Art Loeb Trail - Black Balsam to Gloucester Gap Hike Route Map

Art Loeb Trail - Black Balsam to Gloucester Gap w/ Shuck Ridge Creek Falls

The Art Loeb Trail needs no introduction among North Carolina hikers. Mile-for-mile there may be no finer long distance footpath in the state. Six thousand foot summits, miles of open southern bald, towering granite plutons, and an amazing diversity of forest types are all represented along this 30-mile route within the Pisgah Ranger District. Backpackers typically hike the entirety of the trail in three to four days, but the Art Loeb is also conducive for day hikes as a handful of trailheads are spread out at varying intervals along its length. Traditionally the trail is split up into three sections. Section One is the northernmost, running from Camp Daniel Boone down along the incredibly beautiful spine of the Shining Rock Ridge, and ending at the busy trailhead along Black Balsam Road. This is the most wildly popular section of the Art Loeb and one I had hiked the length of, over the course of dozens of day hikes, previously. Section Two runs from Black Balsam Road down to Forest Service Road 475 at Gloucester Gap. This is a transitional section of the trail as the route drops from the high elevation forests of the Pisgah Ridge to the mid-elevation hardwood forests more commonly seen throughout the District. Section Three runs the relatively low ridge connecting Gloucester Gap with the Davidson River area. This section is almost entirely tree covered, and deceptively challenging as it rises and falls over numerous minor summits along the way. Let’s get back to Section Two, however, as that is the focus of this particular hike. This is a challenging hike, especially if you include the side trip to Shuck Ridge Creek Falls as I did. The effort though is more than adequately rewarded, however, with solitude in abundance and sweeping views to be had from the Pisgah Ridge and Pilot Mountain. Add near-peak fall colors into the mix as well and you have a recipe for one of the finest dayhike challenges to be enjoyed in the Pisgah Ranger District, as you’re about to see.

The hike starts from the aforementioned Black Balsam Road, which on just about any day of the week can be quite crowded. Don’t let that deter you, however, as 99% of those folks will be heading towards the open balds to the north and not the direction you’ll be going. Also note that the Art Loeb coincides with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along this first stretch. The Art Loeb/MST heads south from the road into a large stand of balsam firs. The route is fairly obvious but it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for white blazes as you walk through the uniformly bare understory. Soon the trail breaks out into the open briefly before climbing slightly to the edge of the Pisgah Ridge. Keep an eye out for side paths leading to incredible views to the south along this stretch. The highpoint of the day is reached as you crest the wooded summit of Silvermine Bald, just shy of 6,000-feet, and then soon after reaches the parting of ways of the MST and Art Loeb at a well-marked junction just over a mile from the start. Make sure to walk straight ahead a few feet to a small ledge commanding one of the most incredible viewpoints you’ll enjoy this day. Looking south from this ledge the landscape drops away dramatically nearly 3,000-feet to the forested valleys below. You can also get a good look at much of the ridge you’ll be traveling this day, with the pointed summit of Pilot Mountain easily identified at its far end. Back at the junction the Art Loeb almost literally falls south off the edge of the ridge. The next quarter-mile of trail will be the first serious test of your legs for the day as the route drops an almost silly 450 vertical feet in that short distance. Needless to say, be very careful on this section…if it’s icy just come back another day. The worst will be behind you a short time later as the trail dumps you out onto the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which offers a welcome respite for your now-wobbly knees.

Carefully crossing the Parkway, the Art Loeb is easy to pick up again as it continues its descent of the ridge. Though the grade here isn’t nearly as ridiculous as what came before it still remains moderately steep. The roughly 1.5-miles of trail between the Parkway and Farlow Gap is completely wooded, crossing the transition zone between the mixed high-elevation forests and the pure hardwood forest type which dominates below 5,000-feet. Ecologically speaking, this is a fascinating section of the Art Loeb even if there aren’t any views. The first bit of flat ground the trail has found in a mile and a half is reached at Farlow Gap, where the Art Loeb crosses north-to-south and the Farlow Gap Trail departs to the east off the side of the ridge. You have a choice here as to whether or not you’d like to make the side trip, as I did, down the Farlow Gap Trail to see Shuck Ridge Creek Falls. I won’t sugar coat it, it’s not an easy side trip. Though it only adds a couple miles to the day it also adds nearly a thousand feet of climbing. The upside, if you decide to go to the falls, is that you’ll have visited one of the more remote and lesser-seen cascades in the entire Pisgah Ranger District. You’ll have to decide for yourself, however, if the payoff sounds worth the effort. If you decide to go, then the next paragraph is for you…if not just skip ahead to the next one.

Turning onto the Farlow Gap Trail you now have a mile of almost continuous, at times incredibly steep, trail to descend to get to Shuck Ridge Creek Falls. About a quarter-mile below the gap the trail enters the drainage of the unnamed tributary to the south of Shuck Ridge Creek. If you go after a good rain, as I did, you might find the trail actually turns into a small cascading stream. This makes things extra tricky as the ground underfoot here is one of loose stone. About a half-mile below the gap the trail passes a large campsite and then drops to cross the aforementioned tributary, which the route now turns to follow downstream. The terrain remains incredibly steep. Try not to get too depressed thinking about the inevitable return climb. As the Farlow Gap Trail curves into the drainage of Shuck Ridge Creek it finally gains a measure of sanity, though with a few rocks to scramble over, before depositing you along the creek just above the brink of the falls. Upstream are a number of pretty cascades but the main drop is below. There’s no good vantage point from above so for the best view you’ll have to scramble down the steep, wet slopes on the river-right of the falls. The 30’ Shuck Ridge Creek Falls is quite pretty when seen from below. It’s not the largest of waterfalls but the incredible remoteness of the setting adds a wild beauty to the scene that is hard to describe. Get good long rest here…and when you’re ready strap you pack tight and grind your way back up the mile of steep trail to Farlow Gap.

Heading south from Farlow Gap the trail remains fairly flat before reaching the crossing of Forest Service Road 5051 just north of Sassafras Knob. You have a choice to make here...facing south F.R. 5031 is on the left with the Art Loeb on the right. You can take either option to reach Deep Gap located roughly a mile away by either route. However, the Art Loeb makes a 400-foot climb up over Sassafras Knob on the way while the road maintains a more level grade, ascending only about 150-feet. As I was trying to complete the Art Loeb I didn't have a choice but to take the harder route but, since Sassafras Knob is wooded, you won't be missing anything by taking the 5031 bypass. It’s your call. The Art Loeb from here immediately starts climbing again, at a moderately steep rate. The summit of Sassafras Knob is thickly wooded, with nothing of note to see, after which the trail makes an equally steep descent to Deep Gap passing the large A-frame Deep Gap Shelter along the way. Just before reaching the bottom of the gap the trail joins an old forest two track which extends up from nearby Forest Service Road 229. At Deep Gap the two track veers left while the Art Loeb bears right…keep a close watch for white blazes to stay on the right track. Now comes the climb of Pilot Mountain, the last major ascent of the hike. The distance from Deep Gap to the summit is only about a half-mile but you’ll be climbing nearly 500-feet in that distance. Even if you skipped the side trek to Shuck Ridge Creek Falls I guarantee your legs will be feeling the climb at this point in the hike. The grind upward though 20+ switchbacks is tough but, believe me, what awaits at the top is worth it.

The summit of Pilot Mountain is tiny, as you may have imagined seeing its pointed profile from a distance earlier in the day. Though covered in low shrubs the ledges at the top still command incredible views of the mountains to the west. Mount Hardy can be seen towering above 6,000-feet to the north while the countless ridges and peaks of the neighboring Nantahala National Forest can be seen stretching away to the horizon. It’s a fitting reward for the effort required to get here. The views east are mostly obscured but you should be able to get a few glimpses of the iconic cliffs of Looking Glass Rock through the leaves. The trail drops south from the summit of Pilot in an equally steep manner as it had ascended earlier, though this time through extensive groves of low-hanging rhododendron. It’s less than two miles from this point back to Gloucester Gap and mostly downhill…but it’s a steep downhill almost the entire way. The only respite comes about a half-mile after leaving the summit as the trail crosses a shallow gap and rises slightly over a minor knob at the end of the mountains eastern ridge. After a long day of almost nonstop, steep, ascents and descents this last 1.3-miles of trail isn’t going to take it easy on you. There’s over 1,200-feet of elevation to lose in this distance before reaching Gloucester Gap. The forest continues to be beautiful, however, especially if you manage to catch it near peak color as I did. A couple quick crossings of Forest Service Road 229 are located about a half-mile above the gap which is reached through another thick tunnel of rhododendron a short time later.

This is an amazing hike…if you have the stamina to do it. Though a total vertical gain under 2,000-feet might not seem all that intimidating the challenge comes in combining this with a huge amount of elevation loss…of which there is over 4,500-feet worth!  It’s a workout few dayhikes in the Pisgah Ranger District can match. The reward, however, is seeing a stretch of the Art Loeb Trail relatively few visit despite the vistas and cascades to be seen along the way. Overall this hike is a classic…offering up a taste of everything wonderful about Pisgah National Forest. Just be honest about your abilities before attempting it. With that said I now invite you on a section hike of the Art Loeb Trail from Black Balsam Knob to Gloucester Gap…with Shuck Ridge Creek Falls along the way! As always…I hope you ENJOY!!!

Black Balsam Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.320626, -82.876187

Gloucester Gap Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.265876, -82.846926

Route Type:  Point-to-point + Spur        Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  12.60 )

Hike Length:  8.9 miles                            Hike Duration:  4:45

Trailhead Temp:  55'F                              Trail Traffic:  5-10 people

Min. Elevation:  3,250'                              Max. Elevation:  5,980'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,850'                       Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  208'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Art Loeb (white), Farlow Gap (blue), Mountains-to-Sea (white)


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