When you think about taking a hike in Haywood County, it’s easy to picture a long slog through the woods, spending at least a few hours climbing up and back down from a stunning overlook with views of the mountains all around.
It’s an all-day affair, or at least the better part of an afternoon, and something that needs to be planned around to make sure the whole thing doesn’t turn into a rushed, miserable outing.
For every epic outdoor trek Haywood has to offer, though, there are just as many quick and easy routes that are much easier to squeeze into a tighter timeframe.
The Richland Balsam Nature Loop is one such hike. It’s located just over the hill from the Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
It’s about a 30-minute drive from downtown Waynesville, and the whole thing can be hiked in 40 minutes if you’re really crunched for time (although it’s much nicer if you budget a little extra time to explore). For someone living in Waynesville, it would be easy to knock the whole trip out in two hours’ time, which is perfect for an after-work walk to clear the mind.
The nature loop is touted as a self-guided walking tour of Richland Balsam, although the gentleman at the Waterrock Knob visitor center said the container at the entrance to the loop meant to hold tour pamphlets hasn’t been stocked in years. Twenty-some-odd wooden markers still dot the 1.7-mile loop, though, denoting the locations of points of interest forgotten by most.
After arriving at the Haywood-Jackson Overlook near milepost 431, elevation 6,020 feet above sea level, hikers will see a small wooden post indicating the start of the trail, which begins as a paved path through the woods. The path quickly turns to gravel, and upon reaching the start of a 1-mile loop circling to the summit and back the gravel turns to a well-trodden, dirt footpath.
The loop winds through an evergreen forest, with fallen conifers lining many sections of trail and the soft, almost bouncy feeling of the bed of pine needles underfoot is a constant along the way. Near the beginning of the walk there are also numerous species of wildflowers and several large thickets of wild blackberries, which attract an impressive number of bumblebees and other pollinators. Various fungi dot the logs and shady spots along the trail, as well. There is no shortage of wonder for those who are botanically inclined.
The summit of Richland Balsam, perched at 6,410 feet above sea level, is surrounded by spruce-fir forest, and doesn’t offer anything in the way of views. Instead, a sign denotes the hiker’s arrival at the summit and a large, rustic bench stands nearby for those wishing to take a moment to soak up the scene.
On the way down, if the right fork is taken at the entrance of the loop and the trail is navigated in a counterclockwise fashion, the forest finally gives way to a stunning view of the surrounding mountains through a relatively small window in the trees. Aside from the parking area on a nearby ridge, this is the only long-distance view afforded by the hike, but it’s worth stopping to take in along the way to or from the summit.
For those seeking high adventure or a grueling bit of outdoor exercise, Richland Balsam is not the place — at just 1.5 miles round-trip and covering less than 400 feet of elevation gain, the well-worn path to the summit falls squarely on the easier side of what most would consider “moderate” difficulty.
But if the goal is to get outside, get immersed in nature, and melt away some of the stress from a long day, or get a little outdoors time in the morning before other responsibilities take over, it’s a perfect option. The smell of the woods and the quiet isolation atop the parkway, save for the rustling of birds and buzzing of the bumblebees, is just right for a quick getaway.