My very favorite hike in North Carolina is a loop I’ve more or less cobbled together myself and have completed at least ten times (no exaggeration) since moving down here two years ago. I love this hike because it’s a way to explore my favorite part of the WNC wilderness–the Black Balsam Knob/Shining Rock Wilderness Adjacent area even during the winter/spring months when the Blue Ridge Parkway remains closed.
You park at the Mountain-to-Sea Trail (MTS) crossing on NC 215 (also known as Lake Logan Road) which is reached going west on 40 out of Asheville and then driving through the town of Canton. It’s about an hour drive from my apartment (which is on the far east side of Asheville) to the trailhead (Google Map link here), and the trailhead is accessed about 20 feet across the road and down from the parking lot where a small stone staircase ascends into the forest.
I don’t know the exact mileage, but my guess is about eight? It’s never super steep but is decently long and the first leg spends a lot of time winding upwards through a beautiful pine forest, with one exceptional vantage point when the trail gets close to the parkway.
You get off the MTS trail where it crosses Black Balsam Road (the only real road the trail will cross) if you so prefer. You can also continue on and do the Black Balsam/Tennant Mountain loop if you want to make this a real long hike (likewise, there’s an option online that takes you to both Sam’s Knob and Devil’s Courthouse which the website says is a 7.5-hour hike…the MTS/Flat Laurel Creek Loop usually takes me about three). I like this loop because there are options to make it shorter or longer depending on your energy levels and the weather.
You’ll have to walk on the road for a half-mile or so from the Black Balsam MTS crossing to the start of the Flat Laurel Creek Trail in the Sam’s Knob Parking Lot, but it’s a small section of road with lots of hikers traversing it so traffic moves slow. Flat Laurel Creek is an old railroad bed, so it is mostly flat and a very family-friendly portion of the hike, but I’d caution that it can often be very wet (I always put on my hiking sandals for this portion May-August). The Flat Laurel Creek segment is also the more scenic of the two. The first half follows the creek, which is really beautiful (there are several smaller trails going down to the creek, which I’d highly recommend checking out) and once it veers away from the creek, you get great views of the mountains on your way down (and a couple waterfalls near the end). Once you get back to 215, you’ll have to walk about a half-mile up 215 to the original parking area.
Unlike Black Balsam or the Devil’s Courtyard which are exceedingly popular in the summer, both these trails are somewhat less traversed, though by no means empty (although I did have the entirety of the MTS to myself when I did this trail for the first time this year two weeks ago)—it’s just enough off the beaten path to feel like you’re discovering something the rest of the Blue Ridge Parkway visitors aren’t, while still an easy drive from town.
One of my favorite aspects about this particular hike is that you’re out of service almost the entire time, which is nice for someone like me who ends up checking his phone a bit more often than he always wants. Topically, this last time I spent the entirety of my hike listening to a new podcast I love called “Offline with Jon Favreau.” It’s an offshoot of the Pod Save America family of podcasts, but not as overtly political as their other offerings, and is focused around its phone-obsessed host having discussions about online behavior, phone addiction, content overload, and the way the internet is shaping the world—the episode I found most interesting was the one exploring how the war in Ukraine is our first social media war.
For those of you wondering, as of this writing 759,911 people on Instagram have used the hashtag #offline to describe their online photo and 1,525,745 people have used the hashtag #unplugged for the same reason (#offthegrid gets 902,752).