The Art Loeb Trail to the top of Cold Mountain is, for anybody up for the physical, full-day challenge, an unforgettable introduction to the scenic and atmospheric joys of western North Carolina’s Appalachian high country.
At 6,030 feet, Cold Mountain isn’t quite as lofty as some of the other peaks in North Carolina’s Great Balsam Mountains, but it must be the best-known. Charles Frazier immortalized it in his 1997 Civil War novel, Cold Mountain, which in 2003 was adapted as a hit Hollywood film. But this grand conical peak has plenty of presence and magic apart from its cultural renown: It’s a distinctive sharp landmark in many sightlines from other mountaintops in the region, and the pinnacle of the lovely Shining Rock Wilderness, which encompasses the Great Balsam divide between the West and East forks of the Pigeon River.
Using the Art Loeb Trail, the trek up to Cold Mountain’s summit covers about five miles one-way and close to 3,000 feet of elevation gain. The Art Loeb Trail is a fantastic 30-mile long-distance footpath in the Pisgah National Forest named for an enthusiastic local hiker and member of the Carolina Mountain Club. This Cold Mountain climb uses the Art Loeb’s northern section to access the Great Balsam crest, then leaves it to follow the northbound route to the summit.
You’ll begin at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp in the lush forest along the Little East Fork Pigeon River, quickly entering the 18,479-acre Shining Rock Wilderness.
This was one of the first generation of federal wilderness areas in the U.S. established with the 1964 Wilderness Act, and still ranks as the biggest wilderness in North Carolina. One mere road separates it from the smaller Middle Prong Wilderness to the immediate southwest, on the other side of the West Fork Pigeon River.
You’ll head steadily upslope, crossing several creeks and passing forested campsites. At about 3.6 miles in, you’ll reach the crest of the Great Balsam’s northern ridge at Deep Gap, a popular camping area. Here, the Art Loeb Trail proceeds southward toward the wilderness area’s namesake peak, Shining Rock, which gets its name from its gleaming quartzite outcrops. To get to Cold Mountain, though, you’ll turn left here and proceed northward.
You’ll start getting some entrancing views as you slog upslope, ascending the southern spur of Cold Mountain. The woods become more stunted and twisted with the increasing elevation and exposure.
Once you reach the final summit approach, you’ll be feasting on grand vistas. The central and southern Great Balsam Mountains are arrayed on the skyline southward, including 6,040-foot Shining Rock and, beyond, the highest peaks in the range: from south to southwest, 6,314-foot Black Balsam Knob, 6,120-foot Mount Hardy, 6,080-foot Reinhart Knob, and—tallest of all—6,410-foot Richland Balsam.
To the northwest, you can nab glimpses of the Plott Balsams and the Great Smokies, while to the east Mount Pisgah is a distinctive knob with Bearwallow and Sugarloaf mountains on the far skyline to the right of it.
You’ll see a U.S. Geological Survey benchmark embedded in a boulder at the exact Cold Mountain summit: probably worth a picture ahead of your downward hike back to the trailhead.
– You can break up this Cold Mountain hike and extend your explorations of the Great Balsams by making it a backpacking overnighter, camping at Deep Gap or at one of the other sites scattered along the route. But make sure you abide by the Shining Rock Wilderness regulations for backcountry camping: No campfires are allowed any time of year, and you need to carry a certified bear canister for storage of food and other scented items.