Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Balsam Mountain Trail

Trek deep into the Smokies on this 24.3-mile weekend trip that traces the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, passing two trail shelters and forests of mossy hardwoods.
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Trek deep into the Smokies on this 24.3-mile weekend trip that traces the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, passing two trail shelters and forests of mossy hardwoods.

From the Pin Oak Gap Trailhead on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this 24.3-mile, 2-3 day out-and-back in Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers an escape into a deep and dark forest of oaks, firs, ferns, and other moss-covered hardwoods speckled with eerie mushroom clusters. With two shelters (Laurel Gap at mile4; Tricorner Knob at mile 10), this trip can be organized as either a two- or three-day trip (or a hefty day hike).
The trip gains a good bit of elevation, but the lion's share of the climbing is in the first 4 miles up to Laurel Gap which can feel long and steep. Continuing northwest of Laurel Gap, the Balsam Mountain Trail runs along a long ridge, skirting several 6,000-foot peaks (including Big Cataloochee, Luftee, Yonganuska, and Marks Knob) before reaching its intersection with the Appalachian Trail. Stow your gear at the Tricorner Knob Shelter, before trekking 2.25 miles north (past Mount Guyot) to the turnaround at Old Black Mountain.
Note: Contact the Park Service in advance of your trip to obtain necessary permits for the shelters.
-Mapped by Scott Sanders

PLAN IT

MAP
>> Trails llustrated Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee/Great Smoky Mountains NP ($10, natgeomaps.com)
>> View a map of the park at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.
>> Order the USGS topo quads listed above at store.usgs.gov.
>> Order a custom map of this route at MyTopo.com.

GUIDEBOOK: Hiking Trails of the Smokies ($21, smokiesstore.org) details all 150 maintained trails within the park.

PERMITS: Required when camping at a backcountry campsite or shelter (free, reserve up to one month before your trip and pick up in person). Backcountry reservation office: (865) 436-1231, nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/backcountry-camping.htm

WHEN TO GO: April and May are best for wildflower blooms, while fall, with its brilliantly colored leaves, is drier.

CONDITIONS: Check weather at Gatlinburg, TN (37738) Weather

SEASON: The park is open year-round, and our trail scouts have hiked this route in every season. Check for road, trail, and camping closures at nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/temproadclose.htm. Curious about fall foliage? Check nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/fallcolor.htm.

PARK INFO: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200; nps.gov/grsm

SMOKIES TRIP PLANNER: nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/trip-planner.htm

OTHER RESOURCES

GAS
Shell Super Mart
376 Parkway
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 430-2161

Texaco
799 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
(828) 497-4539

GEAR
Nantahala Outdoor Center
13077 Highway 19 W
Bryson City, NC 28713
(888) 905-7238
noc.com

Blackrock Outdoor Co.
570 West Main St.
Sylva, NC
(828) 631-4453

Mast General Store
63 N. Main St.
Waynesville, NC 28786
(828) 452-2101
mastgeneralstore.com

Smoky Mountain Outfitters
469 Brookside Village Way
Gatlinburg, TN
(865) 430-2267

GROCERIES
Food City
1219 East Parkway
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 430-3116

Bearland General Store
305 Historic Nature Trail
Gatlinburg, TN
(865) 436-4565

Bradley's Grocery‎
1699 Paint Town Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
(828) 497-9132

RESTAURANTS
Smoky Mountain Brewery
1004 Parkway # 501
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
coppercellar.com/Restaurant-SmokyMountainBrewery.html

Best Italian Cafe & Pizzeria
968 Parkway # 9
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 430-4090 ‎
bestitalian.com

Granny's Kitchen
1098 Paint Town Rd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
(828) 497-5010

Peter's Pancakes and Waffles
1384 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC
(828) 497-5116

TO TRAILHEAD: From the Ocana Luftee Visitor Center, head south on US 441 for .9 mile and turn left on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Go 10.8 miles and turn left on Heintooga Ridge Road which soon becomes Balsam Mountain Road (and turns to gravel). Continue 16.7 miles to Pin Oak Gap trailhead/parking. Balsam Mt. Road is one-way; exit via Straight Fork Road, and Big Cove Road down toward the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center. Note: Pin Oak Gap cannot be reached by car in the winter; be sure to check trail conditions with the park service before heading out.

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 39.1

Waypoints

TCK001

Location: 35.633694, -83.178932

Pin Oak Gap Trailhead: Begin hiking northwest on the Balsam Mountain Trail. The trail gains 1,100 feet of elevation in the first 3.5 miles up towards Laurel Gap. This stretch can feel long and steep (especially with heavy packs and stiff legs from the car ride).

TCK002

Location: 35.646313, -83.202087

Bear right @ 3-way intersection to continue as the Benton MacKaye Trail joins the Balsam Mountain Trail on the same treadway.

TCK003

Location: 35.665348, -83.187622

Laurel Gap Shelter: Four miles in, this shelter is a perfect spot to make camp for night one of a two-night trip. Water and cables are available, but a permit is required to camp here; be sure to contact the Park Service in advance for the use of all shelters on this route.

TCK004

Location: 35.667347, -83.186663

Turn left @ T-intersection, continuing on the Balsam Mountain Trail. The Benton MacKaye Trail shoots off to the right.

TCK005

Location: 35.677727, -83.191996

Continue left @ 3-way junction, following the trail as it traces the ridge of Balsam Mountain. The Gunther Fork Trail shoots off to the right.

TCK006

Location: 35.69445, -83.256653

Arrive @ 3-way junction between the Balsam Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Turn left to walk 0.1 mile to the Tricorner Knob Shelter. This hike continues right at this junction on the Appalachian Trail for a 5-mile, out-and-back detour up to a turnaround at Black Mountain. If you're up for the extension, you can either stash your gear at the shelter, or just continue on to Black Mountain with your pack.

TCK007

Location: 35.714611, -83.25692

Old Black Mountain. Turn around here and retrace your steps to Waypoint 6. If you're staying the night, continue straight for 0.1 mile to the shelter. If you have the time (and the energy), turn left at Waypoint 6 to continue back to Laurel Gap Shelter (8 miles) or even the Pin Oak Trailhead (12 miles).

TCK008

Location: 35.693634, -83.257233

Tricorner Knob Shelter: Make a sharp left @ a 3-way junction to continue to access the Tricorner Knob Shelter (permit required to stay the night). From here, the track continues back to Waypoint 6, and turns right on the Balsam Mountain Trail to backtrack 9.8 miles to the Pin Oak Trailhead.

Smoky Smokies

Location: 35.642532, -83.201736

© Scott Sanders

Tree Tunnel

Location: 35.652901, -83.199501

© Scott Sanders

Gnarly Roots

Location: 35.660221, -83.194824

© Scott Sanders

Laurel Gap Shelter

Location: 35.665351, -83.187908

Permits are required for the use of all shelters on this route. Contact the Park Service in advance of your trip. © Scott Sanders

Funky Fungi

Location: 35.680958, -83.200516

© Scott Sanders

Light in the Woods

Location: 35.692749, -83.222069

© Scott Sanders

Early Season Foliage

Location: 35.687058, -83.211494

© Scott Sanders

On the AT

Location: 35.707794, -83.259071

© Scott Sanders

Tricorner Knob Shelter

Location: 35.695801, -83.257439

Sheltered fire place not pictured. © Scott Sanders