From the Blue Ridge Parkway at about milepost 420, take Balsam Mountain Road (816). Drive to the end of the road, passing the trail-crossing for the Art Loeb Trail. At the end of the road (you will see two gates), there is a parking lot and two permanent pit toilets. This parking lot is one of the highest trailheads in the eastern USA, and also one of the most popular. On Friday through Sunday the lot will likely be full. The trail to Sam Knob starts here (Sam Knob Trail).
Just beside the pit toilets you will see the trail. Ivestor Gap Trail leads off to the right past a gate. You will take the signed Sam Knob Trail directly before you. It leads gradually downhill through scrub and stunted trees, passing some rock outcrops. You will very soon come out onto an enormous grassy field that makes up the huge gap between Sam Knob and the heights of Black Balsam Mountain.
Keep descending through this vast field, passing great campsites (you will see lots of tents if the weather is relatively warm and it's on a weekend). After losing about two hundred and fifty feet of elevation you will come to the base of Sam Knob and will see a sign for the Sam Knob Summit Trail. At this point, you will have almost exactly 400 vertical feet to climb to the summit.
From here, the trail leads up the steep slopes of Sam Knob.
You will immediately leave the grassy field behind as you enter growths of rhododendron, beech, some spruce and firs, and various shrubs.
Passing along a number of switchbacks that make the climb much easier, you will come to several overlooks from which there are spectacular views back toward the gap, Black Balsam Mountain, and Shining Rock Ledge.
After hiking for a little more than one mile, come onto the peak of Sam Knob. You will see that the mountaintop is composed of a pair of peaks separated by a large, grassy gap. One peak (the north) is slightly higher than the other, but it's easy and fun to hit them both. There are lots of places up here to stretch out and relax and enjoy the views and the feeling of being on one of eastern America's highest peaks.
The views on the summit are absolutely wonderful. Great vistas in every direction, but most stunning are the ones down into the gorge formed by the West fork of the Pigeon River and toward Mount Hardy and the equally giant ridges of the Middle Prong Wilderness.
Panorama from the summit.
If just catching Sam Knob, retrace this route back to your vehicle at the parking area on 816.
In temperate weather, minimal gear is necessary. Good boots, a hiking staff, some water. The temperatures rarely crack the lower 70s here, even in the depths of summer. You may want a light jacket if the wind is blowing or if the day turns cool and cloudy.
Self portrait taken on the summit of Sam Knob.
In winter, the weather here can be as vicious and fierce as anywhere. In such conditions, excellent winter gear is a must.
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