Blue Ridge Parkway Maintenance Trail, Milepost 420

There are lots of little maintenance trails alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway that don’t show up on any trail maps or have any signs to let you know they are there. One of those is a hidden gem in the high country at milepost 420 directly across from the Black Balsam spur road. It’s great for an hour stroll to brighten you senses, or if you’re looking for a quiet and peaceful spot for lunch away from the madness of Graveyard Fields. With magnificent views of Pilot Mountain and Black Balsam and Mt. Pisgah, you will get a visual treat, but don’t forget to study the ground too. There are a number of mosses and lichens that would be more at home in Canada than the Southern Appalachians. I thoroughly enjoyed an hour here on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 from 12:30PM to 1:30PM. My original plan was to hike to Fork Ridge on the Mountains to Sea Trail, but that portion of the Parkway was not yet open. So I improvised. I’m happy I did.

Hike Length: 1.5 miles Hike Duration: 1 hour

Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: No signage whatsoever.

Hike Rating: Easy. Like walking in the park.

Elevation Change: 145 feet Elevation Start: 5,550 feet

Trail Condition: Quite good. Nice, smooth grassy surface.

Starting Point: Trailhead across the BRP from Black Balsam Road (FR 816).

Trail Traffic: I had the whole place to myself, and always have.

How to Get There: Take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Black Balsam Road at milepost 420. The trailhead is directly across the parkway. There is a parking place right after you turn onto Black Balsam Road.

 

As you can see from the map above, this trail hangs right on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. It isn’t obvious from the trail… you aren’t walking on the edge of open cliffs or bluffs. The terrain is covered with various forms of heath and krummholz, so you don’t notice the extreme drop off. While you aren’t likely to fall through all the bushes and thickets, just be aware that it’s a long way down.

These maintenance trails that follow the parkway enable NPS maintenance workers access to the property boundary that is a right-of-way on each side of the road. In fact, you will encounter several parkway boundary markers at ground level on this trail. I’m told that this particular stretch was even considered at one time to be part of the Mountains to Sea Trail.

While there weren’t any wildflowers out yet this first week of Spring, the ground cover was alive and well and jumping to attention. The high country of Western North Carolina is reminiscent of Canada in many respects. During one of the Ice Ages pockets of trees, shrubs, mosses and lichens that are native to Canada were deposited in the Southern Appalachians, far from their normal range. That’s why you will encounter seemingly out of place plant life like reindeer lichen alongside hair cap moss, galax, and ground cedar.

Later in the season I have seen trillium here, and you’re likely to find bluets, violets, chickweed and other tiny flowers all through the month of April. There is plenty of laurel and rhododendron too. So look for their exciting blossoms in June. The elevation is above the hardwood’s treeline, so evergreens make up the forest. This is black balsam country. There are lots of those beautiful trees.

Reindeer lichen is a bushy, branched lichen found in great abundance in Arctic lands. It is an erect, many-branched plant that grows up to 8 cm high, covers immense areas, and serves as pasture for reindeer, moose, caribou, and musk oxen. It only grows 3-5 mm per year, with the most rapid growth in Spring and Fall when high humidity and cool temperatures prevail.

Reindeer lichen is a bushy, branched lichen found in great abundance in Arctic lands. It is an erect, many-branched plant that grows up to 8 cm high, covers immense areas, and serves as pasture for reindeer, moose, caribou, and musk oxen. It only grows 3-5 mm per year, with the most rapid growth in Spring and Fall when high humidity and cool temperatures prevail.

Another thing you may notice as you walk this path is the extensive amount of wild animal scat, in particular coyote. There must be a great number of small rodents and hares about judging by the furry poop. I also observed deer tracks, so this trail may be even more popular with wildlife than it is with humans. And gnats! I was absolutely amazed to be swarmed with gnats already, especially at 5,500 feet. Fortunately I always carry repellent in my pack, but I hope this early start doesn’t mean this is going to be an awful gnat year.

Perhaps a third mile down the trail is a magnificent outcropping where I always stop for lunch or a snack. There is plenty of room to spread out and get comfortable. You have a marvelous view of the pointed summit of Pilot Mountain to the south, and of the Cowee Mountains 30 long miles away to the west. This time of year is the best for long distance viewing along the Blue Ridge. The air is usually crystal clear, unlike the haze of summer.

As you continue east along the ridge, viewing to the north opens up. There is 6,214′ Black Balsam Knob, the highest point in the Great Balsam Mountains, and a favorite hike in its own right. Off the eastern shoulder is Tennent Mountain, another sixer. Further east you can see the overcrowded Graveyard Fields with the iconic cone of Mt. Pisgah ten miles distant. All in all, an excellent tall mountain viewing experience.

When you reach a stand of small beech trees, the pathway begins its only descent. The drop is a gentle 200 feet, where it eventually meets the parkway surface again simply because there isn’t room to fit between the roadway and the escarpment. You can continue beyond this point a few hundred feet farther down the road, but I always stop here and turn around. This trail eventually heads to Daniel Ridge where you can meet other named trails that take you into the heart of Pisgah National Forest.

In summary, it is well worth an hour of your time to check out this BRP maintenance trail the next time you venture up to Black Balsam or Graveyard Fields. It’s perfect for the entire family, including toddlers. If the crowds at Graveyard Fields are getting you down, just drive an additional mile up the parkway to this delightful hideaway. Take a picnic lunch for the outcrop. Watch the ravens hover on the thermals overhead. Smell the sweet scent of black balsam spruce and mountain laurel blossoms. Understand where the Blue Ridge Mountains get their name. Forget about all your cares for just an hour, and breathe the refreshing mountain air.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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