In western North Carolina’s Jackson County, the Blue Ridge Mountains tumble into the Smokies in a series of soaring peaks. Featuring both the Great Balsam and Plott Balsam mountains—two of the loftiest ranges in the entire Appalachian chain—Jackson County is a peak-laden paradise for summit seekers, loaded with southern ‘sixers’ (summits over 6,000-feet in elevation). Here’s a list of the mountain-adorned county’s loftiest summits—and how to tackle them.
One of the 10 tallest summits in the eastern United States, Richland Balsam (6,410-feet) is the highest peak in the Great Balsam range and Jackson County’s loftiest pinnacle. However, despite the elevation, Richland Balsam is one of the easiest sixers to scale in the entire Great Balsam range. The brief 1.5-mile loop to the summit begins from the Haywood-Jackson Overlook (milepost 431) on the Blue Ridge Parkway and rambles through a lofty, cloud-ensconced spruce-fir forest tinged green with a generous coating of moss.
The second highest summit in Jackson County, Waterrock Knob (6,292-feet) is the pinnacle of the Plott Balsam range. The wind-buffeted crest is also one of the most accessible sixers in the lofty mountain chain—and the gnarly but brief trail to the summit is blessed with sweeping views of Maggie Valley, the Great Smokies, and the jumble of high peaks crowning the Plott Balsams. The easily navigable, 1.2-mile out-and-back trail to the evergreen sprinkled summit begins adjacent to the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center (milepost 451.2), just before the scenic roadway culminates at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Plott Balsam Traverse: Browning Knob, Mount Lyn Lowry, and Plott Balsam
Starry-eyed summit baggers short on time can make quick work of the closely concentrated chain of high peaks crowning the Plott Balsam Mountains. East of Waterrock Knob lies a threesome of remote sixers all connected by a lightly traveled track. Deviating from the Waterrock Knob Trail just below the summit, the Waterrock-Lyn Lowry Manway links the eclectic trio of Browning Knob (6,260-feet), Mount Lyn Lowry (6,240-feet), and Plott Balsam (6,088-feet). They are among the most remote of the high peaks of the Plott Balsams, all strung along an elevated ridgeline. Although the succinct traverse can be done in a day, the route showcases a diverse display of Appalachian high-country, from the airy, spruce-sprinkled crest of Browning Knob to the thickly wooded summit of Plott Balsam.
Black Balsam Knob
One of the most vista-adorned summits in Jackson County, Black Balsam Knob is crowned with a patchwork of pasture-like alpine meadows tinged with wildflowers and stands of goldenrod. One of the iconic yet mystifyingly treeless peaks of the southern Appalachian chain, the exposed 6,214-foot summit of Black Balsam Knob rewards hikers with some of the most sweeping panoramic views of Jackson County’s high peaks. The most direct route to the wind-blown summit is from the Blue Ridge Parkway, along the Art Loeb Trail, accessible from Forest Service Road 816, just after parkway milepost 420. The ascent is brief but stunning—from the roadway, the Art Loeb Trail briefly plunges into a grove of balsam then meanders through wind-rippled grassy meadows, tracking a boulder-laden ridgeline to the summit.
The fifth highest peak in Jackson County, Reinhart Knob (6,106-feet) provides an exercise in backcountry navigation and gritty bushwhacking. There are no trails to the spruce-fir blanketed pinnacle, but the Bear Trail Ridge Overlook (milepost 430.4) on the Blue Ridge Parkway straddles the knob’s northern slope, providing one possibility for a thorny, off-trail ascent, one that requires a detailed map, a compass, and ideally a GPS. For hikers not concerned with tagging the actual summit, a scenic stretch of North Carolina’s extensive Mountains-to-Sea Trail skirts the peak’s southern slope.
Yellow Face is one in a string of five sixers crowning western North Carolina’s Plott Balsam Mountains. While you reach a lofty elevation, the hike to the the bald crest is barely more than half a mile. The unofficial but well-established trail to Yellow Face’s pasture-like apex begins on the Blue Ridge Parkway, adjacent to the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center. While there are no views from the 6,032-foot summit, the brief approach is loaded with vistas of the loftiest stretch of the Plott Balsam range. The hike to Yellow Face can be tacked on to a longer trip to Blackrock’s 5,810-foot summit by continuing down the trail for another mile-and-a-half.
Soaring over the southernmost stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Blackrock Mountain (5,810-feet), is just one of a series of closely concentrated pinnacles punctuating the lofty Plott Balsam Mountain range. The hike to summit offers stellar views of some of the loftiest peaks in the southern Appalachians. The summit was purchased by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in 2013, and it is fringed by uninterrupted wilderness, including the 1,595-acre Plott Balsam Preserve and 1,100-acre Pinnacle Park. This is a prime peak prime for climbing, either as a day hike or part of a multi-day backpacking loop. The most direct route to the summit is a 2.4-mile approach along an unofficial but volunteer-maintained trail accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, just across the roadway from the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center. The summit is also accessible from Pinnacle Park, just outside Sylva, via longer routes through Pinnacle Park, on the East Fork or West Fork trails. Every spring, the peak is even celebrated with a 7-mile trail race, the Assault on BlackRock, which boasts 2,770-feet in elevation gain.
Originally written for Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.