Fork Mountain Trail -- 4,980'

Fork Mountain Trail via Black Balsam Knob

The Fork Mountain Trail, within the Shining Rock Wilderness, is one of the least visited and most difficult hiking trails in the entirety of the Pisgah Ranger District.  A six-mile long northwestern arm of the Shining Rock Ridge, Fork Mountain is likewise more ridge-like than its name implies. Rising alongside Lake Logan it runs due south for about a third of its length before veering southeasterly to connect high up on the western side of Tennent Mountain. Numerous minor knobs punctuate its crest, with only two of them having names…Birdstand Mountain and High Top. The Fork Mountain Trail runs the southern 2/3 of its namesake, connecting North Carolina Highway 215 near the Sunburst Campground with the Ivestor Gap Trail over the course of about seven miles. The most intimidating portion of the trail is its northernmost 2.5-miles...from the trailhead along NC-215 the trail climbs a punishing 2,000+ feet over this distance. It’s a grade exceeded by few other trails in the District and most likely a major reason why it sees relatively little foot traffic. The other main reason is that the Fork Mountain Trail doesn’t lend itself well to dayhikes. It doesn’t connect up to form any convenient loops and to hike it out-and-back in one day pushes the 14-mile mark which, when combined with the enormous amount of vertical, puts it out of reach for most (including myself). The best way to hike the Fork Mountain Trail is with two vehicles, one up at the Black Balsam Road and one down on Highway 215. This makes for a hike of around 10-miles which is doable, though still only for experienced and fit hikers. Hiking the trail point-to-point also provides the agreeable option of hiking it from the top down…reducing the vertical climb down to around 700-feet (though the downhill climb still exceeds 3,500-feet). This was the option I’d choose as I really didn’t feel the need to repeat what would most certainly have been a comparable grind to my ascent of the neighboring Green Mountain Trail a few weeks prior.

So, after dropping my car at the lower end of the trail along NC-215, my ride then drove me up and dropped me off at the Art Loeb/MST crossing on Black Balsam Road. To bump the scenery rating for this hike a level higher I had decided to start things out by heading north along the Art Loeb Trail on a familiar track over Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain before turning over onto the Fork Mountain Trail itself. This would begin my day off with a spectacular two-mile stroll through the extensive grassy balds of the southern Shining Rock Ridge. Leaving Black Balsam Road the trail quickly breaks into the open, within a couple tenths of a mile, before summiting Black Balsam Knob at around the 2/3-mile mark. The Art Loeb then drops off the north side of the summit and shortly thereafter veers off the west side of the ridge to descend to the shallow gap between it and Tennent Mountain. The climb up Tennent is a short one from the gap and soon you’ll be standing atop the precipitous edge of its summit at around 1.5 miles. The Art Loeb then begins a moderate descent down the narrow Ivestor Ridge where there are some truly spectacular views of Black Balsam and Tennent to be seen across the deep valley of Dark Prong. The Art Loeb Trail then dips into the trees for the FIRST TIME since the start of the hike arriving at another shallow unnamed gap and one of its many junctions with the Ivestor Gap Trail. You’ll now want to make a left (south) on the wide Ivestor Gap Trail and follow it for a short distance uphill to a small weathered sign you’ll spot on the right perhaps a hundred yards later. Welcome to the Fork Mountain Trail.

The change from well-traveled trail to wilderness footpath is immediate and striking. Cutting down from the Ivestor Gap Trail you now will have grass underfoot rather than dirt as there are simply too few feet passing here to keep the route bare. A couple hundred feet in, another weathered sign announces your passage into the Shining Rock Wilderness…hopefully you’ve familiarized yourself with the route and are carrying a good map as there will be no trail blazes to guide you from here. At first the Fork Mountain Trail is a fairly easy walk, despite being slightly overgrown in places. Along the first mile the path remains just below the north side of the ridge crest before crossing a large grassy gap to the opposite side. Just beyond the gap the forest to your left opens up and the first viewpoint of the trail is arrived at…and what a view it is! Looking south you’re now peering up the incredibly deep and narrow upper gorge of the West Fork Pigeon River. To either side are the towering summits of Sam Knob and Green Knob, rising at incredibly steep angles a vertical half-mile from the valley below. The natural grandeur on display from this spot is about as magnificent as it gets in the southern mountains…and there will be more to come.  Moving north from the first overlook the trail now begins a descent to follow the crest of the narrow ridge between here and Birdstand Mountain. You might notice the forest changing by this point. Now dipping below the mile-high contour, the high elevation conifers have been all but left behind and the woods become almost exclusively deciduous. Laurel tunnels become more common as well, to mix things up. The ridge to the south of Birdstand, as mentioned, is remarkably narrow…barely wide enough to carry the trail atop it in places. Don’t expect views though, at least not yet. As the trail passes along the north side of a minor unnamed knob it gets quite a bit rougher for a short time before arriving at the gap just south of Birdstand and beginning a moderate climb once again. Shortly after beginning this ascent watch for a short spur path on the left leading to the second major overlook along the trail. If anything, this viewpoint is even grander than the first was. I cannot even begin to describe the magnitude of what you are seeing here. Over 1,500-feet below your feet is the floor of the West Fork Pigeon River Gorge...towering to either side again are Sam Knob and Fork Ridge. From no other vantage point do these peaks appear so massive. There are countless jaw-dropping views in the North Carolina Mountains...but few are likely to make your jaw drop as hard this one.

Once again reinvigorated by what you’ve seen, you’ll now continue north as you follow the trail as it passes to the east of the summit of Birdstand Mountain. For the next ¾ mile the same old routine is followed by the Fork Mountain Trail, as it bounces up and down along the crest of the ridge. Just north of Birdstand it rounds another minor knob across a particularly steep slope. After this stretch the final major climb of the hike begins. The next half-mile sees the trail gain another 350-feet as it seeks to cross the rhododendron-covered summit of the major knob north of Birdstand. Luckily, about halfway up this climb, there’s another nice viewpoint to enjoy. It’s not as expansive as the previous two but this is still a nice spot, facing the Great Balsam Range to the west across the heart of the Middle Prong Wilderness. After crossing the heavily overgrown summit of the unnamed knob you’ll be starting the drop to NC-215…but only gradually at first. It isn’t until about a quarter-mile later, where the trail makes a sharp hairpin turn back to the left, that the “fun” begins. Over the next two miles the Fork Mountain Trail loses nearly 2,000-feet of elevation. Thankfully, numerous switchbacks aid in the silly descent but it’s still likely to take a toll on your knees. As I stated earlier, there are few sections of trail in the Pisgah Ranger District which I’ve found compare in steepness. There isn’t much to see along this stretch either…though, honestly, you’ll need to be watching your feet most of the way anyhow. Three-quarters of the way down the trail pulls alongside tiny Turnpike Creek which it turns to cross just before reaching the valley floor. The final 1/3-mile along the West Fork Pigeon River is all but flat compared to what has come before. The end of the hike is reached where the Fork Mountain Trail all but literally dumps you into the river just across from the trailhead. Hopefully you’ve made note of water levels when you parked your car earlier as the West Fork can be notoriously feisty. I was lucky enough to hit it in drought conditions and so was able to hop across. DON’T expect this on your visit, however. 99% of the year this will be a wet crossing…after a heavy rain you shouldn’t attempt it. Either way it makes for a fittingly interesting finish to a very challenging hike!

With all that there’s really not much more to say. The Fork Mountain Trail is certainly not for everyone. Only those in great shape, and who are comfortable in wilderness travel, should try this one. The trail is fairly easy to follow along its entire length, despite the lack of foot traffic it sees, but it’s still not a path you’ll want to find yourself alone on if you don’t know what you’re doing. So if I’ve scared you out of it now (or better yet, if I haven’t) I would like to now invite you along with me as I explore the incredibly beautiful and seldom-visited Fork Mountain Trail in the Shining Rock Wilderness of the Pisgah Ranger District. As always...ENJOY!!!


Black Balsam Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.320635, -82.876209

Fork Mountain Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.373662, -82.936184


Route Type:  Point-to-point        Difficulty:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  11.30 )

Hike Length:  9.8 miles                Hike Duration:  4:30

Trailhead Temp:  60'F                  Trail Traffic:  10-25 people (all on Art Loeb Trail)

Min. Elevation:  3,120'                   Max. Elevation:  6,214'

Total Vertical Gain:  750'             Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  77'


Trails Used (blaze color):  Art Loeb (white), Fork Mountain (unblazed), Ivestor Gap (unblazed)


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