Sam Knob & Chestnut Bald SB6K’s – 3/31/12 – 9+ Miles
Warning: multiple photos of Sam Knob (which is a mountain, not a person) – I was a little obsessed.
Weather.com is a wonderful resource. I had a free Saturday and the forecast for Charlotte was rain, rain, rain. But according to weather.com’s hour-by-hour predictions, if I timed it just right in Pisgah National Forest I could dodge the raindrops. And that’s just what I did. In fact, I only encountered rain on the morning drive, and the rest of the day was filled with alternating sunshine and interesting clouds.
I was excited for another solo hike and this time I had new Trek hiking poles. Lately my old ones were collapsing at unexpected moments (probably too much dirt in them and they wouldn’t tighten properly) and I was ready for some new ones, more lightweight and able to telescope down even smaller. So near Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 420 I turned onto Forest Road 816 with new gear and an expansive feeling of anticipation in my chest – ready for Sam Knob and Chestnut Bald, two more SB6K’s.
The purpose of FR 816 is to get hikers a mile off the BRP to access many trails in the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wildernesses. There is a large parking area and vault toilets at the end of the road and multiple places to pull off along the way and enough hiking to keep you busy for months. Most of the ten SB6K’s in the Great Balsams section can be dayhiked from the FR 816 parking areas (some hikes might be longer than you like, though). I hiked to the dual summits of Sam Knob once before, in pouring rain in July 2006, before I knew what an SB6K was, and it wasn’t a full five-mile trip so…time to do it right.
Sam Knob #1, two summits with a dip in between – love at first sight
Sam Knob #2
The trail to Sam Knob crosses open fields worthy of twirling in your Sound of Music skirt. After about a half-mile the trail splits – turn right for the Sam Knob Summit Trail. Very quickly I turned again, this time left, and began ascending into the trees. The trail is very eroded going up this much-loved mountain. In a couple of places there is a teasing view of what will be laid out to enjoy on the Pisgah buffet at the summit.
Near the top the trail splits again and either choice takes the hiker to a summit. This is one case where two roads diverge and you should take them both! First I went to the right. The wind was strong and clouds were moving quickly all around.
The prominent bump in the left background is the Devil’s Court- house, an imposing rock outcropping reachable by a short, steep trail from a parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway – but also reachable by me from where I presently stood. The mountain in the middle foreground is Little Sam Knob. He looks like his hair is drooping rakishly over one eye. The highest peak in the right background is Mount Hardy, an SB6K which I conquered a couple of months ago. I take great pleasure in being able to orient myself by landmarks to keep track of where I am in the world.
Where are all the people? It was a stunning Saturday and the parking lot was full of cars. I had the place to myself.
Shuffling over to the other summit (the oh-so-slightly higher of the two) I had a quick snack. This chunk of quartz is as big as a Volkswagen. Mount Hardy is the high point in the distance. The sky is looking quite ominous, eh?
Okay, let’s walk on over to the Devil’s Courthouse. First I descended the Sam Knob Summit Trail, passed that first intersection and headed towards Flat Laurel Creek. The trail was wet from recent rains and several wooden footbridges helped keep my feet dry. I heard the creek long before I saw it and wondered if I would be getting wet after all. But although the creek was robust, I was able to rock hop across.
And then went back to sit and savor the moment.
On the far side of the creek there is a T intersection – the Flat Laurel Creek Trail. Turning left, I walked happily along with the creek on my left and Little Sam Knob on my right, looking for my next intersection, a right turn onto Little Sam Knob Trail. Although this is a wilderness area, signage was very good and I was feeling full of myself. I passed a wide-looking space on my right but there was no sign so I strode confidently on down the trail…until I got that familiar this-doesn’t-look-right-anymore-I’ve-gone-too-far feeling. Geez, here we go again.
I backtracked to that wide-looking space, still not convinced it was legit, but it sloped gently up and around the left flank of Little Sam and certainly was a trail. After about a mile I saw a single yellow blaze on a tree. Well, this must be it.
A common reminder of logging days in these mountains
A nice campsite if you don’t mind being in the middle of the trail
My next landmark was at my old friend, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail – took a right turn here towards the Devil’s Courthouse, which is a blue-blazed side trail off of the MST with no designation. The blue blaze trail crosses over the BRP and joins the main steep trail to the summit.
Here I encount- ered a bit of humanity on a blustery and exciting Saturday, allowing me to be included in the photo this time (Little Sam and Sam Knob in the center #3). A full circle moment: a photo of Sam Knob from Devil’s Courthouse to bookend the photo I had taken a couple of hours earlier.
Sam Knob and Little Sam on the far right #4
One goal completed, one SB6K to go, the part I was most nervous about. I back- tracked on the MST, bypassed Little Sam Knob Trail and continued on in search of Chestnut Bald. Similar to Mount Hardy, it does not have a maintained trail but I had vague instructions to help me find the pathway, things like walk ten paces past the big rock and look over your left shoulder for the old NPS boundary sign.
And I found the break in the trees stepping off the right-hand side of the MST, but there was nothing like the trail going up Mount Hardy. Was I good enough now at “feeling” my way to the top? It was supposed to be short. I tried to keep in a straight line and I saw a couple of orange tags. I kept climbing straight up until there was no more “up” and I declared this tree the summit of Chestnut Bald. AND I found my way back down. Triumph!
Back on the MST eastbound, almost immediately I reached a superb lookout point that deserved a few minutes for lunch and celebration of a beautiful day and a mission accomplished. That is Looking Glass Rock in the distance. Can you believe I have never climbed it? Somebody write that down on the list…
Just a couple of miles more on the MST to cross over into Shining Rock Wilderness. Speaking of Shining, what is that glinting in the underbrush? It was a tall beer can, looked pretty new. Well, the least I could do was carry it out. When I picked it up I felt sloshing, so I turned it upside down to pour out whatever was in it. Imagine my surprise when a pink, hairless little leg popped out! I shook the can hard and a tiny, very dead mouse slipped to the ground. Ugh! Yes, I shook the can some more to make sure it was truly empty and then stuffed it in a side pocket of my daypack. Leave no trace, people.
I crossed FR 816 at its midpoint and turned onto the Art Loeb Trail towards the summit of Black Balsam. I had already tagged this SB6K, along with Tennent Mountain and Grassy Cove Top, on an epic hike to Cold Mountain a couple of years ago, but I wanted to climb it again because it was right there and it was a beautiful day. However, as I neared the summit I saw perhaps a dozen people on it and more on the trail, and I changed my mind. I turned left onto the Art Loeb Spur and descended to my car at the end of FR 816 – but not before taking a few more awesome photos of my heartthrobs.
Sam Knob #5
Mount Hardy, Little Sam and Sam Knob #6
I have been fortunate to hike in some exotic locales in the past several years, but this day was as good as it gets for me: I feel God in these mountains.
There are many, many awesome areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore and Shining Rock, Middle Prong and Pisgah NF are my favorites. There is so much to see and the elevation gains and hiking are easy to moderate. The MST runs like a thread all along these areas, criss-crossing the BRP. FYI, I researched my route using DannyBernstein’s “Hiking the Carolina Mountains” and the Carolina Mountain Club’s SB6K link.
Take a day and go exploring, won’t you?