If I can claim 'home turf' anywhere in the Southern Appalachians, its probably the greater Shining Rock-Black Balsam-Sam Knob area of Pisgah National Forest. Only 20-minutes from the house, this area is frequently a go-to destination when I'm in need of a high elevation hiking fix and little time to do it. A rugged landscape highlighted by barren 6,000-foot ridgelines, high elevation spruce-fir forests, thick laurel groves, and views that go on seemingly forever this is certainly an area that encourages return visits. Even so, over all the years I began to feel like some of the wonder of this landscape had begun to be lost on me through a feeling that I had done it/seen it all. That is, until a passing thought crossed my mind a few days ago. There was a peak up there, one that rarely passes unnoticed when I visit, that I still had yet to summit...could it be that there might just be a bit more exploration for me to do in the Shining Rock high country? If there was even a chance, I had to find out.
Little Sam Knob is the name of the peak and its likely you've noticed it too if you've ever hiked its bigger neighbor, Sam Knob. Little Sam rises just to the south of its big brother across the narrow valley through which Flat Laurel Creek flows. Little Sam isn't a striking peak, that's not why it draws the eye. Rather, its the strange division of forest types that marks the peak as unique. The eastern half of the peak is covered by deciduous forest and scrub but, suddenly along its summit ridge, the forest changes to an almost pure stand of red spruce. This gives the mountain a dual personality...a light (green) and dark (green) side you might say. The reason for this goes back to the logging days of the early 20th Century. At that time Little Sam, along with most of the other peaks in the area were completely denuded of trees due to the clear cutting of the forests. After the saws had left, apparently, it was decided to seed the western half of Little Sam with spruce while the eastern half was left to regrow naturally. Thus, the unique dichotomy of forests atop the peak. Regardless of the forest type, one thing that you won't get from the top of Little Sam is a view. Instead, a small cliff area lying just below and to the east of the summit provides the only open scenery the mountain has to offer...but what a view it is! The panorama from this little ledge encompasses the entirety of the upper Flat Laurel Creek Valley and the high peaks which surround it, namely Sam Knob and Black Balsam Knob. It's arguably the best view of the steep and rugged Sam Knob you get anywhere. So there's certainly more than enough excuse to climb it.
The minor bit of trouble though is that there's no trail to the top of Little Sam Knob. To reach the summit requires a short half-mile bushwhack from the Flat Laurel Creek Trail up the mountains steep northern slope. The good news is, that if you plan as I did, you can keep most of the bushwhacking within the relatively open woods of the red spruce forest mentioned earlier. The forest floor beneath the spruces is virtually devoid of any ground cover, save sticks and fallen limbs, so its relatively easy going as off trail travel goes in these parts. Such was my plan for this day. As it was Labor Day weekend I fully expected the parking areas at the Ivestor Gap and Black Balsam Trailhead's to be overflowing, and they were. I had complete confidence however that, regardless of the crowds at the lot, I'd most likely have Little Sam all to myself. Turns out I was correct. I began the hike from the end of Black Balsam Road and began by following the familiar Sam Knob Trail from the lot down to its junction with the Flat Laurel Creek Trail alongside the latter trails namesake stream. I then headed south on the FLCT to the point below which the spruce forest of Little Sam began to appear to my left. Making the steep but relatively uneventful out-and-back bushwhack to the summit and eating up all the natural eye candy Little Sam could provide I returned to the FLCT. Once back on the main trail I would simply follow the FLCT upstream to its northern terminus back at the lot where I parked my car. Easy-peasy, right?
So come on along with me as a non-descript little peak serves up a good reminder that, despite visiting an area over and over, there's always more to explore. Lesson learned, Little Sam, lesson learned...and, as always, ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.325752, -82.881991
Mileage Hiked: 4.0 miles Hike Duration: 2:00
Trailhead Temp: 65'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 5,360' Max. Elevation: 5,862'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,050' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 263'