Flat Laurel Creek is in the area just north of the Pisgah Ridge and in between the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wildernesses. It drains from Sam Knob and Little Sam Knob and runs to the West Fork of the Pigeon River. The trail that bears its name starts at the headwater and travels 3.7 miles around the west side of Little Sam until it meets Hwy. 215 and joins the Mountains to the Sea Trail. Most of the trail is an old railroad grade that was used in the early to mid 20th century. This hike occurred on Thursday, August 11, 2011 from 9:30am to about 1:45pm. Our plan was to take the Flat Laurel Creek Trail from the trailhead along the Black Balsam Road, pass the gap between Sam Knob and Little Sam, then meet the Mountains to the Sea Trail to Chestnut Bald. The Art Loeb Trail would complete the loop.
Hike Length: 10.8 miles Hike Duration: 5.25 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate, long Blaze: Orange, white
Elevation Gain: 1,450 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Excellent, some rocks and creek crossings
Starting Point: Black Balsam Road (FR816) off Blue Ridge Parkway
Trail Traffic: We encountered three other groups of hikers.
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.
After enjoying a week of hiking in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, it was also good to get back to my local environment and local hiking buddies. For a hot summer day we chose the high country, up on the Pisgah Ridge where the elevation is mostly over 5600 feet, and the air is a lot cooler.
As long as you’re going by Sam Knob, you may as well go to the summit of this sixer. The summit trail starts on the east side of the mountain and winds around to the south side as it gradually ascends. This isn’t a difficult climb, one that most folks can do in 30 minutes or less. One of the many 6000′ peaks in the high country, Sam Knob has a double summit. The northwest side looks out on the Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness areas, while the southeast summit faces Black Balsam and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Once you come back down off Sam Knob, the Flat Laurel Creek Trail is 3.7 miles long, mostly flat, easy to navigate, and uses orange blaze markings. It goes through a nice grassy meadow not long after the start, toward the gap between Sam Knob and Little Sam Knob. The trail drops about 250 feet as it follows the cascades of Flat Laurel Creek after the first half mile.
At the bottom of the cascades there is a creek crossing with a trail junction. We crossed to take a few photos, but our trail continued straight ahead. This time of year, the crossing of the creek was no problem, merely stepping across large rocks. I have been there in the spring when the water is flowing a lot stronger and the crossing is a bit more dangerous. Across the creek is the way to the Sam Knob Trail, one that I have done before, but on this day we continued down Flat Laurel.
The trail follows Flat Laurel Creek for about half a mile more, and has terrific views of the craggy southwest side of the 6000′ Sam Knob. For those who enjoy backcountry camping, there are a number of great spots along the creek… good water supply and sheltered from the wind. The trail begins a large southerly curve as it winds around the western side of Little Sam Knob, and alternates between rhododendron canopies and spruce forest with long distance vistas toward the Middle Prong Wilderness.
An hour into the hike, we came upon one of the most unexpected things I have seen when hiking the high country of Pisgah National Forest. Apparently a remnant from the old logging days, there was a one-piece concrete bridge, large enough for motorized vehicles, that curved across an 80 foot tall waterfall/slide. I had no idea either was there. The waterfall isn’t named on my topo map [Update 10/22/2012: the waterfall is called Wildcat Falls... thanks Rebekah], so it was a total surprise to me. As we looked under and around the concrete bridge, it became quite obvious that the waterfall can really roar in the spring. There was erosion around the bridge structure, but it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I definitely want to go back to that spot some time during peak snow melt season.
The trail gets a bit rocky as it approaches Highway 215 and eventually makes an easy crossing of Bubbling Springs Branch. The southern terminus of Flat Laurel Creek Trail is Hwy. 215. To find the Mountains to the Sea Trail we turned left, or south, on 215. It is a gradual uphill for about .3 mile. Look carefully on the left of the road for the short cement trail marker with a white blaze that designates entry to the Mountains to the Sea Trail. It can be easy to miss. Back into the forest we went.
The next mile of trail was the only significant climbing we did all day. We climbed about 550 feet through hardwood forest with fern and mossy beds, and back up into the thick, dark spruce and fir forest this area is known for. Along the way we encountered a large group of teens and tweens who seemed to be enjoying their day exploring the Pisgah Forest. There were about a dozen, all very polite as they allowed us Meanderthals to pass and zoom on by. At the top of the climb, there is a junction with the Little Sam Knob Trail, and a large rock outcropping that makes an excellent spot for lunch. We climbed the rock, took our packs off and watched, as 5 minutes later the teen group trudged by with no idea we were spying on them from above.
The rock outcrop is a great spot for photos. The Devil’s Courthouse and the Blue Ridge beyond is due south. The balsam forest of the Middle Prong Wilderness is due west. The Flat Laurel Creek area is to the north, and east is the direction we would continue after lunch. The rest of this hike has been reported before, so I won’t repeat, but it is very enjoyable. All in all, it was a nice mid-summer day
— not at all hot because of the elevation, and a good leg-stretcher of a hike. I love the high country near the Blue Ridge Parkway.