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Time Outside: Winter in the high country

Meral Hardwick // Contributor
Asst. News Editor Corey Glenn looks out from the top of Sam Knob.

Over my many years exploring the outdoors around Clemson, my heart always returns to one spot: the area around Black Balsam.

Devil’s Courthouse, Graveyard Fields, Tennent Mountain, Shining Rock Wilderness: this section along the Blue Ridge Parkway near N.C. 215 is a whole other world. With grassy bald mountains, cascading waterfalls, towering spruce and dramatic cliffs, the highlands keep me coming back.

Plus, the weather. The whole area is above 5,000 feet, with the peaks stretching well above 6,000, and temperatures are consistently 20 degrees cooler than in Clemson. In the summer, this climate makes for a refreshing break from the heat, but in the winter, this makes for a very different adventure — one I set out for in the cold last Tuesday.

The parkway is closed in the icy conditions, but you can still get up there on N.C. 215.

Starting out from the Flat Laurel Creek trailhead, the 2.5-mile approach to the base of Sam Knob is relatively flat along a forest roadbed. The path winds along, crossing streams and frozen waterfalls, forcing you to drudge through the snow.

After crossing through the broad valley between Little Sam and Sam Knob, I got ready for the 1-mile climb. The trail turns steep and icy for the next mile to the top, so I put on crampons for extra traction.

However, about halfway up the mountain, a cloud began to roll over the gap, seemingly squashing hopes for a view. But as we crossed the 6,000-foot line, the trees began to give out as the rocks and wind became too much for them to bear.

Then, the fog started to break as I reached the top of the cloud, and the view opened up with the valley filled with clouds and mountain peaks looking like islands in the sky. And at the summit, bright, shining white granite, the same type as the Shining Rock, sparkled in the sun.

Several hours in the cold is nothing to sneeze at, especially with steep, icy slopes and no cell signal. But it’s a winter wonderland: Fraser firs coated with snow, crisp, clear streams and a mixture of fog and clear skies.

The high country always provides something different than Clemson and even other mountains. The central Balsams always provide unique experiences, from mountaintop meadows to towering spruce.

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Corey Glenn
Corey Glenn, Asst. News Editor
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