This is a 45-mile roundtrip that will take you from the Oconaluftee River valley, through pine-oak forests, along an extended ridge in the spruce-fir high country, and back down through a rich upland hardwood cove. It features some of the more scenic overlooks in the Smokies region and, here and there, interesting touches of human history.
This time of year, the mid-summer wildflowers are reaching their peak at sites above 3,500 feet. Expect to see Turk’s-cap lily, bee balm, wild bergamot, basil balm, Carolina phlox, evening primrose, sundrops, Indian paintbrush, tall bellflower, yarrow, bluets, pale Indian plantain, wild hydrangea, elderberry, bush honeysuckle, rosebay rhododendron, fly poison, hawkweeds, hairy beardtongue, pale and spotted jewelweeds, thimbleweed, black cohosh, green-headed coneflower, firepink, wild flowering raspberry, hoary mountain mint, and various species of St. John’s-worts, woodland sunflowers, fleabanes, milkweeds, and skullcaps, among others.
Start at the Blue Ridge Parkway terminus on U.S. 441 just outside Cherokee near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first 11 miles of the loop are along the parkway through several tunnels.
Take a left onto the paved Balsam Mountain Campground Road that leads three and a half miles along a parkway spur before entering the national park at Black Camp Gap before continuing another six miles to Balsam Mountain Campground.
The general area of the Balsam Mountain Campground Road turnoff is one of the better high-elevation birding destinations in this region. During the breeding season, one can locate golden-crowned kinglets, hairy woodpeckers, veerys, winter wrens, brown creepers, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, blue-headed vireos, and Blackburnian, black-throated, and Canada warblers.
One and a half miles beyond the Balsam Mountain Campground Road turnoff, you’ll come to Mile High Overlook (a name only slightly exaggerated as the elevation is 5,250 feet) and a panoramic view of the North Carolina side of the main Smokies crest that forms the state boundary with Tennessee. Starting on the extreme southwestern horizon line and sweeping back to the northeast, the skyline extends from the region beyond Clingmans Dome back to Newfound Gap, Mount Kephart, Charlie’s Bunion, The Sawteeth, Peck’s Corner, Eagle Rocks, and Tricorner Knob. If the light is right, there is no finer spot to be on a summer day in the southern highlands.
At Black Camp Gap there’s a curious memorial erected by Masonic orders from around the country. This stone monument was built when the park was created and contains examples of rock types from most states and many places throughout the world. The gap is the site of an old lumber camp said to have been the original home of the annual Ramp Festival now celebrated in Waynesville each spring. In the area of the memorial, one can anticipate seeing and hearing least flycatchers.
Balsam Mountain Campground and picnic area are situated where the paved roadway makes a small loop. You can either retrace the route quickly back to the lowlands, or continue on the marked one-way, well-maintained dirt Round Bottom Road to the Big Cove community of the Cherokee Reservation.
At 5,310-feet, Balsam Mountain Campground is the highest developed campground in the Smokies. The intimate facility makes a good base camp from which to explore the high spruce-fir country. There are numerous trails in the area with degrees of difficulty ranging from very easy to moderate to pretty hard. The three-quarter mile self-guiding nature trail adjacent to the campground is a of particular interest.
The picnic area features Heintooga Overlook, a 5,535-foot vantage point that was once the site for a skidder which towed huge logs up the precipice with cables. “Heintooga,” according to one source, means “place of worms” in Cherokee, but just why is a mystery.
The 13-mile long Round Bottom Road is opened at sunup and closed at dusk. This route provides numerous other scenic overlooks in its upper portions, winds down through a northern hardwood forest and several extended “beech gaps” before making a bridge crossing of the Straight Fork of the Raven Fork. Black bears are often spotted along the upper portions of this roadway. Several miles beyond the ford, the road enters the Cherokee Reservation for a nine-mile drive back to U.S. 441 through Big Cove, one of the more traditional Cherokee communities.