There are few, if any, places in the southern mountains which I return to more often than the peaks surrounding Black Balsam Knob in southern Haywood County. Partly this has to do with convenience...its only a 20-30 minutes drive from my home near Lake Toxaway. Mostly, though, it has to do with the spectacular scenery offered up by just about every summit you can visit there and for very little effort to boot. Miles and miles of classic open southern bald are available to explore here among some of the highest peaks in the eastern United States. It's an area I never tire of visiting and, consequently, I am forever looking at new possibilities for hiking loops on the myriad of paths that criss-cross it.
The neighboring summits of Black Balsam Knob (6,214') and Tennent Mountain (6,040') have always made for a nice two-fer in my book. A hike to these two summits will be marked by extended periods of open ridge-top walking along well-traveled paths requiring relatively little effort for the scenery you get in return. The most common way to include these two peaks is by looping over them by way of the Art Loeb and Ivestor Gap Trails. The Art Loeb follows along the ridge and the Ivestor Gap parallels the ridge on a mostly level grade to its west. The only downside to that route, in my opinion, is that it has become wildly popular in recent years so solitude is frequently hard to come by. I therefore will, on occasion, opt for the loop I'd be following this day which, though a bit more demanding, offers a great deal more in the way of a wilderness feel.
Beginning at the Art Loeb Trail crossing of the Black Balsam Knob Road this 'east loop', as I've dubbed it, begins by first following the Mountains-to-Sea Trail which breaks right from the Art Loeb right at the trailhead. The MST heads north and east from the road making a meandering, mostly gradual, descent along the eastern slopes of Black Balsam Knob. It passes through a landscape dominated by low shrubs and stunted forests with a nice smattering of occasional views to keep things interesting. At approximately the 1.5-mile mark it reaches the junction with the Graveyard Ridge Trail atop its namesake ridge. Heading north on the Graveyard Ridge Trail I'd now make a very gradual two mile ascent beneath the steep eastern slopes of both Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain in the direction of Ivestor Gap. This section of trail, though noticeably less well traveled, is still easy to follow and a pleasure to walk. At the north end of the loop is Ivestor Gap, an open high elevation gap lying beneath the southern slopes of Grassy Cove Top. At Ivestor Gap I'd turn back south for the return journey along the Art Loeb Trail. The three mile return journey along the Art Loeb is by far the most visually spectacular portion of this hike. For much of its journey south from Ivestor Gap, crossing the summits of Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Knob along the way, the trail passes through one of the most extensive stretches of open bald country in the entirety of the Southern Appalachians. At times the route is quite steep, particularly as it climbs the northern slopes of Tennent Mountain, but it continues to be quite easy to follow and the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Give yourself extra time along this bit of trail if only to truly appreciate the beauty of your surroundings.
In short, this is a wonderfully less-busy option for touring two of the more spectacular peaks in the southern mountains. Like I mentioned earlier it is a bit more physically demanding than the more popular western loop but its hardly demanding by mountain standards. Besides, the eye candy you'll be almost constantly treated to along the way will more than make up for the effort. So, come along with me on one of my favorite day hikes in the Southern Appalachians...this one's a beauty. As always...ENJOY!!!
Mileage Hiked: 6.3 miles Hike Duration: 2:45
Trailhead Temp: 45'F Trail Traffic: 25-50 people
Min. Elevation: 5,380' Max. Elevation: 6,214'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,060' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 168'