Black Balsam & Tennent Mountain
This 6.6 mile loop offers some of the area’s most amazing high-elevation, Appalachian bald scenery! It was right up there with Roan Mountain. The views are 360 degrees and showcase mountains in every direction. If we were to hike it again, we’d do it as an out-and-back and skip the return arm of the loop along Graveyard Ridge and Mountains to the Sea.
When we were planning our trip to the Smokies, we decided we wanted to spend the first few days near the Asheville, NC area and check out a few hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had set out in the morning to check out the Graveyard Fields waterfalls. On a trip here many years ago, we remembered how beautiful the series of waterfalls were. We brought a book with a description of the hike that would include a visit to Black Balsam and Tennent Knob on the loop. However, we didn’t have a map of the area other than what our book had provided. After driving along the parkway for some time, we pulled up to where the parking lot would be (mile marker 418.8) and it was all blocked off by fencing. It appears they are doing some major renovations of the parking area and stairs down to the Second Falls. They had blocked off any access to the trail and instead had signs saying that you could access the trail from many miles away. We were very disappointed, but decided to drive up further along the Parkway. We took a right on the gravel road 816 (mile marker 420.2) and followed that until we saw a trail marker to the right that led up to Black Balsam Knob. We were relieved we were going to be able to see the balds and I realized we were picking up our loop trail but just a little differently than we had originally intended.
From the road, you start on the Art Loeb trail. In a few hundred feet, you will see a side trail to the right. This is the Mountains to Sea Trail that will be your return from the loop. Stay straight to continue on the Art Loeb Trail as it ascends past amazing vistas. You will reach the summit of the Black Balsam Knob at .9 miles and will see many campsites at the top. On a clear day from here you will have 360-degree views all around with the Smokies to the west and Mt. Mitchell to the north. The trail took a sharp left at this point as you continue on the Art Loeb trail. On Black Balsam Knob, there are many other trails cut-in over the years along the balds which makes it tricky to know if you are on the right trail. As we left the summit area, we came to a junction between two trails that both looked legitimate. One seemed to go over a hillside and the other went to the left and around. We took the one to the left and saw a very worn sign that read “Art Loeb” so we knew we made the correct choice. The trail wrapped around the hillside and went through a narrow path with waist-high shrubbery growing along the trail. Our legs got a little scratched along the way, but we pressed on. After a while the trail went through a few switchbacks while descending and then flattened out. At this point, we could see Tennent Mountain ahead of us, so we felt comfortable that we were going the right way. Soon, the shrubbery opened up into a clearing and we climbed up the rocky path and reached the summit of Tennent Mountain at 2.5 miles.
The summit of Tennent Mountain was just as scenic with more views in every direction. From here we could also see Looking Glass Rock, one of the most iconic images along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the distance. We had our lunch on the top of this spot and then made the decision to do the full loop instead of just the out-and-back to the summits. We continued forward on the Art Loeb Trail. From here, there were a few more nice views but then the trail descended into a more wooded trail. The trail passed a few more campsite options before we reached the area known as Ivestor Gap at 3.1 miles. Ivestor Gap is a large open junction point where many trails converge. There was a map that showed where we were, but none of the trails were marked to let us know which was the right one to take. When you reach Ivestor Gap, take the larger trail to the right that looks like an old road. This was the Graveyard Ridge Trail. We were on this for only .3 miles, before passing a small spring in the rocks on the lefthand side of the trail, and took a sharp right to stay on to the Graveyard Ridge Trail, another unmarked junction [staying straight on the trail would begin the Greasy Cove Trail]. The Graveyard Ridge Trail was very rocky and had a lot of water on the trail, so there was some times of rock-hopping and getting your shoes wet. While on this trail, you may have a few glimpses at Tennent Mountain above to see where you came from and there are a couple of spots for viewpoints.
At 5.1 miles, we reached another junction. Deciding to forego the trip to see the waterfalls to Graveyard Fields (which would have probably added another 4.5 miles roundtrip to our hike), we took a sharp right up the Mountains to Sea Trail. This trail was extremely steep and at times felt like a bushwhack as the trail was very overgrown. In about .5 miles, you’ll gain over 500 feet of elevation, so it is a slow effort. Eventually at 5.75 miles, the trail reached the top of the bubble and you got a few more views from a rocky outcropping. Blazes were painted on the rock that led the way as the trail descends below. The trail moves away from the ridgeline before switching back – it feels like the wrong direction, but it’s not. The trail descends for a few hundred feet before climbing up again. You’ll pass over several wooden footbridges along this section of the trail. At about the 6.5 mile mark, the trail goes into a deep wooded area again and you reach the junction again with the Art Loeb Trail. Turn left and you head back to 816 in a short distance.
At the top of Tennent Mountain, there is a plaque on the rocks dedicated to Gaillard Stoney Tennent (1872-1953) who “established organized hiking in North Carolina.” I couldn’t find any more connections or information about Tennent online, but this sounds quite impressive.
If you are interested in Geocaching, there are several you could find along the trail (and it wouldn’t hurt to have a GPS handy):
- Black Balsam Between Branches
- Black Balsam Boardwalk
- Black Balsam Birch Walk
- Black Balsam Babbling Brook Bridge
- Black Balsam Briars
- Black Balsam Bearings
- Black Balsam Benchmark
- Don’t Take Garnet for Granite
- The New Art Loeb Trail Cache
- Black Balsam Bushes
- Black Balsam & Beyond
- Black Balsam Bonu$
- Black Balsam Babbling Brook Bridge
- Black Balsam Birch Bark
- Black Balsam Boardwalk
- Black Balsam Between Branches
While we tried to cover some extra ground on this trail by making it a loop (and leaving the option to inspect the waterfalls), I would recommend doing this trip as an out-and-back to Tennent Mountain. The trail system is very confusing here since trails are rarely marked and junctions are not labeled (we’re a little spoiled here in Virginia). We had to ask several people along the way if we were going in the right direction, so I can imagine a lot of people will feel lost at some point along this trail. All that being said, the views from Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain are breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see for hundreds of miles and can see ridgeline after ridgeline of mountains around you with few glimpses of anything resembling civilization. Don’t miss this one if you are looking for a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway!
Our first full day in Asheville, we got up early and had an amazing breakfast at Biscuit Head. Seriously – if you’re in Asheville, go eat those biscuits! We had planned a 5.2 mile hike starting near Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We drove the hour from Asheville to the trailhead to find the area completely closed off with an 8-foot tall chain link fence and orange plastic mesh. Even the wooden stairs leading to the entire larger trail system were blocked off. So, we grabbed our Falcon Guide for Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and started scrambling for alternatives. We settled on a different hike that would still let us see Black Balsam Knob, and give us the option to visit the waterfalls (if we had energy to spare).
The Falcon Guide offered vague (at best) descriptions of the hikes along the parkway, so we weren’t really sure how long the hike would be, what kind of elevation change we’d experience, what the terrain would be like or even the names of all the trails we would traverse. We had a rough map of the area in the book, so we could make some educated guesses, but we definitely went into this hike with a lot less information than we normally do.
We found the trailhead parking area packed – the lot was full and cars lined both sides of the rough, potholed road. We started off on a white blazed trail that climbed gently to sweeping views from bald Black Balsam Knob. The first great views are less than a mile of relatively easy hiking from the trailhead, so we saw tons of people. There were at least 3-4 tents sent up atop the bald. It was gorgeous – but it was a zoo!
From there, the trail got a little confusing. There are so many social paths to campsites worn into the mountain. We had a hard time knowing for sure that we were still on the white-blazed Art Loeb trail. There weren’t any blazes to be seen, and the only sign was so weathered that it looked like a blank piece of wood on a post. We stood pondering our book/map for a few minutes, when a foursome passed and confirmed that they had hiked this area many times and we were indeed on the correct trail. A little later, we passed an actual Art Loeb trail sign.
The trail descended through thick, dense scrub – lots of berry bushes and rhododendron. Eventually the trail opened back up and we began another ascent to the summit of 6,000 ft.+ Tennent Knob. This outlook was even more spectacular than Black Balsam. We could see for miles in every direction. We stopped at this point and had lunch on the trail. I had packed an apple, a Kind bar and some cookies from a bakery in the top of my pack. The strong sunshine had warmed the cookies to the point that they tasted like they had just come out of the oven. So good!
After the summit of Tennent Knob, we descended again before reaching Ivestor Gap. At the Gap, there was a troop of Boy Scouts at the information station. We consulted our map again before heading down another unmarked trail that we believed to be correct.
The trail at this point became wet and streamlike. We came across another hiker and his backpacking beagle! The beagle was really sweet and apparently a good hiker – able to do 12 mile days! The man was filling up his water bottles at a spring along the trail. Right after the spring, the there was a trail junction. We took the sharp hairpin turn onto the unmarked Graveyard Ridge Trail. It was a mostly flat, but very sloppy trail. It was wet and muddy for most of the way.
We eventually reached one of the only marked junctions on the hike, with a sign pointing toward the waterfalls and parkway one way and the Black Balsam Parking area the other way. This is where we picked up the Mountains to the Sea trail. This trail was also white blazed. The trail was more of a bushwack than anything for a while. It was very narrow and overgrown and headed steeply uphill. We soon came to a rocky ledge with more nice views… and no sign of the trail continuing. Again… we got the book out and were getting ready to make another guess. The trail we needed to follow seemed to go in completely the wrong direction. Adam looked at me and said ‘I’m just not confident this is the right trail!’ Fortunately, a couple hikers came up behind us. They told us they were following the same loop we were, had done it before and had gotten lost before! However, this time they were confident and able to point us in the right direction. The trail that looked totally wrong turned out to be exactly correct!
From the ledge, we descended into dark woods, traversed numerous wooden footbridges across swampy areas and made one final ascent back to the parking area along the road. All in all, we hiked 6.6 miles. It was a great hike with spectacular scenery from Black Balsam and Tennent. If I were to recommend the hike to others, I’d also suggest doing it as an out-and-back to see just the two bald summits. The loop option was poorly marked and didn’t offer much in way of scenery.
After our hike, we decided to drive back to Asheville through Waynesville. We heard it was a cute town and that Frog Level Brewing was worth a visit. We were able to easily find the Brewery, and ended up enjoying samples at a nice picnic table by the river. Nice finish to the day!
- Distance – 6.6 miles
- Elevation Change – about 1300 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The real difficulty is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail as it goes brutally up the mountain in some points.
- Trail Conditions – 2. The trail up to Black Balsam was the best maintained. The Art Loeb Trail around Black Balsam to Tennent Mountain was very brushy and overgrown. The Graveyard Ridge Trail had a ton of water on the trail and The Mountains-to-Sea Trail was also very overgrown.
- Views – 5. Amazing views from Black Balsam and Tennent Knob.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. Just a couple of small crossings through some water on the trail, but nothing scenic.
- Wildlife – 1. We didn’t see anything other than a few birds on this trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 1. You may often feel unsure if you are going the right way. Trails are not blazed well and junctions are not marked. The connection to the Graveyard Ridge trail is not marked. There are also lots of other trails that have been cut through by hikers, but they aren’t labeled, especially near the top of Black Balsam Knob on the Art Loeb trail.
- Solitude – 2. On a nice day like we had, there were lots of others on the trail.
Directions to trailhead: At Mile Marker 420.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, turn onto 816. Stay on that road for about 1 mile. Park on the side of the road and you’ll see the trailhead on the right side of the road.