have done this hike. So many, I’ve lost count. I love the western North Carolina high country, and this area along the Blue Ridge Parkway known as Black Balsam has nearly a dozen peaks over 5800 feet elevation, with Black Balsam Knob being the highest at 6214. This area has some of the highest hiking on the Parkway. Many of these mountains are what are called balds, because they do not have trees on their tops, not because they are above treeline. There have been a series of fires in this area, the last in the 1940s, leaving mostly scrub. Blueberry bushes and rhododendron are plentiful, but no trees, and that makes for fabulous 360 degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains as far as the eye can see. Did I say I love it here? This report is from a hike on Thursday, April 21, 2011. We started at 10:15AM and finished near 2:00PM. I have mixed in some photos also from May 20, 2010 so you can see how much the scenery changes in one short month. There were two of us on this day and we planned to take Section 3 of the Art Loeb Trail to the summit of Black Balsam Knob and then on to the summit of Tennent Mountain. We then planned to return to the trailhead, cross the Black Balsam forest road and head across Section 2 of the Art Loeb to Chestnut Bald and back, a total of six miles.
Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours Hike Rating: Easy
Blaze: White Elevation Gain: 900 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back, each way
Trail Condition: Trenched from over use
Starting Point: On Black Balsam Knob Rd. at milepost 420 off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Trail Traffic: We encountered eight other hikers on the Black Balsam section and no others on the Chestnut Bald section. It gets very busy on weekends.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy. 276 into Pisgah National Forest, and all the way to the top at Wagon Road Gap where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 412. Turn south on the parkway toward Cherokee and go 8 miles to the Black Balsam Knob Rd. (FR816) It is 1/2 mile up the spur road to the trailhead.
View Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway in a larger map
A little more than a year ago, I got involved with the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway Adopt an Overlook Program. It had been an extremely harsh winter along the parkway from Mt. Pisgah to Waynesville, the “high country,” and there were a lot of downed trees on both the road and the trails. I wanted to do something to give back for all the enjoyment the area had given me. I was assigned the Pounding Mill Overlook at milepost 413.2, so I stop there every time I go by in order to pick up trash and look for other problems. The overlook sits right on a hairpin curve in the road, so there is a terrific 240 degree view of the Pisgah Ridge to the east, Looking Glass Rock to the south, and Nantahala National Forest far away to the west. On this morning my friend and I were treated to an even better view than usual. The clouds were laying low over the valleys and made it look like there was smoke coming out of Looking Glass Rock. That’s the photo at the top of this post. You can click it for a larger view. What a great way to start the day!
The weather was threatening, but the radar looked like we had about a five hour window to get the hike in. Being good Meanderthals, when hiking in the high country we always come prepared with rain and wind gear. The weather can change in a hurry at 6000 feet, and we don’t want to get caught with nothing but the clothes on our back. I love the Art Loeb Trail so much, but unfortunately it is really getting carved up from over use. Particularly in this stretch over Black Balsam and Tennent, the trail is horribly trenched, and has become even worse because now water uses the trail trench for storm runoff. It seems deeper each time I do this hike. If they ever ask for volunteers to rebuild the trail, I will definitely be in line. The first 1/3 mile goes through a beautiful black balsam forest and climbs modestly, then pops out onto the bald section of the mountain where we could see Graveyard Fields to our right. There is a lone old, gnarly balsam tree that sits right on the trail. I love this tree. I stop to admire it every time I go by. You can tell it has been through some very tough winters, but it continues to hang in there. Just another feature that makes this hike so special to me.
Black Balsam Knob is not steep. It is a gradual climb of a few hundred feet to the top. There are several outcroppings along the way where I always stop to take pictures. The summit is large, not a peak. You could probably fit three football fields on top of Black Balsam Knob. It is a joy just to walk around the top. There is a plaque honoring Art Loeb himself on the southern side. There are rhododendron blooming in June, tall wheat-like grasses with wispy tops in the summer months, and blueberries enough to turn your tongue blue in August. There is a great view from the eastern side of the next destination, Tennent Mountain, with Mt. Pisgah, topped with its TV tower, behind it.
To get from Black Balsam to Tennent Mountain, the trail goes down into a sort of saddle, and then back up the other side; about 1/2 mile total. The down and up elevation change is roughly 300 feet. This northeast back-side of Black Balsam is literally covered with small rhododendron bushes. It is breathtaking during the bloom season of mid-June. Unfortunately, a lot of people know that, so this is the worst stretch of the trail. The trench is now close to four feet deep down the hill. With the bushes that surround the trail standing another three feet, I cannot see anything but the bottom of the trail. It is rocky and rugged, a twisted ankle just waiting to happen, so be careful. Also, watch for a heavy downpour. This trench will be full of water quickly. The saddle area is a clearing with great views to the north and south. This day there was a raven catching the thermals just above us. I’m no expert determining a raven from a crow, but they tell me a raven is a lot larger, and has more of a “kronk” sound than a “caw.” This guy was definitely a biggun. He landed in a tree just a hundred feet away and posed for several pictures. Kronk!
The climb up to the summit of Tennent Mountain is short and not too strenuous, but again it is through a rocky, trenched trail. Unlike Black Balsam, Tennent has a distinct peak with a rocky top. There is also a plaque there, honoring Gaillard Stoney Tennent (1872-1953) who established organized hiking in North Carolina. The views are extraordinary. To the south is the rugged pluton Looking Glass Rock. This is perhaps the highest point for viewing it. To the east is the unmistakable cone of Mt. Pisgah. In the distance to the west is the Middle Prong Wilderness. Black Balsam consumes the southwestern vantage, and the Art Loeb Trail continues north as far as you can see into the Shining Rock Wilderness. It eventually gets to Cold Mountain, and on to its end at the Daniel Boone Scout Camp.
On the way back we grabbed a nice rock in the saddle area to enjoy our lunch. A couple other young hikers stopped to chat. They were obviously going a lot further than we did because they had full packs rather than day packs, and their packs were stuffed with fire wood. There is a choice to make about the return. We chose to go back up on Black Balsam the way we came. There is another trail that connects with an old logging road that skirts around Black Balsam to avoid the climb. The logging road comes out at the end of the Black Balsam Knob Road. We encountered two more groups of hikers up top. Both groups were of the tourist variety because they had no water and no gear; one from Atlanta, the other from Florida. I hope they got off the mountain before the impending storm.
Best HikeWhen we got back to the car, I shed my vest before we resumed with the trail on the other side of the road. Again, straight into a thick old-growth black balsam forest it goes. You really have to pay close attention to the blaze markers because the trail is like a maze through the trees. I have been off-trail here before, and while it doesn’t take long to find it, it’s a bit disconcerting. More than one person I’ve been with has commented about J.R.R. Tolkien and the Mirkwood Forest. I won’t go into great detail about this section of the Art Loeb Trail because I’ve mentioned it in another trail report, but this trail is forest all the way. It crosses Silvermine Bald (a forested bald, go figure) and hugs the ridge above the Blue Ridge Parkway for 1.5 miles to Chestnut Bald. The view from Chestnut Bald is 180 degrees and is one of the best I have seen anywhere along the Parkway. This three mile stretch of the Art Loeb Trail from Chestnut Bald, across Black Balsam, and on to Tennent Mountain may be my favorite hike in all of western North Carolina. If you happen to be by this way, you really should try to allocate a couple hours to check out Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. You won’t be disappointed.
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