Spring hike beckons

Take an easy family hike this weekend
By Allison Richmond | Apr 12, 2017
Photo by: Allison Richmond View down Flat Laurel Creek, the trail's namesake, on a bright spring day.

Flat Laurel Creek runs through a small valley between the summits of Sam Knob and Little Sam Knob. Trail networks that run through this region are popular for their relatively easy terrain, accessibility and variety of things to see and do here.

The trail bed runs along former railroad lines once used by loggers in the region in the 1920s. When the rails were removed, the beds remained and became jeep roads. Some of the trails in the region are still used seasonly for vehicle traffic, but most have been converted to hiking only.

This loop hike starts out at the simple dirt parking/camping area slightly hidden on the left side of N.C. 215. If you get to the Parkway, you've missed it.

There is only room for a few cars, so if this parking area is full, you can park in one of the other nearby spaces along the road leading up to the trailhead.

The trail leads off to the east almost immediately crossing a small creek, known as Bubbling Spring Branch, and then veers sharply off to the north on its way toward Sam Knob on a slow and steady climb.

Before long you will come to a seemingly incongruous concrete bridge spanning a stunning cascade waterfall. The bridge is left over from the logging days and provides a convenient stopping point for a quick rest and photo opportunity.

Continuing north on the trail, keep your eyes peeled for a large heart-shaped rock on the left of the trail as a neat landmark.

As you wind your way up the trail the views begin to open up to the left, looking back toward S.R. 215. If you look carefully, you will catch glimpses of the road below.

Where the view opens up you will be looking directly across the valley toward Mount Hardy and Fork Ridge.

The trail will then begin to curve around to the right, following the base of Little Sam Knob, the smaller cousin of Sam Knob to the north.

Soon you will begin to hear the roar of the cascades below the trail to the left. Flat Laurel Creek is forced through a tight squeeze between the two summits here, forcing it to cascade over the smooth rock bed in a series of waterfalls.

During spring, fall and winter, hikers can catch tantalizing glimpses of the cascades as you follow the trail to the east. Adventurous hikers can follow one of several side cuts down the steep embankment to reach the cascades and the pools created by the creek's headlong rush to lower ground.

Explore at your own risk. Falls like these can be deceptively dangerous. Hikers can (and have) been swept over to serious injury or worse, even in water just a few inches deep.

Just past the cascades area the trail becomes very flat and easy as it runs alongside the aptly named Flat Laurel Creek. Several nice campsites dot the area, making for easy lunch or even overnight stops.

Look closely around the campsites and you will find the rusting remains of old logging campsites, with coils of cable still poking out of the ground. The cables were once attached to skidders to lift logs onto waiting rail cars for shipment to nearby mills like Sunburst.

At one site a rusting truck hood is a camp fixture, it's paint and hood ornaments long gone, replaced by scrawled initials of previous campers.

As you continue east on the trail, the next juncture you will encounter is the trail leading north to Sam Knob, clearly marked with a trail indicator.

To complete this hike as a loop, you have two options here. Either cross Flat Laurel Creek here and head uphill toward Sam Knob, or continue straight down Flat Laurel Creek trail.

For a slightly easier route, continue straight here, taking the gradual ascent up and around the valley toward the Black Balsam parking area, where you will turn and head back toward Sam Knob.

The views here overlook Sam Knob, the valley floor and a grass/shrubbery area criss-crossed by side trails used for berry picking in the summer and fall.

When you reach the parking area, turn left and look for the trail heading out to Sam Knob just a few hundred feet away (past the restrooms). This will take you back to the creek to complete the loop.

The trail here was recently improved. It is now a wide, easy-to-follow gravel trail that turns to boardwalk as you approach the grassy bald opening out at the base of Sam Knob.

Spring through winter, this field is dry and yellow, but in late spring and summer it greens up and is home to swaying wildflowers.

At this point you are just past the halfway point in the hike. You can choose to summit Sam Knob, which is about another mile, adding about an hour or two to your hike, or you can continue on to the Flat Laurel Creek crossing.

Leaving Sam Knob, you will turn southward again and head mostly downhill to the creek.

In wet times the trail can get quite muddy here, so be prepared.

Crossing Flat Laurel Creek involves a little rock-hopping, but even my dog can do it without assistance. Beyond the creek, turn right to head back down Flat Laurel Creek Trail following the same trail you started on, back to the trailhead.