A must hike or two along the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 420.2, about 26 miles from the Asheville exit on the Parkway) is the Black Balsam Knob area that includes some of the most spectacular mountain balds in the Southern Appalachians, including Black Balsam Knob (or Black Balsam Bald), Sam Knob, and Tennent Mountain. These treeless mountaintops in the Pisgah National Forest draw people from all over to soak in the sweeping views with an alpine-like feel. Almost entirely devoid of trees above 6,000 feet elevation, the summits are more reminicent of New England than North Carolina.
Walk almost three miles on the balds without dropping back into the trees. It's definitely unique for our area. (A similar hike is Roan Mountain.) At 6,214 feet, Black Balsam Knob is the 23rd highest of the 40 mountains in North Carolina over 6000 feet.
There are many options for hikes in this area, and you only have to hike a half mile to reach the first balds. So you can hike as little or as much as your want. Take a picnic! The trail is rutted out in many locations and rocky in others. The section past Tennent Mountain descents quickly on a rocky trail that can be tough on the knees.
5 Mile Loop: Our favorite is a loop that climbs and descends several balds, ending with a mostly level walk back. To reach the trailhead, drive about 7/10 of a mile down the road from the Blue Ridge Parkway (more directions below) and look for paved parallel parking on the right. Park there and look for the "Mountains to Sea Trail" marker. Take a few steps to the beginning of the Art Loeb Trail. Walk about 1/2 mile through the alpine forest to reach the open, grassy and rocky mountain meadows. Cross a small bald and continue to Black Balsam Knob in another 1/2 mile. Atop Black Balsam (see marker for Art Loeb), turn left to stay on the main trail to cross Tennent Mountain (elevation 6,040 feet) in another half mile. You'll know you are there since there's a plaque at the top - a total of 1.5 miles from your car. Continue for just over a half mile to the intersection of Ivestor Gap Trail. Turn left on this former road for a mostly level hike that takes you back to the parking area at the end of the Black Balsam Road. To get back to your car, walk the paved road a half mile to your car (easy option) or hike the strenuous one-mile Ivestor Gap Trail Connector trail to the top of the first bald to complete a loop. When you reach the Art Loeb Trail atop the bald, turn right to get back to your car. See map below!
Sam Knob: Continue to the end of Black Balsam Knob Road for restrooms and a larger parking area. Read about the Sam Knob Hike that begins here.
Since most of the trail is not protected by any trees, be sure to wear sunscreen! And hike early morning for fewer people to share this amazing place with. It's usually 15-20 degrees cooler than in Asheville. And the summits are often covered by passing clouds. To cool off after a hike, go to nearby Skinny Dip Falls (three miles north on the Parkway).
Spring arrives late and fall arrives early at this high elevation. Green and leaves don't appear until May and fall color is early October. The many rhododendron bloom in late May and early June.
Excellent campsites can be found on top of the balds, but beware of fast-changing weather that is often 20 degrees cooler than in Asheville. Campfires are not allowed within the Shining Rock Wilderness boundaries, so bring a camp stove. Due to bear activity, food storage is required to be in a commercially-made canister constructed of solid, non-pliable material manufactured for the specific purpose of resisting entry by bears. If you are looking for more modern facilities the Parkway operates one during the summer 11 miles to the east at Mt. Pisgah.
From the Blue Ridge Parkway, look for the "Black Balsam" sign near milepost 420, just south of Graveyard Fields and north of Devil's Courthouse. It's about 26 miles from the NC 191 Parkway entrance in Asheville (NC Arboretum). It's a super scenic drive with plenty of overlooks along the way, so allow about an hour to drive. For the 5-mile loop, drive about 7/10 of a mile down the road and look for the trail on the right. Continue another half mile for restrooms and other trails.
Video of the Black Balsam Knob Hike
Follow the blue dots for the 5-mile loop hike to Black Balsam Knob, Tennent Mountain and Ivestor Gap Trail.