Balsam Mountain Trail
This moderate high ridge trail only gains 1,600 feet in about 11 miles. The northern half of the trail is easy. The gorgeous path leads through evergreen spruce-fir forest from the Appalachian Trail at Tricorner Knob to Laurel Gap Shelter. The shelter, which is located at the site of an old logging camp, has abundant water nearby, but this is the only dependable water source on the trail. The southern half of this trail follows along old railroad grades to connect with Balsam Mountain Road and the nearby Palmer Creek Trail.
Palmer Creek Trail
This strenuous creek headwater trail gains nearly 1,800 feet in its 3.3 miles from Cataloochee Valley to Balsam Mountain Road. The trail is heavily used by horses. Note: Balsam Mountain Trail is about .3 miles to the north along the Balsam Mountain Road (gravel).
The trail follows Palmer Creek for about half its length and then climbs more steeply along a narrow side ridge to Pin Oak Gap on Balsam Mountain. Near the gap, the trail passes through a thick patch of evergreen ground cover - galax - which has a distinct odor of moldy leaves.
Flat Creek Trail
This trail is isolated from other trails around the Balsam Mountain Area, but it is exceptionally beautiful and makes a wonderful day hike. This creek headwater trail is moderate in difficulty, descending 400 feet in 2.5 miles.
The trail begins near Balsam Mountain Campground at the Heintooga Picnic Area, where there is an outstanding lookout at the far end of the grounds. Following Flat Creek through open grassy forest, a gradual, almost level, path leads 2 miles to Flat Creek Falls and a view of the middle ridge of the Smoky Mountains.
A short side trail, which is steep and slippery, leads down to the top of the falls. Most of the year (except winter), the view from the top of the falls is obscured by vegetation. The best view of the falls is from Heintooga Ridge Road, across the valley near the trailhead.
The last mile of the Flat Creek Trail is slightly more strenuous. The trail goes up and over a 300-foot ridge to a pretty creek and then climbs steeply up to a trailhead on Heintooga Ridge Road.
You can arrange to have cars at either trailhead, but I recommend hiking down to the falls from Heintooga Picnic Area and then wandering back through the grassy park-like Flat Creek Valley. Note: Heintooga Road is usually gated several miles south of the picnic area in the winter.
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