Flat Laurel Creek / Sam Knob with alternate trailheads
Flat Laurel Creek is a popular year-round hike for both locals and visitors to the Pisgah National Forest. There are multiple access points, making it possible to hike even when the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed for winter.
This trail is a loop utilizing old logging and mining paths from the 1920s, remnants of which can still be seen along the trails in the form of heavy steel cables used to haul logs up the mountain to the waiting trains.
For this hike, we will begin at the alternate trailhead off S. R. 215. See the getting started section for precise directions. Be forewarned there is limited parking at this trailhead on busy days (whenever it's sunny and fair).
From the trailhead/campsite, follow the trail a very short distance downhill, crossing a small creek. After the creek, known as Bubbling Spring Branch, the trail will turn north and immediately begin a gradual climb toward Little Sam's Knob. Along the way, you will pass several vantage points where you will be treated to views of Fork Ridge to the west when the vegetation isn't too high.
Before you pass Little Sam, you'll see a seemingly incongruous concrete bridge spanning a high waterfall. The bridge is a left-over from the trail's early beginning as a logging road.
Past the bridge, look carefully to the left about a mile in, you'll see a large rock, roughly heart-shaped, that marks a campsite just above it.
The trail continues its gradual ascent as it approaches Little Sam on the right (east) and eventually circles almost completely around it.
On the north side of Little Sam, the trail parallels Flat Laurel Creek and the cascades, a series of vertical drops that lower the creek from the valley above through the 17 Canyon area to where it joins the West Fork of the Pigeon River below.
After passing the cascades area there are several campsites along the north side of the trail that are popular lunch spots for day hikers. Soon past these, you will come to the juncture where you can choose to turn north (left) toward Sam Knob or continue east (right) past Little Sam and up into the upper portion of the watershed of Flat Laurel.
If you plan to include a summit of Sam Knob, take the northern option which will get you there quicker.
North: Here you will cross Flat Laurel Creek. It is usually very shallow at the crossing, less than 6 inches. There will be a wooden ladder on the opposite side to help. Continue upslope through some lightly wooded areas toward Sam Knob. The elevation increase from the creek to the summit trail turnoff is about 400 feet.
The Sam Knob summit trail is clearly marked at the top of the meadow. It is a short, but strenuous hike. The summit trail rises sharply in a series of switchbacks from about 5,640 to the summit at 6,050. At the summit, there are several rock outcroppings from which to enjoy the near 360 degree views. It's a popular place to visit, so expect crowds.
Returning from the summit or continuing on and skipping it
From here the trail turns east/southeast slipping upward through the meadow at the foot of Sam Knob. Due to heavy trail use, a series of boardwalks and stairs have been installed to protect the delicate goldenrods and other wildflowers that bloom here in summer.
About a mile out from Sam Knob, you will arrive at the Black Balsam parking area. If you choose to park here on another occasion, this is where your hike would begin.
At the parking area, there is an informational kiosk, on very busy days you may find a Blue Ridge Parkway ranger to answer questions. There is also an outhouse type toilet here should the need arise.
To continue the loop back through the valley, turn right in the parking lot, pass the bathrooms and look to the right for the trail taking you back down the valley.
This portion will feature more open terrain, blueberry and blackberry bushes in summer and occasional balsam tree stands, for which the area is named. The trail here is rocky and dry. As you descend back down into the valley, watch for views of Sam Knob and its distinctive saddle shape to the northwest.
About a mile or so in, you will begin to parallel Flat Laurel Creek again. As you approach the completion of the loop, you will once again cross a shallow portion of the creek. Soon thereafter, you will find the juncture point where you turned north toward Sam Knob.
Back to the car
From here continue past the juncture, circling back around Little Sam to head back to the starting point.
This trail goes by Little Sam's Knob.
Park along S. R. 215 to begin this hike. There are 5-7 parking spots at the trailhead and many more just up the road from the trailhead, near the MTS crossing. Portions of this trail can also be accessed from the Black Balsam parking lot off of F.R. 816 from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
This is a great hike for kids age 5 and up who have some trail experience. I would advise skipping the summit until they're a little older, but everything else is manageable.
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