Sam Knob Hike
At the top of an imposing mountain peak located at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness, spectacular views await! A surprisingly nice, easy trail wraps around this mountain to its grassy, partly bald summit. Hike in the late summer and enjoy a snack of mountain blueberries along the way. Any time of year, enjoy one of the finest short hikes and easiest true "summit" trails in the mountains! This is an excellent hike for a hot day; temperatures rarely climb above the mid 70's since you start at one of the highest altitude trailheads in the region, at nearly 6000 ft.
From Asheville, follow the Blue Ridge Parkway south for 26.5 miles past the NC 191 Parkway access. Turn right on FR 816 (Black Balsam Road) just past milepost 420; a sign reads "Black Balsam". Follow this road to the end at the parking area.
Begin the hike on the trail behind the sign board to the right of the pit toilets. It's called the Sam Knob Summit trail and it may be signed; in the past the sign read "To Sam Knob Summit". This trail follows an old roadbed, level at first, and immediately passes a pretty glade on the left that is brimming with wildflowers during the spring. You'll soon descend over a somewhat rocky and eroded section of trail, and then enter a large, scenic meadow with Sam Knob looming directly in front of you. This meadow is kept clear of trees by mowing.
The trail crosses the meadow, and reaches an intersection with the Sam Knob trail on the other side. Ironically, the Sam Knob Summit trail ends here; turn right here to go toward the summit. The Sam Knob trail also descends to the left to reach the Flat Laurel Creek trail; you could go that way to make a longer, more difficult loop on the way back. (One can only hope the Forest Service improves this odd trail naming situation in the future).
Once on the Sam Knob trail, the climb from this meadow to the top is just shy of 400 ft., which is done over a fairly long distance via several switchbacks on the trail. This makes for a gradual, easy ascent. This trail begins climbing the south side of Sam Knob in a lush, young forest of mostly northern hardwood trees. There are a few rooty and rocky areas along the trail, so pay attention to your footing. When this trail was first built, it looked like it would shed water well. Unfortunately, over the years that hasn't proven to be entirely true - it is getting pretty eroded in spots (although it's not nearly as bad as some other trails in the area either).
The trail goes through a few switchbacks, and it will rise up above the taller trees, with some great views - but it's just a glimpse compared to what you will get from the top! Lush vegetation grows near rock outcrops beside the trail, including blueberries, strawberries, sedges and grass, mountain laurel, Carolina rhododendron, and countless wildflowers including bluets. At one point you will ascend a set of wooden steps up a particularly steep and rough spot. Then, the trail will pass beneath some large rock outcrops, which lie just below the summit. There is a great view on the left. The terrain levels out as the trail wraps around to the west side of the summit. You'll reach a grassy, shrubby saddle between the two high knobs, and a large outcropping of snow white quartz juts from a grassy meadow beside the trail. Just beyond this outcrop is where the trail splits.
Turn left and walk a few more feet to reach the highest point on Sam Knob, 6045'. The view from here is of Fork Mountain to your right, Fork Ridge (yes!) to your left, and the West Fork Pigeon River in between. Turn around and head to the top of the other summit, just a couple hundred feet away. This grassy spot is a good place to hang out and enjoy the views of the Shining Rock Ledge to your left, Black Balsam Mountain with the big meadow you walked through in front (click for view), Little Sam Knob to the right and Silvermine Bald on the horizon. In the valley below, to your right, is NC 215 as it winds its way up the valley to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Jutting up over the ridgeline you can make out Devils Courthouse beside the Blue Ridge Parkway. And behind you are views of the other summit of Sam Knob.
Why is this mountaintop devoid of the tall trees that are so common in this area? There is no true timberline in these mountains, above which trees can't grow like out West in the Rockies. Rather, these are locations called "balds" where only grasses or low shrubs grow. Like Black Balsam Knob across the field, and many other mountains in the area, Sam Knob is a "bald". Here the trees have a hard time re-establishing themselves once cleared by fire or man, due to soil conditions, weather, or grazing by animals. The exact cause of the balds, and their perpetuation, is a subject of study for scientists in the area.
On the summit of Sam Knob, mostly low shrubs grow, but there are some trees advancing up the slopes. Still, the view from the top is outstanding. Visit during late June, when the Rhododendrons are blooming, and you won't be disappointed with the foreground either. Spend as much time as you can up here, and then return to your vehicle on the same trail.
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Here's an interactive GPS map of this hike. Yellow highlight indicates the route followed by this hike within the trail network. Only the trails and points of interest along the hike, and those in the immediate vicinity, are shown. For expanded maps, see this hike's Trailhead area.
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