Balsam Mountain
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Date: Thursday - Sunday, August 14 - 17, 2008
Location: Balsam Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Trails: Flat Creek; Heintooga Round Bottom Road
Members: Anthony & Jennifer, Foster, Gary, Larry & Mimi, Scott
Guests: Zeke

The club's perennial beat-the-heat August outing to the Smokies was originally slotted for the Cataloochee Valley in western North Carolina. Cataloochee ranks high in popularity but its campground does not accept reservations. When Gary and Foster arrived mid-day on Thursday, all the campsites were taken.

The rangers suggested Balsam Mountain, another park campground which they assured us rarely fills up. If you follow the hiking trails, Balsam Mountain is only about eight miles to the southwest of Cataloochee. But for vehicles, that distance expands to about 40 miles when constrained by the few available roads.

Balsam Mountain Campsites Gary and Foster had no trouble finding the campground, selected a good campsite (#34), and managed to contact all parties concerned (or rather the answering machines of all parties concerned) to let them know of the change in plans. Everyone got the word somehow.

Balsam Mountain sits at elevation 5330 feet, almost twice that of Cataloochee. So temperatures were definitely cooler. Despite the short notice, everybody arrived with sufficient clothing and gear - which probably suggests that we all could pack more lightly.

On Friday, Mimi and I meandered in about 1:30 and set up at campsite #35 right next to Gary and Foster. After making voice contact with the others still en route, the two adjacent sites were booked as well.

The birder/botanists explored the camp's half-mile Nature Trail which was natural enough though not especially well-maintained. In addition to the abundant Northern Juncos and American Robins, we did spot a Chestnut-sided Warbler which is not a bird we see at home.

Nearly everyone reported having to slow down for a family of Wild Turkeys near the road. Anthony and Jennifer arrived about 4 PM; Scott and four-year old son Zeke rolled in closer to 7 PM. After a dinner of steaks, chicken, corn, salad and more, we all helped Scott and Zeke put up their substantial tent.

Overnight, the full moon had to compete with some occasional clouds but shown gorgeous nonetheless. The temperature slid to the mid 50's Fahrenheit by dawn.
Scott and Zeke
Hiking the Flat Creek Trail, August 2008
The first light on Saturday saw most of us up for a breakfast featuring eggs, bacon, sausage, peaches, coffee, and Gary's homemade biscuits adorned with honey butter.

After breakfast, Scott and Zeke decided to day trip to Cataloochee anyway. The rest of us opted for the Flat Creek Trail, a real gem running in an arc around the campground. We left Gary's truck at the southern end and then drove to the northern trailhead near the picnic ground. The 2.6 mile walk passed through beautiful forest and paralleled a rippling stream at various points. Other than for a bit of an uphill at the south end, no one was sweating. We started at about 10 AM and finished before noon.

We all went our separate ways in the afternoon. Anthony and Jennifer also headed out to Cataloochee. Gary and Foster ventured to Maggie Valley. All reported some serious rain showers.

Mimi and I decided to walk along the Heintooga Round Bottom Road. Other more formal hiking trails were available but any loop hike would have entailed at least 15 miles. The unpaved forest road snaking down the mountain felt like a better idea. It is not a hiking trail per se but provides nice scenery and ample opportunities for viewing flowers and wildlife.
Great Smoky Mountains
Hundreds of Pipevine and Tiger Swallowtail butterflies danced around the colorful roadside yellow Coneflowers and red Bee Balm. We added a Hairy Woodpecker to our weekend bird list. Predictably coincident with our greatest distance from camp, the thunder started. But we experienced nothing more than light rain. We returned to camp around 4:30 but the rain continued for almost another two hours.

Pipevine Swallowtail Rain gone, everybody back in camp, it was time for dinner - pork chops, hot dogs, sweet potatoes, beans, and a store-bought cake for Gary's annual 39th birthday.

The overnight weather was similar to that of the previous night only with slightly more clouds. Breakfast started up just a little later but otherwise mimicked Saturday's except that we dispensed with the biscuits in the interest of an easier cleanup. We packed up and were all ready to depart shortly after 10 AM.
There are many ways to travel to Balsam Mountain and I think this group this weekend explored most of them. As an example, to return to Alabama, Mimi and I followed the Blue Ridge Parkway west to its end at US 441 north of Cherokee. We passed through Cherokee to US 74 which later joins with US 64.

We enjoyed the quite scenic driving next to the Nantahala River in North Carolina and along the shore of Lake Ocoee in Tennessee. At Cleveland we picked up I-75 and I-24 through Chattanooga. Our mistake was to take I-59 south to Gadsden. That stretch of I-59 is one of Alabama's washboard roads. A better choice would have been to proceed further along I-24 and then take US 72 to Scottsboro, following whatever route you prefer from there. Our 355 mile drive home, including stops for gas and lunch, came in at about 7:40.
Mimi on Flat Creek Trail

We rate the weekend a success. The campground is not the spiffiest but is certainly adequate for a few days. There is no camp store or anything like that but the road out to town is at least paved. The major perishable item we always seem to need is more ice but at this elevation, that is not an issue. The campground was by no means empty but not full and everyone was very quiet.

I think we can safely recommend Balsam Mountain as a place to go if you are looking for some camping and some hiking, can live without historic buildings, and do appreciate the cooler temperatures and fresh air afforded by higher elevation.

Submitted 22 August 2008
Text, Photos: Larry Barkey

Trip Reports