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The exposure grade describes the potential consequences of falling or slipping off the path.
Low Exposure: The path is on completely flat land and potential injury is limited to falling over.
Medium Exposure: The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.
High Exposure: Some trail sections have exposed ledges or steep ascents/descents where falling could cause serious injury.
Extreme Exposure: Some trail sections are extremely exposed where falling will almost certainly result in serious injury or death.
This popular area, conveniently accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a spectacular showcase of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Overnight camping opportunities are plentiful for those looking to spend the night under the stars.
For an experienced hiker or runner, this route could easily be completed in a day. Beginning at the Sam's Knob/Black Balsam parking area, you could traverse this figure-8 loop in either direction.
The popular destinations of Sam's Knob and Black Balsam Knob offer several shorter day hike options, though this complete figure-8 offers the best of the area's majestic feel. Leaving the parking lot, the first stop is Sam's Knob.
After a short walk, you'll reach a clearing where a spur trail takes you to the summit.
The climb is quite steep, but unbelievably rewarding.
The vantage point from the rocky mountaintop offers views in every direction.
The summit has a few side trails that lead to different points of the formation. Returning the way you came, you'll again reach the clearing.
You could either turn back or continue on to complete this rewarding loop.
Next up is Flat Laurel Creek Trail, a segment labeled as a former railroad.
A picturesque waterfall denotes the end of the trail and the approaching road.
A few camping opportunities also lie in this area. Turning left and following the road uphill, you'll quickly reach an intersection with the Mountains To Sea Trail (MST).
Take the left onto the white-dot blazed thru-hiking trail that traverses across the state.
This section is challenging as it rounds around a couple of knobs in an eastward direction.
It is easy to become disoriented as the trail spirals around several rocky contours.
Through this section, a handful of clearings give way to panoramic perspectives of the surrounding peaks. Merging back with Flat Laurel Trail, take a right for a final moderate stretch before re-emerging back at the parking area. Take the time to resupply, if necessary, before adding in a few bonus miles.
Near the gate, you'll see a spur trail that connects up to the Art Loeb Trail, a 31-mile trail particularly renowned for its traverse through this region.
Once you reach the Art Loeb, take a left and begin the final bit of climbing through the rocky and often rutted path to the summit of Black Balsam Knob.
The beautiful 360° views from 6,200' will quickly make you forget about anything else that may have been on your mind. With Tennent Mountain further along this ridge, you are left with a tricky stretch of trail to navigate, as constant erosion and several side trails to various camping areas and overlooks can be confusing.
Refer to the map in this area, but know that the route may vary over time.
The National Forest has been known to close, alter, or re-route sections in this area.
The summit of Tennent Mountain is just as epic as the others, but less visited due to its distance from the trailhead.
After reaching the next intersection, take the left onto Ivester Gap Trail, a rocky doubletrack finish back to the parking lot. A handful of fresh springs are present in the area, but should never be relied on for their consistency or quality.
Should you need water along your hike, always filter it. As a note, the adjacent Graveyard Fields has experienced a high number of human-and-bear encounters.
If overnight camping, bring appropriate storage containers and stay aware of your surroundings. In the winter, know that access to this loop is extremely limited.
Park along the small pull-off on NC-215 and begin the route from there.
While the warmer months draw in thousands of hikers, this area is also spectacular in the winter.
If you attempt this hike in the colder months, know that in an emergency situation, you will be far from help.