It's ok...get the grins and chuckles out of the way right up front. I certainly let my inner 9-year-old get a bit of enjoyment out of this oddly named trail. The smile inducing name of the trail is derived from the signature natural features of the peaks the path crosses. A 'butt', for whatever reason, was supposedly a term long ago given to describe the large protruding rock ledges which are common along the length of this and many surrounding ridges. This makes sense but I have a feeling the early settlers who named these peaks were also simply showing off their sense of humor. All kidding aside though, this is a spectacular little hike with some of the best views of the nearby Black Mountain Range that can be had from any surrounding vantage point. It's not an overly difficult trail either, despite what the overall vertical gain number below might imply. Rarely is the path more than moderately steep (with the major exception of the return climb of Point Misery) and the route has been spectacularly maintained over recent years making it a joy to walk.
The trail begins from the Balsam Gap pull-off at Milepost 359.8 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is about five miles north of the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center or about four miles south of the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park. The trailhead itself is a bit confusing, at least at the time of my visit, as there was no sign marking its starting point. Facing the woods from the parking area you'll see a trail heading straight ahead up the hill into the woods, this is the eastbound Mountains-to-Sea Trail which you DON'T want to follow unless you're interested in climbing nearby Blackstock Knob. Rather you want to pick up the trail heading downhill into the woods to your left behind the MST trail post. The path starts out by dropping in elevation for a short ways into a beautiful high-elevation cove forest. It then begins a long, mostly gradual climb of the first peak along the ridge named Point Misery. Point Misery (5,696') sounds like a rather intimidating place but in all honesty it really doesn't earn its name until the return hike when you have to climb its rather steep north face. Dropping down into the gap to the north of Point Misery the trail immediately begins to climb again, a bit more steeply this time, towards the summit of Little Butt. The trails namesake rock ledges begin to be more prevalent alongside the path at this point and stairs have been built to assist climbing the rougher sections. The true summit of Little Butt (5,604') is crossed by the trail and is viewless. However, a huge rock outcropping a few yards east (right) of the summit offers the first stunning panorama of the hike. Sitting on this high ledge the entirety of the Black Mountain Range is laid out before you, rising as a massive tree-covered wall across the Cane River valley below. Its an incredible spot, especially at the start of leaf season which is when I visited.
Many people turn back at the summit of Little Butt which, if you did, shortens this hike to around five miles in length. I'd highly recommend continuing on to Big Butt, however, if not only to tag the high point of the ridge but also to enjoy even more natural eye candy from the increasingly narrow ridge and the summit of Big Butt itself. The trail loses a minor bit of elevation heading north from Little Butt but then starts its gradual climb of the ridge which leads upwards towards Big Butt. At one point the ridge narrows to a point where its barely more than a few yards wide. Short spurs to the left and right offer still more spectacular views of the neighboring Blacks as well as the French Broad River Valley to the west. The forest once again begins to envelop the trail as it leaves the narrow ridge and swings along the east side of Big Butt's summit cone. At this point, where the trail begins to descend, look carefully to the left and you'll spot the spur trail which leads to the summit of Big Butt. It's obvious most people pass this spur trail by as it was fairly overgrown on my visit. It's still pretty easy to follow though as it climbs moderately to the top of Big Butt (5,928'). Reaching the summit I had a surprise waiting. All the reports I had read stated that there were zero views to be had from the top. This is utterly false. Perhaps there was a recent blowdown but there is a fantastic panorama to be had overlooking the hills and valleys to the west. It was more than worth the extra mile-and-a-half effort needed beyond Little Butt.
Typically the return journey on these out-and-back hikes are a touch less enjoyable but with the views from Little Butt to be passed again it was more than a pleasure to be retracing my steps. The climb of Point Misery's north face offered the biggest challenge but even that was a brief obstacle to overcome. Before long I was back at Balsam Gap marveling at what a magnificent hike I had just experienced. This trek was an instant classic. A relatively low degree of difficulty, a fantastically well-maintained trail, perfect weather, and some of the finest views of the North Carolina high country all combined to make this hike a joy to experience. So, without further adieu I present to you the Big Butt Trail from Balsam Gap to Big Butt Mountain. It's a good one...as always, ENJOY!!!
Mileage Hiked: 6.4 miles Hike Duration: 3:15
Trailhead Temp: 45'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 5,240' Max. Elevation: 5,928'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,650' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 258'