With knobs and balds towering above you at 6,000 feet, the terrain around Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway is impressive. Just west of Graveyard Fields and Black Balsam Knob is a really interesting terrain feature. The parking area for the trails can be found at the end of Black Balsam Road, which turns off the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 218.
Just west of the Black Balsam parking area, a “bowl” is presented, one that gives birth to the water flow that becomes Flat Laurel Creek. After gathering the water from the “bowl,” the creek is squeezed between Sam Knob and Little Sam Knob creating cascades that drop 500 vertical feet in a little less than a half mile. Viewing such a lengthy water feature is difficult but some individual sections can be seen.
The “bowl” mentioned previously is circled by 2 trails, Sam Knob Trail and Flat Laurel Creek Trail, to form a 2.5 mile loop. Regardless of which route you take, bear in mind that the parking lot is the highest point on the trail and either direction will result in an uphill return.
Shortest of the two routes is to start on Sam Knob Trail with its trailhead in the middle of the parking area next to the restrooms. You pass through some undergrowth before coming out on a ridge line with spectacular views to the north including a fine view of Cold Mountain. You then quickly turn left and descend into the “bowl.” You’ll find some wooden steps built to avoid a deeply rutted section of the trail. This puts you out into a meadow coming head-long into Sam Knob.
There, at the base of the Knob, the Sam Knob Summit Trail heads off to the right. If you wish to climb to the summit, it is a 0.6 out-and-back trail climbing 500 feet. Turning left will take you down a rutted trail, which can frequently contain running water. You will come to Flat Laurel Creek with a rock hop crossing. Water levels will determine where your crossing is wet or dry. Just beyond the creek is Flat Laurel Creek Trail. Turn right.
The trail follows at creek level for about ¼ mile to where the creek begins to drop into the squeeze between the 2 knobs. At that point, you will notice considerable water noise and scrambles leaving the trail to reach down to the creek. There is a good section to photograph about the 2nd scramble you encounter. It is not far down and easy to get some good pictures. Further down the trail are other scrambles leading down to other sections but, by this time, the creek has started to drop quickly away from the trail, making these scrambles lengthy, steep, and difficult.
You will have about 1 ¼ miles under your belt at this point. You can return the way you came (for a 2 ½ mile total) but remember the rutted trail up from the creek crossing. You can choose to follow Flat Laurel Creek on around the “bowl.” Since the trail is actually an old rail bed, the trail is relatively easy but it is longer, adding another ½ mile to the hike.