This a continuation beyond the hike described in the Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain trail report. The Art Loeb Trail continues down the north side of Tennent Mountain to Grassy Cove. There it meets the Ivestor Gap Trail for a lengthy hike into Shining Rock Wilderness. The area was named by the Cherokee for the large deposits of quartz found along what has become known as the Shining Rock Ledge. The Ivestor Gap Trail avoids having to cross up and over Grassy Cove Top, Flower Gap, and Flower Knob. Ivestor Gap reattaches with Art Loeb at Shining Rock Gap and goes through The Narrows and on to Cold Mountain and eventually the Daniel Boone Scout Camp. This hike occurred on Thursday, June 2, 2011. We started at 10:05AM and finished a few minutes before 5:00PM. The plan was to start at the Black Balsam Road parking area and take the Ivestor Gap Trail 3.7 miles to where it meets the Art Loeb Trail at Shining Rock Gap. From there we would cross as much of The Narrows as our stamina would allow, knowing we had to return the equal distance. The entire round trip was 13 miles.
Hike Length: 13 miles Hike Duration: 7 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate, mostly flat, but when it’s steep, it’s really steep
Blaze: None, wilderness Elevation Gain: 800 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back
Trail Condition: Mostly excellent, some rock scrambling
Starting Point: On Black Balsam Knob Rd. at milepost 420 off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Trail Traffic: We encountered two other solo hikers during our 7 hours on the trail.
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 a mile up the spur road to the parking area.
View Ivestor Gap and Art Loeb Trails to The Narrows, Shining Rock Wilderness in a larger map
Even last year I wouldn’t have tried this hike. I simply didn’t have the strength yet to do these half marathon day hikes. I think what really encouraged me was continuing a regular hiking regimen even through the winter months. And you know what? I found that I really enjoyed winter hiking. Well, because I kept my fitness up, I felt ready to give this one a go and talked the other Meanderthals into it. One of our trio had already done this hike twice before, so we knew what we were getting ourselves into. It is long… as long as you want to make it… and we weren’t even going all the way to Cold Mountain. The good news is that 2/3 of the hike is flat. The bad news is the part that isn’t flat is very strenuous rocky ridge terrain.
The Ivestor Gap Trailhead shares the parking area with the Sam Knob Trailhead. The first 50-55 minutes of the trail follows an old logging road that winds around Black Balsam Knob on the right, and offers a great view of the twin peaks of Sam Knob on the left, as well as the Middle Prong Wilderness further into the distance. Right away we got a charge
— we hit the rhododendron in full bloom. Yay timing! The photo at the top of this post is an example. Click on it for a larger view.
We sure knew when we reached Grassy Cove. This is a trail junction for four different trails. The Art Loeb and Ivestor Gap head north, the Greasy Ridge Trail heads east, and the Graveyard Ridge Trail goes south to Graveyard Fields. Other times I have been to Grassy Cove there were tents setup in the cove, but there weren’t any on this day.
As mentioned above, the Ivestor Gap Trail is a great alternative for avoiding a lot of unnecessary climbing. Some people like to hike the Art Loeb Trail just to say they’ve done it. However, over the next two miles the Art Loeb climbs over 5800′ Grassy Cove Top, then drops down into Flower Gap, then goes back up again to Flower Knob, then back down and back up to Shining Rock. Sure, there are some nice views of the eastern portion of the Shining Rock Wilderness from up top, but the simple fact is the Ivestor Gap Trail is totally flat until it gets to Shining Rock Gap. Yes, I felt I was in good enough shape to hike 13 miles, but why do unnecessary climbing when you don’t have to. Besides, the Ivestor Gap Trail turned out to be quite lovely too. Much of the trail was in a canopy
— either thick rhododendron groves that were in full bloom, or a hardwood and balsam mix that filled the air with delightful aromas. Occasionally, we would get a peek through the trees to the west and down the Little East Fork of the Pigeon River drainage.
The Ivestor Gap Trail rejoins the Art Loeb at Shining Rock. It is a short, but steep 1/4 mile climb to the pinnacle of Shining Rock on a spur trail, a must see. Don’t miss this. The quartz is paper white, and slick, very slick because it is so smooth. It is absolutely appropriate to have hiking shoes with a good grip. There is a beautiful 180
° westerly view of the black balsam forest that surrounds the rock. For the first time, our destination came into view. We could see the seemingly endless ridge of the Shining Rock Ledge and The Narrows sprawling across the horizon. It looked to be a series of ups and downs, but none more than 150 feet or so elevation change. Little did we know how steep those ups and downs would be. We enjoyed our lunch will sitting on this fabulous pristine wilderness pinnacle.
The easy part was over. As we continued northward on the Art Loeb now, the terrain became more rugged and less flat. We continued to see the white stones and boulders jutting out from the earth that gave this wilderness its name. After about 3/4 mile we reached Stairs Mountain on our right and the Shining Rock Ledge. The trail was a lot more narrow, and curvy, and we began to see that we were on a narrow ridge as the ground dropped down on both sides. Another nice surprise greeted us on this ridge as we were treated to lots of flaming azalea in full bloom. This native azalea tree has a blaze-like bright orange color to its blossoms. Beautiful! The trail kept getting rockier and rockier, and then the serious ups and downs started. This was hands and feet climbing, and sliding down on our backside. The trail itself became less obvious
— except that it had to be on the ridge
— everything else was down, down, down. I don’t mind telling you it was very fatiguing. We reached a point with a small overlook and stopped to suck some air. We all came to a consensus that we had probably gone far enough. After all, we still had to go the same distance back.
We took off our packs and sat down to rest. Our partner who had been here before thought he remembered another overlook that was not too much farther up the ridge. After a breather, he and I decided to push on. Our third stayed behind to keep an eye on the packs. In about 200 yards we were rewarded with a hazy westerly view. We could see the Daniel Boone Scout Camp in the East Fork Pigeon River valley below and Cold Mountain to our right. Straight ahead was ridge after ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We pulled out our topo map to survey the terrain, and picked out some trails for future Meanderthals meandering. We didn’t stay long, then headed back to pick up our gear and begin the tortuous return back up, down, and over The Narrows.
When I got back to my pack, I changed into a dry shirt. I sure was thinking ahead when I packed that the night before. It was pretty hot and humid and even the moisture wicking material was saturated. The dry shirt gave me 10 more horsepower. It took us about an hour to get back through all the rough and tumble up and down terrain of The Narrows and The Ledge. About 2/3 of the way back up there was a strategically placed log that became home for a very welcome breather. Finally as we once again approached Shining Rock, the trail flattened out, and even though there were still four miles to go, we knew the worst was over.
Or so we thought. The farther we went, the more threatening the skies became. We began to hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Fortunately we were no longer on the ledge, but it’s never a good idea to be in the forest in a thunderstorm. We began to pick up our pace, and took turns leading. We could hear the thunder getting louder and closer from the east, and the wind began to pick up some. We reached Grassy Cove and knew we were now less than an hour away. There was another hiker laying on the grass looking at his trail guide book and his eyes sure lit up when he heard our voices. He was lost. He wanted to go to Cold Mountain to camp. His map was junk, so we pulled out our map and showed him how to get there. He was very grateful, but I just knew he was going to get nailed by this incoming storm later on.
Well, we almost made it. We were about 1/2 mile from the car when it began to rain. It was signaled by a thunder clap on top of Black Balsam Knob that made us all jump. We quickly pulled out the rain gear and then the hail started. As we were scurrying down the trail, we kept one eye peeled for any kind of shelter in case the hail stones got any bigger. Fortunately we made it back to the car without getting pummeled.
I’m happy I have now done this hike. Occasionally we like to test our limits, and this was probably just about right for mine in the physical condition I am at this stage of my life. Shining Rock is definitely a place worth seeing. It is beautiful. And The Narrows, if nothing else, is certainly exciting. Maybe some day I will really push myself and go all the way to Cold Mountain, but I’ve been there via the other end of the Art Loeb Trail. For now, I am content with what I accomplished.