Sometimes things just don’t go exactly as planned. But making the most of what’s available is what sets hiking apart. Everything doesn’t have to go perfectly to still enjoy the day. Such was the case with this hike across the Plott Balsams mountain range from Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’re in rarefied air here, with the entire trail above 5,600 feet, and with magnificent views of the Great Smoky Mountains, the thriving mountain community of Sylva, NC, and even all the way to Mt. Pisgah far to the east. This is rugged terrain that takes you up and down like a rollercoaster, so be prepared for some serious exertion. My pal Ken and I hiked the Plott Balsams on Thursday, October 22, 2015 from 9:45AM to 1:45PM. Our plan was to cross the Plott Balsams from Waterrock Knob to Blackrock. We didn’t quite make it there.
Hike Length: 7.2 miles round trip Hike Duration: 4 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: Some blue, some yellow and purple.
Hike Rating: Difficult. Quite strenuous with lots of up and down rugged terrain.
Elevation Change: 450 feet, 1,350 feet gain Elevation Start: 5,760 feet
Trail Condition: Fair. This trail is not maintained by the Forest Service, but volunteers have done a nice job to keep it serviceable. Watch for roots and rocks as stumbling hazards. Trekking poles might be advisable for steep downhill stretches.
Starting Point: Across the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Waterrock Knob entryway.
Trail Traffic: We encountered one other hiker on this beautiful Autumn day.
How to Get There: Waterrock Knob Visitor Center is at mile 451.2 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are pullouts along the entryway for parking. The trailhead is across the Parkway roadway into the forest.
If you’ve never taken the drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to Waterrock Knob, this adventure is worth it simply for that experience. You’re up in the high country, even passing through 6,000 feet at Richland Balsam. The long distance viewing is exceptional, particularly at western overlooks like Cowee Mountains and Deep Gap. The byway meanders in and out, up and down for 50 miles through some of the most spectacular scenery in Western North Carolina.
Waterrock Knob, and its Parkway visitor center is located at milepost 451.2, on the right coming from Asheville. The trailhead for this hike is located at the bottom of the hill, just across the Parkway from the Waterrock Road. Be sure to drive to the top though. Don’t want to cheat yourself out of the splendid view off into the Great Smoky Mountains, including the giant Mt. LeConte and Clingmans Dome. Off to the east you can see the tower that adorns iconic Mt. Pisgah 40 miles away.
There was very little information online about the hike from Waterrock to Blackrock, so Ken and I were mostly hiking blind. We weren’t even sure we had the right trail until we encountered a small, hand-made sign on a post about a hundred yards into the forest from the trailhead. This sign said it was 0.6 mile to Yellow Face and 2.2 miles to Blackrock, the two landmarks we planned on visiting. So it seemed we were in the right place.
This trail across the Plott Balsams Range didn’t waste any time introducing us to rugged alpine hiking, immediately climbing steeply. We went up 350 feet across rugged outcrops and twisty root systems to the summit of Yellow Face Mountain. The views to the east are remarkable here, although at this time of the year the top was covered with the remains of the summer’s wild sticker bushes, somewhat stunting the vantage point. This is no doubt more exciting in Spring, before all the scrub grows.
It is said this trail across the Plotts has been around since the Cherokee, although not as nicely maintained. Beginning in 1997, The Nature Conservancy purchased a 1,600 acre tract securing the Plott Balsams adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Then, around 2001-2002, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians donated the Yellow Face Tract to the National Park Service. Sylva’s old watershed was placed in a conservation easement around 2006, securing another thousand acres of public lands in what is now known as Pinnacle Park. The latest link in the chain is the 60-acre Blackrock Ridge, secured in 2010 by the Southern Appalachians Highlands Conservancy. All of these efforts have provided the opportunity for all of us to now enjoy this remarkable trail.
On the back side of Yellow Face you give up all the elevation you just gained. In fact, the 450 foot descent will take you lower than the trailhead at Waterrock. The spruce and northern hardwoods forest changes to birch and ash, with the accompanying color brought on by October’s cooler temperatures.
Evidence of an old logging camp abounds, with pulley wheels still laying around and clearings that are now used by overnight campers. It was time to climb again, this time a steep 180 feet. We entered rocky outcrop country, tipping us that we may be getting somewhat close to Blackrock. The boulders on the ridge are as large as houses, and afford viewpoints on both sides. We could see directly into downtown Sylva from one overlook (the photo at the top of this post), and from another overlook we could peer into the deep valley between here and the Smokies.
From the top we began the steepest descent yet, sometimes having to crab walk downward because of the pitch of the descent. I just happened to check my GPS which said we had traveled 3.3 miles since the trailhead. Wait! I thought it was only 2.2 miles to Blackrock. So we began to wonder if we missed it. We continued downward until we reached the bottom of the next gap, and saw an equally steep climb ahead of us.
What to do? We were beginning to tire somewhat from the up and down, up and down, so we had to make a decision. Do we make another climb, or do we turn back and see where we missed Blackrock? We chose the latter, unfortunately it turns out, the wrong choice. We never found Blackrock on the way back… simply because we had turned around too soon.
We kept our eyes peeled all the way back for little side trails that perhaps went to Blackrock, but continually came up empty. We happened upon another hiker and asked him if he had been there before. Comparing notes of his memory, and where we had just been, we came to the conclusion that we hadn’t gone far enough. When I got home later and looked at the topographic map above, that also proved that we needed to make that one final steep climb to get to the Blackrock overlook.
We learned from the other hiker that the trail goes right across the Blackrock outcrop. There is no spur trail to find, no rhododendron tunnel to break through. We certainly added that to our memory banks for the next time we come back to take care of unfinished business.
Ken and I expressed some disappointment to each other, but still, it had been a challenging hike on a very pleasant day. And we yet had to make that 450 foot climb back up to the Yellow Face summit. We enjoyed our lunch in the shade and quiet of the old logging camp, and made plans already for our next shot at Blackrock. Probably in Spring.
Renourished, it was time for the climb. Slow and easy. One step at a time. Deep and even breathing. I’m definitely not a speed hiker. On steep uphill, I put it in what Ken calls my compound low gear. It takes me awhile, but I get to the top. By now, the sun had passed to the other side of the ridge making views to the east less harsh than morning. I love the Autumn air. It felt refreshing in my lungs.
With our level of fatigue, we made sure to be careful on the downside of Yellow Face. There are plenty of obstacles on the descent that are just waiting to grab a stray step and send you sprawling. Not many switchbacks, the trail pretty much sticks to the fall line of the ridge. When we popped back out on the Parkway we congratulated each other for another safe and enjoyable trek.
Let’s review. Make sure before trying this hike across the Plott Balsams that you have plenty of energy. We did four hours of very strenuous hiking, and didn’t even make it all the way to Blackrock. So plan for at least an additional hour, as well as one more climb and descent if you go all the way. Judging by the topo, that last climb is another 210 feet of rugged, rocky terrain.
There are other trails available in the Waterrock Knob area including one that goes to the 6,280 foot summit, and beyond. Around the Visitor Center there are picnic tables and other amenities ideal for a family outing. Even if you don’t go all the way to Blackrock, you can still have a delightful hike across the Plotts with terrific views all along the way. Despite our disappointment, we still really enjoyed this trail and will certainly be back.