This route offers a less trafficked and equally strenuous backpacking option along the most scenic stretch of the famous Art Loeb Trail through the Black Balsam Knob region just south of the Shining Rock Wilderness. Of the 40 mountains in North Carolina that are over 6,000 feet, Black Balsam Knob comes in at 23rd with an elevation of 6,214 feet. Peaks like this offer tremendous views and a great respite from the miles of trail segments that pass through tunnels of dense vegetation without views.
The grassy bald on Black Balsam Knob is a result of extensive clear-cut logging and the two locomotive fires in 1925 and 1942. These fires burned hot enough to affect deep layers of topsoil, which slowed or completed disabled any reforestation. The high popularity of the area brings increased foot traffic, which further damages the recovery process of trees on the grassy ridges here.
The loop begins and ends at a camping area just south of Lake Logan, and trailheads can be very difficult to find. Bring a GPS, a good map, and seasoned navigation skills to complete this hiking trip safely. Begin by climbing into the woods just south of the bridge next to the camping area. There will be a very steep 2,400-foot climb over 3 miles to welcome you to the Middle Prong Wilderness. Stay to the crest of the ridge where a faint trail will take you south to an intersection just north of Mount Hardy. Before heading east to continue your loop, briefly explore west to find an open grassy bald area with wonderful views of the valleys and peaks beyond.
The hike wraps around the Blue Ridge Parkway until it opens up into the Black Balsam Knob region. Make sure you have plenty of water before setting up camp as there won’t be an easy water access near the summit. The sunrise view from the summit of Black Balsam Knob is not to be missed, and there are several tent clearings that will offer some solitude once the photographers that love to capture sunset head back down to their cars at the nearby parking lot just below the summit.
Continue the hike along the ridge passed Tennent Mountain and turning left onto the Fork Mountain trail to head back to your car. The Fork Mountain trail will not be easy, and make sure you don’t miss the unsigned turn for the final descent as it is easy to keep along the ridge.