Picking up in the Black Balsam, this picture above is off the Flat Laurel Creek trail, a personal favorite in the Balsam. Black Balsam road is off the parkway (FS 816) just past Graveyard. The other way to access the Balsam is off 215 south in Canton. Flat Laurel Creek is a 2.5 mile hike that is flat but rocky. There’s several streams running through and a few small waterfalls to discover. It connects to Sams Knob, which is an additional 1.2 miles up. If you go from the parking area of Black Balsam road you jump right on the trail to the knob and is a 2.2 mile hike that takes you over a long boardwalk and into the open spaces of the Balsam before jumping into the forest. The view a top Sams Knob is nice. These two trails are a great highlight of the pretty forests and Flat Laurel Creek, which is a beauty of a mountain creek. All along Flat Laurel Creek trail is little camping spots and side trails taking you to more adventures. Be careful not to get turned around taking those side trails but have fun exploring.
Now for a quick story about camping in the Balsam with three bears. The last two pictures above are from this story, one is the warning of bears and the other the campsite I met them in. Note my bag of food hanging in the tree. So I did a solo camping trip that was planned for two nights in the Balsam. I set up camp off the Flat Laurel Creek trail, down by the creek. I made mistake number one by cooking a whole package of sausages on my fire, which sent waves of sweet smells into the forest. There was not another camper around that area. I hung my bag of food in a near by tree, not very high as I was right there. I went to wash up by the creek, literally ten feet from my site, when I heard a noise, it was a small black bear jumping down out of the tree with my bag! I didn’t make a sound as I saw the bear was smaller and knew momma had to be near by. The bear ran off in the woods with my bag in tow. A few minutes later it returned without the bag. No more than a few minutes passed that another, slightly bigger bear appeared and then momma came. I watched them for a moment from outside my tent before climbing in, a bit terrified. I sat in my tent with a hatchet in one hand and a a big knife in the other. This all went down just before night fall. For the rest of the night I sat scared, having to pee in a bottle, not making a sound as the three bears circled my tent, breaking branches and sniffing around. It wasn’t until morning that they left and I packed up and hurried out of there. I returned a day later to find my bag torn to shreds, my water bottle with big teeth marks in it and all my food gone. This was a huge lesson for me about food cooking, bag hanging and bears in the wild. I have become much more careful since. There are many bears in this area, as there are many campers. I was lucky these bears were not aggressive, as is the case with black bears in general but be warned!!
Another cool adventure in the Balsam is hiking to the balds. The Art Loeb, Investors Gap and Tennent Mountain loop are all together, running into each other on this portion. From the parking area you walk towards a usually gated road. You can walk the road and it takes along a winding open space with views out over the Balsam. The loop to Tennent mountain can be picked up from that road. It can be a five mile loop here, it can connect to Investors Gap for a longer voyage or jump on the Art Loeb. If you jump on the Art Loeb right at the trail head at the gate it is a short 1.5 mile hike up to the balds and stunning views. I love each way. Another way to access this area is from a large pullover going up Black Balsam road before it dead ends into the main lot. This half way pullover offers a few ways to go. If you jump on the Art Loeb here it is a bit longer, I did this trail from here and ended up going 12 miles by mistake, taking connecting trails and wondering with no certain direction but made it back all the same. It’s a fine idea to take a map or GPS. Often you can catch many wild flowers and blueberries along the trails. Going to balds is a must do with scenic views and just plain great hiking.
A few miles past the Balsam is a pull over for Devils Courthouse. It’s a short hike to the top but offers some nice views over the parkway and Blue Ridge Mountains.
From here the parkway goes off into the Great Smokeys and Cherokee reservation. That wraps up my Blue Ridge Parkway section. To back tract just a bit I will take us back into the Balsam along 215 south. From Canton you get on 215 south along Lake Logan road. The lake is quite pretty as you drive past. The road is a windy one up into the Balsam. A few miles up you will come to an impressive falls called Sunburst. There’s a natural spring running out of the mountain here. I always stop to check it out on my way up. There is a small, roadside camp ground at the Sunburst area as well. Just up around the corner from the falls is a slight pullover that has a trail up the hill. Back here there are two hidden waterfalls I call Twin falls. there are no signs or markers. It’s an easy trail back to them. As you reach the first one you actually have to cross over the falls, very carefully to get to the second one. There’s an amazing camping spot between the two. This is a really cool, little known spot.
From the Twins the road continues up, there are several pull offs with trails, one I like is a larger pull over before you get to the Flat Laurel Creek trail pull in, which is super to easy to miss. There is a long cascading falls you can see from the road here. After you park you go over the guard rail and straight down a hill. There are a few camping spots down here. You make your way to the water and can hike up the rocks to get to a nice swimming hole, complete with swinging rope. It’s a neat spot.
Going on let’s go into Cherokee. If you go in off 19 through Maggie Valley, you will encounter Soco falls along the roadside. It’s a really cool double falls that requires no hiking. I used to visit Cherokee every year on my birthday. It is the gateway to the Smokies and you can access the park through downtown Cherokee. Besides Soco another waterfall worth seeing is Mingo falls. It’s a super short .3 hike to the falls. These are the easy ones.
Getting into the Smokies is an endless playground of hiking and exploring. There’s 850 miles of hiking in the park. One of my favorite areas is Deep Creek. Along this hike you will encounter a few waterfalls, follow the river and have a great afternoon of hiking. The loop is 4.6 miles round trip. Right away you run into Toms Branch Falls, then shortly after is Indian Creek Falls down a short .8 mile junction. Then towards the end you see a short turn off for Juney Whank Falls, this is 1.2 miles down the trail. You can access the trail head for a much shorter hike to this one as well. All together it’s a perfect afternoon spent among the waterfalls.
Two great hikes I have heard about but haven’t done in the Smokies are Cades Cove and the Alum Cave trails, Alum runs into Mt. LeConte also supposed to be amazing. But yes they are on my list!!
Next up is Cataloochee Valley. This place is awesome. It’s a narrow, windy mountain road getting into the valley below. You come to a big open field as you enter and you have a great chance to see some Elk, as it’s a preserve. I love to see these big creatures. The best times to see them are early morning or late afternoon. There are lots of hikes here. Also lots of history with old cabins, churchs and ruins. I like the trail at the dead end that goes straight out and runs into an old cabin called Little Cataloochie. This trail is 5.4 miles long and not too hard. It runs into the water several times and is just pretty forest. Also another trail that follows the river is Balsam Mountain Nature trail. It’s an easy .7 mile stroll. The Boogerman is a cool hike, it can be a 7.6 loop if combined with the Caldwell Fork trail. There’s about twenty trails in this area and all vary in degree of hard to easy. Just jump on a few and check them out!
So for some random adventures. One waterfall I like is called Toms Creek falls. It’s an easy 1.2 mile hike. You can get there off US 221 from Asheville, turning on Huskins Branch rd. You can hike to the top of the falls for a different perspective. It’s not marked but there’s a parking area with a bulletin board.
Hot Springs is a neat, little mountain town, made famous for the Appalachian trail crossing and the towns natural hot springs. The springs have been made into a spa but it’s affordable and some tubs are right on the French Broad river. There’s a few ways to get on the Appalachian trail and anyway you go is great. There’s a long road that turns to a gravel road you go down before crossing the bridge into Hot Springs called Bridge st. This takes you to Paint Rock. These cliffs are jagged and pretty sweet. High up on Paint Rock are pictographs dating back 5,000 years. There’s a trail before the road curves at a fork in the river. Once you get up top you can stroll along the cliffs. I’m positive this was a sacred spot for many natives. Going out further on the road, you go into a forest area with camping, a great little swimming holes along Paint Creek and hiking trails. Dudley falls is one of those swimming spots. Across the street from there is a hidden area with a small falls but you gotta climb up into it. This is a cool area to enjoy. Back at the bridge over to Hot Springs is a trail that crosses the bridge and follows the AT called Lovers Leap. It’s a 2 mile loop.
A real local gem is out past Fairview in Gerton, NC. The Upper Hickory Nut Gorge trail. This one is a really nice, very new trail. There’s a few trails here, Bear Wallow Mountain, Little Bear Wallow, Florence Nature Preserve and Wild Cat Rock trails. I did the nature preserve and Wild Cat Rock. There’s remnants of an old cabin, some small streams and falls and just open, beautifully hiking. It’s a 4.2 mile loop on this one, that does climb up before flattening out. The Wild Cat Rock trail takes you past Laughing Waters retreat center and their orchard and gardens. There’s a big, granite rock face to check out on this trail. It’s 3 miles and is moderate. I’m so happy I found this area as it’s so close to my house. I plan to go back and see the other trails.
Going out of North Carolina I want to highlight two amazing trails, one in Virginia and one in Tennessee, about a three hour drive to Grayson Highlands and about an hour and a half to Cravers Gap and Roan Mountain. I wrote a post about Cravers Gap already and can be found on my page under adventures in the summer sun. Now Grayson Highlands is one of the most special places I have ever been. It’s a great way to end this series of posts. The Appalachian trail runs north and south here, as it does in Roan Mountain. I have visited the Highlands a few times and each was amazing. Hiking over twenty miles and camping a few days the first visit and several miles the second trip. A certain highlight is the wild ponies that wonder the mountains, along with long horned cattle, deer, turkeys and other forest friends. I just love encountering the wild life out here. On our camping trip we woke up one morning to the ponies eating grasses right by our tent, it was a special treat for sure. The hike can be tough as it’s up and down the whole way. There’s amazing open vistas, deep woods adventures and just being out on the AT is always great. There’s endless camping throughout the trails. The drive out there is pretty nice, going through Boone, a funky, mountain town, as well as West Jefferson, be sure to stop into both. I love the changing landscapes, blueberry picking, stopping at AT shelters and there is Mount Rogers, a nice peak to explore. It’s just a super great way to spend a long weekend. Be sure to leave the ponies alone, don’t feed or pet them, they are wild and should stay that way, human interaction is inevitable but if they get too comfortable with us it takes a little wildness away.
There’s sooo many adventures yet to come, as my passion for exploring never ends. Not to mention so many more places to go. Some places on the list I’ve mentioned and others such as Grand Father Mountain, more AT travels, waterfall hunts and endless mountain regions to discover. So stay tuned!
I added a recent adventure. It is the Big East Fork trail. You follow 110 south from Canton and come to an intersection, there you follow 276 south towards Brevard, which will lead to the parkway but before you get there, you will come to the parking areas for the Big East Fork and the Shining Creek trails. Shining Creek is the first you encounter and just past the guard rail off the road you will come to the Big East Fork parking area, these trails follow opposite sides of the river and both equally awesome. They both follow the rocky, mountain river. Both trails are relatively easy and flat for the most part. There are numerous swimming holes to jump into, a really big one is an emerald green pool that can be accessed by either side and you can’t miss it. There are several unmarked trails and foot paths that can take you in different directions and they suggest you have a map of the area as getting lost in there is a real possibility. I’m an all out explorer so I have been several of those paths. It’s important to keep note of where you are and directions you traveled. It is super pretty all up in this section of the Shining Rock Wilderness and a great afternoon of hiking which ever trail you take.