The Balsam Mountain Loop is an easy 14 mile loop on the Cataloochee side of the Great Smoky National Forest. Easy trails and a spectacular view from the Hemphill Bald make this loop a must hike! While the hike can be done in a single day, we broke it into two to let some newcomers experience their first real backpacking trip!
Great Smoky National Forest, North Carolina
The Balsam Mountain loop that we hiked starts at Polls Gap. Getting to Polls Gap is very easy. From Maggie Valley, take HWY 19 toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. Make a right on the Parkway, then make another right on Heintooga Ridge Road. Polls Gap is a few miles up Heintooga Ridge Road from the Parkway. In my opinion, Heintooga Ridge Road is the prettiest drive in the Smokies, I think it is even better than the Parkway. Polls Gap is a small parking lot that holds about 6 cars on the right hand side of the road coming from the Parkway. There are no bathrooms so keep that in mind.
Address: Heintooga Ridge Rd, Maggie Valley, NC 28751
Day 1: Polls Gap to Campsite #41 - via the Hemphill Bald Trail
From the Polls Gap parking lot, we followed the Hemphill Bald Trail toward Double Gap. The wooded trail has relatively little elevation change for the first 4.5miles. Even though it is a ridge trail, there are not any views to speak of until you reach the Bald. Occasionally there was a break in the trees which revealed the surrounding mountains. As we approached the Bald, the views became spectacular! About 0.25-0.5miles from the Bald, the trees on the right fell away revealing the Cataloochee valley below. The Bald itself has an amazing view of the valley and surrounding mountains. There are some large rocks and benches at the Bald making it an ideal lunch spot with an incredible view!
From the Bald, the trail started to descend as we hiked toward Double Gap. Once we reached Double gap, we continued on the Hemphill Bald Trail toward the Caldwell Fork Trail. After we passed Double Gap, the trail descended quickly all the way to the Caldwell Fork Trail intersection. We took the Caldwell Fork Trail toward the Rough Fork Trail which led us to Campsite #41.
Campsite #41 is on the Caldwell Fork Trail where it crosses the Cataloochee Creek. The campsite stretches up and down the creek, perpendicular to the trail. It did not appear that Campsite #41 received a lot of use. The campsites were mostly cleared patches with rock fire pits. In all, there were maybe 10 campsites. All the sites share the same bear bag system which was located just off the trail to the right coming from the creek. The creek provided water for us to use for cooking and drinking. As with all water in the mountains, make sure to purify before drinking!
Day 2: Campsite #41 to Polls Gap - via Rough Fork Trail
From Campsite #41, the trail gradually ascended as we hiked toward the Rough ForkTrail intersection. The Caldwell Fork Trail was covered in a thick canopy the entire length of the trail. While still in good condition, it was apparent that the trail did not see a lot of foot traffic. Once we reached the Rough Fork Trail, the gradual ascent continued until we reach Polls Gap. Overall, the elevation gain on the Caldwell and Rough Fork trials was very easy to hike. Compared to most of the ascending trails in the Smokies, it was one of the easiests trails we have hiked. Like the Caldwell Trail, the Rough Fork Trail does not appear to see a lot of traffic. The trail is very pleasant, but there are no views of the surrounding mountains or valleys until you make it back to Polls Gap.
- There are no bathrooms at Polls Gap. The closest place to use a proper restroom is probably Maggie Valley.
- Book your campsites as far in advance as you can. During busy seasons, the campsites fill up quickly.
- Talk to the ranger station before you travel to get information on bear activity, fire bans, weather, and more.
- Make sure to submit a hiking plan with the ranger station as well as with your family or friends.
- Campsite #41 has plenty of good trees for hammocking if you are not a tent camper.
- The only water source on the trail is the creek at Campsite #41 so make sure you take enough water to make the 8.5 mile hike.