This remote corner of the Smokies isn’t easy to get to, but your efforts will be rewarded with solitude, quiet, peaceful 2nd growth forest, and a pensive wandering. The Cherokee lived on one side of the ridge. The Cataloochee settlers on the other. They met in the middle to graze their cattle on “The Ledge” between the two. The bald knobs are reforested now, but I found myself thinking about what it was like to be here a century ago. A little warning is in order: you are in for a longish drive on twisty gravel road both before and after this hike. Ken and I enjoyed Balsam Mountain Trail on Wednesday, September 7, 2016 beginning at 8:00AM and ending about 1:30PM. Our plan was to take Balsam Mountain Trail to Beech Gap, then on to Laurel Gap shelter, returning the same way.
Hike Length: 8.6 miles Hike Duration: 5.5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate. Fairly long, but not particularly strenuous.
Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: None needed
Elevation Change: 1,305 feet, gain 2,410 feet Elevation Start: 4,375 feet
Trail Condition: Mostly good. Rocky in places. Muddy from horses during wet seasons. A few grown over places in late summer.
Starting Point: Balsam Mountain trailhead at Pin Oak Gap on Balsam Mountain Rd.
Trail Traffic: We had this delightful trail all to ourselves.
How to Get There: Take the Blue Ridge Parkway to milepost 458 and turn onto Heintooga Ridge Road, also known as Balsam Mountain Road. Go 9 miles to the end of the road at Heintooga Overlook (past the campground). Here, enter the gravel, one-way Balsam Mountain Road (also known as Heintooga Round Bottom Road). Travel 8.3 miles to the Balsam Mountain trailhead at Pin Oak Gap. Be advised, because this is a one-way road, when you have completed this hike you cannot return the way you came on Balsam Mountain Road. You must continue all the way to the end in Cherokee, NC (nearly 20 miles).
The last two times I’ve visited Heintooga, first to Flat Creek and then to Polls Gap, the elk were out in full force. So Ken and I timed our arrival for pre-dawn hoping to catch some of September’s elk rut action. We went the full length of Heintooga Ridge Road without seeing a single elk, plenty of turkeys, but nary an elk in sight. Bummer.
This was our first time traveling beyond the cul-de-sac at the end of the paved Heintooga Road. We stopped first at the picnic area for a bathroom break, then ventured into the murky gloom of the Balsam Mountain Road. It is just over eight and a quarter miles of serpentine gravel mountain forest road to get to the trailhead. Allow about 20-30 minutes. Along the way we passed Spruce Mountain Trail and Palmer Creek Trail.
The Balsam Mountain trailhead is at Pin Oak Gap. There isn’t really anything that identifies Pin Oak Gap other than the trailhead. Presumably there are a lot of pin oaks there. It sits in a left hand curve in the road and there is enough room for perhaps 4-5 vehicles to park.
Balsam Mountain Trail starts immediately uphill, and for the first quarter mile is probably the steepest ascent of the full distance to Laurel Gap. Still, it is only a moderate grade. I like to get the worst of the climbing out of the way early when I’m still fresh, so this was ideal for me.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was cattle grazing country. They were driven from Cataloochee through the various gaps along this route to the cleared pastures of Balsam Mountain. Later, the loggers moved in, as well as the Civilian Conservation Corps who built the lower stretches of Balsam Mountain Trail.
The woods start as a northern hardwood forest, also filled with rhododendron, mountain laurel and flame azalea. As you can imagine, it puts on quite a display in latter Spring. Nearer the top the forest changes to evergreen, mostly spruce and fir.
There are two notable ascents on this hike. The first is to Ledge Bald. The crest is reached at nearly 5,200 feet two miles up the trail. This is named for “The Ledge,” an area of Balsam Mountain that extends all the way back to Heintooga and is a prominent butt or buttress. Along much of the trail before and after Beech Gap you will notice how there is a significant drop off on the right hand side.
From Ledge Bald, the trail dips a bit to Beech Gap, and the meeting with Beech Gap Trail at the 2.3 mile mark. This is a very pleasant cove area where the Cherokee indians and the residents of Cataloochee would meet to range their cattle. We took a little break here and while doing so I imagined this as open meadow where the cow hands of two entirely different cultures would meet and chit chat about the extreme mountain beauty that surrounded them.
In late summer and early fall the coves along this stretch of trail are engulfed in the white flowering tops of snakeroot, a weedy plant that can grow as tall as four feet. When we were there the 2nd week of September it had reached this lofty height and on occasion would encroach over the trail.
Frankly though, it was beautiful as the snakeroot flowering would run for hundreds of feet through the forest. It reminded me of the fringed phacelia that dominates the hillsides at Porters Creek and Hemphill Bald in early spring. Throw in the bright yellow blossoms of jewelweed, and the blue hue of downy aster, and it was quite lovely.
The second ascent begins soon after Beech Gap and climbs to the eastern flank of Balsam High Top. The forest now changes to fir and spruce. The aroma is heavenly. Ken picked up one of the small cones that was literally covered in the “tar” of the evergreens. He spent the next 20 minutes trying to rub the stickum from his hand.
It is two miles from Beech Gap to Laurel Gap. Once you reach the high point in between, it is a gentle descent of 0.3 mile back down from Balsam High Top into Laurel Gap with its hikers’ shelter.
Laurel Gap Shelter is a stone structure with corrogated composite roof. During the height of camping season it will sleep up to 12-15 in its bi-level chambers. There is a fireplace as well as a series of benches and tables designed with meals in mind. This may be the nicest shelter I have come across in all my Smokies hiking.
It sits in a very pleasant grassy clearing with hitching posts for horses, a nearby spring for water supply, and the ubiquitous rope pulleys for hanging your food away from curious wildlife. We noticed a couple of whisk brooms and a rake supplied so that campers could keep the place looking nice for the next visitors.
For us, Laurel Gap Shelter meant lunch, and the end of our outward hike. Laurel Gap is also a trail junction. From here you can continue the Balsam Mountain Trail another six miles to its meeting with the Appalachian Trail at Tricorner Knob. Or, you can take a right turn onto the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail (also the Benton MacKaye Trail) for the nearly six miles to 5,842″ Mt. Sterling.
But Laurel Gap was enough for us. By the time we got back to the car, it would be an 8.6 miles day hike. We packed up after lunch and began the return trip with the modest ascent back up Balsam High Top. With most of the return downhill though, it went by rather quickly, a good half hour shorter than the outward leg.
One thing that struck us on multiple occasions was the total silence that surrounded us. Balsam Mountain is a truly remote section of the Smokies. As such, you don’t hear road noise, or other man-made disturbances. The air was also still, with no breeze to speak of. The quiet was only broken occasionally by the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, or the chirping of chipmunks and squirrels. Truly a pleasure.
In summary, if you have all day to spend in the woods, consider Balsam Mountain. Because of the remote nature, it takes a while to get there. Then, you’re looking at 5-6 hours of hiking, followed by an even longer drive to get back to civilization at Cherokee, NC. When Ken and I finished our hike, it took us another hour to complete Balsam Mountain Road into the Big Cove area of Cherokee. We decided, though, that it was well worth the effort. The forest that has regrown since the founding of the national park is wonderful, and the peaceful solitude made for a pensive day. Enjoy the pictures!