Hiking North Carolina: Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain

Welcome to the second and final installment in my "I should've known hiking in North Carolina was this great" series.

On a recent trip south, my husband and I had two days to spend in the Pisgah National Forest. (Also, technically, an additional full afternoon, during which which visited the Linville Gorge.) Our first day included a challenging, but rewarding hike to Shining Rock via some trails less traveled. We chose to spend our second day on trails more traveled seeing North Carolina from two of the best known vistas in the Pisgah Ranger District - Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain.

Heading up the Art Loeb Trail toward Black Balsam Knob. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Though we both did our own research, I spend most of my research time on the Asheville Trails website looking at all sorts of hikes I wanted to do. Billed as "ultra-scenic," the idea of getting above 6,000' and getting sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains sealed the deal when it came to picking a hike for our second day. And we got exactly what we expected.

Getting to the Trailhead

As was the case with our hike to Shining Rock, there are a few of different ways to approach Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. Hikers can come from the north along the Art Loeb Trail, but that approach, which also covers the top of Shining Rock, was much further than we'd have time for. Hikers can start from the Art Loeb or Sam Knob trailhead and do an out-and back, or create a loop with the Ivestor Gap Trail, which is essentially what we chose to do. This way, it's only 4.5 miles in total, and gives you time to do more with the rest of the day.

Heading up the Art Loeb Spur from the Sam Knob trailhead parking area.

We parked here at the Sam Knob trailhead, and somehow, we timed our arrival perfectly, snagging the last available actual parking spot despite driving past dozens and dozens of cars lining Black Balsam Road.

Hiking to Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain (4.3 Miles, 743' Elevation Gain)

Our hike started around 11:30am, and our route began along the small Art Loeb Spur trail. We had that 0.4 mile section to ourselves before the spur intersected the Art Loeb trail. It was beautiful and peaceful, winding through dense foliage before popping out into wide open grassy meadows. The trail climbed gently the entire time, and continued to climb as we joined the Art Loeb Trail.

Just blue skies and stunning views everywhere we looked after we popped out of the trees.

At this point, the crowds we'd expected to see appeared. The rocky climb continued up to the Black Balsam summit, and the higher we got, the more incredible the scenery became. The trail got much wider in spots, dipping at least a foot below the landscape in some places, and we saw multiple occupied campsites right off the trail.

We arrived at the summit about 0.7 miles into our hike, finding a plaque dedicated to the trail's namesake - Art Loeb. It looked so completely different from our route up Shining Rock the previous day and the views were so much more expansive, partially thanks to extensive logging and locomotive fires taking out the majority of the trees on and around the summit.

The plaque on top of Black Balsam Knob. Quite a view!

Continuing on to Tennent Mountain, the trail dropped down slightly in elevation, taking us through more dense bushes and past two wooden Art Loeb Trail signs before climbing again to the summit. We didn't find a plaque there, but we did find an absolutely perfect spot for lunch. I reapplied sunscreen here; the majority of our route leaves hikers completely exposed to the sun.

After we finished our sandwiches, we continued on, walking the ridge beyond Tennent Mountain toward Shining Rock before hitting our hike's midpoint - the junction with the Ivestor Gap Trail. Here, we turned left, heading back toward our car.

Looking along the ridge the Art Loeb Trail follows toward Shining Rock from the Tennent Mountain Summit. 

The Ivestor Gap Trail, despite being mostly on a wide, gravel road, was still beautifully scenic. We spotted Sam Knob to our right, watched rolling hills go by as we walked side by side, and looked for potential campsites, thinking we'd give up our second night in the campground we were staying at in favor of a quieter evening. (We ended up staying here, which was a huge mistake, I definitely don't recommend it!)

Overall, the leisurely but incredibly rewarding (and busy) hike took us about two and a half hours. Take a look at our route here.

Things to Know Before You Go, and Food for Thought

The Ivestor Gap/Art Loeb Trail junction.
There are several ways to get to Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. They're both right on the Art Loeb Trail, and hiking it from either end will get you there. You can do what we did, which was to make a loop using the Ivestor Gap Trail, or plan an entirely different loop. This map is a great one to have handy for route planning.

The trail is almost entirely exposed to the elements. That was part of the appeal for us - being above treeline. But sunscreen is a must, and it was quite windy in some spots. Be prepared!

The parking lot we chose was completely packed, and we saw a bunch of cars parked along the road near the trailhead. We were lucky enough to get a spot, and saw a line of cars waiting to take it when we left. Arrive as early as you can, and have a backup plan in case you're unable to find a spot. Also, there are bathroom facilities with pit toilets; use those to the extent possible instead of doing your business along the trail if you can, and pack out toilet paper.

Practice Leave No Trace here (and everywhere); this area clearly sees a metric crap ton of traffic. The trail is wide and a foot below the surface of the landscape in some places, indicating severe erosion. There were multiple tiny side trails and off-shoots from what looked to be the main trail, indicating plenty of people didn't follow the original path. We saw a dozen or so campsites right off the trail just on the small section of the Art Loeb Trail we were on.

If we hadn't come from so far away and hadn't read about how spectacular the views were, there's a solid chance we would have skipped it, or come back in a different season to avoid the holiday weekend crowds. And in general, it was almost painful to see the affect so many sets of boot prints had. But we, as two additional sets of boot prints on an already well-used, potentially over-used, trail, were part of the crowds.

I often struggle to find a balance between visiting trails that are popular for good reasons, like amazing views, and picking potentially less amazing trails in favor of not adding my own boot prints as an impact. But any time we hike anywhere, we impact the landscape. And that impact adds up. (It's been adding up in the Adirondacks for a long time as well.) If we're going to hike anywhere, we have to be aware that we all play a role in the impact on the terrain. It's quite a conundrum.

Looking back from the Art Loeb Trail near Tennant Mountain the trail(s) along Black Balsam Knob.

Aside from relying on improved trail maintenance projects, donating and volunteering time to organizations that support trail maintenance (I donated to this organization after our trip), and picking lesser known routes, I'm always looking for ways to manage the impact my own hiking as on the trails I love. If you have other ideas, I'd love to hear them in the comments!

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