“This rocky, wet, backwoods trail might be the highest MTB trail in the Appalachians!
— Lost Justpastnowhere
Need to Know
Watch out for bears.
This is one of (if not the) highest MTB trails west of the Rockies, starting at 5800 feet and finishing at around 5000 feet.
The trail begins at the Black Balsam Parking Area (at the end of Black Balsam Knob Road, FS816 off the Blue Ridge Parkway). This is a popular trailhead, but the other trails mostly head off into the Shining Rock Wilderness and are thus off limits to bikes.
The trail follows a railbed dating from early in the last century when the area was heavily logged. This logging led to the peculiar "balds" on the tops of mountains where the forests are unable to reestablish themselves due to soil erosion. These balds offer great views.
Nevertheless, because the trail follows an old rail bed, it descends continuously at a relatively moderate grade. (Or if riding in the reverse direction, the moderate ascent makes it possible for us flatlanders who aren't accustomed to such altitude.)
The trail first passes through a meadow at the top of Black Balsam, but the latter half enters into the forest. The forest also features rhododendrons and berry bushes. Much of the trail can be quite rocky and technical in places due to washed out and rutted segments. There are several creek crossings, as well as other areas where the water runs along the trail. At least there are plenty of rocks to limit the erosion. Plan to get wet and muddy.
There are a couple of small waterfalls visible from the trail, particularly near the end. The most notable is Wildcat Falls around the three mile mark, which is viewable from a concrete bridge that presumably used to be part of the railroad. If you ditch the bike, supposedly you can also hike down to some cascades on Flat Laurel Creek around 1.6 miles.
When I rode this, there was a sign at the beginning that said bears were active in the area. That was spot on because around one turn, there was a bear in the trail about 20 feet in front of me. Fortunately it must have had its fill of berries and wasn't interested in me.
To get back to the parking lot, you can either turn around or take roads back to the parking area.
To do so, turn left and go south on NC-215 for about one mile, turn left on the ramp for the Blue Ridge Parkway, head three miles, take a left on Black Balsam Knob Road, and finally make another left into the parking area.
You'll pass through the 665 foot long Devil's Courthouse Tunnel along the Blue Ridge Parkway if you make this a loop, so it's a good idea to bring lights.