Sam Knob via Flat Laurel Creek (12-16-18)
It’s no mystery, with a glance through my site, that Sam Knob is one of my favorite hiking destinations in the Southern Appalachians. Its twin summits rise sharply from the West Fork Pigeon River Gorge to the west while the massive 6,000’+ Shining Rock Ridge lines the horizon to the east. Sporting only a scattered covering of low shrubs its summit provides views all but unmatched in the Pisgah Ranger District. On clear days just about every high peak between the Smokies and the Black Mountains can be seen from its lofty summit. As such, combined with its location within easy walking distance of the busy trailhead at the end of Black Balsam Road, Sam Knob has quickly become a popular hiking destination for visitors to the area and it is rare to have the summit to yourself. The one exception to this is in the winter, on the occasion that the Blue Ridge Parkway closes due to snow and/or ice which removes access to Black Balsam Knob. When this happens the quickest way to get to the top of Sam Knob is from N.C. Highway 215, to the southwest, via the Flat Laurel Creek Trail. Heading in by this route makes the hike a bit more strenuous (but nothing crazy by mountain standards) as well as much longer…around 7-miles round-trip…which thins out the crowds considerably. In fact, few people even know of this route so if you make the trip you might just get to experience the rarest of treats…Sam Knob all to yourself. I had timed this hike to all but assure myself of this experience. A week before over two feet of snow was dumped on the higher elevations and access up NC-215 had only just been opened back up to vehicles without four-wheel-drive. Knowing the snow would still lay deep I had my doubts few, if any, people would be making the hike up Flat Laurel Creek on this morning. It turned out I was exactly right. Despite it being a week since the snows had fallen I got the privilege of making first tracks up Sam Knob and enjoying the snowy spectacle from the top all by myself. It was Sam Knob as it’s rarely experienced.
My hike would begin from the Flat Laurel Creek Trailhead, located at a small parking lot which sits below the west side of NC-215 about ¾-mile north of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Beech Gap. My two-wheel-drive car couldn’t make it down into the parking area so I was forced to find a spot a short distance up the road where I could safely park off to the side. Walking down to the trailhead I then began the two mile hike up the Flat Laurel Creek Trail. I’d be above the 5,000-foot mark the entire hike so, despite the rain and warm weather we’d experienced since the snowstorm, the snowpack was still well over a foot deep at these elevations. The Flat Laurel Creek Trail is fairly flat, only gradually ascending over its length between the highway and the Sam Knob Trail. At first it winds its way along the side of the ridge, ducking in and out of a handful of drainages, some which have some nice cascades. The nicest is called Wildcat Falls, reached about ¾-mile from the trailhead at an old concrete bridge which dates back to when the trail was actually a road. It’s a high, sliding cascade which tumbles at least 50-feet from the ridge above and down the mountainside beneath the bridge. Beyond the waterfall is another ¾-mile of relatively un-interesting terrain. The heavy snows had collapsed many of the rhododendron tunnels along this stretch so the biggest hassle was pushing my way through fallen branches and, occasionally, whole bushes. Suddenly, about a mile and a half in, the trail breaks into the open and offers up a stunning panoramic vista across the gorge west to the massive Fork Ridge. It’s a good taste of what will treat your eyes above, though on a much smaller scale. Beyond the lookout the trail turns more easterly as it cuts up the steep-sided valley separating Sam Knob to the north from its neighbor, Little Sam Knob, to the south. Cascading water can be heard as Flat Laurel Creek drop down through the gorge below while the incredibly steep south face of Sam Knob towers overhead. Few other vantage points of the mountain make it look as intimidating. Before long the trail passes a couple backcountry campsites, enters a more open area, and then reaches its junction with the Sam Knob Trail on the left.
Turning onto the Sam Knob Trail the path immediately drops to make a rock-hop of Flat Laurel Creek. It’s not a difficult crossing but if it’s icy or if there’s been recent heavy rain it can be a bit trickier. On the far side of the creek the trail enters a wet, marshy area and gets a bit confusing to follow. Keep an eye out ahead for faded blue blazes or evidence of previous footprints to keep on the right heading. In the deep snow of this day it would have been all but impossible to follow…it was lucky I had been up here so many times prior, I pretty much know the route by heart by now so had no trouble. Soon the grade becomes a bit steeper as the trail climbs into the scraggly woods at the base of Sam Knob and then, without warning, breaks out into open fields again before reaching the spur trail to the summit. These open fields offer expansive views across the upper reaches of the Flat Laurel Creek Valley and to the Shining Rock Ridge beyond. It’s not a natural opening…historically I believe it was used for grazing but now the landscape is kept open by the Forest Service through summer mowing. The Sam Knob turns right here, heading towards the nearby Black Balsam Road while the Summit Trail continues straight ahead a ways along the edge of the field before turning up into the woods. The Sam Knob Summit Trail is the most strenuous part of the hike. It’s fairly steep and in some sections quite rocky. The climb is relatively short, however, so to me it requires just enough effort to make you feel like you’ve ‘earned’ the summit once you get there. At times when the ground is clear the well-worn path is easy to follow…under a foot-and-a-half of snow it was indecipherable in spots. Once again my many previous visits helped keep me on the right track. After numerous steep switchbacks through the deep snow I emerged from the trees onto the open upper slopes of Sam Knob. The scenery is flat out spectacular. I’m not going to try to describe it, I’ll just let my pics try to speak for me. Curving around to the west side of the summit the trail arrives at a split in the shallow saddle between the twin north and south summits. Either choice is acceptable at this point…just make sure you do both!
Out of tradition more than any other reason I headed over to the North Summit first. From its open ledges you are treated to a near-360 degree panorama filled with countless high peaks and rugged, deep valleys. To the east the Shining Rock Ridge dominates the horizon while to the west the Great Balsams do the same. Due north the incredibly deep and rugged gorge formed by the West Fork Pigeon River is an awesome sight. You may not want to leave the North Summit…but wait, Sam Knob has another equally beautiful high point to visit! Heading back to the trail split in the saddle beneath the summits now a spur ascends through the scrub to the grassier South Summit of Sam Knob. Here the panorama faces south, though the massive Shining Rock Ridge still stands east and the Great Balsams west. Beyond to the south though the view extends far out of the high peaks to the foothills of South Carolina beyond. On the clearest of days you can even pick out bodies of water such as Lake Keowee glistening in the distance. This day was just such a day. It was as wonderful an experience as a visit to Sam Knob ever is and made all the more special knowing that I was the first person to enjoy this otherwise busy peak in over a week! The hike back to the car simply retraces the steps of the approach…except it’s all downhill now which makes the going much, much easier. Especially when you’re dealing with a foot of snow. I considered doing a bit extra exploring along Flat Laurel Creek but though better of it due to the late hour and how surprisingly tired I was after a few hours trudging through deep snow.
Even so, this was a hike to remember. I’ve visited Sam Knob many, many times but never in conditions quite like this. It’s always special to experience familiar hiking grounds in a new light, so-to-speak. This is a classic hike in any season. I did it in the snow but spring, summer, fall, or bare-ground winter all offer up spectacular scenery and just a flat-out enjoyable time in the woods. I can’t say it enough, if you haven’t experienced Sam Knob yet…GO…and if you want to feel a bit more like you’ve earned it, then try this amazing hike. That said, I present to you a hike up Sam Knob via the Flat Laurel Creek Trail in the snow! As always…ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.308062, -82.909127
Route Type: Out-and-back Difficulty: (very) HARD...due to conditions present
Hike Length: 7.1 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 32'F Trail Traffic: NONE!!!
Min. Elevation: 5,000' Max. Elevation: 6,050'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,100' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 306' (ascent)
Trails Used (blaze color): Flat Laurel Creek (orange), Sam Knob (blue), Sam Knob Summit (unblazed)