Hike Length: 6.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,168 ft
One of the most well-known and popular hikes in North Carolina is without a doubt Black Balsam.
With the trail head easily accessible by a paved road, and the summit only one mile into your hike this mountain draws a crowd!
The last time I was at Black Balsam was in April for a piece of the Art Lobe Trail. Despite loving that hike, I hadn’t wanted to go back because that hike alone is a short one.
Black Balsam and Tennant Mountain are on connecting trails and both boast balds at the summit, making for some pretty surreal panoramic views. Will the leaves starting to change color and temperatures dropping quickly it felt like the perfect time to head back.
I knew that there were a couple of trails connecting to Balsam and actually walked into this hike with no real plan other than to create my own loop.
The loop ended up looking like a connection from the Art Lobe Trail to the Graveyard Ridge Trail and finally backing onto the Mountains to Sea Trail.
If you’re looking for a relatively easy hike with panoramic views and a little more solitude in the latter half of your hike this is the one for you!
This part is a shout out to what might have been the North Carolina’s best coffee shop!
I love coffee and getting some pre/post hike is tradition for me. Since I make my coffee at home during the week the opportunity to get a little treat is one I cherish.
There’s a little grey bricked building called 10th Muse just outside of Asheville. The owner is an absolute delight and the place has over 40 coffee specialties to choose from!!
I went with an iced snickerdoodle latte and will 100% be returning the next time I’m in the area to try the Nutella Crepe situation they had going on!
The Art Lobe Trail Section:
After my coffee stop I pulled into an ominous looking parking lot at 2 pm. Heavy clouds filled the sky leaving the trees the color of shadows.
I left my rain jacket at home but covered my backpack in its rain cover as a drizzle set in on the range ahead of me.
The first part of Black Balsam takes you up a well-loved path the leads to a false summit. This part of the hike
is an easy up and gives you access to stunning views almost immediately.
Once you arrive at the false summit you’ll be able to see the actual summit off in the distance.
Coming from someone who isn’t used to hiking on exposed mountains, but those covered in a dense forest, it’s pretty special to be able to see everything around you. It makes me better understand the appeal of west coast hiking.
The rain didn’t last long and by the time I was walking towards Mount Tennant it had stopped completely.
I reached the top of Tennant about an hour and 2.5 miles into my hike. If you’re looking to really sit and enjoy the view this is your spot!
There are plenty of places to sit, and while still crowded it’s much calmer than Balsam, which seems to constantly host a plethora of screaming children.
Heading down from Tennant is the first part of the hike that I would call difficult. I say this because the trail is relatively narrow and has been eroded from use overtime, making for some steep drop offs.
I was planning on going into Shining Rock Wilderness but as it sometimes does, life got in the way!
Graveyard Fields Trail Section:
As I was heading towards the Shining Rock sign I noticed a group of boys gathered around a map looking fully lost.
“Hey, are you guys good?” I asked them.
“Uh, actually we’re pretty lost,” one of them responded “do you know where Sam Knob is from here?”
I told them that it was in the opposite direction from where they were headed, and then let them know what I was doing, and that they were welcome to join me if they wanted.
They decided to come on my trek with me and then head over to Sam Knob when we returned to the parking lot that I had started at.
Instead of going up Shinning Rock I adjusted course slightly and took a slight right down to the Graveyard Fields Trail instead.
You have to go down what looks like a dirt road about 20 ft before you see the signage for the trail, so be sure to look out for that!
The section of Graveyard Trail that we were on was mostly flat if not a descent, making for some easy hiking.
Having rained earlier, there were quite a few sections of the trail that were submerged in a newly created swamp. If you’re ever planning to do this hike during a rainy week make sure that you’re wearing waterproof boots.
Aside from some watered-down areas, this part of the hike went off without a hitch and is much quieter as it’s on the back side of the mountains and isn’t offering the same kinds of views.
Mountains to Sea Section:
When we got to the final section of our loop the trail forks into three options:
- Take a left and head down to the Graveyard Fields parking lot
- Continue straight onto the Mountains to Sea trail
- Cut a hard right onto the Mountains to Sea trail and complete the loop
Obviously for our purposes we had to take a hard right. The marking of the MST trail isn’t well marked though, and if you aren’t looking for it, it would be easy to keep going straight instead!
This section of the trail was all elevation and switchbacks. It was without a doubt the hardest section of this hike.
Air that felt like helium was all that entered my lungs for a sold fifteen minutes while the boys and I struggled to get ourselves up switchback after switchback.
About 200 ft from the top we encountered the only other hikers on this particular stretch of trail. They let us know that when we got to the top it would look like there were two trails down but to take the one on the left. The one on the right wasn’t a real trail and would involve a lot of bushwhacking.
The view at the top made the effort feel worth it as the sun filtered through lazy clouds from the earlier rain.
Upon reaching the fork we headed down the left side of the trail for another twenty minutes until we reached the lot.
Not terribly eventful and it came up much quicker than anticipated.
We said our goodbyes and they headed off for Sam Know while I stayed behind to set up camp.
Camping at Black Balsam
Before I begin to talk about this part of my trip it is integral I mention that bear cans are mandatory to camp at this mountain.
It’s touristy, not everyone knows about “Leave no Trace,” and bears like people food. Because of this it’s really common for them to hang out in this area.
Finding a level spot to set up camp I set up my tent and then headed over to a guy 100 ft away who looked to be setting up a hanging system for his own bear can.
“You know you don’t have to hang those, right” I called out, my own can tucked under my arm.
“I’m from Seattle and I woke up face to face with a bear once. I don’t fuck with bears.” He responded.
Shrugging my shoulders at him I walked back to camp to get ready for bed.
A couple of hours later I awoke to my worst nightmare. Through my tent walls I heard the curious sniffing of what could only be a very large animal. Oh fuck.
That’s right, Seattle was right, and I was getting investigated by a black bear.
Coming into full conscious I laid dead still inside of my bag. A few seconds later my ears started to adjust to the noises outside of the three-foot radius they were zoned into and I could hear a group collectively shouting “Beeeeeear” and “HEY Bear!!”
What felt like an eternity but couldn’t have been more than 45 seconds passed and my uninvited visitor clambered off.
I am incredibly lucky that Black Bears aren’t known to be aggressive, and I had done the responsible thing by putting all of my scented items in my bear can 100 ft away from me or there could have been a very different outcome.
Nature might be my temporary refuge, but it’s a full-time home to animals far more dangerous than I can comprehend. If there are rules in the area you want to camp in please, please, please follow them. They’re meant to protect you.
Abundantly apparent that sleep wasn’t something I would be falling back into I waited in my tent a couple more minutes before deciding to head over to where a voice I recognized was coming from- accompanied by several others.
I told them what happened, and we proceeded to talk until calling at 11:00. One of my favorite things about backpacking is that everyone is out there for connection.
Maybe it’s with nature, maybe it’s with yourself or the people you’re with. At the end of it all though, everyone is looking for the same thing.
I’ll never go into specifics of what I talk about, because I want the moments I share with others on the trail to stay preserved in their beauty, but I think talking about how much I appreciate it is relevant and hopefully relatable!
After a cup of tea to warm up I called it a night.
When I woke up in the morning everything was covered in rain from a storm I had slept through.
My home for the night was dismantled in under half an hour and with everything packed I headed to my car to meet a friend in Asheville.
Question: Have you ever had a scary animal encounter?