Distance – 2.4 Miles (out and back)
Elevation Change – 570 feet
Highest Point – 6050 feet
Hike Rating – Moderate
GPS – 35.336942 -82.793461
Sam Knob is one of the numerous ‘balds’ in the western part of North Carolina. Unlike other mountains, balds have treeless tops, giving them the look of a knob. Sam Knob is one of these high elevation balds. Located off Black Balsam Road, Sam Knob is a popular hiking and camping area very close to Graveyard Fields. The hike is just under 2.50 miles round trip along a defined, but in places, eroded trail. The summit of Sam Knob is a confusing mess of trails through the weeds. Sam Knob has two summits, one located at either end of the large open expanse at the top. One of them gives a great view of the Shining Rock Wilderness and Shining Rock. The other looks back toward Black Balsam Road and the high mountain meadow along the Sam Knob Summit Trail. There is a lot to explore on the top of Sam Knob and the views are incredible.
The trail to the summit begins at the parking area at the end of Black Balsam Road. To get there, follow the Blue Ridge Parkway to milepost 420, where Black Balsam Road meets the parkway. If you’re coming from Asheville or US276 in Pisgah, the right turn is just over a mile from the main parking area at Graveyard Fields. If you’re coming from NC215 the left turn is almost 2.5 miles from Devil’s Courthouse. Black Balsam Road was recently paved and there are several turnouts on the right side that give great views of Graveyard Fields. Halfway to the Sam Knob Parking area the Art Loeb Trail (ALT) crosses Black Balsam Road. This area doubles as a parking area for the ALT but for today keep going. The road ends at a parking area that will likely be full if you don’t arrive early. There is more parking along the side of Black Balsam Road and in dart overflow area near the entrance to the Ivestor Gap Trail. If you park here, do not block the gate.
Four trails meet at this parking area. Beyond the gate in the dirt parking area is the Ivestor Gap Trail. To the right of the gate is a spur trail that connects with the Art-Loeb Trail and eventually leads to the summit of Black Balsam Knob. At the far end of the parking area (the end opposite the entrance from Black Balsam Road) is the Flat Laurel Creek Trail. If you want to make the hike into a longer loop, you can start out on the Flat Laurel Creek Trail and follow it to the intersection with the Sam Knob Trail. I didn’t go that way so I can’t speak to the trail conditions or the route. I suggest a trail map.
The trail we want is the one that starts by the bathrooms. It is across the parking lot from the info kiosk. This is the poorly named Sam Knob Summit Trail, which ironically doesn’t go all the way to the summit. It is gated to vehicle traffic but you can bypass the gate. The first section of the trail follows an old logging road through the trees on a mostly level course. There are several campsites along this stretch. The woods open up as the trail starts into a long left hand turn. Straight ahead you will see Sam Knob on the far side of a large open meadow. The trail heads down a rocky section that ends at a recently constructed boardwalk. The boardwalk replaced an eroded section of trail and makes life easier, although it takes away from the natural setting. At the boardwalk’s terminus the trail resumes and heads across the meadow. Sam Knob is the backdrop for the meadow crossing.
When the Sam Knob Summit Trail reaches the far side of the meadow it dead ends into the Sam Knob Trail. The trail goes left and right at the intersection. Going left leads to the Flat Laurel Creek Trail after a creek crossing. To get to the summit, make a right. It isn’t long after making a right that the trail begins uphill. From the intersection to the summit we will be gaining about 425 feet of elevation, so get ready. The vegetation along the lower section of the knob forms a tunnel as the trail advances up the front (the side facing the meadow) of Sam Knob. The lower portion of the trail was in decent shape on my visits in March and June of 2015 with only a few places that were eroded. As the switchbacks take you higher up the mountain, you will encounter a few soggy areas and tricky rock formations.
The switchbacks definitely help to moderate the ascent. As the trail snakes its way higher there are going to be some tricky rock areas to cross and some eroded portions of the trail, notably on the bends where the trail doubles back. As the switchbacks end the trail will work it’s way around to the left side of Sam Knob (as viewed from the meadow). As it sweeps around the flank the trees thin out permitting views of the land below. You will be afforded great views of Flat Laurel Creek and Little Sam Knob. There are several rocky protrusions that you can venture out onto but do so at your own risk. i opted against venturing too far out.
As the trail continues around the side it will lead to a set of wooden steps that ascend a steep, rocky spot. About the worst section of the trail is just below the steps. Once above the steps, the trail becomes rockier. In several places you will have to climb over some rocks. Also in this section the trail passes beneath several large rock outcrops that can be seen from the meadow. The summit is close at this point. Most of the ascent is done by the time the trail reaches the back side of Sam Knob. The trail will turn away from the edge and lead to the open area between the two high knobs crowning the summit. There is a large hunk of white quartz protruding from ground right before you get to the split that leads to the two summits.
The left branch of the trail will take you to the right side of Sam Knob (when viewing it from the meadow). This is the North Summit and from here you can see Shining Rock and NC215, which is mostly obscured by the trees but visible in places. From the left knob (South Summit) you can see the meadow, Flat Laurel Creek, Black Balsam Knob and Little Sam Knob. The South Summit has a large grassy area where you can spread out a blanket and enjoy the view. The North Summit has some large rock expanses where you can spread out.
The hike is kid friendly but younger kids might need some help in the soggy areas and over some of the rocks spots. My daughter really enjoyed this hike both times we did it. I only had to assist her in a few places and this was more to prevent her getting muddy than anything else.