The Plott Balsam Mountains make a handsome ridgeline of pointy peaks rising between two of the great ranges of the Southern Appalachians: the Great Smokies to the northwest and the Great Balsams to the southeast. The apex of this compact range is the roughly 6,300-foot Waterrock Knob, just a hop, skip, and a jump—albeit a steep hop, skip, and a jump—up from the Waterrock Knob Visitors Center right along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The big parking lot at the Visitors Center, which is set at milepost 451.2 on the Parkway, is a destination unto itself. The views from here are fantastic, with broad prospects of the high, rugged skylines of the Great Smoky and Great Balsam Mountains: together with the nearby Black Mountains and Roan Highlands, the loftiest country in the eastern U.S. To the southeast Richard Balsam, the 6,401-foot high point of the Great Balsams, dominates the skyline, while to the northwest you can see 6,650-foot Clingmans Dome and 6,572-foot Mount Le Conte along the Great Smokies crest. (The second-highest peak in the Great Smokies, 6,614-foot Mount Guyot, is just visible.)
You’ll also be able to admire the up-close peaks of the Plott Balsams, including 6,088-foot Browning Knob and 6,032-foot Yellow Face as well as the conifer-studded brow of Waterrock Knob itself looming above the parking lot.
Find the trail to the summit of Waterrock Knob at the north end of the parking lot. It begins as a paved segment, briefly shared with the long-distance Mountains-to-Sea Trail that connects Clingmans Dome with the Outer Banks across the full breadth of North Carolina. After a quarter-mile or so, the pavement devolves into dirt tread, the ascent aided in places by stone steps.
You’ve got some stirring views to feast on as you climb the 450-plus feet, and more from the rocky summit itself, which you’ll reach just a bit more than a half-mile from the trailhead. It’s fun to peer down on the parking area and the Blue Ridge Parkway from this mountaintop vantage, which also offers more views of the Great Balsams and other surrounding highlands. (Because of trees, however, the vistas are actually more limited at the top of Waterrock Knob compared to the parking lot.)
Some trivia to spice up your peak-bagging: Waterrock Knob was named by loggers for the presence of a spring close to the summit. An earlier label, according to the North Carolina Gazetteer, was either Amos Plott Balsam or Enos Plott Balsam, given in the 1850s for one of two sons of Henry Plott, for whom the Plott Balsams—called Tunn Ensleas by the Cherokee—got their English name. (The Gazetteer variously gives the Amos Plott and Enos Plott names to Waterrock Knob and the nearby Plott Balsam.) Incidentally, the Plotts also give their name to the state dog of North Carolina: the Plott Hound, bred in the Southern Appalachians for bear-hunting.
Return from the summit the way you came, surely impressed with the rugged country and long vistas this corner of the Southeast specializes in—and ready for more further along the Parkway!
– Both the parking lot and the Waterrock Knob summit are great places for sunrises and sunsets; if you take in the sunup or sundown show from the mountaintop, just remember to pack a headlamp for negotiating the twilight trail.