Black Balsam via the Art Loeb Trail
*We have added Black Balsam/Tennent Mountain via the Art Loeb Trail to our list of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachians. In fact, the Art Loeb Trail in it’s entirely may be the best multi-day trail in the South. This is just one (arguably the best) section of it.
Every year, millions of people flock to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the premier National Park in the eastern United States. Many of these people are no doubt convinced that by doing so, they are about to see the best that the Southern Appalachians of North Carolina and Tennessee can offer.
Those who live in Tennessee for example are well aware that the wide-open views from the ridges of the Roan Mountains are considered to be superior to those in the Smokies…and just maybe anywhere else in the south.
Most knowledgeable sources in North Carolina, meanwhile, almost certainly would propose a better (and less crowded) alternative to GSMNP. Some might argue for the Linville Gorge, as we would.
But if there is one hike in the south that MIGHT be better than even the Linville Gorge and the Roan Mountains, it is this one: the Art Loeb Trail. The ALT may in fact be the single best trail in the South.
We have only hiked the section of the ALT from where it crosses a side road off the Blue Ridge Parkway to just past Tennent Mountain. This is a short section, and probably the most crowded section since its near the parkway. But it’s also considered by most to be hands down the best…three miles of fully exposed high country. What we saw certainly lived up to billing.
In fact, Brian has hiked this twice…once in 2008 by himself, and once again a few years later with Sylvia. We can’t presently locate any of my pictures from the return trip…those from the original solo trip are presented here instead.
To reach this hike you need to drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Black Balsam Road, which diverges right (going South) just after Graveyard Fields. Look for the Art Loeb Trail crossing and join the approximately hundred other cars parked along the road (yep this is a popular hike…but the area is so vast and cross-cut with trails that it tends to soak up crowds.)
As stated in many of our other posts, the ‘grassy balds’ of the Southern Appalachians have disappointed us. The views on some are patchy and restricted, while others feel like tame pastures. They lack the wild and abrupt character that the best mountaintops possess.
The section of the Art Loeb Trail that passes over Black Balsam and Tennant Mountain is an exception. Those these open areas are grassy balds probably created by logging and fires, they are massive and feel quite wild. The seemingly endless procession of dark ridges, one following the other, actually reminds us of rugged Olympic National Park which we visited in 2016.
The only comparable place we have visited in the Southern Appalachians is the Grayson Highlands of Virginia. But the Art Loeb Trail feels wilder…partly because of what you CAN’T see, which is people and their stuff. Apart from a few sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway, there isn’t a man made anything in sight. Just mountainside after pristine mountainside.
(Note that we hiked the Roan Mountains a few years back in godawful conditions and saw just about nothing, so the jury is still out on that one. It could well be better…we’ll try for a reboot eventually.)
The night before the hike in 2008, Brian remembers that it poured biblically. As he drove in, he took these pictures from the Blue Ridge Parkway of the moiling clouds, unsure if they were gathering for another blow or retreating. As it turned out, the answer was…retreating.
It was peak fall color here, and the views were…well, take a look at the pictures. This is some real estate…
Brian did in fact walk all the way into the Shining Rock Wilderness, and in fact walked a good deal further than that. He had hoped to walk out to the Shining Rocks themselves, which are visible in the distance from Black Balsam (but are much further than they appear.)
Somehow, Brian got turned off the trail at the notoriously confusing Shining Rock Gap (or so he thinks) and followed a trail (probably the Investor Gap Trail) that went for one or two more miles into the trees before declaring victory and heading home. He remembers this vividly because he was deliberately trying to push the mileage to prepare for an AT section hike in Vermont, and his left foot, which was suffering from plantar fasciitis at the time, was killing him.
There is a LOT of wilderness out here. Once out in the Shining Rock Wilderness, Brian saw no one else at all.
The Black Balsam/Tennent Mountain section of the ALT is only one section of the much longer (some thirty miles) trail…most would take three or four days to hike it all the way from the start near Davidson River Campground in Brevard, NC all the way to the end near the Daniel Boone Scout Camp near Canton, NC.
Assuming your navigational skills are better than Brian’s, you can walk out to the Shining Rocks (which are considered to be somewhat less than impressive) in a day hike. Beyond Tennent Mountain are fewer views, but the trail enters DEEP wilderness. If you wish to overnight, there is the option of summiting Cold Mountain, which lies near the trail and accessibly via a spur.
Those interested in this may also be interested in Sam’s Knob, a much shorter hike with great views in the same area (it’s further down the Black Balsam road off the parking area at the end.)
When Brian and Sylvia did the trail together, we did not go past the boundary of the Shining Rock Wilderness. We may do this entire trail in the future as a backpack to prepare for bigger adventures elsewhere.
Is the Art Loeb Trail the best trail in the entire Southern Appalachians? Some would say so. The jury is still out as far as we are concerned…our favorite single day of hiking is still the amazing Old Rag in Virginia. The Black Balsam area may be runner up, or it may not.
But we have yet to hike the Art Loeb Trail in it’s entirely. Only when we have shall we be able to answer yes or no to this question.
(Note that if and when we find the rest of the pictures we’ll post them too!)