Stop at the overlook at Richland Balsam, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway!
Be sure to stop at the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway! And there's a great highland hike that offers a cool hiking option on hot summer days. There are two overlooks for Richland Balsam, near Milepost 431 (about 45 miles from downtown Asheville). Driving south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, you will reach the parking area on the right first, signed "Haywood-Jackson Overlook." This is where you park for the 1.5-mile loop hike to the top of Richland Balsam (read more below). Continue south on the Parkway about 1/3 mile to the overlook on the left with the large sign proclaiming "Highest Elevation" on the Parkway (6.053 feet). Enjoy the views from the parking area and snap a photo of you with the sign.
Mountain views from the overlook at Richland Balsam.
Richland Balsam summit on left with the start of the trail on the right
Richland Balsam Hike
Richland Balsam mountain rises to 6,410 feet and is the highest peak on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 1.5-mile self-guided loop trail passes through a spruce-fir forest (best smelling trail on the Parkway) and passes over the summit of the 10th highest in the eastern United States. You climb about 700 vertical feet, but it's not overly strenuous. Since this is one of the highest elevation hikes in the East, it's a great spot for a refreshing hike on the hot summer day in the lower elevations. However, the winter here is brutal, so the Parkway is closed in the area for the winter - and sometimes late fall and early Spring.
The term "balsam" is commonly applied to Fraser fir and red spruce, the scent of which permeates the fresh air on the mountain. Two varieties of spruce grow at Richland Balsam: "he-balsam" has rough bark and prickly needles like a man's beard and "she-balsam" has smooth barked fir with shiny flat needles. Other plants such as blackberry and elderberry grow where the firs have been knocked over by windstorms, opening the forest floor to sunlight.
Numbered Self-Guided Tour
Note: Sometimes there are laminated guides that you can use, available in a box at the beginning of the trail. Most of the time, the box is empty. So print this page and take it along since the trail has numbered posts to coorespond with the guide created by the National Park Service:
Richland Balsam is currently the scene of a struggle between the Fraser Fir and the balsam woolly adelgids. Accidentally introduced into the U. S. around 1900, the adelgid first appeared at this site in the late 1970's. Once infested, most firs die, leaving the gray "snags" as mute testimony. To learn more about this typical Canadian Spruce-Fir forest and its future, walk the moderate to strenuous 1½ mile, self-guiding loop trail to the 6410' summit of Richland Balsam. The elevation here is 6020'.
1. Change of Pace--As you leave your car and the roadway behind, prepare to slow your pace to enjoy the rich variety of sights, sounds, and smells of the equivalent of a Canadian forest. Only at high elevations can many of these plants and animals survive in the South.
2. Witherod Viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides)--The bark of "Shonny Haw" or "Appalachian Tea" was often brewed into a tea by the Shawnee Indians, and later by settlers, to control fevers. Clusters of small white flowers in spring are followed in late summer by dark blue fruit which provides food for wildlife, giving another common name "Wild Raisin".
3. Balsam woolly Aphid (Adelges piceae)--You see many dead Fraser Firs killed by the balsam woolly adelgid. During the feeding process, the adelgid injects a substance into the tree, causing an abnormal growth that blocks off the tree's conductive tissue. Continued loss of water and nutrients eventually causes the tree's death. As the firs die and fall, they open spaces for fir seeds to sprout and grow into mature trees, beginning the cycle again.
Some scientists believe the Balsam Fir will continue to survive here in this manner, with each new generation of trees becoming more resistant to adelgid damage. As you walk the trail, watch for young firs sprouting up from the forest floor. Red Spruce needles are four-sided and prickly. The cones hang down. Fraser Fir needles are flat, shiny dark green on top, whitish below. The cones are upright on the branch.
4. Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)--The fir and spruce of higher elevations share the forest with a number of deciduous trees. Spruce and fir are evergreen, while deciduous trees lose their leaves each fall. Primarily a northern tree, Mountain Maple occurs at elevations above 3000' in the Appalachians, often growing in the shade of other taller trees. Deer browse on the young twigs and leaves, and ruffed grouse eat the buds.
5. American Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana)--Although called an "Ash," the Mountain Ash is a member of the rose family. Creamy white flower clusters in late spring are followed by brilliant red berries in fall, attracting many birds. Known as the Rowan-tree in the British isles, early settlers here made a tart jelly from the fruit. (See #7)
6. Blowdowns--Attacked by adelgids, ice storms, and wind, these dead and downed trees play a vital part in renewing the forest as they decompose to create new soil. Opening up the forest to sunlight allows spruce and fir seedlings as well as ferns and mountain ash to gain a foothold. Rotting logs also provide homes for beneficial insects, rodents, salamanders, and other creatures important to the life cycle of the forest.
7. Red-berried Elder (Sambucus racemosa pubens / S. Pubens)--Another northern plant, the Red-berried Elder, resembles the American Mountain Ash. Both have compound leaves, clusters of white spring flowers and brilliant red fall berries. The low, shrubby elder has opposite branching leaves and cone shaped flower heads and berry clusters. The taller Mountain Ash branches alternately with flat-topped flower heads and berry clusters.
8. Now You See It, Now You Don't--The forest scene is constantly changing, from night to day, winter to summer and year to year. Each trip down the trail is different. Perhaps the bloom of the speckled wood lily in May or the climbing buckwheat vine with its arrowhead-shaped leaves on lush red stems in July will catch your eye. You may hear a raven's throaty call or catch a glimpse of a deer in late afternoon. Regardless of season, nature has an unlimited number of pleasures to share if you look closely.
9. Change is a Constant--Change is a constant at Richland Balsam. These fallen trees once grew atop this boulder, snaking their roots over it and into the shallow soil. Life is short here for trees lacking a firm attachment.
HALFWAY TO THE SUMMIT--You are now halfway to the summit and one-third way around the trail.
10. Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis/ B. lutea)--Birch seeds frequently germinate atop fallen trees, sending down roots to the soil. The roots straddle the log. In time the log decays, leaving a birch on "stilts." Easily identified by its shiny bark, yellow birch requires 35-40 years to reach maturity and can live as long as 200 years.
11. Forest Floor--Pause in your climb to note the tiny world atop the nearby stump. Decaying, it provides food and a suitable habitat for mosses, lichens, and even a few young Fraser Firs. As adjacent mature firs succumb to adelgids, these tiny survivors begin the cycle again.
12. Aphids at Work--Mature firs infested with the balsam woolly adelgid appear to have white lint on the bark. This is actually the "woolly" covering of the adelgid. Once adelgids are visible at eye level, the tree will die in 1-2 years. Examine the nearby trees for adelgids, but take care where you step, for at your feet are their successors-hundreds of tiny Fraser Firs in nature's nursery.
13. Firs-- The Fraser Fir is closely related to the Balsam Fir of the far north. Some scientists believe they were once the same tree until the climate warmed here over 5,000 years ago, leaving the surviving firs on cool mountain tops. Since that time, the firs here changed enough to be considered a separate species from their northern counterparts.
Summit Richland Balsam Mountain 6410' Elevation--The term "Balsam" is commonly applied to Fraser Fir and Red Spruce by Southern Highlanders. The spruce, with its rough bark and prickly needles like a man's beard, is sometimes called "He-Balsam", while the smooth barked fir with its shiny flat needles is called "She-Balsam." Both are here, can you tell the difference?
14. Lichens (Pseudevernia cladonia)--Lichens are made up of two kinds of plants living together, each benefiting the other. The fungus provides water and minerals to each and the algae manufactures food that is used by each. The density of the lichens on the tree branches here is due to continuous high humidity from fog.
15. Changes--Notice a difference in the trail? With less sunlight, the forest is cooler and wetter. Look for the changes this makes in the plant life. The boulder uphill has an unusual white stripe through its center, created when molten quartz forced its way into crevices while the rock was still deep within the earth.
16. Forest Animals--Although many different animals inhabit the spruce-fir forest, you may have difficulty seeing them. Instead, look and listen for signs of their presence. Deer tracks in soft soil and the sounds of red squirrel and winter wren are common. The saw-whet owl and red-shouldered hawk also frequent Richland Balsam.
17. Hobble Bush (Viburnum lantanoides/ V. Alnifolium)--Creamy white blooms in May and June mark the Hobble Bush, named for its habit of rooting at branch tips, forming loops which may trip or "hobble" the unwary walker. Fall brings scarlet berries that turn black as they ripen, providing food for many birds.
Sit and enjoy the views toward the end of the trail.
18. Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)--Whether a lone bush or a whole mountainside, the large clusters of purple-flowered Catawba Rhododendron defy comparison. Mountain people call this "laurel." "Laurel hells" and "laurel slicks" refer to its dense virtually impenetrable thickets. On steep, exposed slopes it will thrive on little soil, where other shrubs would die.
19. Mosses and Lichens--This immense boulder provides a home to two plant groups - mosses and lichens. Mosses are abundant due to high moisture and deep shade. Lichens, with their combination of food-producing algae and fungus that support the plant, can live where no others plants can.
20. Windthrow--Firs felled by wind open the forest floor to sunlight where "pioneer" shrubs such as blackberry and elderberry thrive. In time they will be shaded out by other plants. On sunny, warm days the fragrant aroma of nearby firs can be sensed all around.
21. Fire Cherry or Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)--This is one of the first trees to appear after a natural disaster such as fire or other disturbance. Its growth is fast and its life is short, surviving long enough to act as nursery cover for the spruce and fir seedlings to get a start.
22. Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)--The drooping white flower clusters of the "Sarvisberry" or "Shadbush" dot the mountainsides in early spring, often before the toothed-margin leaves appear. Whether growing as a shrub or a small tree, the June-ripening berries provide food for a wide variety of wildlife as well as man.
23. Man and the Forest--From the small seedlings atop Richland Balsam to the corridor of firs here, the ever changing nature of this unique forest is apparent. Over the coming years, the character of this trail will continue to change dramatically, due to man's introduction of a tiny, yet destructive insect, the balsam woolly adelgid.