If you live on the East Coast & are looking for complete solitude & a total wilderness experience, the constellation of mountains that exceed 6,000 feet in elevation located east of Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the place for you. Although the Great Smoky Mountain National Park sees more visitors than any other National Park in the United States, the area around Tri-Corner Knob shelter and Laurel Gap shelter has only a trickle of traffic consisting mostly of A.T. through-hikers. Among the 6,000+ ft. peaks in this region is Luftee Knob, the 20th highest point on the East Coast of North America. Originally named “the Pillar” by Appalachian geographer Arnold Guyot, Luftee Knob is one of four peaks located along the Balsam Mountain Trail in the southeastern portion of the park that exceed 6,000 feet in elevation. The other three include Big Cataloochee (6,155 ft.), Mt. Yonaguska (6150 ft.), & the most remote of all the 6,000+ ft. peaks in eastern North America, Mark’s Knob (6,169).
Luftee Knob is not really located close to anything. It can be done as a long day hike, but most choose to overnight at the Laurel Gap shelter, located 0.2 mi. from the intersection of the Balsam Mountain and Mt. Sterling Ridge trails. Peakbaggers often use Laurel Gap shelter as a base for climbing both Luftee Knob and Big Cataloochee. Luftee Knob is a 14 mile round trip hike from the closest trailhead at Pin Oak Gap located off of the Balsam Mountain Road (NOTE: The Balsam Mountain Road is closed during the winter). The total elevation gain from Pin Oak Gap to the summit of Luftee Knob is around 2,385 ft. in 6.9 miles. The summit is essentially consists of a maze of blackberry thickets (delicious in late July into early August) and considerable blowdown. The view to the east includes Mt. Sterling; while to the northwest Mt. Guyot dominates the landscape. There is a 0.2 mi. bushwhack from the Balsam Mountain Trail to the summit of Luftee Knob
From the town of Cherokee, N.C., take U.S. 441 N. to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take a right on to the BRP. Next, take a left on to the Heintooga Ridge Road. This road is paved until the developed Balsam Mountain camping area. Past here, the road turns into the Balsam Mountain Road & is dirt. The Balsam Mountain Road is narrow, winding, & at times, treacherous. It has been known to fall into the valley below after heavy rains. Most 2 wheel drive vehicles should be able to make it to Pin Oak Gap from the Heintooga cutoff. Also, as mentioned earlier, the Balsam Mtn. Road is closed during the winter. Call the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for the latest travel conditions: (865) 436-1200. Follow the Balsam Mountain Road to Pin Oak Gap. There is enough parking for 4 to 5 vehicles. Parking is usually not a problem due to the remoteness of this trailhead. The Balsam Mountain trail is clearly marked at Pin Oak Gap. Follow the well-maintained trail 4.3 miles through stands of old growth hardwoods, over Ledge Bald (5, 184 ft.) to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. Yellow birch, beech, basswood, Carolina silverbell, yellow poplar and eastern hemlock trees can all been seen along the Balsam Mountain Trail. At Balsam Corner, 0.2 past Laurel Gap shelter, take a left on to the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Hike 2.5 miles to the trail top (1.6 miles past the junction with the Gunter Fork Trail) on the slope of Luftee. From here, bushwhack about 0.2 mi. uphill along the ridge to your right to the highest point on the ridge. As of March 2008, there was no summit marker.
1. Parking at Pin Oak Gap is free.
2. Backcountry camping is allowed only in designated areas & at shelters. Reservations must be made prior to visiting the park. For backcountry camping reservations call (865) 436-1200.
3. As in most National Parks & Monuments in the United States, NO DOGS ARE ALLOWED IN THE BACKCOUNTRY.
Laurel Gap shelter
The best places to overnight while exploring Luftee Knob and the other Southern Sixers in the area are Laurel Gap shelter and Tri-Corner Knob shelter. As stated earlier, reservations must be made prior to visiting. There are also developed campsites available at the Balsam Mountain Campground on the Heintooga Ridge Road.
Where does the name Luftee come from?
The name Luftee comes from the word Oconaluftee, an Anglo-settler corruption of the Cherokee word Egwanulti, which, means “by the river.”