Hiking In The Plott Balsams: Yellowface & Blackrock Mountain

The Plott Balsams are a small mountain range consisting of a series of 5000 to 6000 foot peaks. The ridge runs between the Great Balsam mountains to the south and the Smoky Mountains to the north. You can access the areas high mountain trails via a scenic 3000 foot drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Waterrock Knob visitors center.

View of Plott Balsams looking towards Waterrock Knob from Blackrock Mountain.

The mountains were named after the Plott family who were one of the first to settle in the area somewhere before the 1790’s. They brought with them a variety of hunting dog of German descent to Western North Carolina. The breed known as a Plott Hound is still a recognized breed and also the state dog of North Carolina.

View of the Great Balsams from the Browning Knob Overlook. Parking area and starting point for the Blackrock trailhead.

From the Browning Knob Overlook (5770 ft.) you head back down the Waterrock Knob access road and cross over the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trailhead begins here to the right of the guardrail. The trail is pretty easy to follow and marked periodically with purple and gold blazes. It is a rather difficult hike with over 1400 feet of elevation gain and loss. The hike starts climbing immediately from the trailhead and in just under a mile you will come to a clearing on the summit of Yellowface (6032 ft.)  Here you’ll get your first glimpse of the high ridge views along the trail.

View from the Yellowface Summit.

After you traverse the summit of Yellowface the trail will descend back into the forest and wind up and down along the ridgeline. The trails passes through a dark and dense Balsam forest, heavy with the aromatic smell of the trees. Here you will pass a campsite where some rusting metal parts of the early logging days remain. You will again start a gradual climb before making yet another descent through a large boulder field, some which seem to teeter precariously on top of one another. Here you can stop for a rest and climb up a few of the large rocks for some great views of the valley below. You’ll be able to see the chimney smoke from the paper mill in downtown Sylva from here.

Views of the Sylva, NC valley

Continue along the trail and take a quick steep descent through the boulder field until you come to the narrow ridge that leads up to the summit of Blackrock Mountain (5810 ft.). The trail climbs steeply and becomes quite obvious just how narrow the ridge is at this point. There will be a few steep scrambles that may, if you brought along your dog, require a boost. Once you climb to the top you will see the large rocky mountain top on your left. Climb up to the top and you’ll be treated 360 degree panoramic views of the area. Blackrock gets its name because the stone here is covered in a black Lichen giving it a dark appearance from distant views.

Summit of Blackrock Mountain.

From here you can turn around and head back towards Waterrock Knob for a hike that will total just under 5 miles and probably take 3 to 4 hours to complete. Be sure to bring plenty of water as there is no water along the ridge. The trail is best used from April to October. Be sure to check to see if the Parkway is open in winter months as access to this high altitude area is often closed due to icy conditions.  For a longer day hike the trail continues along the ridge crossing Fisher Creek and eventually connecting with The Pinnacle trail system near the town of Sylva.

The many layers of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Directions: Take US23/US74 towards Sylva to the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance. At the Parkway turn right and head 8.2 miles and 3000 feet up to the Waterrock Knob visitors center around mile marker 451. Turn left onto the access road and park in the Browning Knob Overlook area on the left not too far up the road.



“Sometimes this is all you need”


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