The Black Balsam area of Pisgah National Forest is surrounded by Middle Prong Wilderness on the west, and Shining Rock Wilderness on the east. Some of the best hiking found in Western North Carolina lies in this high country just north of the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the end of Black Balsam Road at milepost 420 on the Parkway, the Ivestor Gap Trail will take you deep into this rugged, untamed backcountry. There are lots of spur trails used by the seasonal blueberry pickers that wind through the hollows and across the ridges. There is also the Fork Mountain Trail, a 6-mile track that will take you all the way to Sunburst Campground. About half way to Sunburst is Birdstand Mountain. When you see it, you’ll understand the name. Join Meanderthals as we explore the blueberry and rhododendron bush country between two wildernesses. This hike occurred on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 from 10:00am to 3:00pm. Our plan was to take the Ivestor Gap Trail to Fork Mountain Trail and on to Birdstand Mountain. For a return we would continue on to Ivestor Gap, then up and over two sixers, Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Bald on the Art Loeb Trail.
Hike Length: 7.3 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours Blaze: None, wilderness
Hike Rating: Moderate Hike Configuration: Loop with spurs.
Elevation Gain: 1,040 feet
Trail Condition: Extremely rough. Almost bushwhacking.
Starting Point: At the end of Black Balsam Road off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Trail Traffic: We encountered five other hikers on this December weekday.
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.
It was a beautiful day in the high country: bright sunshine, nearly cloudless sky, a crisp 35
°, and… WIND.
Black Balsam Road is a great jumping off point for a series of terrific trails that wander around and over the half dozen sixers that dot the landscape. Half way up the road the Art Loeb Trail crosses. To the west you can hike to Chestnut Bald. Take Art Loeb to the east and climb to the summit of Black Balsam Knob, then Tennent Mountain, and if you care to continue, far beyond to Grassy Cove Top.
At the deadend of Black Balsam Road is a parking area for trails that go west to Sam Knob and Little Sam, and further around Flat Laurel Creek. To the north Ivestor Gap Trail takes you to the gap, then to Grassy Cove, and if you’re really bold you will enter Shining Rock Wilderness and head to The Narrows.
On this day though, my friend and I were going to explore some of the trails that take off Ivestor Gap Trail and head into the backcountry to the northwest. This small triangle of Pisgah National Forest splits Middle Prong Wilderness to the west and Shining Rock Wilderness to the east. We eventually hoped to find Birdstand Mountain.
It was cold, so much so we pulled out the extra layers and headgear before we even left the parking area. Combine the mid-thirties temperature and wind gusts, the trail being in the shadows of Black Balsam Knob, and the hard rain from the day before, and we had to dodge the thin coating of ice on the myriad of puddles. Sunshine would be our friend. After 20 minutes we were able to round the big bend in the trail and finally get the warming sun at our backs.
Neither of us had ever taken any of the trails to the northwest (left) off Ivestor Gap, so we kept our eyes peeled for anything resembling a trailhead. Even though we weren’t in designated wilderness yet, we didn’t expect much in the way of trail markers anyway. The Forest Service planners do a good job here of leaving well enough alone. They don’t muck up the area with signs and blaze paint, but as a result, people do get lost.
We saw our first apparent trailhead about a mile into the hike, soon after we rounded that bend. There was a stand of old fir trees, some still alive, some simply a solid white hulk of their former selves. It became obvious soon that this was not maintained trail
— the blueberry and rhododendron bushes dominated the hillside. Sam Knob was to our left, and the massive 6410′ Richland Balsam was far away to the northwest.
There was a path to follow at foot level, but at core and shoulder height we were pushing away brush with our arms. Different, and kinda neat in a way, we both commented that this semi-trail would be really rough in summer when all these bushes were full to the brim with their leaves, flowers, and fruit.
This trail wasn’t on our map, so we decided to name it the Blueberry Trail. We presumed the trails back in here were worn by blueberry pickers who come in August to enjoy the ripe fruit. We kept our map out to maintain our bearings, eventually deciding that we were on a small ridge above Sam Branch, a creek that drains to Pigeon River at the foot of Sam Knob. This wasn’t the Fork Mountain Trail we were looking for, but we decided to continue anyway just to see what we could find.
What we found was the point of the ridge we were on. I had never seen a clearer view of Richland Balsam. It is a massive mountain, with very broad shoulders and sweeping ridges that drop into the wilderness below. But I could also see beyond it further into the Great Balsam Range and beyond toward Tennessee. They say on a really clear day you can sometimes see Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’m not sure how I would know if that’s what I was looking at, but we sure could see mountains I had never been able to see before when in this part of Pisgah National Forest. It’s all about angles and point of reference.
Turning more to the northeast, to our right, there was another larger, parallel ridge with a clearing in a gap. Still not quite sure if that was the Fork Mountain Ridge we were looking for, we were nonetheless curious, so we decided to head back and check it out.
We got back on the Ivestor Gap Trail and continued our search for trailheads to the left. Perhaps a little less than a half mile beyond our previous foray, we came upon another left turn. Actually almost an about face, it headed northwest into a small black balsam spruce grove. By now it was approaching lunch time, so we found a nice sunny spot out of the wind, and plopped down on the grass for a respite. That wasn’t all we plopped down on. As I pulled out my thermos of hot soup, I noticed the piles and piles of deer scat. Oh well, we are Meanderthals after all.
After a rest and some nourishment we continued on into the spruce forest. Just as we passed through, we reached what I would call the thickest, gnarliest rhododendron thicket I’d ever seen. It was at least ten feet tall, with twisted trunks and branches going every which way like a drunken lattice. I can’t imagine what the trail builders must have gone through decades ago. After 100 feet or so we cleared this thicket and entered a different variety of rhodo scrub.
Even though this trail seemed a bit better maintained, we eventually got back to the same exercise of pushing the blueberry and rhododendron bushes out of our way. These were taller, above our heads. We couldn’t really see anything in any direction except up, but we pressed on. We came to a small clearing and were able to collect our bearings. And then straight ahead, there it was.
It was a small knob of a mountain covered with rhododendron and other scrub. And you know what? It looked just like a bird stand. You know those duck blinds that hunters build to hide in when they are out waiting for water fowl? That is exactly what this small wart on the ridge reminded me of. Whoever came up with the name Birdstand Mountain was spot on. It looked to be only a half mile away, so we pressed on, knowing for sure this time that we were now on the Fork Mountain Trail.
Bushwhacking all the way, we reached the Birdstand in about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t much to see because it was still covered with brush that was just too tall for us to peer over. We could make out Grassy Cove Top to the east, and the very tip-top of Cold Mountain to the north. Otherwise, we were surrounded by green, gnarly bushes.
The trail started heading down, down, down past the Birdstand, and we followed it for another 15 minutes. But, we had set a time limit for ourselves of 12:30, so we didn’t quite reach the gap with the clearing that we had seen from the point on Blueberry Trail. That’s a hike for another day, in less winter-like conditions, although I wonder if this trail is even passable when the leaves are out.
We got back to Ivestor Gap Trail about 1:15 and had a decision. We could call it a day, and head back to the car, or we could continue on to Ivestor Gap, then up and over Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Knob on the Art Loeb Trail. It did seem to be warming somewhat, so we opted to go for it and tackle the big loop.
I always enjoy seeing familiar landmarks during different seasons. I have been to Ivestor Gap and the sixers in early and late spring, mid-summer, and several times during the fall. Just three days short of winter solstice, this would be the latest for me, so I was curious to see the wheat-like coloring of the tall grasses and shrub that cover the balds.
When we got to Ivestor Gap, jumped on the Art Loeb and headed south, suddenly we were on the windward side of the mountains. The higher we climbed, the fiercer the wind. I feel confident some of the gusts were in the 40-mph range. It was tough going. Surprisingly I wasn’t particularly cold. The layers were doing a great job of keeping my core warm, and the thick silk/merino combo balaclava I had on my head was working perfectly.
Every other time I’ve crossed Tennent Mountain, I’ve come from the west, from the Black Balsam side. So it was interesting climbing up the eastern flank. The views of Mt. Pisgah are fabulous, and of Grassy Cove Top. Then the Graveyard Fields area to the south comes into view, and Looking Glass Rock on the other side of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Despite the biting conditions, I like being in the high country in winter because the sky is so much clearer. You can see miles and miles further because there is no summer haze.
I’d love to be up here some time after a snow fall. The problem is the Blue Ridge Parkway closes when there’s snow, so it would be truly difficult to get there. Perhaps I should take up cross country skiing.
Once you’re standing on the summit of 6020′ Tennent Mountain be sure to look directly to your north. Far in the distance you can see the very large quartz deposit that gives Shining Rock Wilderness its name. Beyond Shining Rock is Cold Mountain, another of the sixers that make WNC so enjoyable. Looking down, to the northwest, I could see Birdstand Mountain. In all the times I’ve been on Tennent Mountain, I’ve never noticed it before. Now that I’ve been there, it’s another landmark that helps me understand the terrain.
We didn’t stay on top very long. The wind encouraged our descent. Continuing westward the Art Loeb drops down off Tennent into a saddle, then begins climbing again up Black Balsam Knob. Much of the trail is in a trench surrounded by rhododendron scrub, so it’s difficult to see much until you get up a couple hundred feet. Once you do though, the entire Blue Ridge opens up in every direction. It is marvelous.
I’ve already written an entire trip report about crossing Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, so I won’t repeat all the details. I will reiterate, though, that no matter the season this is a remarkable hike, one of my favorites. I have probably been on the Art Loeb Trail across Black Balsam Knob more than any other trail in Western North Carolina.
It was exciting to learn about Fork Mountain Trail and Birdstand Mountain. Perhaps some day I will try that hike from the Sunburst Campground end. I even enjoyed the bushwhacking we did on Blueberry Trail. The view of the Great Balsam Range is the best I’ve yet seen. Ivestor Gap Trail has so many options for short, medium and long day hikes. Go to Birdstand and return, or make a loop of it like we did. Go all the way to Shining Rock, or even to Cold Mountain if you want to overnight camp. You can’t go wrong in this land between the wildernesses.
Update April 2, 2014: Meanderthals took another trek to the Birdstand to see what it’s like in early spring. Because of the elevation, it’s still too early for wildflowers, but the heath was beginning to green some. The trail itself is barely passable as the thick blueberry bushes are really overtaking the terrain. It’s a good idea to wear long pants and long sleeves, and gaiters if you have them. Once this area begins greening in a couple weeks it will be pretty much impassable until probably Thanksgiving.
Across the Blue Ridge Parkway from Black Balsam Road is an unmarked trail that leads to some excellent overlooks of Pilot Mountain and the Daniel Ridge drainage. This trail isn’t on any of the national forest maps, but it is well-maintained and perhaps used to be a section of the Mountains to Sea Trail. We explored for probably a half mile, then returned.