Backpackers covet the 30-odd miles of the Art Loeb Trail for its top-grade Southern Appalachian adventure, but you don’t need to tackle the full route to taste its magic. The most celebrated leg of its course—and one of the most accessible and big-payoff hikes in North Carolina—is the 1.4-mile round-trip mosey up Black Balsam Knob off the Blue Ridge Parkway, an easy drive from Asheville.
At 6,214 feet, Black Balsam Knob is the second-highest peak in the Great Balsam Mountains, one of the most imposing ranges of the Southern Appalachians along with the Black Mountains, the Great Smokies, the Roan Highlands, and the Great Craggies. (The highest peak in the Great Balsam Mountains, 6,410-foot Richland Balsam, is actually the 10th loftiest peak in the East.)
Black Balsam Knob also supports an extensive bald, one of those open, mostly treeless, grassy or shrubby mountain crests for which the Southern Appalachians are famous. The elevation combined with the rocky meadowland translate to some killer views: well worth an hour or two tramping off the Parkway!
A quick nugget of history: The Art Loeb Trail—which links the Davidson River with the Little East Fork of the Pigeon River—is named for an enthusiastic hiker and member of the Carolina Mountain Club, honored with a plaque on a Black Balsam Knob outcrop.
From the trailhead, you’ll first pass through richly scented stands of Fraser (“balsam”) fir, which together with red spruce forms the classic subalpine forest in the Southern Appalachians. But before long you’ll break out of the trees and wander a sweeping bald crest to the summit of Black Balsam Knob, with blowing grasses, blueberry shrubs, and rock outcrops in the foreground and rippling mountains as your magnificent backdrop.
At about the 0.45-mile mark, a spur trail breaks to the left in the direction of the Sam Knob Trail; stay on the northbound path to Black Balsam Knob’s crown.
On clear days especially, the views from Black Balsam Knob encompass an amazing sweep of country. This vista includes some of the highest mountains in the eastern U.S., including 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell in the Black Mountains and 6,285-foot Roan High Knob in the Roan Highlands to the northeast, 6,593-foot Mount Le Conte and 6,621-foot Mount Guyot in the Great Smoky Mountains to the northwest, and Richland Balsam in the near west.
Other landmarks include well-named Shining Rock with its quartzite gleam, the familiar cone of Mount Pisgah, and another Great Balsam height, Cold Mountain, now famous for the novel and Hollywood blockbuster named after it.
The blueberry snacking available in high summer is only one of the botanical attractions of Black Balsam Knob. In May and June, blooming rhododendrons against the panoramic scenery makes for postcard-perfect Southern Appalachian views. In early October, you’ll likely have some magnificent fall colors to survey from your lofty vantage.
– In summer—and especially during blueberry season—the trail to Black Balsam Knob comes well trod. If it works with your schedule, try to hike it in the middle of the week; on weekend days, aim for earlier in the morning.
– You can extend your hike by continuing north from Black Balsam Knob on the Art Loeb Trail to reach Tennent Mountain—host to its own great, bald-top views—and then looping back via the Ivestor Gap Trail.
– As on any of the Blue Ridge summits and ridges, especially the windblown balds, weather can change quickly on Black Balsam Knob. Expect a chilly breeze even in summer.