Milepost 420 on the Blue Ridge Parkway is where you will find Black Balsam Road. It’s a short drive to a spruce forest where the Art Loeb Trail crosses the road and heads up onto the balds. This is North Carolina high country. There are several mountains greater than 6000 feet with treeless summits, affording spectacular 360
° views of the surrounding Blue Ridge. I love it here. I can’t get enough of the natural beauty to be seen along the Art Loeb Trail as you cross Black Balsam Knob and then Tennent Mountain. The land is rich with blueberry bushes and rhododendron thickets, with mountaintop grasses and spruce groves as far as the eye can see. I will always keep coming to the Shining Rock Wilderness as long as I am able. This hike occurred on Thursday, July 5, 2012 from 7:45am to 11:50am. Our plan was to take the Art Loeb Trail up and over Black Balsam Knob, Tennent Mountain, then on to Ivestor Gap. From there we would climb Grassy Cove Top, then return to our car on the Ivestor Gap Trail.
Hike Length: 7.3 miles Hike Duration: 4 hours Blaze: None, wilderness
Hike Rating: Moderate Hike Configuration: Figure 8
Elevation Gain: 997 feet Elevation Change: 528 feet
Trail Condition: Extremely trenched and rocky, very high grass in summer.
Starting Point: Art Loeb Trailhead on Black Balsam Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered three dozen other hikers 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 Rd. (FR816) It is 1/2 mile up the spur road to the trailhead on the right.
The first part of this hike has already been reported. No sense in being redundant. So go to the Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain trail report to read about the first few miles, then return here to pick up on the back side of Tennent Mountain.
As much as I love this section of the Art Loeb Trail, it is only fair to warn you about trail conditions in the high country. This trail is extremely popular. Combine that with storm drainage, and the trail is very trenched across the balds. On occasion the trail rims will be shoulder height or deeper. Also, in summer, the mountaintop grasses grow 3-4 feet high and cascade over the trail. There will be long stretches where you will not be able to see your feet. This means you also can’t see the floor of the trail, so be careful of rocks and holes. In the morning, there is almost always a heavy dew on the tall grass, so long pants and long sleeves are recommended. You will get quite wet.
Now, having said all that, have I told you how beautiful it is? From the moment you pop above the black balsam spruce forest the Blue Ridge Mountains open up in every direction. It’s pretty hazy in summer, but in winter and spring you can see South Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the west 60 miles away. Other high mountains are clearly visible like Sam Knob, Mt. Hardy, Green Mountain, Cold Mountain and Mt. Pisgah. The majesty will take your breath.
As you begin the descent on the north side of Tennent Mountain you enter blueberry country. Some of the bushes have been here so long they stand as much as 10 feet high. In late summer, when the berries are fully ripened, there are hundreds of people in the wilderness competing with the bears and birds for the pickings. There’s plenty enough for everyone. They’re very sweet.
The trail winds through these tall bushes for roughly a half mile before approaching the clearing that is Ivestor Gap. There’s an interesting sight on the left, old dead spruce trees that have turned white. Only the trunks are left, and they’ve lost all pigment. There are clusters of these white trunks scattered throughout the wilderness.
Ivestor Gap is a major trail junction. The Art Loeb and Ivestor Gap Trails cross here. The Fork Mountain Trail comes in from the northwest and the Graveyard Ridge and Greasy Cove Trails come in from the east. You will almost always see tents pitched in this grassy cove, especially in August during blueberry season. More than once I’ve encountered lost hikers here who are so glad to see someone with a map. [hint]
Both the Art Loeb and the Ivestor Gap Trails head north from here into Shining Rock Wilderness. On this day, we were taking the Art Loeb to Grassy Cove Top. It is the northward trail on the right. You can also tell because it is the one going up. If you’re going deep into the wilderness to Shining Rock, The Narrows, and on to Cold Mountain, it is best to take the Ivestor Gap Trail and avoid the rollercoaster of all the mountains and gaps.
Shortly past Ivestor Gap, the Art Loeb enters a small pine forest that is the only time you won’t be in direct sunlight on this hike. You did remember to lather up with sunscreen before you started, right? Don’t get used to the shade though, it doesn’t last long.
The trail actually skirts around Grassy Cove Top to the east, winding around to approach the summit from the north. This is thick, thick laurels, blueberries and grasses. It’s very difficult to see your feet and the trail. Two in our party of three took a fall, including me. Fortunately, no harm done. Meanderthals do bleed, but our hide is tough. It comes with age.
The spur trail to the summit of Grassy Cove Top isn’t marked. You just have to keep an eye out for it on your left. You will be on the north side of the mountain and the spur takes off due south, upward. It’s very narrow, and not particularly well defined, even tighter than the Art Loeb was around the mountain. It may be easier to see in winter when the bushes and grasses are down, but this was my first time to this specific place.
It’s only a couple hundred feet climb in about a quarter mile up this thick, tight trail. As you approach the summit, it begins to clear out some. There are a few grassy areas with fire rings, although I wonder who in their right mind would camp on top of a 6000 foot bald. The weather is quick and dangerous. By now we were pretty hungry. Just about the time we were wondering if we should simply sit down on the grass, we reached a perfect rocky outcropping to rest our weary bones.
While we enjoyed lunch, I setup the tripod to grab some pictures of the amazing scene. Including Grassy Cove Top that we were sitting on, we could see five mountains that measure over 6000 feet. That’s the photo at the top of this post. You can click it for a larger view. Looking southward, Tennent Mountain, with Black Balsam Knob behind it were straight ahead. The double-peaked Sam Knob was to the southwest and further to the west was Mt. Hardy over in the Middle Prong Wilderness.
Even the clouds were beginning to cooperate. There were a few puffy whites beginning to form to help with distance perspective. This is one of those sights you want to stay and enjoy. With lunch and good conversation we stayed on Grassy Cove Top about half an hour, and unlike the rest of the hike, had the summit to ourselves.
We got to thinking that since there was a spur trail from Art Loeb up the northern side of Grassy Cove Top, there is probably one down the southern side too, back to Ivestor Gap. So we went looking. Sure enough, much to our delight, there was one. This would save probably 20 minutes on the return trip. What we didn’t factor in was how steep and rocky it would be.
And deceiving too. We came to several forks that ended up being false trails. With teamwork, checking each one, we were able to stay on the correct descent. And quite the descent it was, a whole lot steeper than the climb on the northern side. Lacking any switchbacks because it isn’t an official, maintained trail, it poured straight down the hillside. There were a couple times I had difficulty stopping my momentum and was literally running downhill, kinda dangerous in the rocky terrain.
We all made it down safely though and back to the soft grasses of Ivestor Gap. If you come out this way and choose to go up Grassy Cove Top on the southern face, the spur trail is about 100 feet north on the Ivestor Gap Trail from the crossroads. Keep in mind however how much steeper it is than walking around the mountain on the Art Loeb Trail.
Knowing it was all logging road the rest of the way back, it was time to zip off the wet bottoms of the long pants and get down to short sleeves. Temps in Western North Carolina have been in the nineties the past couple weeks, but it’s usually at least 10 degrees cooler in the high country. Still, by late morning it was getting warm.
It’s about 2.5 miles back to Black Balsam Road on a very rocky old logging road that is the Ivestor Gap Trail. Along the way you’ll pass several springs, if you’re short on water, and have a magnificent view of the Great Balsams Range off to the west. Otherwise, it’s mostly just trudgery hiking. The good news is it’s almost entirely flat, so your climbing for the day is over.
When you reach the parking area at the end of Black Balsam Road, you aren’t quite finished. It’s still nearly a half mile on paved road back to the Art Loeb Trailhead where you park. It is quite enjoyable though as you’re surrounded by spruce forest and have views off to the Flat Laurel area.
Unless you happen to get hit with some nasty weather, you really can’t go wrong up in the high country of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve been coming at least once every season for years and still love it as much as the first time. It’s fun to become familiar with the landmarks, and see what the vegetation looks like at different times of the year. I highly recommend this casual four hour hike to Grassy Cove Top. It’s only moderately difficult and filled with stunning mountain scenery. By the way, I left a Summit Stone along the way.
Updated August 25, 2016: The dog days of summer is a good time to hit the high country in the Black Balsam area of Pisgah National Forest on the way to Shining Rock Wilderness. It’s usually quite a bit cooler than the valleys below, although not on this particular day. I’ve never felt it so hot above 6,000 feet.
The clouds seemed to be chasing us as we climbed up and over Black Balsam Knob, Tennent Mountain, then wound our way through the blueberries to the foot of Grassy Cove Top at Ivestor Gap. It would be clear, then a big cloud would waft over, and then the sun would be relentless. Such is the high country. It changes in a heartbeat. See what you think of the pictures below. Feel free to leave your comments as well.