Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Old Bald to Haywood Gap) Hike Route Map

MST - Old Bald to Balsam Gap

Welcome to the Great Balsams! East of Balsam Gap, crossed by the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail begins a rigorous climb into yet another of North Carolina’s highest and most beautiful mountain ranges. For 30 of the next 75-miles (Balsam Gap to the French Broad River) the MST will lie above 5,000-feet. In the winter, when the Blue Ridge Parkway closes, this makes for some of the most remote hiking in the state. The section in this album, however, is just the appetizer for things to come. Over most of the segments length it’s at least within earshot of the Parkway, even bumping up against it a number of times along the way. Most of the route is forested except for those times just mentioned where it bumps up against the Parkway, all at designated overlooks. If you’re a through-hiker this is a tough, rather unrewarding section of the MST. On the other hand, if you’re section hiking it as I am, you can choose to complete it in either direction. Since there really isn’t much reward for the effort in hiking eastbound on this section, and the fact that I’m long past the point where I feel I need to prove anything on my hikes, I decided to save some effort and instead do it westbound. Descending nearly 2,500-feet is still wearing on the knees but far less so on the lungs. So it was that I found myself standing on a grassy shoulder of the Parkway atop Old Bald Ridge, set for a long downhill walk west to where I had finished my previous hike at Balsam Gap.

The starting point for this hike isn’t signed or marked. The spot is located on the outside of a tight curve where the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses Old Bald Ridge. It’s at Milepost 434.3 on the Parkway, which is just over 9-miles northbound from its Balsam Gap entrance or 11-miles from its NC-215 (Beech Gap) entrance. Here a broad grassy shoulder provides spectacular views of neighboring Richland Balsam, at 6,410-feet the highest of the Great Balsams, and leads up the ridge past a rusted T-gate into the forest. A tenth-of-a-mile later you’ll reach the MST, which you’ll turn right onto to head westbound. The descent begins here, with the trail following along the steep slopes rising above Dark Ridge Creek. In a little over a mile the trail passes through a large clear-cut below the Doubletop Mountain Overlook at Flat Gap. Just beyond the clearing is a short access path over to the Parkway overlook with stunning views of the mountains to the west. Moving past Flat Gap the trail briefly climbs before resuming its downhill trajectory, arriving alongside the Parkway again at Licklog Gap where another short access path leads to another overlook, which looks east for a change, towards the towering Lickstone Ridge. Continuing from Licklog Gap the MST once again makes a very brief ascent before levelling off and then descending, arriving at the Grassy Ridge Mine Overlook at Deep Gap. Enjoy the views from the overlook, which look down the length of the Allen Creek valley, as they are the last truly open views you’ll enjoy for the day. You’re just over three miles into the hike at this point.

The next section of the route is the most remote. Despite the fact it essentially parallels the Parkway the entire way, for the next six miles there is no road access to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail whatsoever. The trail for a time no neither gains or loses appreciable elevation as it curves along the east faces of Steestachee, Grassy, and Wesner Balds. This doesn’t mean it’s all easy going, however. The exceedingly steep slope the trail traverses here is covered in old rock slides which the MST has to pick its way up, around, and through. The next serious descent occurs just under two-miles from Deep Gap, where the trail drops to more closely follow the Parkway. Don’t be fooled by the proximity of the trail and the Parkway on a map…there’s no good way to move from one to the other as over 100-feet of vertical separates the two despite their neighborly appearance. The MST now runs atop Pinnacle Ridge, with the Parkway suddenly turning to pass beneath it via the Pinnacle Ridge Tunnel. At the sharp switchback seen on the route map the trail cuts back west to begin the final, winding 4.5-miles to Balsam Gap.

The first couple miles west of the turn atop Pinnacle Ridge is fairly non-descript as the trail, always descending, winds its way along the side of the ridge through extensive hardwood stands underlain by the occasional rhododendron thicket. Redbank Branch provides a nice break from the monotony, its clear waters splashing down a wide drainage amongst hundreds of mossy boulders. Watch your step on the rock-hop, it’s not difficult but the stones are loose and the moss can be slick. Beyond Redbank Branch the trail climbs for a time again before, a mile later, reaching its first road in six miles at Timberlane Road. Note this is a private road, however, so there is no public access to the MST at this point. Over the remaining mile-and-a-half of the hike the trail twists and turns downward through the forest, with signs of civilization appearing through the trees the lower you get. The headwaters of Richland Creek are crossed a half-mile before the finish, at which point the grade steepens. The green-roofed buildings of a NPS maintenance yard appear and then, a couple minutes later, the trail emerges at Balsam Gap along Ranger Road. A short walk up Ranger Road leads to the old gravel pit which serves as the trailhead parking area for the gap. Section hike complete.

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.381148, -83.029615  (Blue Ridge Parkway @ Old Bald MST Access)

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.433426, -83.078404  (Ranger Road/Balsam Gap)

Section Length:  11.7 miles                 

Difficulty Rating:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  12.70 )

Min. Elevation:  3,350'   (Ranger Rd/Balsam Gap)                  

Max. Elevation:  5,620'  (Old Bald Ridge)

Total Vertical Gain:  500'  (westbound)         

Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  43'  (westbound)

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