Black Balsam Knob and Sam Knob Summits, Pisgah National Forest

There is a notch between two wildernesses in the Pisgah National Forest high country. Shining Rock Wilderness is to the northeast, and Middle Prong Wilderness is to the west of this pie-shaped cut in the topology. In between are two bald mountaintops that exceed 6,000 feet elevation. To the locals the area is called simply… Black Balsam. The air is fresh (usually), the wildflowers abundant, and the adventure plentiful. Under normal circumstances, the views from these treeless summits are fantastic, oft times exceeding 50 miles. In this report you will learn, however, why this was not a normal circumstance. Join me as I take you high above Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Black Balsam Knob and Sam Knob. I climbed the two bald peaks on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 beginning at 7:00AM and finishing at 11:45AM. My plan was to take the Art Loeb Trail to the summit of Black Balsam Knob until I could see Shining Rock, return, then take the Sam Knob Summit Trail.

Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 4.75 hours

Hike Configuration: Up and back, each Blaze: White, blue

Hike Rating: Moderately strenuous at times on each ascent.

Elevation Change: 265 feet BB & 400 SK, gain 850 feet Elevation Start: 5,940 feet

Trail Condition: Poor. Very rocky on both. The Art Loeb Trail over Black Balsam is basically a trench. The summit trail to Sam Knob is very tight quarters because of foliage overgrowth.

Starting Point: Parking area alongside Art Loeb Traihead for Black Balsam Knob, and at the end of Black Balsam Road for Sam Knob.

Trail Traffic: I encountered five other hikers in two groups on Black Balsam, and 16 others on Sam Knob.

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.

 

Download

 

And what are those special circumstances I mentioned above? Western Canada, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest have been burning for a month. The prevailing wind of the jetstream has been bringing the smoke from the wildfires all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains on a daily basis. The air is extremely hazy. Visibility has been reduced to no more than 10 miles. You will notice the haze as you dive into the photo gallery at the bottom of this report.

Starting my day at Pounding Mill Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway just before dawn, I hoped for a brilliant sunrise. I volunteer there for the National Park Service by picking up trash, looking for wind blown debris, checking storm drains for clogs, and other general upkeep. Parkway volunteers contribute more than 50,000 hours each year that would otherwise fall to the budget constrained National Park Service. It also just happens to keep the Parkway looking clean and green.

Next stop… Art Loeb Trailhead to Black Balsam Knob. Located at the top of Black Balsam Road (milepost 420) on the right, it shares this trailhead with the Mountains to Sea Trail. They both cross from the spruce forest on the left side of the road. 10 yards off the road, the MtS trail goes right, and down. They both have white trail blaze, so be sure you take the Art Loeb. It continues straight ahead, and into the dark forest. You immediately realize how popular this area is. After years and years of overuse, the trail has become a trench, sometimes as deep as your waist.

It’s 10 minutes through the forest where you pop out for your first views of the Black Balsam summit ahead, and the Graveyard Fields area along the Parkway to your right. This time of year, the wispy native grasses stand shoulder height with long, grainy tops that wave in the omnipresent breeze. The climb to the summit begins in earnest now, not especially steep, but ever upward. There are rocky plateaus along the way that provide natural photo ops, as well as a place to catch a short breather.

The plateaus along the Art Loeb Trail are covered with this exposed wavy granite. That is the double-humped Sam Knob in the background, the later destination for this hike.

The plateaus along the Art Loeb Trail are covered with this exposed wavy granite. That is the double-humped Sam Knob in the background, the later destination for this hike.

 

As you top a false summit, the trail takes a slight turn to the east and begins the final ascent to the Black Balsam crest. At the top is a large rocky outcropping that peers far and wide into the depths of Pisgah National Forest. There is a commemorative plaque here, dedicated to Art Loeb, an early member of the Carolina Mountain Club who loved these mountains and spent a great deal of time working to protect and preserve them. I almost always sit here for a least a few minutes and embrace the scene, not only as Art Loeb did, but also the Cherokee people hundreds of years before.

Behind you, to the north, is the massive expanse of the Black Balsam Knob summit. Larger than 7-8 football fields and standing above 6,200 feet, this rounded apex is totally worth exploring. There are seemingly trails in every which direction that have developed over the years as thousands of visitors have taken their own path across the summit. Please don’t make even more.

If you stay in a generally northward direction, you will remain on the Art Loeb Trail. I got to watch a robin toying with a worm, and then a raven chase the robin away. My goal on this day was to go to the northern tip of the crest where you can usually recognize the bright white quartz of Shining Rock far distant in the wilderness.

Along the way you experience magnificent views of Sam Knob and the Middle Prong Wilderness to the west. On your right, eastward, is Tennent Mountain (another 6ixer) and the tower-topped peak of Mt. Pisgah. The Art Loeb eventually continues over Tennent and then drops down to Ivestor Gap and into Shining Rock Wilderness. Off to the north are the imposing shoulders of Cold Mountain, and ridge after ridge after ridge that fall into the distance as far as your eye, and imagination, will take you.

On this day, that wasn’t very far, unfortunately. The haze almost totally obscured my hoped-for view of Shining Rock. I had even carried my heavy telephoto lens just for this opportunity. It was just not to be. So with a deep sigh and an air of disappointment, I turned to go back the way I had come. As I caught a glimpse of Sam Knob on the horizon, I remembered I still had another destination, and my spirit of anticipation returned. Perhaps by the time I get there, the air will clear some.

On the way back, I was treated to a field of turks cap lilies that had bloomed just since I passed less than an hour before. Black Balsam is usually reliable for a good stand of turks cap in July. Keep your eyes peeled about waist high and 20 yards off the trail for the bright orange blossoms that hang awkwardly upside down.

Once back to the trailhead, it is less than a half mile north on Black Balsam Road to the parking area at the dead end. The blue-blazed Sam Knob trailhead is on the west side of the parking lot. There were dozens of teen and pre-teen girls flittering about like butterflies, and then I noticed: Just as I had seen a llama-led backcountry excursion a couple weeks prior, so they were out again, getting set for perhaps the wildest adventure yet in some of the little girls’ lives. Good for them.

The Black Balsam trek had ended with pretty wildflowers. This one began with a dazzling display of fuschia fireweed lining both sides of the trail. Not only that, but I was actually beginning to see bluish sky off to the west. Perhaps things were picking up. But then I got the reminder of what I had seen here back in May with my brother the erosion control project.

Chamerion angustifolium, commonly known as fireweed, is a perrenial that can grow as tall as eight feet. This herb is often abundant in wet open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands. That certainly applies to this area.

Chamerion angustifolium, commonly known as fireweed, is a perrenial that can grow as tall as eight feet. This herb is often abundant in wet open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands. That certainly applies to this area.

Please allow me a brief rant. I know this section of the national forest that contains Black Balsam and Sam Knob is not actually within designated wilderness. But basically, it is completely surrounded by wilderness, and as such, to me, it should be treated the same. I also know that it is extremely popular, with the trail receiving perhaps excessive usage. In May 2015, in an effort to control erosion on this part of the Sam Knob Trail, the forest service contracted to have very large gravel poured on the trail, and a boardwalk built to elevate the trail above a section of trench.

These actions run completely contrary to the wilderness principles of Leave No Trace. The large gravel is very hard to walk on, particularly on the bottom of the feet. The boardwalk is a permanent eyesore that will remain on this pristine landscape for at least 50 years until it eventually becomes a rotting heap. Was there no alternative? Could the trench have been filled in with dirt and an alternate path around it constructed? When you see it for yourself, I’ll let you decide. Thanks for tolerating my distraction.

Back on track here, at the bottom of the boardwalk the trail passes through a flower laden meadow that was once a logging camp nearly a hundred years ago. I found mullein, buttercups, multiple species of daisies, even a few bluets still remaining this late in the season. Anyone peering down into the meadow from above probably got a chuckle at the hiker/photographer guy down below, rolling around in the grasses trying to take pictures between gusts of wind.

At the west end of the meadow, a trail marker designates a choice. You can turn left onto the Flat Laurel Creek Trail, or as I did, you can turn right up the Sam Knob Summit Trail. This one immediately enters a dark, tight forest of laurels and rhododendron that are making every effort to choke the trail. Nearly all the way up, this trail is narrow a lot more narrow than I remembered from the last time I was here four years ago. I was kinda glad I had on long sleeves. It likely prevented a few scratches from the bushes.

There isn’t much to see on this trail, except the dense foliage. You will know you’re about half way up when you reach a small staircase. Above that, the trail winds around Sam Knob to the west side of its face. Here it begins to open up just a bit, with occasional views of the Highway 215 corridor climbing the valley to its appointment with the Blue Ridge Parkway. On the west side of the highway is the primitive expanse of Middle Prong Wilderness.

When you reach a large white quartz outcrop on the left side of the trail, you are nearly to the summit. One of the unique features of Sam Knob is its double summits. Take the trail to the north summit for outstanding views to the west and north of the gargantuan Richland Balsam ridge, and Middle Prong Wilderness. On really clear days, you can see all the way to the high peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains nearly 70 miles away.

The south summit of Sam Knob overlooks the east, south, and west with the best view of where I was earlier on top of Black Balsam Knob. You can see where Hwy 215 meets the Parkway, the tall points of Green Knob and Mt. Hardy, and a vast domain of spruce and fir forest. I found a beautiful, smooth granite slab to enjoy lunch and ponder the times I’ve looked at the opposite view from the other side of the valley. I think I even made out the rocks I sit on way over there.

If you look at the ridge on the far upper right of this picture, you can make out the rock outcrops on the ridge. You have a great view of Sam Knob from over there.

If you look at the ridge on the far upper right of this picture, you can make out the rock outcrops on the ridge. You have a great view of Sam Knob from over there.

As I enjoyed my meal, I thought of how fortunate I am to live near this amazing wild place… of how fortunate I am to still have the ability to climb to mountaintops… and of how retirement is the best job I’ve ever had. I got a few photos with semi-blue sky, but then some ominous gray clouds began to roll in. On top of an exposed 6,000 foot mountain was not where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm, so I hastily packed up and began the descent.

Most of this day I’d had the trails all to myself. Not so on the way down from Sam Knob. It’s like everyone arrived at once. Was there a parade I didn’t know about? I encountered 16 hikers coming up while I was descending. Passing them was sometimes difficult on the narrow trail. I hoped for their sake that those gray clouds I had seen moments before didn’t open up when they reached the summit.

When I got back to the now completely full parking area, the llama party was just about to head out into the wilderness. I quickly got ready to leave so that a new arrival could have my parking space and the ability to relish this country as much as I do. I come to Black Balsam frequently, especially when the heat of summer smothers the valleys below. As long as I am able, I will keep coming. You should too.

This hike is only available when the Blue Ridge Parkway is open, so it is seasonal. You are likely to be able to get access to the trailheads April through November. Check the Parkway closures site before making plans.

 

 

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.

 

Similar Posts:

  • Natasha Bright

    I hiked Sam Knob just one day after you! It was my first time since we just recently moved in the area. It was so beautiful atop Sam Knob; I’ll definitely be back many times. I completely agree about the rocks though; they were ugly and very hard to walk on.

    I absolutely love this blog! I read it almost every day and use it often to research which trail I’m going to hike next!

    • Natasha, thanks so much for the kind words. It makes me happy to know you are finding out places to go and things to see in your new home. Welcome to WNC!

  • ashevillain

    You can actually hike there even when the BRP is closed. Just hike in from the western terminus of Flat Laurel Creek on 215.

    I’ve done this before and it is pretty amazing. It’s crazy to see that parking lot empty after seeing how overcrowded the area gets when the BRP is open.

    You could do a pretty nice loop: 215 to Flat Laurel Creek, FLC extension to Sam’s Knob, back down SK to the parking lot, start down the gated road and then take a right up the Art Loeb spur trail to BB, then take the ALT/MST all the way back to 215. Without looking at a map I think this should be in the neighborhood of 12-13 miles. Nice loop.

    • Yes you can. I’ve done the reverse of the loop you mentioned. My point was, you can’t start at the trailheads I mentioned unless the Parkway is open.