Cycling Richland Balsam, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Ride 15.6 miles gaining 3,457’ at 3.9% average grade to elevation 6,053’.
As with all Blue Ridge Parkway climbs, this one is very scenic, particularly during fall colors. This BRP climb has the added advantage of ending at the highest point on the Parkway.
“Richland Balsam is a nice climb up to the highest elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a dark tunnel along the way so be prepared but at least the grade eases after the tunnel. The remainder of the ascent is rolling and the climb ends at an unmarked top with great views.” [Note, we stop our climb at Richland Balsam Overlook and start it further down the hill.] (This quote presented with authority from John Summerson’s The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in the Southeast, pg. 97.)
PJAMM Adventure App - Stats at the start.
Climb begins just after the bridge over Licklog Creek.
The first 3.7 miles of this climb are on Dark Ridge Road to Old Balsam Depot Road to Cabin Flats to Candle Stick Lane to Great Smoky Mountains Exwy to BRP (see map). It really sounds worse than it really is - it’s pretty simple if you follow a paper or digital map.
Trinity Missionary Baptist Church at mile 0.8.
Pass through town of Balsam at mile 3
Photo bottom middle: Knight’s Store, abandoned since 1979.
The population of Balsam as of the 2000 (and most recent census) is about 160. Balsam is named after the Blue Ridge Mountain trees: the red spruce (he-balsam), and the Fraser fir (she-balsam).
The Grand Old Lady Hotel (formerly Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel).
I stumbled across this iconic and historical Victorian hotel on my climb up to Richland Balsam. It was closed for COVID-related upgrades in early October 2020 when we rode through. Formerly the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel and Balsam Mountain Inn, this is a perfectly preserved link to days gone by. Constructed in 1905, the Inn began as a railroad resort hotel, and was very popular with citizens of the Asheville area 40 miles east.
Photo: Grand Old Lady Hotel
Marzena Wyszynska, the hotel’s owner since 2017, was kind enough to let me photograph the bottom floor of the hotel.
“Balsam Gap was once home to the highest passenger rail station in the east, and guests at the inn - then called the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel - took day trips to nearby peaks, some of which rise to over 6,000 feet. Our guests still enjoy such trips - even more so perhaps - by hiking the nearby North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail, or by driving the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway, which has an entrance a half-mile from the inn and reaches some of its highest, wildest and most beautiful points nearby,” (read more here).
It’s a bit confusing getting onto the Parkway at mile 3.7.
You are on Route 23 (Great Smoky Mountains Expressway) for about 20 yards, then turn right onto Ranger Lane. The somewhat confusing part is that there is a sign that says “no thru traffic,” but you can ride your bike the 50 yards up to the Blue Ridge Parkway without any trouble.
BLUE RIDE PARKWAY OVERLOOKS
There are over 200 overlooks along the 469 mile Blue Ridge Parkway. I am unaware of any road in the US with more scenic overlooks. The best site for information on the BRP overlooks that I have found is Virtual Blue Ridge which provides information on each overlook and, in most instances, has a 360 degree photo of the overlooks.
PJAMM climb mile 5.4 / BRP mile 441.4.
“Standing Rock Overlook, Milepost 441.4 - Elevation: 3915': The abundant Fall colors at the Standing Rock overlook makes you want to be there enjoying them in person. The Standing Rock is at the south end of the parking area of the overlook. The huge rock seems out of place among all of the trees,” (Virtual Blue Ridge).
PJAMM Climb mile 6 / BRP mile 440.9.
“View Waynesville, Milepost 440.9 -Elevation: 4110': Waynesville is seen below the Plott Balsam range. Legend says Waynesville was named for “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who served in the Revolutionary War,” (Virtual Blue Ridge).
PJAMM mile 6.8 / BRP mile 440.0.
PJAMM mile 7.6 / BRP mile 439.4.
PJAMM mile 8 / BRP mile 438.9.
PJAMM mile 10.3 / BRP mile 436.8.
This overlook is just before the only descent on the climb, which is 0.9 miles at -2.4%.
“Grassy Ridge Mine Overlook, Milepost 436.8 - Elevation: 5250': Below the overlook is the remains of a mica mine which was operated until about 1950. Mica is deposited in very thin sheets and is a silvery brittle substance. Mica used to be important because of its insulating qualities and was used in a lot of electrical equipment. The development of plastics rendered mica obsolete,” (Virtual Blue Ridge).
PJAMM mile 11.8 / BRP mile 435.3.
“View Doubletop Mountain, Milepost 435.3 - Elevation: 5365': This parking area is situated on Flat Gap, which was used by loggers and hunters as a campsite in the 1800s. Below is Deep Ridge Creek where a Cherokee village was located up until 1781 when it was destroyed by whites. At that time the Cherokees were allied with England,” (Virtual Blue Ridge).
PJAMM mile 13.7 / BRP 433.3.
“Roy Taylor Forest Overlook, Milepost 433.3 - Elevation: 5580': A paved trail leads to this overlook,” (Virtual Blue Ridge).
PJAMM mile 14.3 / BRP 432.7.
“Lone Bald Overlook, Milepost 432.7 - Elevation: 5635': At one time a red spruce, or he-balsam, stood on what was then known as Lone Balsam Mountain. One day the tree fell, and the mountain is now known as Lone Bald,” (Virtual Blue Ridge).
PJAMM finish / BRP 431.4.
“Richland Balsam Overlook, Milepost 431.4 - Elevation: 6053': This self-guiding trail walks you through the remains of a spruce-fir forest. The highest point of the Parkway is found here at 6053 feet. The overlook gives views of the southern Appalachians. From here the Cowees, Nantahalas and Plott balsams can be seen,” (Virtual Blue Ridge).
Pinnacle Ridge Tunnel: 0.18 miles at 1.8%.
Bring at least a rear light.
PJAMM Adventure App showing stats at climb finish.