Mountains to Sea Trail: Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Balsam Gap

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A segment of the MST known for its views near Waterrock Knob.

Hiking Difficult

Distance
45 km
Ascent
1.8 km
Descent
1.4 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
607 m
High Point
1.8 km
Gradient
Mountains to Sea Trail: Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Balsam Gap Map

This portion of the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Balsam Gap. Skirting around the Eastern Cherokee Reservation, this segment contains the only stretch of road in the western half of the state, a portion typically only traveled by thru-hikers.

Description

Beginning at the National Park Visitor Center, the MST briefly follow the Oconaluftee River Trail to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Following the road, two short spurs take the trail around tunnels, rather than through them.

At Big Witch Gap, the trail transitions to a dirt road as it makes it way to the Mile High Campground near Heintooga Road. Open May to October, this area is popular among travelers, offering short hikes to nearby scenic overlooks.

The MST transitions to singletrack as it makes its way to Soco Gap, where the Blue Ridge Parkway passes over US-19. A rugged climb lies ahead as the trail ascends to the high summit of Waterrock Knob. Along the way, the trail follows elevation contours as it winds into a rare southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest. A large parking area and visitors center lies just below the summit and offers an excellent short hike a viewpoint atop the 6,250' summit.

Follow the white-dot blazes from Waterrock Knob as the MST begins to descend, frequently alternating between trail, road, and dirt roads. Mountain communities and private property border the route as it makes its way to Balsam Gap at US-74. Cross the bridge and look for an NPS maintenance shop and adjacent parking area. The next segment begins near the railroad track as the trail makes its way to the Great Balsam Mountains.

Sources: https://www.facebook.com/milehighcampground/

Difficulty

Difficult

Hiking trails where obstacles such as rocks or roots are prevalent. Some obstacles can require care to step over or around. At times, the trail can be worn and eroded. The grade of the trail is generally quite steep, and can often lead to strenuous hiking.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

2 out of 4

Away from help but easily accessed.

Best time to visit

March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Alpine
  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Summit Hike
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Similar routes nearby

Guidebooks in this area