Shining Rock Loop (6-3-18)
Shining Rock is one of the most unique summits in the North Carolina mountains. Located in the Great Balsam Range between Waynesville and Brevard, the peak derives its uniqueness not from sweeping views or precipitous cliffs but rather from giant outcrops of snowy white quartz scattered atop and around its broad summit. Although thickly covered in a dense canopy of mixed fir and hardwoods, these 'shining' rocks can be seen clearly from great distances away. The summit gathers a decent number of visitors over the course of a year but not nearly so many as nearby peaks just to the south. The easiest and perhaps quickest (loop) route to it is the route I took this day, along the Art Loeb Trail from the Ivestor Gap Trailhead and then returning via the Ivestor Gap Trail itself. This 9.5-mile loop out to Shining Rock has got to be on the short list of the most spectacular hikes in the Southern Appalachians as it crosses no less than 3 miles of open bald country and gives you the opportunity to summit four Southern 6,000-footers.
As stated, I’d begin this hike from the busy Ivestor Gap Trailhead. On a clear weekend morning in June this parking area fills and overflows quickly, thus I got a good early start…around 9am. From the parking lot I walked a few steps north on the Ivestor Gap Trail before taking a right turn on the Art Loeb Spur Trail which would take me on a quick climb to the top of the ridge. Barely a half-mile into the hike I stepped out onto the open, grassy, wind-swept bald of Black Balsam Knob. For the next three miles of this hike glorious 360-degree views would be the rule rather than the exception. If for any other reason, that fact will cause you to want to allot extra time for this hike. At the crest of the open ridge the Spur ends at the Art Loeb and I made a turn north towards Black Balsam Knob which dominates the horizon just a quarter-mile away. The climb up Black Balsam is short and soon I stood atop the 6,214’ peak. The summit is broad, so broad one has to circle the edges of the summit for the best views. In any direction, though, those views are spectacular. From the summit the Art Loeb continues north along a gloriously open ridge for another half-mile before ducking down off the west side of the ridge and circling back down to the shallow gap between Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain. From the gap the pointed summit of Tennent rises directly above and the trail is easily seen ahead ascending its mostly open slopes. Again, like Black Balsam, the last ascent to the summit is short and the reward at the top amazing. Unlike Black Balsam, Tennent Mountain has a tiny summit capped by a small rock outcrop. It’s very steep southern face drops away precariously towards Graveyard Fields far below. If you manage to arrive and there’s no crowd, it’s a perfect spot for a breather before continuing on.
The Art Loeb heads north from Tennent by dropping to the east down the crest of the Ivestor Ridge. There are some awesome views to be had along this section back up towards the steep summit of Tennent as well as across the valley of Dark Prong to the massive summit dome of Black Balsam Knob. After a brief walk through some trees for a change, the trail reaches yet another open, unnamed gap. Here, the Art Loeb briefly joins the Ivestor Gap Trail but soon splits right to climb the small pine covered knob ahead. After crossing said knob the trail drops once again, this time to Ivestor Gap itself. Grass covered and beautiful Ivestor Gap is a great place to stop for a bit and enjoy your surroundings, if for any other reason than this spot marks the end of the open bald section of the hike. The Shining Rock Wilderness borders to the north of the gap where the massive green dome of Grassy Cove Top rises overhead. The trail junction here can be a bit confusing. From the large Shining Rock Wilderness sign the Art Loeb climbs to the right to circle Grassy Cove Top to the east. Look for a tiny Art Loeb sign a ways up the slope marking the way. As the trail circles Grassy Cove Top it re-enters the woods, climbing gradually, and passing the spur path to the summit of said peak after making it around to its north side. I skipped the side-trip as I had tagged Grassy Cove Top on a previous hike and, due to the lack of views, haven’t seen a need to return. North of Grassy Cove Top the trail follows along the crest of a fairly narrow ridge with some nice views just visible through the tops of the surrounding rhododendron. From this point the Art Loeb drops to Flower Gap, rounds Flower Knob, and eventually arrives at the large and confusing Shining Rock Gap.
Picture Shining Rock Gap as a large “X”. The Art Loeb dog-legs as it passes through the gap arriving from the south via the lower right leg of the X and departing north via the upper left leg. The lower left leg is the Ivestor Gap Trail (which I’d be following back). That leaves the upper right leg, which is the Old Butt Knob Trail and the path I wanted to take to get the short rest of the way to Shining Rock. So heading straight ahead On the Old Butt Knob Trail the path begins to climb into a pretty forest dominated by red spruce and, within a quarter mile, the bright white quartz cliffs of Shining Rock will appear ahead. To get up the cliffs follow the trail to where it gets right up against the ledges and look for a side path which leads to a rock gully which, after a short scramble, ends atop the cliffs. Though the views aren’t 360-degrees this is still one of my favorite spots in the mountains. Standing atop the brilliant white ledges rising from a sea of green below, and with untouched mountain ridges stretching to the distance, Shining Rock has all the wildness, beauty, and solitude I could ever want. It’s a place to enjoy simply being apart from everything. Black Balsam Knob, where this hike started, can be seen to the distant south while to the west the massive Great Balsam Range towers over the valley of the West Fork Pigeon River. Soaking in the peacefulness of my surroundings I stayed as long as I could but eventually, as always, it was time to head back.
Retracing my steps back to Shining Rock Gap, I then dog-legged right and then left to pick up the Ivestor Gap Trail departing to the south. The Ivestor Gap Trail is usually my option for a return hike from Shining Rock. It lacks much of the scenery of the Art Loeb but elevation change is minimal over its four-mile length so, to me, it makes a more pleasant way to end a 9+ mile day. The first two miles back to Ivestor Gap are almost completely flat and remain in the woods with no real views to speak of. Beyond Ivestor Gap, the remaining two miles are mostly open and very rocky as the trail follows the remains of an old forest road. Typically this stretch of trail is incredibly busy but, due to recent heavy rains leaving many parts of the trail underwater, I found it all but abandoned on this day. I made it back in good time (though not with dry feet) and enjoying the beauty offered by the openness along the last bit of trail I finished up yet another successful trip out to Shining Rock.
This hike never disappoints. I can’t say enough good things about it. For a long day hike in the North Carolina Mountains there are few other trips I’ve done that compare, mile-for-mile scenery-wise, with this one. There’s no doubt I’ll be back again and again. So, after all that gushing, I guess I better let you get to the album. It’s my pleasure to present one of my favorite hikes in the southern mountains…the loop hike out to the amazing Shining Rock. As always, I hope you enjoy…
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.325752, -82.881991
Route Type: Loop + spur Difficulty: HARD
Mileage Hiked: 9.5 miles Hike Duration: 4:45
Trailhead Temp: 65'F Trail Traffic: 50-100 people
Min. Elevation: 5,650' Max. Elevation: 6,214'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,100' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 116'
Trails Used (Blaze Color):
Art Loeb (white), Art Loeb Spur (unblazed), Ivestor Gap (unblazed), Old Butt Knob (unblazed)