This year's first winter hike took us to Graveyard Fields, a popular destination which is accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP or 'burp'). Just a mile down the BRP an access road (Black Balsam) leads to a parking lot for trailheads to Sam Knob Summit, Flat Laurel Creek Trail, Graveyard Ridge Trail (which leads back to Graveyard Fields), Investor Gap, and the Art Loeb Trail (rated by Backpacker Magazine as the country's #2 trail in their "Ten Hikes to Big Alpine Views") which takes one to the pinnacle of destinations here, Cold Mountain, as well as to numerous feeder trails along the way. Meanwhile, the 530 mile Mountain-to-Sea Trail snakes along in the general direction of the BRP and connects with Graveyard Ridge Trail as well as many of the others mentioned above. So... here in the space of a few miles in what is know as the Middle Prong and Shining Rock areas of the Pisgah National Forest, we are able to access trails which can satisfy everything from a short bite-sized easy walk in the woods, through a major, hundreds of miles long march to the sea, or into neighboring states, with many, many others somewhere in between these two extremes. That's what I call hiking options! No wonder Haywood County boasts the second longest 'mileage' of trails east of the Mississippi!
Since the February weather continues to cooperate in keeping the BRP opened, we used the Black Balsam access road and chose the bite sized, but scenic, Flat Laurel Creek Trail which connects with the Sam Knob Summit Trail. Last winter we had accessed this trail from its opposite trailhead off Rt. 215 (yet another option!) and got as far as the Sam Knob Summit Trail, but we chickened out and didn't make the climb. This time we did! And what views! After a climb of about a half mile we reached the summit which is about a 500 foot climb. So, it is steep but features an accomodating mix of river rock, sandy soil, and some built in steps to soften the cardio. On the trip back to the parking lot the trail crossed a grassy field that offered scenic rear views of the pinnacle we had just descended. Pretty cool for a 3 mile walk in the woods of just over 2 hours!