Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Waterrock Knob to Balsam Gap) Hike Route Map

MST - Waterrock Knob to Balsam Gap

This album encompasses a rather odd piece of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Equal parts wild and developed, there is undeniable beauty to be enjoyed along this section but man-made ugliness as well. Running from the crowded parking area at Waterrock Knob down to the crossing of busy US 74/23 at Balsam Gap, the MST splits its time equally between being a traditional footpath and conjoining with roads. Thankfully one of the roads the trail follows is the Blue Ridge Parkway which, as far as roads go, is about as scenic as you can get. In fact, some of the nicest scenery to be enjoyed on this hike is found while walking along its grassy shoulder. This is also a fascinating walk from an ecological standpoint. With a 2,500-foot loss in elevation from start to finish, the transition of the surrounding woodlands from high elevation spruce-fir to deciduous cove forests is striking. Knowing all this I was understandably a bit mixed in my enthusiasm to complete this MST section hike. It had to be done though and, as I’d come to find out, its positive enjoyment factor would end up exceeding my expectations.

Starting at the Waterrock Knob Parking area the hike begins with a short walk uphill along the summit pathway which, should you choose to climb, is a half-mile away. I had hit Waterrock at the end of my last section hike (Docks Gap to Waterrock Knob) however, so I skipped it this time. After a couple hundred feet on the paved walkway the MST breaks right at a well-marked junction. No matter the crowds you find at the parking lot, I can all but guarantee solitude upon making this turn. The trail descends steeply for a short time before beginning a rolling journey along the steep south-facing slopes of Waterrock and Browning Knobs. Gaps in the trees provide fleeting vistas to the south, the nicest of which comes at around the 2/3-mile mark as the trail passes above the Parkway’s Yellow Face Overlook. As the trail crosses Fork Ridge to the south of Browning Knob the downhill grade increases, with switchbacks a more frequent occurrence, before arriving at the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway, just below the Fork Ridge Overlook, just over two miles in. The MST turns south to follow the Parkway here but I’d highly recommend making the quick jaunt up to the overlook before heading that direction. The next half-mile, despite being a road walk, is probably the most scenic of the day with frequent views to the west and south from the wide grassy shoulder. The MST re-enters the woods off the east side of the Parkway, just north of the Scott Creek Overlook, and begins a briefly steep climb up to the crest of Cutoff Ridge a half-mile away. After crossing the crest the trail turns sharply north where a sharp eye may catch a glimpse of the famous summit cross of Mount Lyn Lowry high above. Around two miles after leaving the Parkway the trail makes a scenic bridged crossing of Woodfin Creek, after which a short access trail breaks south to the Woodfin Cascades Overlook where a small, but pretty, waterfall can be enjoyed.

Beyond Woodfin Creek the MST again climbs briefly, crosses a small tributary in 2/3-mile and breaks free of the woods once again a short time later at Greenspire Drive. Commence the next road walk. Greenspire Drive is, fortunately, not a major thoroughfare. The two miles the MST spends along its gravel shoulder is peaceful and wooded, despite the presence of homes along much of its length. In the hour I spent walking it I think I may have been passed by two vehicles. It’s a road, but at least it’s a quiet one. Also, if you’re headed eastbound, it’s all downhill. It makes for an easy and quick walk. After two miles, Greenspire Drive meets Rosemount Road across a grassy embankment atop which is located The Orchards Overlook. Watch for the MST directional posts as the trail now turns up to the overlook and back towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. There’s not much to see from the overlook. At the far end of the parking area you can see the upper reaches of the valley extending north to Waynesville but trees and shrubs obscure most of the view. The MST follows the access road for the Overlook down to the Parkway, which it now turns to follow south. This one mile stretch isn’t nearly as scenic as the portion walked earlier but the thick deciduous forest surrounding it has its own beauty. Just before reaching the access road linking the Parkway to U.S. 74/23 the MST enters the woods a final time. Now on the final approach to Balsam Gap the MST runs along a narrow strip of trees separating the Parkway and Rosemount Road before climbing a small knob and dropping back to the Parkway at its bridge over U.S. 74/23. On the east side of the bridge, just before a maintenance drive, the trail cuts (right) downhill to Ranger Drive where a small gravel pit acts as a parking area for hikers.

As I gave away in the intro, I have mixed feelings about this section hike. In equal parts I thoroughly enjoyed it and in equal parts it was a bit of a slog. If I had to recommend a portion of it, it would have to be the upper 5-ish miles from Waterrock Knob to Woodfin Creek. The best scenery is found there and, except for the pretty half-mile it spends along the Parkway, is an actual ‘trail’  the entire way. The lower half of the hike I’d just skip, unless of course you’re attempting to complete the MST as I am. That said it’s my pleasure to now invite you along on another of my Mountains-to-Sea Trail section hikes, from Waterrock Knob to U.S. 74/23 at Balsam Gap…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.460412, -83.140636  (Waterrock Knob Trailhead)

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

Section Length:  9.9 miles                

Difficulty Rating:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  10.50 )

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

Max. Elevation:  5,850'  (Lower Junction w/ Waterrock Knob Trail)

Total Vertical Gain:  300'  (eastbound)

Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  30'  (eastbound)

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