Want to see Asheville’s laid-back local hikers get riled up? Ask them to name the area’s finest hike. Then make peace by suggesting this two-day trek, an easy high-country ramble–with breezy unobstructed views–to Cold Mountain (yes, that one) and back. From the parking lot (1) at the end of Black Balsam Road, take the Ivestor Gap Trail northeast. This old logging road tracks along a 5,800-foot contour with hardly any elevation change. You’ll pass a springs (2) within half a mile, perfect if you forgot to fill up. In 2.4 miles, you’ll reach Ivestor Gap (3), the 18,500-acre Shining Rock Wilderness boundary, and a three-way junction with the Ivestor Gap, Art Loeb, and Big East Trails. Veer left onto an unsigned singletrack curving through knee-high grasses into the poplar and dogwoods. The trail rises gradually for the next .6 mile through berry thickets. At mile four you’ll reach an unmarked junction (4).
Make a right and head to Shining Rock Gap (5) at mile 4.4. Link to the Art Loeb Trail (a quartz cairn marks the way) heading north. You’ll gain elevation, eventually breaking a sweat on aptly named 5,869-foot Stairs Mountain (6). From here, tip-toe along the spine of a ridge called The Narrows (7) before dropping 900 feet into Deep Gap (8), a popular camping area at mile 7.1. Press on to secluded sites (9) on the west ridge of 6,030-foot Cold Mountain, a steep .9 mile north. Catch sunrise on the summit, then backtrack due south on the Art Loeb to the trip’s highlight, a five-mile ridgewalk across grassy balds laced with rhododendron-choked hollows. Cross Flower Knob (10) at mile 13, Tennent Mountain (11) at mile 15.7, and 6,214-foot Black Balsam Knob (12) at mile 17. It’s .6 mile back to the car, or 1.2 if you can’t resist one last night out.
Driving From Asheville, take I-26 south 1.6 miles to NC 191. Take this 2.4 miles to Frederick Law Olmsted Way, and turn right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway in 150 feet. Drive 26.6 miles west to Black Balsam Rd. (milepost 420). Turn right and go 1.6 miles to the trailhead.
Diamond Brand Outdoors, 172 Charlotte St., Asheville, NC; (828) 251-4668; diamondbrand.com
Hit the first week of May for spring blooms. Rhododendrons are on fire through July. Crowds (thick in summer months) drizzle out by late September.