Black Balsam: Pisgah National Forest’s Alpine Gem

Blue Ridge / Balsam Knob / Rough Butt Waterfall
Photo credit Jamey Price

Black Balsam is an area within Pisgah National Forest, a mere hop and a skip off the Blue Ridge Parkway near mile marker 420, an hour south of Asheville. It is one of North Carolina’s most popular mountain destinations. This is in large part due to the string of spectacular mountain balds concentrated in this area, affording stunning views of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Black Balsam Knob is perhaps the most visited knob in the Black Balsam area. Despite clocking in at 6,214 feet, the Black Balsam Knob summit is accessible via an easy, beginner-friendly hike along an out-and-back trail.

The trailhead peeks out less than a mile up Black Balsam Road, a short forest service road that spurs off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Arrive early to secure a spot in the parking area during spring, summer, and fall days. Locate the trailhead to the north labeled “Art Loeb Trail.” You’ll be following a segment of this iconic, 30-mile trail (named for conservationist, avid hiker, and literal trailblazer Arthur Loeb in 1969) to the summit of Black Balsam Knob.

Balsam Knob trail
Photo credit Jamey Price

From the trailhead, you’ll spend less than half a mile passing through a stand of balsam firs, breathing in the sweet, heavenly smell of Christmas. The trail then crosses into an open, sun-drenched meadow. Here, wildflowers bloom from June to November (visit in September for peak bloom). You’ll pass over a lower summit and scramble across the occasional boulder before reaching the higher summit of Balsam Knob for a total elevation gain of about 425 feet. 

Peak Vista

The hike culminates here in sweeping, 360-degree views. Drink in the hazy blues of nearby ridges and a picturesque line of balds. The alpine appearance of these balds is the result of heavy logging and two wildfires in the early 20th century that led to soil erosion and a period of soil sterilization. From this destruction sprang a jaw-dropping vista dotted with life, encapsulated in brilliant pops of color.

balsam knob campsite
Photo credit Jamey Price

From here, you have the choice to continue along the Art Loeb trail to ascend Tennent Mountain and then loop back along the Ivestor Gap Trail for a four-ish mile total trek. Or, you can return the way you came for a shorter excursion. For more intrepid adventurers, options abound to extend your hike further. Continue about ten miles further north along the Art Loeb trail toward the Shining Rock Wilderness. Or head south up to about 20 miles toward Pilot Mountain. Alternatively, continue further north along Black Balsam Road to access the trailheads to Sams Knob and Flat Laurel Creek. Responsible, leave-no-trace, dispersed camping is permitted, but be sure to bring a sturdy bear canister and a cookstove.

On your way back to Charlotte, cool off at Skinny Dip Falls near mile marker 417 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Then, stop in Brevard for refreshments at local favorite The Square Root.