Hiking guide: How to get to some of North Carolina’s best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains

This is part of our Hiking Guide series rolling out this spring and summer.

I felt drunk with mountains, the creases and folds of the gentle peaks rolling towards me like waves on the ocean.

Standing atop Black Balsam Knob, one of a half-dozen 6,000-foot-plus peaks on this section of the Art Loeb and surrounding trails, the Blue Ridge Parkway unspooled far beneath me. In the distance, Cold Mountain hulked. And that was just 25 minutes into the trip, barely off the trailhead.

That’s the biggest reward of the northern part of the Art Loeb Trail, a fantastically beautiful stretch of hiking only 2.5 hours from Charlotte that leads into the Shining Rock Wilderness: A banquet of mountains and views that seem to roll on forever.

The Art Loeb Trail past Ivestor Gap leads into the Shining Rock Wilderness, where trails aren’t blazed. Some experience with a map and compass helps immensely

I took a three-day, two-night solo trip there last week, covering about 25 miles. The scenery was absolutely worth the effort. And with spring really just getting started, the scenery will only improve, as wildflowers start coming into bloom.

Don’t let the mileage intimidate you. The trailhead right off the Blue Ridge Parkway is so high that you can get some of the best portions of this trip with simple hikes that won’t take you more than a few miles from your car – one of the reasons portions are so heavily trafficked.

I started at the Art Loeb parking area near Black Balsam Knob.

From there, the Art Loeb Trail rises steadily to the north, over rocky hills and through deep trenches (Erosion is definitely a problem here – in places the trail has collapsed to the point where it’s almost waist-deep). Within 1/2 mile, the trail crosses Black Balsam Knob, a treeless bald with 360-degree views. You can keep hiking along the trail about 2 miles up and over Tennent Mountain (it’s a pretty easy track to follow), and that’s where the hike opens up with more options.

Past Tennent Mountain, you’ll descend through an especially steep and rocky section to Ivestor Gap. From here, you can take the much smoother and more level Ivestor Gap trail back to the Sam Knob parking area (connecting back to the Art Loeb on a spur trail or walking down the access road for about ½-mile back to your car), or keep going about 1.5 miles further, into the Shining Rock Wilderness.

Now, a word of caution: In the wilderness area, trail blazes end. If you Google around, you’re likely to find plenty of warnings about how the trails here are confusing. I didn’t have trouble following them, but I did frequently check my map and compass to make sure I wasn’t heading off on a rabbit path. I also downloaded a GPS track on my phone as a backup, which was a nice reassurance.

The Shining Rock Wilderness is easy to get to, but harder to get through. North of Ivestor Gap, the Art Loeb Trail passes over more balds and through Shining Rock Gap (where you can also double back on the Ivestor Gap Trail), then over an aptly-named portion called “The Narrows.” Some hand-over-hand scrambling was required to get over the fridge-sized blocks of rock that piled over the trail.

After three more miles, I hiked up Cold Mountain (yes, I made plenty of Jude Law jokes in my head). I camped there the first night – a spring about a half-mile from the top provided water – and was pleasantly surprised to find it was actually pretty warm. Well, warm for April in the mountains – my water bottle didn’t freeze and I only slept in my wool hat, not my down jacket.

A campsite near the summit of Cold Mountain
A campsite near the summit of Cold Mountain

The second day, I hiked back via the Art Loeb and Ivestor Gap trails. The Ivestor Gap trail takes you to the Sam Knob parking area, back in the land of clean-smelling day hikers with light packs. A sub-2-mile hike takes you to the top of Sam Knob – a double-humped 6,000-foot knot of trees and rocks – with only a few knee- and ankle-rending rocky paths. Save this for last – the views beat even Black Balsam and Cold Mountain.

I hiked down on the adjoining Flat Laurel Creek Trail and made camp the second night along the stream. About 4 more miles of hiking on the Flat Laurel and Sam Knob trails brings you back to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and the Art Loeb Trail south of the parking area where you parked, making for a tidy loop.

Flat Laurel Creek, where campsites abound.
Flat Laurel Creek, where campsites abound.

After three days in this mountainous playground, I was relieved to get back to my car – but already planning my return trip.

Do it as a day hike: From the Art Loeb Trail parking area at mile marker 420 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can do a five-mile loop hike that takes you over some of the best balds. Hike north on the Art Loeb Trail over Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain, then take the Ivestor Gap Trail when they intersect to return to the access road.

Do it as a camping trip: You can camp anywhere off the trail in this area, and there are prime sites all along the trail. The Flat Laurel Creek area is especially beautiful, with plenty of creekside options, and there are campsites on or near all the major balds. Be warned, though, these are windy and colder at night. Make sure you bring a bear canister to store your food and any scented items, as bear activity is common in this area, and follow Leave No Trace camping principles.

Be careful of: In addition to the things you should always bring hiking (extra warm clothes, rain gear, water, a map, compass, etc.), wear sunscreen or a hat on this one. You’ll be above the treeline almost the whole time, and though I protected my face, my scalp got a wicked burn where my hair parts. Also, keep an eye on the weather and be prepared to turn around if you hear thunder or see thunderclouds forming – a 6,200-foot bald is no place to be when a storm is rolling your way.

And a final note on navigation: You can print maps online for many of these trails, but I strongly recommend shelling out the $11.95 for the National Geographic topographical map for this area. (It should also be in stock locally at Great Outdoor Provision Co. and REI.) Some of the intersections can be a bit confusing, and you’ll appreciate the detail when you navigate. Plus, you can use it to create endless new loop combinations for your next trip here.

Photos: Ely Portillo