A few hours on topWritten by Don Hendershot
Yesterday’s (9/11) wonderful late summer weather — mostly clear mid 70s — enticed my family up to Black Balsam for a walk on top. Black Balsam is an easy way to explore unique high elevation balds because you can drive to the top and much of the hiking is easy to moderate over mostly flat terrain.
We left the house around 1 p.m. and started up the Blue Ridge Parkway. The drive up the Parkway was nice and as goldenrod, stiff gentian and other wildflowers began to catch my eye, I decided to make a quick stop at Wolf Mountain Overlook (milepost 424.8) to check out one of my favorite areas for wildflowers — the large rock seepage area there.
We weren’t disappointed. Grass of Parnassus was in bloom all over the rock face. We also found bottle gentian, turtlehead, the small, carnivorous sundew, goldenrod, snakeroot and a little bit of hypericum in bloom. Salamanders were also present on the wet rock face.
After our brief stop at Wolf Mountain OL we headed on north on the Parkway to Black Balsam Road (Forest Service road 816) around milepost 420.2. The parking area at the end of Black Balsam Road was full, as one might suspect on such a beautiful Sunday afternoon. But we were out for an enjoyable family stroll — Izzy, Maddie, Sophie (the dog), Denise and I — and meeting a few people on the trail was no big deal.
Ivestor Gap Trail is an old roadbed — I believe it used to run all the way to Canton — and is flat and a pretty easy hike, it starts at the end of the parking area at Black Balsam. We tried it earlier this year on bikes but it is way too rocky to be a comfortable bike ride, especially for kids. Ivestor gap skirts the edge of Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain and the edge falls away quickly to panoramic mountain views. Ivestor Gap and the Art Loeb Trail meet up at about 3.7 miles and Art Loeb takes you into the Shinning Rock Wilderness Area, but we weren’t going that far. We hiked out Ivestor Gap, probably a little over a mile, to the point where it makes a right turn.
I have bird points along Ivestor Gap and the Art Loeb Trail that I survey for the Forest Service every spring so I knew that from where we were on Ivestor Gap it was only a short bushwhack (or weed whack, as Maddie called it) up to the Art Loeb Trail. While it’s short, it’s dense. The bald at that point is basically a heath bald, meaning it is covered with a dense growth of ericaceous plants — blueberry, mountain laurel and rhododendron primarily. Izzy, Sophie and I went first and Mom and Maddie followed. The blueberries and mountain laurel were so high that we couldn’t see Maddie at all, but the tops of the bushes moving let us know where she was.
Even though it was a short bushwhack, it had Mom wondering what she had let herself in for until, suddenly, we hit the single-track Art Loeb Trail. After a short hike through more heath bald we hit more open grassy bald habitat and could see the top of the 6,214-foot Black Balsam Knob.
When we got to the summit we found a raven circling only 50 feet or so up in the air. It was giving all the hikers a good once over. I don’t know if it was looking for scraps or what, but it sure stuck around quite close. Just a little pass the summit we picked up the Art Loeb spur for a quick, but somewhat steep descent back to the Black Balsam parking area. The hike was about two-and-a-half hours and the scenery was gorgeous — we may try it again this fall when the leaves start to turn.