Art Loeb Trail From Forest Service Rd 816 Trailhead
-Black Balsam Knob | 0.8 Miles
-Tennent Mountain | 1.8 Miles
-Ivestor Gap | 2.4 Miles
-Roundtrip Loop | 4.9 Miles
Art Loeb Trail Map | Alltrails
Black Balsam Knob Trailhead Location | Google Maps
In the North Carolina hiking community, outside of hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail, the Art Loeb Trail is the second most beloved trail in the state. It draws thousands of outdoor enthusiasts each year to travel the various sections of this 30 mile journey lasting anywhere between 2-3 days. For those looking to just get a day hike in and enjoy the jaw dropping scenery, there’s no better place to go than the 3 mile stretch between Black Balsam Knob, Tennent Mountain, and Investor Gap. As part of the 8 mile route known as section 4 of the Art Loeb Trail, it is the most widely traveled due to its moderate terrain and far reaching vistas. On this particular hike, I’ll be tackling the two aforementioned 6,000 ft summits, stopping at the entrance to the Shining Rock Wilderness in Investor Gap, and looping back along the Ivestor Gap Trail.
Art Loeb Spur Trail
To kick things off, I jumped on the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed south to the intersection of Black Balsam Rd (Forest Service Rd 816) near milepost 420. It’s easy to find as its location is halfway in between Devils Courthouse and Graveyard Fields. This road leads to what is generally referred to as the Black Balsam Recreation Area which contains vault toilets, an advisory board, and ample parking spaces for a half dozen other trailheads in the Great Balsam Mountain range. From here one can access paths north into the Shining Rock Wilderness, east to Graveyard Fields, or south towards Sam Knob, Little Sam Knob, Flat Laurel Creek Valley, Wildcat Falls, Chestnut Bald, Silvermine Bald, and Devils Courthouse.
There are two starting points to the Art Loeb Trail from this area. The main one is from the Black Balsam Road Trailhead, roughly 0.5 miles up from the Blue Ridge Parkway. As this is the actual continuation of the Art Loeb Trail traveling north from Silvermine Bald, it’s the most popular starting point and therefore parking is sometimes unavailable. The backup option is to park at the main lot of Black Balsam Rd near the restrooms and hike in through the 0.9 mile Art Loeb Spur Trail. This spur trail travels up a succession of steep switchbacks and is generally considered strenuous due to its muddy and rocky terrain. Either path you chose, they will both take you up a grueling 300 feet of elevation to the ridges leading up to Black Balsam Knob. Arriving to the trailhead a little bit later than I had hoped (10a.m.), I had no other option than to take the Art Loeb Spur to reach the main trail.
I can attest to the fact that it is definitely muddy and the lower section closer to the road is an ankle twisting nightmare filled with loose rocks in every shape and size. The good news is that this is generally the hardest part of the entire journey from my experience. Thankfully halfway up, the trail does dry up and becomes more stable right as the views start to open up. On this clear and crips fall morning, the mountain scenery is simply jaw dropping. The ridges of the Great Balsam Mountains are radiant in their fall shades of burnt sienna, ochre, and burgundy. From the south side of the ridge, you can see well into the Shining Rock Wilderness. If I thought these views were fantastic, I was at a loss for words when I reached the main trail just a dozen feet above where I was previously standing.
Black Balsam Knob (6,214’ ft)
From the Art Loeb Trail, you can practically see the entire world. The peak of Black Balsam Knob is staring down at me from less than 0.25 miles to the north. I can spot the silhouettes of people trudging along the summit and that’s exactly where I want to be. Following the well worn dirt path, I began to make my way to the summit through a gorgeous grassy meadow bursting with fall blooming wildflowers. Intermingled with the swaying mounds of hip high mountain oat grass and bluegrass were colorful flowers of ironweed, goldenrod, and asters in just about every shade of purple. Section 4 of the Art Loeb Trail is set apart from the rest of the 30 mile route because, much like the Black Mountain Crest Trail we previously hiked in Mount Mitchell State Park, this trail travels along the crest of the Great Balsam Mountain range. Unlike the heavily forested peaks of the Blacks, the peaks of the Balsam Mountains are mostly bald, or devoid of trees.
Not much is known about the origins of these grassy balds that dominate a large portion of the Southern Appalachians. Scientists believe they originated sometime around 10,000 years ago due to a mixture of extreme climate events and human interaction. Once created, the landscape was kept open by the grazing of large herbivores like the wooly mammoth and mastodon during the last Ice Age. From the top of Black Balsam Knob, its mystifying to imagine such large creatures roaming these same peaks. Looking out over the dizzying distance stretched out in front of us, it’s easy to get a sense of what drew Art Loeb to fall in love with these mountains and want to spend every ounce of his free time exploring them.
In more recent history, early settlers took advantage of these mountain top meadows by freely allowing their herds to graze here, inadvertently keeping all shrubby growth at bay. As the logging boom of the 1900’s kicked off, much of the old growth forest in this region disappeared. Black Balsam Knob in particular was devastated by not just deforestation, but two locomotive fires in 1925 and 1942 which completely destroyed the last remnants of hardwood forest covering the summit. It was not until the 1930’s, with the government formally purchasing the acreage surrounding this range to create the Blue Ridge Parkway, that conservation efforts began.
Tennent Mountain (6,056’ ft)
From the top of Black Balsam Knob its 0.75 miles to reach the peak of Tennent Mountain. As it departs Black Balsam Knob, we traverse a flat plateau that’s a favorite spot for overnight hikers to spend the night. With a clear line of sight in each direction, especially of the nights sky, and very little light pollution, this area is a popular destination with astrophotographers. Even as an amateur photographer, it’s difficult to take a bad photo from these incredible vantage points. Coming down from the plateau, the Art Loeb Trail descends into a gap between the two peaks that doubles as a creek during the wetter part of the year. A lot of this water flows down from here and feeds the waterfalls of Graveyard Fields including the Upper and Lower Falls of Yellowstone Prong.
Most of the soil is washed away in this section, leaving behind what looks like a rocky creek bed in its place. While the trail follows through several trenches carved out by natural erosion that are sometimes waist deep, a few man made paths circumvent this through the meadow. The process has created several side trails that can get confusing to follow, so if the trail is not muddy, I would suggest just staying on it and avoiding the extra hassle. Even from a distance Tennent Mountain stands out with its rock covered summit giving it a distinct slanted shape similar to Table Rock in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Much of the blazing red foliage dominating this peak comes from the overabundant groves of blueberry bushes. With the peak of Tennent Mountain getting closer and closer, I can start to make out a small traffic jam along the path leading up to the summit.
About a hundred yards from the summit is a seriously eroded area where the trail drops down to almost a 45 degree angle. The only way up is to use the boulders as steps. With carefully measured steps, fellow hikers were taking their turn climbing from one boulder to the other, as the narrow path only allowed one to two people to go at a time. While not a particularly difficult area to traverse for most people, it definitely slows things down. Striding up the last few feet to the summit, I found the plaque marking the peak and took a seat next to it, enjoying the magnificent view. At 6,040 ft, it’s the sixth highest peak in this sub range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountain itself was dedicated for Galliard Tennent, former president of the regions oldest hiking organization, the Carolina Mountain Club.
As another member of the Carolina Mountain Club, Art Loeb began hiking the backwoods of the Pisgah National Forest as a hobby. Eventually it became on obsession for him to find small tracts of trails and connect them in an effort to create a seamless trail from his home in Brevard to the Daniel Boone Scout Camp in Haywood County. Most of these trails were nothing more than tracks created by wildlife or early homesteaders. Unfortunately for Art Loeb, he never lived to see his dream of a unified trail come to fruition, as he passed away one year before the trails grand opening in 1969. Till this day 99 years after its inception, the Carolina Mountain Club continues to maintain, protect, and lobby for trails all across the state.
Not only does it keep this area open to hikers seeking an escape into nature, but it helps protect a crucial part of this areas cultural heritage. Walking down from Tennent Mountain the 0.3 miles to Ivestor Gap, everything stretched out in front of us is part of the Shining Rock Wilderness. It took a massive effort, with help from many private groups including the Carolina Mountain Club, for Congress to officially recognize the 18,479 acres of North Carolinas largest wilderness in 1964. The name Shining Rock comes from a white quartz outcropping located near the peak of Shining Rock Mountain, in the heart of the preserve. The area boasts five peaks exceeding 6,000 feet, numerous waterfalls, and a growing population of bears.
Though it would be easy for me to continue on into the Shining Rock Wilderness from Ivestor Gap, I didn’t come fully prepared to tackle the extra mileage. Being one of the most visited Wilderness Areas in the country, it is notoriously difficult to navigate without an appropriate map as there are no marked trails here. The areas terrain has been made even tougher to navigate due to landslides occurring this summer caused by two back to back tropical storms. Not wanting to retrace my steps, I opt to loop back south to the Black Balsam Knob Trailhead via Investor Gap. This easy to navigate trail is a relic of the areas logging history. Mostly flat, with portions of it covered in gravel, it retraces the Art Loeb Trail directly above it, but just on the lower ridges. All in all by the time you make it back to your car, this hike will have totaled up to be nearly 5.0 miles.
With plans to tackle several more notable peaks in this range, I head on over to the Black Balsam Trailhead to kick off my next journey to Sam Knob. The 6,050’ ft summit of Sam Knob is accessible via a 1.25 mile trail located right behind the vault toilets near the parking lot. Traveling through scenic wide open grassy meadows, it ascends 461 ft to a rocky summit with views of the West Fork of Pigeon River. Stay tuned for this fun hike and until next time, see y’all on the trails!