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.
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.
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?
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.
On the Menu
Lunches 1 & 2
Everything bagels with cheese and pepperoni
Cold Mountain Couscous
Art Loeb's Griddle Biscuits
Beef jerky, sesame sticks
Cold Mountain Couscous
An easy, one-pot dish
1 6-ounce pouch tuna
1/2 cup instant couscous
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 small zucchini
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh basil
Chop zucchini and sauté in bottom of pot along with chicken and pine nuts. Set aside in bowl. Bring 2/3 cup water, salt, and olive oil to a boil. Stir in couscous. Dump in chicken mixture. Cover and let sit for five minutes. Top with diced basil. Serve.
Art Loeb's Griddle Biscuits
A southern favorite
1 cup Bisquick
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup Craisins
1/2 stick butter
1/4 cup honey
Stir milk (water works too) into Bisquick. Add Craisins. Beat for 30 seconds. Melt butter in pan or bottom of pot. Drop spoonfuls of mix onto hot surface. Flip when bubbles rise to the surface. Drizzle with honey. Eat.
The Grocery List (Aisle #) In nearest store below 1 pack beef jerky (2)
8 oz. sesame sticks (2)
1 4-oz. jar honey (2)
1 box couscous (3)
1 pack dried cranberries (3)
1 6-oz. pouch tuna (5)
1 box Bisquick (9)
1/4 C. pine nuts (9)
1 pack basil (9)
1 box powdered milk (9)
1 stick butter (13)
2 everything bagels (bakery)
1 pack sliced pepperoni (cold cuts)
1 small zucchini (produce)
8-oz. block Colby jack cheese (13)
Pack olive oil, salt
Nearest Grocery Store
Ingle's Market 225 Charlotte Highway; Asheville, NC; (828) 298-2160
Start with the garlic and cheese fries, continue to the beer-marinated Guinness burger, and seal the deal with a Green Man Ale, brewed on site at Jack of the Wood Public House. 95 Patton St., Asheville; (828) 252-5445; jackofthewood.com (570) 476-0132