Saturday, May 26, 2012

Spruce Mountain and Balsam Mountain Trails

Sometimes I wonder about our thinking processes (actually, I was the one doing the thinking).  When I looked at the map to select our last hike, I saw Spruce Mountain out there.  Well, Spruce Mountain is a very short 1.2 mile hike and it seemed like a shame to make the drive to Spruce Mountain without doing a little something else.  The logical choice for a little something else was a short section of Balsam Mountain.

My reasoning was based primarily on the location of the Spruce Mountain and Balsam Mountain trails.  Access to both trails is from Balsam Mountain Road which is a 13-mile one-way gravel road.  Cherokee is the closest access to Balsam Mountain Road, but it still involves an hour drive from our campground to the Blue Ridge Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road to Balsam Mountain Road.  It seemed more logical to hike Spruce Mountain Trail then continue down the Balsam Mountain Road to Balsam Mountain Trail and hike it therefore avoiding a second trip down that gravel road.

We got a very early start, leaving at 6:30, almost before I got my coffee swallowed.  We arrived at the trailhead just before 9 AM.  There is a very small pullout at the trailhead for parking.  Spruce Mountain trail begins at the lower reaches of the spruce-fir forest and climbs steeply for about 700 in a mile.  This trail has changed over the past few years.  My older guidebook from 1997 has this trail as being 2 miles long, but Gene’s 2005 book has the current length of 1.2 miles.  According to my book, the trail came to a junction with Polls Gap Trail and continued on for another mile to the site of a fire tower and small ranger cabin located on Spruce Mountain.  The fire tower and cabin had both been removed, but the trail was still open.  Polls Gap Trail is also closed.  That happened about 2000.  Perhaps this last mile of Spruce Mountain was closed at the same time.  I’m just guessing about that.

Anyway, now from the junction with Poll Gap Trail, Spruce Mountain trail continues two-tenths of a mile to backcountry campsite 42.  It is a lovely spot for an overnight stay, but based on the grass growing everywhere including the middle of the trail as well as very close to the fire ring, we suspect it doesn’t get much use.

This was an easy little hike and quite scenic.  We were up and down in an hour and we even took a short break at the campsite.  But, we had Balsam Mountain Trail to do so we continued on our journey.

Two and a half miles further on Balsam Mountain Road was our next trailhead.  Balsam Mountain Trail is 10 miles in length, but we were only hiking the first 4.3 miles (and back, of course).  The trailhead is in Pin Oak Gap and there is plenty of parking in a grassy (or muddy) area on the side of the road.  Pioneer families living in the Cataloochee area brought their cattle up through Pin Oak Gap and on to the grassy areas of Balsam Mountain to graze during the summer months.

The trail was, I assume, the old cattle path, then later a logging road.  It rises gently from the road before dropping slightly to Beech Gap.  We took a break at Beech Gap sitting on the same log we had used for lunch on the day we hiked Beech Gap Trail with Sharon and Bill.  This gap is a wide flat spot.  During the logging days, logging trains passed through the gap.  Today we saw evidence of wild hog activity.

Balsam Mountain trail is popular with horsemen and in the 2-mile section between Beech Gap and Laurel Gap Shelter we crossed several large mud holes.  Fortunately, narrow boardwalks had been installed at the edge of the trail so we didn’t have to walk through the muck.  Away from these mud holes, the trail was still pretty soft and we had to be careful with every step to not land on our backsides.

Laurel Gap shelter was renovated last fall; it still smells of new wood.  It is similar to the other backcountry shelters with an extended cooking porch, sky lights, and a stone fireplace.  Someone had put a very large tarp over the front.  They must have been there on a cold, windy night.  Gene has stayed at this shelter several times over his hiking career, so he was excited to return to one of his favorite spots.

Beyond the shelter, we hiked another two-tenths of a mile to the junction with Mt Sterling Ridge Trail.  We had a nice, long lunch break at the shelter before starting our return trip to the car.

One of the highlights of today was seeing not one, not two, but four pink lady slippers.  What a thrill and so late in the season.  Of course, we were at 4500 feet.

We were off the trail by mid-afternoon, but we had a long drive ahead of us.  I still think it was a good plan to combine these two trails to avoid driving that road a second time, but it certainly turned into a very long day.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for tagging along.


  1. Wow, that shelter looks really nice. The old one was awful!! Checked my hike logs and found that Bill & I did this hike Sept 18, 2010. I hadn't remembered any problems with mud or muck. Sorry you had to mess with that. Our unpleasant memory of this day was getting caught in Rod Run traffic on our way home. Took us two hours to get through Pigeon Forge - it was total gridlock!

    1. The mud was pretty unpleasant. May have been made worse by hogs. It's rained this week, too. I'm sure that didn't help. The shelters are really nice now. They've needed renovating for a long time.

  2. I haven't been to that shelter in quite a number of years. Did they remove the chain link fence that kept out the bears? Did they remove the bear cables?

    1. Hi James, Like almost all the shelters in the Smokies, this one has been renovated and the chain link fencing has been removed. The bear cables are there so there's no need to hang food inside the shelter. In fact, the park encourages hikers to hang their pack from the cables.

  3. was the spruce mountain trail a loop? where did yu get info about it?

    1. Changing Lanes--Spruce Mountain Trail is not a loop, just a short in and out with a pretty steep climb. My primary source for information about trails in the Smokies is from the little brown book "Hiking Trails of the Smokies" published by Great Smoky Mountains Association. That book also comes with a map of all the trails in the Smokies. The trailhead is about 10 miles down a one-way dirt road which can be accessed near Balsam Mountain Campground which is close to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The dirt road comes out in Cherokee, NC. Hope this helps. Happy Trails.