After this past weekend, I have a new favorite hike: the Sam’s Summits Loop Trail. Located in the Shining Rock Wilderness area of Haywood County, this unique hike offers all the great components of a well-rounded loop trail hike that can be completed in less than a day. As you may have seen in past blogs, Haywood County now offers a beautifully illustrated map of the Sam’s Summit Loop Trail thanks to local naturalist, Ken Czarnomski. This map was the second in his series of maps that highlight easily accessible, year-round hikes in Haywood County. It is exclusive to Haywood County as Ken spent many hours hiking, cataloging, mapping and hand-drawing this map to share with visitors to the area. So after much anticipation, this past weekend I grabbed a copy of the map from the Waynesville Visitor Center, packed up my fiance and dog into our Subaru and hit the trail.
One of the many incredible views from along the trail
Mountain Laurel in bloom
The loop is actually a combination of three main trails: the Mountains to Sea Trail, Little Sam trail and Flat Laurel Creek Trail. Much of the trail is not blazed so you need to pay attention at the trail intersections, which are marked. You will start on the Mountains to Sea trail which is a white blaze and the most marked of the three trails. The first intersection you come to is for Devil’s Courthouse. You can either continue left on the trail, or go right to take the Devils Courthouse trail. Devils Courthouse provides long rang panoramic views from atop a unique rock structure. Coming back from the Courthouse remember to turn right back onto the Mountains to Sea trail. In about a 1/4 mile distance you will come to another intersection called Little Sam Trail. You will take that until it intersects the Flat Laurel Creek Trail where you will turn left. I did not see a marker designating the Flat Laurel Creek trail at this point, but by following the map, I knew it was the point where we needed to turn left, which is a sharp left, almost a switch back.
After a while on the trail, you will see the rock crossing to Sams Knob on the right. You can choose to take this trail to the top or continue on your way on the Flat Laurel Creek Trail. The views at the top of Sams Knob are 360 degrees, so it is well worth the hike. When returning take the same route back to Flat Laurel Creek and make a right to continue along the trail. It will eventually bring you to the head of the trail and out on Hwy 215. You will walk up 215 to bring you back to the parking area. The loop took us about 5 hours to cover seven miles. We did not hike to Devils Courthouse or Sam’s Knob as we wanted to save those for another day. If you hike both of these it will add another 2 to 2.5 hours to your hike. depending on your pace and stops. Make sure you pack plenty of water, snacks and a lunch. In my opinion, the first half of the trail is the most strenuous as that is where you make most of the elevation climb but once you hit Flat Laurel Creek, it is an easy, leisurely hike until the end.
Some of my favorite highlights:
- You will go through three distinct ecological zones. One of my favorites was the Spruce plantation. It was so peaceful, quiet and unexpected.
- Creek Crossings – You come across several creek crossings that have easy rock hops or a bridge. Our dog was a big fan of these crossings as they were shallow enough for him to wade and cool off in.
- A beautiful cascade near the end of Flat Laurel Creek called Wildcat Falls. If you’re lucky like we were, there will be fellow hikers in the area to take a picture of you in front of it.
- The many unique natural features along the way. From massive rock formations to countless natural water features, there was something beautifully unique around every bend. Also, depending on the time of year, the wildflowers are incredible. The rhododendron and mountain laurel were in full bloom giving the perfect pops of color along the trail.
- And of course, the views. Because of the descent early on, the elevation offers great views from the start, but throughout the hike there are incredible views all around you. Take time to stop and enjoy.
Many natural creeks along the trail are not only beautiful, but a great way to cool off. Just ask Patton!
All in all, this is a fantastic hike that I highly encourage you to check out on your next visit to Haywood County. And don’t forget to check out Ken’s other hiking map of Purchase Knob, located in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You can pick up both maps for free at either the Waynesville or Maggie Valley Visitor Centers or you can have one mailed to you by calling 800-334-9036. Between the two hikes, you can’t go wrong!