This hike, if I'm honest, caused me no small amount of trepidation. Ever since deciding I would pursue the South Beyond 6000 Challenge two groupings of peaks most concerned me in regards to ruggedness and ease of access...the cluster of high peaks in the eastern Smoky Mountains and the Plott Balsam Range. In both cases, the real worry was the potential for having to engage in lengthy bushwhacks. The Plott Balsams in particular confounded and worried me. The worry, as stated previously, was in the real possibility that to complete these four peaks I would have to tackle a four to eight mile bushwhack due to the fact that no official trail runs the length of the ridge. My other issue was how confoundingly difficult it was to find any decent information about the traverse, online or in print. Do a browser search and see how many results you get for trip reports of past Plott Balsam Traverses. You might get a handful, if that. So my information regarding the condition of the route was sketchy at best. I had read reports which made the route seem relatively simple and reports of horrific hikes through briers and yellow jacket nests. I simply had no idea what to expect. I, therefore, planned to expect the worst. First and foremost I knew that I wanted my attempt at a traverse to take place in the winter after chilly temps had killed back the briers and the bugs. Also, at that time of year, the leaves would be down allowing for the possibility of better views from these mostly wooded peaks. The only problem with this is the fact that the trailhead is located at the Waterrock Knob Parking area off the Blue Ridge Parkway which, due to the high elevation at which it crosses the Plotts, is quite often closed for the majority of the winter due to ice and snow. This allowed me precious few days a year to set aside for a crack at the traverse. Finally though, after years of planning, I was to get my shot in 2015.
Now a little about the mountains themselves. The Plott Balsam Range runs in a general southwest-to-northeast line to the north of the towns of Waynesville and Sylva. Though massive in its own right the range is somewhat dwarfed and, therefore overlooked, due to the fact that it is flanked by the Great Smoky Mountains to the north and the higher Great Balsam Range to the south. The highest peaks in the Plotts, the ones I was interested in, are located along a five mile stretch of the range's northernmost end. South to north they are: Yellow Face Mountain (6,032'), Waterrock Knob (6,292'), Mount Lyn Lowry (6,240'), and Plott Balsam Mountain (6,088'). Of these four peaks only one, Waterrock Knob, has a maintained trail to the summit.
The route of the hike itself would be pretty straight forward, on paper. I would park the car at the aforementioned Waterrock Knob Parking Area an embark on a double out-and-back style hike. I would first make the two-mile out-and-back to Yellow Face before turning my attention to the much more intimidating eight-mile out-and-back (potential bushwahck) over Waterrock, Lyn Lowry, and Plott Balsam. I arrived at the start point around 8:00am, shortly after sunrise, to maximize the time I had available. The hike out to Yellow Face was quick and uneventful, as expected. The trail that runs over the summit, though technically unofficial, looks to be well traveled and at least partially maintained. After retracing my steps to the lot I began the major portion of the hike by ascending Waterrock Knob via its wide and partially paved summit path. Tagging the summit I then began the 'manway' route which would take me out to Lyn Lowry and Plott Balsam. The unofficial 'manway trail' leaves the Waterrock Knob Summit Trail just below where it reaches the top of the mountain. Its obvious, you can't miss it. No doubt many curious tourists wander a few feet down it every summer widening it for a few feet in. It doesn't take the manway trail long to get gnarly though. The drop off Waterrock Knob is steep, rocky, and strewn with roots. On the upside though it is very much a trail. Almost immediately I noted that it had even been recently blazed! Things were looking up, almost from the start, in regards to my worry of a protracted bushwhack this day. The trail, continuing to be obvious and well-marked, made a climb up and over neighboring Browning Knob (itself a 6,000-footer but it doesn't make the list due to lack of prominence) and then undulated along the narrow ridge between Browning and Lyn Lowry. A bit more than a mile-and-a-half from Waterrock Knob I reached the summit slopes of Lyn Lowry itself, no bushwhacking required. The trail emerges from the trees onto a grassy road alongside a small cottage a short ways from the summit. Following the road along the ridge the path breaks off again, passes a strange wooden overlook, and enters the forest not more than a minute or two from the top. The summit of Mount Lyn Lowry is marked by a rather unattractive concrete/steel pole marker. A few minutes walk beyond the summit marker I found myself beneath Lyn Lowry's famous summit cross. I won't give you the story here (look into the album for that!) but safe to say this might be one of the few manmade summit structures I've seen that I don't have a problem with...considering its background.
After taking in the spectacular views afforded from the top of Lyn Lowry I turned my attention to the final mile-and-a-half of the outbound hike that would take me to the top of Plott Balsam. This section of the hike is the part which, as of my visit, the more difficult to navigate. Not due to extended bushwhacks, as it turned out, but rather due to certain junctions with trail roads and the fact that this stretch is simply not used as much as the path to Lyn Lowry. The path, no longer blazed, drops off the insanely steep north slope of Lyn Lowry into a large clear-cut area and then into the forest below. The trail drops some 500' in less than half a mile if that gives you an idea of the grade. I tried not to think of the return climb as I descended. About a half-mile from Lyn Lowry the trail joins a trail road which, to my surprise, is obviously still used for logging and was wide and easy to travel. I seriously began to wonder where the basis was for the horror-story-type trip reports that had so worried me about this hike. The route follows the road for about a mile and is, with a couple exceptions, easy to follow. The only real spot for potential confusion is the point were it reaches a large grassy opening atop the appropriately named Oldfield Top. Ignore the other 'roads', the main one heads along the right-hand side of the field. Before long I passed some impressively large old oak trees and reached the point where the trail road makes a hard left, diving off the north side of the ridge. The summit ridge of Plott Balsam rises gently directly ahead at this point. If you're lucky, there'll be flagging tape leading to the top. This is the only part of the hike I found that I would classify as a bushwhack but even this stretch had been visited frequently enough to leave a faint trace of path in places. The summit is simply reached by hiking uphill until there's no more uphill to hike.
The return hike was brutal, with the steep climbs of Lyn Lowry, Browning Knob, and Waterrock to overcome again...but I had DONE IT! I don't know that' I'll be rushing back to do this hike again anytime soon but it was both an exceptionally beautiful route and surprisingly easy-to-follow, despite what you might hear elsewhere. So, if you're interested come on along with me as I knock #23, #24, #25, and #26 off the South Beyond 6000 list...
Hike Length: 10.0 miles Hike Duration: 5:30
Trailhead Temp: Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 5,690' Max. Elevation: 6,292'
Total Vertical Gain: 3,250' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 325'