Backpacking in NC: Flat Laurel Creek to Cold Mountain

Sam Knob summitTwo years ago my buddy, Coop, and I met a backpacker named Chris at the base of Shining Rock while backpacking in NC. Chris had just turned back due to extreme conditions, and we were looking for a place to camp before the sun went down. Before parting ways, the three of us exchanged contact information and have kept in touch since.

This past weekend, the three of us met up at Sam Knob via the Flat Laurel Creek trail off of NC Highway 215 (Lake Logan Road) to hike our way to the top of Cold Mountain. Coop and I took Friday to get an extra day of camping and an impromptu 5K to the top of Sam Knob’s 6,055′ peak, and Chris joined us on Saturday morning at the Black Balsam Road parking lot.

Day One

map of Flat Laurel Creek to Cold Mountain trip

click to enlarge

The Flat Laurel Creek trailhead is off NC Hwy 215 .8 miles north of the intersection of 215 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Going north on 215 from the Parkway there is an unmarked gravel road to the right. We parked at the end of the road, geared up, and started walking.

Once we crossed the creek, the next 2.5 miles was a gentle 600 foot climb to the junction of the Sam Knob Trail. We hung a left and made our way to the base of Sam Knob then headed east about three hundred yards where we set up camp in an open field by the tree line. A quick change of clothes and we were off running a mountain 5K.

To say the run was easy would be a total lie. Sure, the first portion of the loop was a breeze as it was mostly downhill, but there were plenty of technical elements including rocks, creeks, mud, and ice. At the Sam Knob trail head (where it crosses Flat Laurel Creek) the 1-mile strenuous ascent to the top began. Within a quarter of a mile I was pretty winded. With half a mile to go I was mixing walking with jogging. By the time Coop and I reached the top we were just glad to be breathing.

Sam Knob is basically a bald with a sweet 360-degree view. From the summit you can see Black Balsam Knob, Devil’s Courthouse, Tennent Mountain, Shining Rock, Mt. Pisgah, Mt. Hardy, Max Patch Mountain, Cold Mountain, and Mt. Mitchell, to name a few. We snapped off a few photos and ran back down to our campsite just before the sun set.

sunset at Sam Knob

sunset at Sam Knob

Day Two

Around 6:30AM we started breaking camp in preparation for Chris’ 7AM arrival. An hour passed. Then another. No sign of Chris. Instead of waiting around, we opted to start hiking with the hopes of meeting up with him on the trail. He knew where we were headed, and he had hiked the route before. As luck would have it, we ran into Chris just a half mile from our campsite at the Black Balsam Road parking lot where Flat Laurel Creek, Ivestor Gap, and Art Loeb trails intersect. Perfect timing.

broken poles

busted trekking poles

To get to Cold Mountain we had two options: A) Ivestor Gap, the easy road. or B) Art Loeb trail, the high road. We went with option B. The climb to the top was slow going, but after about 20 minutes we reached the top of Black Balsam (6,214′). We then continued down through a saddle, and up to Tennent Mountain (6,040′) after an easy 1.6 miles. Continuing on the Art Loeb Trail we made our way to Grassy Cove Top (6,055′).

As we made our way down the backside of GCT my Black Diamond trekking pole flat out snapped as I planted it in the muddy ground and leaned forward. With over a day and half of hiking to go, we stopped and I made a hiking pole from a fallen branch. Since we were already sitting we filled our guts before moving on.

From Grassy Cove Top we followed Shining Rock Ledge across Flower Gap and Flower Knob until we reached a clearing at Shining Rock (6,010′) where Coop and I had built a snowman two years prior.

If you’re thinking you might want to retrace our steps then you should pay attention because this part is tricky. The trail splits into four different paths. If you go straight past the grassy clearing you’ll end up at the actual Shining Rock (which is a nice lunch spot, but a horrible way to get to Cold Mountain). If you go to the left you’ll hit an Ivestor Gap spur (handy only if you want to go back to Sam Knob). And if you take the trail through the pines you’ll get a great chance to pick up pine cones. What you need to do is walk around the grassy clearing to the left. Then go past the trail through the pines, down a couple log steps, and the trail to Cold Mountain will be right there.

Once on the right trail we walked a tenth of a mile over a very rocky path and stopped just shy of Stairs Mountain (~4 hours from the Black Balsam Road parking lot). Again, we snapped a few shots, drank a bit of water, and then threw on our packs for another leg.

man sitting on a rock

Sitting on Stairs Mountain

People have said that Stairs Mountain is a beast. Let me stop and say, it is not as bad as folks make it out to be. It is steep, yes. It is rocky, yes. But it is 100% doable after four hours of hiking. On the backside of Stairs there are plenty of downed trees which translated to lots of ducking and kneeling. Eventually the path narrowed to become The Narrows. Again, people complain about this part of the hike as well, but it’s not that bad. Just stay on the path and don’t fall off. BTW, we took Chris’ shortcut over a big huge rock and cut out some steep down and up climbing.

narrows Shortcut

Taking a shortcut

From The Narrows we descended to Deep Gap where we came across the second of three groups of hikers we saw over our three-day trip. We exchanged greetings then hit the Cold Mountain Spur trail. Forget Stairs and The Narrows, this trail is the worst.

It’s a mile and a half long and seems to go straight up to the top of Cold Mountain (6,030′). Thankfully about 3/4 of the way up there’s a PVC pipe stuck into the mountain with fresh water to fill up a bottle or four. And 200 yards after that there are campsites galore. A great alternative if you’re wanting to dodge the windy extremes of the summit.

And that’s exactly what we did. After seven hours and 10+ miles of hiking we reached Cold Mountain. And what’s the first thing I did? I Skyped with my toddler son and watched him dance around the dining room saying “Dada.” A fantastic way to cap off the day. Well, that and Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with a cigar appetizer. Then I hit the sack.

Day Three

man inside a tent

100% uncertainty

NOAA called for 100% chance of rain. They were 100% correct. It rained from 8PM the night before until we got home that evening. But it wasn’t just rain. The sky was shooting shards of glass sideways at 30MPH into the side of our faces for the first 1.5 hours down Cold Mountain, through Deep Gap, The Narrows, and over Stairs.

At Shining Rock the weather switched to moderate rain and sleet where it remained that way as we bypassed Art Loeb in favor of the much faster Ivestor Gap alternative.

Flat Laurel Creek Trail in the snow

30 minutes to go!

This long winding logging road cuts out the ups and downs of Grassy Cove Top, Flower Gap, and Flower Knob, but ascends at a 2% or 3% grade the entire 3.7 miles from Shining Rock Gap to the Black Balsam Road parking lot. In short, it sucked

Once we reached the parking lot I knew all I had to do was force myself downhill for a little over an hour. Step by speed-walking step I trounced over rocks, through mud, and on ice as I made my way down Flat Laurel Creek trail.

Rain changed to sleet which changed to snow and back to rain as we gradually descended 800′ to the parking lot below. Five hours and change after breaking camp we were on our way home.