Itching to hit the trail, but puzzled where to hike with so many outdoor recreation areas shut down?

It’s prime time to explore the lesser-known trails that abound in Haywood County. One little gem that’s perfect for an afternoon leg-stretcher is a 0.8-mile section of the Mountains to Sea Trail in Balsam.

The trail skirts the Blue Ridge Parkway, and while the Parkway is closed to traffic, its trails are still open if you know how to get to them — and luckily this one can be reached by backroads.

The easy-to-follow section is known as a “side-hill” trail, weaving along a mountainside with almost no elevation change. The trail crosses a few tiny springs seeping from the earth, a perfect host for groves of wildflowers. But the warm south-facing slope is otherwise dry, passing through open forest with little understory.

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The beautiful view while hiking on the Mountains to Sea Trail. / Photos by Becky Johnson

Spring is an ideal time for this little jaunt. The trees haven’t leafed out yet given the higher elevation — around 4,500 feet — affording long-range views right now that would be obscured in another month.

The trail skirts above the Parkway, which occasionally comes into view. But since the Parkway is closed to traffic, the only sound is the birds and your own footsteps.

From the trailhead, it’s 0.8 miles to a footbridge over Woodfin Creek, a lovely spot to sit and dangle your feet awhile. A spur trail leads about 100 yards down to the Parkway. You’ll have cell reception for most the way to this point.

If you want a longer hike, simply continue along the trail as far as you like before turning back. From the bridge, it’s five miles to Waterrock Knob, with a steady but gradual ascent of 1,500 feet.

Two miles past the bridge, the trail emerges onto the Parkway and follows the road for half a mile before heading back into the woods.

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The Mountains to Sea Trail is a 1,200 mile route from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks. The vision for the trail took more than three decades to realize, piecing together a network of existing trails and filling in missing segments where needed.

Haywood County is home to 61 miles of the Mountains to Sea Trail, roughly paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway. Trail volunteers spent years building out the section through Haywood County, including this well-built section from Balsam Gap to Waterrock Knob.

Directions:• Head south on U.S. 23-74 toward Balsam.

• Just after passing under the Blue Ridge Parkway, turn right on Rosemount Road. Check your odometer here. The trailhead is 3.9 miles on the left.

• The road will twist and turn as you climb up the mountain, skirting close to the Parkway in places. While the Parkway is closed to traffic, it is open to walkers, bikers and runners. There are several pull-offs where you can park and walk 50 feet through the woods to get on the Parkway.

• At 1.4 miles, the road will turn to gravel.

• At 1.7 miles, you will go through a tunnel under the Parkway with graffiti, including the word COVID in spray paint.

• At 2.9 miles, the road forks. Bear left, following the arrow for Greenspire Drive.

• At 3.7 miles, pass through an open gate.

• At 3.9 miles, the trailhead will be on the left in the bend of a hairpin turn. The trail is marked with a short signpost and a white blaze that marks the Mountains to Sea Trail.

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