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Backpacker Magazine – September 2009

Rip & Go: Black Balsam Knob to Cold Mountain - Pisgah National Forest, NC

Trek 18.2 miles from the South's best view to its most famous mountain.

by: Shannon Davis

Old Butt Knob Trail (Kevin Adams)
Old Butt Knob Trail (Kevin Adams)

Take it With You
Download a printable PDF of this entire weekend.

GPS-Enabled Trip Report
See this trip on a map, download it to your phone, GPS, or computer, and more.

Key Skill: Reading the Clouds
The pastoral valleys, rhododendron-filled hillsides, and end-of-the-earth views may make you feel that all is well with the world, but don't be fooled. This range is notorious for thunderstorms, and even snow, any time of year. The movement of the clouds foretells the arrival of a storm-bearing frontal system if you know how to read it. Use this guide to help you decide whether to retreat to treeline or amble on.

1. Towering cumulus
When white, cotton ball-shaped clouds (fair weather indicators) gather, darken, and swell into towering anvils, rain and lightning are likely within 12 hours. Skip exposed highlands by taking the Ivestor Gap or Tennent Mountain Trails.

2. Cirrus and cirrocumulus
These wispy clouds indicate fair weather for the next 24 hours, perfect for shooting photos on a ridge traverse.

3. Stratus and nimbostratus
If you're not already wet, you will be soon. These long, gray, shallow clouds often bring several days of rain and drizzle–but no lightning. Throw on a shell and hike on.

Camp Chat
Black Balsam Knob, the 23rd highest peak in North Carolina, is part of a string of open summits within the Blue Ridge Mountains called the Balsam Range. The grassy, gently sloping summits are renowned for their sweeping views. But these mountaintops weren't always bald. Extensive clear-cut logging denuded some, and fires in 1925 and 1942 that burned so hot that they destroyed the mineral rich topsoil got the others. This slowed reforestation or stopped it altogether. Discuss: Would you support a reforestation effort to rebuild this area to its original condition, even it meant losing the incredible vistas?

See This
Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel

This two-ounce, endangered squirrel glides tree to tree in the cool highlands on flaps of skin that stretch between its front and back legs. It drops its hind end to brake and uses its tail to steer itself to soft landings. The squirrels make homes of shredded bark inside dead pine trunks or in abandoned woodpecker nests and are mainly nocturnal.

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May 11, 2012

Great hike, just finished this weekend with two nights out, would definitely do again. Beautiful views. Long day going from Cold Mountain back to Black Balsam trail head.

Ran into two groups who lost their food and recent reports of others at Ivestor Gap (specifically on knob of trees above to the South) to bears. Lots of bear sign at Ivestor and Shinning Rock area. One sounds like poor bear bag technique. Also bear activity and sightings at Deep Gap. Did not see any sign up on Cold Mountain. Second pipe (metal) farther up Cold Mountain had good flow not the first plastic pipe.

As for being overgrown and hard to navigate, most of this trip is in the Shinning Rock Wilderness area, as wilderness you should expect and it should be wild, with low trail maintenance and little to no signage. A good map and compass is a requirement and with them is not that difficult to navigate. Most of the Art Loeb trail did not seem overgrown.

Chris - Atlanta GA
Mar 19, 2012

Just did this one of the weekend. Great hike with amazing views all around. There is plenty of water on Ivestors, numerous springs around Shining Rock, and the spring on Cold Mt was flowing fine. Also if you take a side trail at Deep Gap there is a small spring. Campsites were plentiful, including some on top of the balds near Shining Rock. Great trip!

Mar 13, 2012

Hello, so thinking about hiking this trail in a few weeks with a friend. Trying to get a better idea of its layout. Is this trail a loop or a hike in hike out trail? Also how available are water sources? Are they close to the trail or do they require some searching? any adivse would be greatly apperciated. Thanks!

Nov 17, 2011

Oh, I forgot to mention, one of the highlights of the trip was when we got to Deep Gap, we found an ancient apple tree, full of ripe, delicious apples, right at the gap. Not only did the many apples on the ground provide us with a delicious treat, they also gave us information that there were not a lot of bears around because the apples had obviously been there several days, untouched.

Nov 17, 2011

My husband and I did Boy Scout Camp to Cold Mountain to Black Balsam a couple of years ago in November. It's one of the best hikes ever! We camped at Deep Gap, Shining Rock Gap (there's a spring there)and Black Balsam. Because a lot of this route is in official "wilderness", no blazes or cairns are allowed. There were two places -- one in deep woods and one on a bald where berrypickers trails were numerous, where the routefinding was a bit tricky. Some of the best photos I've ever shot were on this trip. Note that if it is rainy or icy and the trail is covered with leaves, the trail up Cold Mountain from the Boy Scout Camp is pretty treacherous in places, producing slow going. All in all, though, this ranks as one of my favorite trips ever.

Steve Cash
Nov 17, 2011

Shannon Davis, you did a great job with this 'rip & go' article. Great description and very enticing. I want to go now. But I especially like that you included the menu, skills to have & what to look for on this trip. Thanks

Nov 17, 2011

I've done this trip solo and with buddies several times. Here are some rules of thumb.
1. NEVER do this trip between April and August. The trail is very narrow as Scott stated, and terribly overgrown. As a result, it gets over-run with bugs as well. Fall is the best time to go, or winter if you have the gear.
2. The lightning is no joke, especially when passing through the exposed gaps.
3. Water is scarce, so you have to pack it in. There is a lesser known water source near the Shining Rock trail junction, right before you reach the junction, there is an exposed pipe with a light trickle off the right hand side of the trail.

All in all, it's definitely the best 2 day trip in this area, unrivaled views. It's also cool to know the history of the area before you go out, helps bring it all to life.

Oct 18, 2011

I'd also like to add that this trip would be much improved by making a loop from the trailhead, rather than an out-and-back to Cold Mountain. The balds are nice and peaceful, but you're not going to get a lot of altitude this way.

Oct 18, 2011

I did this trip last July and was pretty disappointed. Most of the Art Loeb trail was overgrown to the point of almost being un-navigable between the Narrows and Deep Gap. We hiked it on a misty day, and were soaked from the stomach down due to constantly pushing plants out of the way. The Narrows involved a little bushwhacking as well, and some minor scrambling. The trail between the trailhead and the Art Loeb was really nice, and the campsites are good (if slightly on the scarce side) near the end. Water is plentiful near the beginning, and scarce near Cold Mountain, so follow Scott's advice and fill up early. All in all, not a bad hike, but wear long pants. I wouldn't say it was the finest in the Asheville area, by any stretch.

Jul 22, 2011

Just got back from hiking this area. From Sinning Rock to Black Balsam is the high light of this trip. I did the Art Leob, it was ok, but the Black Balsam to Shinning Rock was AWESOME!

Jul 22, 2011

Just got back from hiking this area. From Sinning Rock to Black Balsam is the high light of this trip. I did the Art Leob, it was ok, but the Black Balsam to Shiinning Rock was AWESOME!

Oct 05, 2009

I'm doing this hike the first weekend in November with a friend who doesn't have a lot of backcountry expreience, so we are doing it over 2 nights. Do you have any recommendations for campsites that might have access to water?

Scott - Greensboro, NC
Oct 04, 2009

Awesome weekend hike and great route to bag 4 peaks above 6K. On the way out, Ivestor Gap Trail is a nice warm up for Stairs Mountain, the Narrows and the climb up Cold Mountain from Deep Gap. There is a spring just before the trail doglegs near the summit Cold Mountain--fill up here. Day two is the most rewarding part of the entire hike. Lots of good views from the balds of Art Loeb trail. Lots of good camp sites along this section too. (hiked 10/3-10/4/09)


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