Located in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Pisgah National Forest gives East Coasters plenty of reasons to stay put. As the Blue Ridge Parkway winds its way through the forest’s hazy peaks, it passes Mount Mitchell, the highest summit east of the Mississippi River. Further south you’ll find Craggy Gardens, one of the best places in the world to see rhododendron in bloom. In the Pisgah you can hike through virgin forest, mountain-bike over endless single-path tracks, paddle world-class whitewater rapids, fly-fish, and climb. There’s even skiing, though the forest’s southerly location means summer lasts a long time.

Residents of the Pisgah do not typically trace their roots to Dixie. Instead, it is the mountains that define their cultural heritage. The region is the epicenter of the 300-year-old Appalachian folk arts and crafts tradition. Affluent tourists have also been coming here for over a hundred years to rest and recuperate in the fresh mountain air. The eclectic, nearby city of Asheville reflects the mingling of the mountain and cosmopolitan culture that gives the Pisgah its distinct flavor. It also makes a great base camp for excursions into the high country.

4 ways to Explore the Pisgah Forest

Hike Linville Gorge

The soaring cliffs and steep terrain that kept farmers and lumberjacks at bay in the past attract scores of hikers to the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Virgin stands of hickory and poplar remain intact, and dense rhododendron thickets hide black bear and deer. From Babel Rock you can watch hawks soar over granite walls and towers. The Linville River that carved the gorge over millennia offers great fly-fishing when you reach the bottom. Federal regulations permit travel by foot and horse only in this protected area. Except for its network of unmarked trails, Linville Gorge is virtually untouched by the hand of human development.

Taste Nolichucky Whitewater

Nestled away in a spectacular gorge along the Tennessee border, the Nolichucky gets less traffic than other rivers in the region. But don’t let that fool you. Unlike many of its southeastern cousins, where controlled-release schedules make river levels predictable, Nolichucky whitewater is all-natural. You’ll find the prime runs on the upper sections, starting in Poplar, North Carolina. Stretches of Class III and IV water extend some 30 miles into Tennessee, with enough drops, holes, and chutes to satisfy the most discriminating masochist. Farther down, the river quiets down to some Class II that’s great for canoeing.

Mountain Bike Sweet Singletrack

The North Carolina Outward Bound School doesn’t lead its mountain-biking courses in the Pisgah for nothing. To be sure, the terrain offers enough variation and technical challenge to suit all abilities. Even better, you’ll need all your navigational skills to avoid losing yourself on a seemingly endless trail network. North of Asheville, the rugged, remote Staire Creek route climbs and drops past waterfalls, streams, and a cave. To the southwest, the Black Mountain (aka Clawhammer) route attracts hardcore enthusiasts with a four-mile, 1,900-foot technical downhill.

Blue Ridge Parkway views. Photo: Warren Reed

Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway

A winding two-lane highway climbs through the forest. Autumnal scarlets and flaming oranges blaze pass on either side. Suddenly the trees break; the road turns sharply, but the shocking beauty of the peaks stretching into the haze distracts you. At the last second, you realize only a small wooden rail stands between you and a thousand-foot drop into the valley below. You’ve just learned the cardinal lesson of the Blue Ridge Parkway: Like a siren, its beauty will seduce you, but to give in means only certain doom. In other words: It’s hard, but keep your eyes on the road.

FOREST HERITAGE SCENIC BYWAY MAP. Source: USDA Forest Service.

For more official info, click here.

Hiking in the Pisgah Forest: the 26 best trails

  • This national forest, located in western North Carolina, has some of the highest terrains in the East within its 500,000 acres. Three wildernesses, 40 recreation areas, and hundreds of miles of trails make for more than ample day hiking, camping, and other outdoor opportunities.
  • Linville Gorge is a beautiful destination. Make the hike to Linville Falls, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, or travel the base of the gorge along the Linville River. It’s just a short hike to Wisemans View from Kistler Memorial Highway.
  • Shining Rock Wilderness, located off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a high-elevation area with rock outcrops and meadows that offer superlative views, along with hikes to waterfalls.
  • Middle Prong Wilderness offers solitude amid deep woods and remote streams. You can access it via the Blue Ridge Parkway or from Forest Road 97 near Sunburst Campground.
  • A network of trails weaves out from Lake Powhatan Campground near Asheville. The Deerfield Loop explores multiple ecosystems surrounding Lake Powhatan. The Pine Tree Trail has interpretive information. The Homestead Loop is a short trail that passes over Lake Powhatan Dam.
  • Looking Glass Rock is a massive dome with a stone face offering incredible views. The 6.2-mile round-trip hike works up a narrow ridge before reaching the 3,692-foot outcrop.
Mount Pisgah Arboretum

Art Loeb Trail, Section 4

Distance: 3.8 miles
Blaze: None
Difficulty: Difficult
USGS Maps: Cruso, Waynesville
Access: Access is from the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp, off of U.S. Highway 215 four miles south of Bethel, NC. Please notify camp staff if you will be leaving a vehicle at the camp.

Attractions and Considerations: This is a short, but very steep section of the Art Loeb Trail. Because it is in designated wilderness, you will find no signs or trail blazes. Wood fires are not permitted in Shining Rock Wilderness and a group size limit of ten is enforced. These measures serve to enhance solitude and protect the primitive character that wilderness is set aside for. Please do your part to enhance others’ wilderness experience: Stay as quiet as possible, take rest breaks out of sight of the trail and use existing campsites, also out of sight of the trail. It is our challenge to you to minimize your impact on the land. When you leave, will others know that you have passed this way?

Art Loeb Spur

Distance: 0.6 miles
Blaze: None
Difficulty: Difficult
USGS Maps: Shining Rock
Access: From U.S. Highway 276, travel 8 miles south on the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn onto FS Road 816. Drive 1.5 miles to the end of the paved road. The trail starts at the gate to Ivestor Gap Road.
Attractions and Considerations: This is a short but steep trail that climbs 160 feet in elevation in the course of 0.6 miles. On a clear day, the climb is certainly worth the effort with views of up to 70 miles distant. The cold, clear weather usually associated with autumn and winter enhances the view; though other times of year are just as good for other reasons. High elevations are good places to escape the heat of July and the blooms of Catawba rhododendron, and flame azalea is an attraction in mid to late June. When hiking this trail, keep in mind that you are climbing a fragile, grassy bald. Take extra care to stay on the trail and avoid shortcuts that go straight uphill. Keep an eye open for switchbacks, which are constructed to minimize erosion.

Big Creek Trail

Distance: 4.9 miles
Blaze: Yellow
Difficulty: Difficult
Maps: Dunsmore Mountain

Access: From North Mills River Campground, take FS Road 5000 north approximately 1.5 miles. Turn left across a low, concrete bridge and park at the end of the road. Follow the Hendersonville Reservoir Road to Spencer Branch Trail. Big Creek Trail intersects after 100 yards. The upper end of the trail comes out at the Little Pisgah Ridge Tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway, however, there is no parking here.

Attractions and Considerations: The Big Creek Trail is not only pretty, but it offers many reminders of the rich history of the area. Over half of the trail is on an old railroad grade that follows Big Creek. Railroad ties and remains of railroad camps can be seen along the course of the trail. Some of the creek crossings don’t have bridges, so be prepared to get your feet wet. After leaving Big Creek, the trail climbs up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a strenuous climb of 2,000 feet in elevation over the course of two miles. Near the end of the trail, you will cross onto the Blue Ridge Parkway lands where bikes may not be ridden. The trail ends at a service road and a rock dump, which you will have to pick your way through before reaching the Parkway.

Big Creek Trail

Buckhorn Gap Trail

Distance: 4.6 miles
Blaze: Orange
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Pisgah Forest, Shining Rock
Access: You may access Buckhorn Gap Trail from either Avery Creek Trail (one mile from the lower trailhead) or South Mills River Trail 2.5 miles from the gaging station.
Attractions and Considerations: This begins as a fairly steep trail as it climbs from Avery Creek to Buckhorn Gap. Several stream crossings have log bridges. A beautiful side trip to Twin Falls is worth the extra short walk. Horse riders and mountain bikers should access Twin Falls from the upper end of the loop. This trail is for hiking only, so you must tie your horses or walk your bike. Between Twin Falls Trail and Buckhorn Gap, watch the trail signs carefully because there are three sections that have alternate routes for bikes and horses, to protect fragile areas and log steps. After passing Buckhorn Gap, the trail follows the logging road for 0.5 miles before dropping down gradually to the South Mills River.

Caney Bottom Loop Trail

Distance: 4.6 miles
Blaze: Blue
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Shining Rock

Access: Park across from the gate to Cove Creek Group Campground. Cove Creek is three miles past the State fish hatchery on FS Road 475. Directions to the fish hatchery from the ranger station appear in the section on Butler Gap Trail. Take the road behind the gate to the group camp. The trail begins just before entering the Lower Cove Creek campsite. NOTE: Cove Creek is a fee area. The facilities are only for the groups who have rented the area. Please respect the privacy of the campers by staying on the trail which passes around both campsites.

Attractions and Considerations: Caney Bottom Loop has a moderate grade with good views of streams, cascades, and waterfalls. Though all streams have log footbridges, there are several wet areas along the trail, so wear appropriate footgear. While most people enjoy this trail because of the beautiful streams, other attractions include large wildlife fields and a nice view of Looking Glass Rock. Only the west side of the trail is open to mountain bikes, so watch signs carefully. If mountain biking, you may take the Caney Bottom Connector, which joins this trail with FS Road 225.

Daniel Ridge Trail

Distance: 4 miles
Blaze: Red
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Shining Rock

Access: Take Highway 276 north past the Pisgah Ranger Station to the intersection with USFS 475. Turn left and drive toward the State Fish Hatchery/Education Center (which will be on your left) and bear left at the intersection with USFS 475B, though staying on USFS 475. With the entrance to Cove Creek Camp to your right, continue to the parking area to the right, from where you can access the Daniel Ridge Loop Trail.

Attractions and Considerations: Beginning at the gate you will stay on the gravel road for 100 yards and cross a concrete bridge. This marks the start of the loop. Turn left across a berm and the trail parallels the Davidson River for 0.5 miles. Just before reaching an old wooden bridge, the trail turns sharply to the right and up Lanning Branch. You will climb moderately for almost one mile before intersecting the Farlow Gap Trail, which goes left. Turn right and the trail passes through a young forest and past a regeneration area that affords a beautiful view of Pilot Mountain. From here the trail enters a series of wildlife fields. Keep a sharp lookout for trail blazes, because there are many turns in this section. You will eventually drop down to the gravel road. Turn right onto the road and hike 0.5 miles back to the gate. A left turn onto the gravel road will lead you to the base of a 90-foot falls.

Explorer Loop Trail

Distance: 3 miles
Blaze: Yellow
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Dunsmore Mountain

Access: is from FS Road 479H. To reach 479H, follow the signs from NC 191 to Lake Powhatan Recreation Area. Just before the campground, FS Road 479 is on the right. Follow 479 to the second gated road on the left, which is 479H.

Attractions and Considerations: This loop trail is fairly easy, though it has one steep climb. Begin behind the gate to 479H and follow this grass road for about 0.5 miles before turning left into the woods. Be sure to follow the blazes, because there are unmaintained trails that intersect this road. You will cross a small stream, then begin a short, but steep, climb. After 0.25 mile the trail turns sharply to the left then follows an easy grade through a nice hardwood forest. The trail crosses Beaten Branch then drops to Bent Creek. The trail again makes a sharp left turn as you parallel Bent Creek, and at times the trail is high above the creek. The remainder of the trail is fairly flat and wide and you will return to the gate where you began. Note: This trail is open seasonally to mountain bikes from October 15 to April 15.

Farlow Gap Trail

Distance: 3.1 miles
Blaze: Blue
Difficulty: Difficult
Maps: Shining Rock
Access: is either from the Art Loeb Trail at Farlow Gap or from the Daniel Ridge Trail. See access to Daniel Ridge Trail to find the start of Farlow Gap Trail.

Attractions and Considerations: From Daniel Ridge Trail, the Farlow Gap Trail goes left, or west. This trail starts with a moderate climb as it contours around Fork River Ridge and Daniel Ridge. From here to Farlow Gap, the trail becomes steep, with several switchbacks. Though it may be tempting at times, please do not leave the main trail because short-cutting switchbacks cause erosion. The Farlow Gap Trail, though strenuous at times, has great variety in scenery and vegetation. You will cross several streams and three separate ridges, so you will move from a forest of cove hardwoods such as yellow poplar and red oak to an upland hardwood forest of oak, black gum, and red maple. Waterfalls, cascades and an old mica mine are points of interest. You will also see old log bridges and a railroad trestle that remind us of the rich history of this area.

Graveyard Fields Trail

Distance: 3.2 Miles
Blaze: Blue
Difficulty: Easy
Maps: Shining Rock
Access: This trail begins at the Graveyard Fields Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. From the U.S. Highway 276 junction with the parkway, turn left, or south on the Parkway and continue to milepost 418.8 (about 6 miles).

Attractions and Considerations: This is a popular family hike because of its beauty and ease. A map at the parking area shows the Graveyard Fields trail system. The set of steps to the right of the map is the start of the trail. After crossing the bridge, the main trail goes left and upstream. A 0.25-mile trail to the right will take you to the bottom of the Lower Falls, which is a moderate descent. Rocks around waterfalls are very slippery. NEVER go to the top of any waterfalls. The main trail will take you through open, grassy areas, and past nice pools for wading on a hot summer day. Blueberries are abundant in the fall. After one mile, you will see the trail to the Upper Falls. This is a moderate climb of almost a mile to the base of an impressive waterfall. The main trail crosses the Yellow stone Prong and returns to the parking lot.

Graveyard Ridge Trail

Distance: 3.4 miles
Blaze: Orange
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Shining Rock
Access: Walk the Graveyard Fields Trail counterclockwise until intersecting the Graveyard Ridge Trail.

Attractions and Considerations: The first two miles of this trail are for hikers only because of the fragile soils. After leaving the Graveyard Fields Trail, you will climb through a grass bald up to an old railroad grade. These soils are very susceptible to erosion, so please stay on the main trail. Turn left onto the old railroad grade. There are outstanding views of Graveyard Fields and visibility as far as South Carolina on clear days. At Dark Prong Gap the trail will become a roadbed which is open to horses and mountain bikes. It is also open seasonally to four-wheel drives from August through January 2. See nature at its scenic best as you look across Dark Prong and Greasy Cove toward Mt. Pisgah. This trail ends at Ivestor Gap.

Be aware of changing weather conditions. If visibility is hampered due to fog, it is recommended to avoid this trail, since it is easy to become disoriented in these open areas.

Ivestor Gap Trail

Distance: 3.7 miles
Blaze: None
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Sam Knob, Shining Rock
Access: The trail begins at the Black Balsam Trailhead off of FS Road 816. This road leaves the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 420.

Attractions and Considerations: Ivestor Gap Trail is one of many that leave from the Black Balsam Trailhead. Check the bulletin board for other high-elevation trails. Ivestor Gap Trail begins as a roadbed, which is open to four-wheel-drive vehicles from mid-August until January second. The trail surface is rocky and rough for the first two miles. However, you’ll be rewarded with some outstanding views in clear weather. From Ivestor Gap, you may return to the parking area via the Art Loeb Trail for a beautiful, five-mile loop. Enjoy the spectacular views from grassy balds. From Ivestor Gap, the trail enters Shining Rock Wilderness and ends at Shining Rock Gap. Mountain bikes are not allowed in wilderness, and trails are maintained to the most primitive standards. Fires are prohibited. Group size often is enforced in Shining Rock Wilderness to preserve solitude and prevent resource damage.

Looking Glass Rock Trail

Distance: 3.1 miles
Blaze: Yellow
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Shining Rock

Access: From the Pisgah Ranger Station, go three miles north on U.S. Highway 276 and turn left onto FS Road 475, the road to the State fish hatchery. The trailhead is on the right after about 0.5 mile. Parking is available for 15 vehicles in a paved lot.

Attractions and Considerations: This popular trail receives heavy use throughout the summer and the autumn color season. It requires a constant climb all of the way up, so make sure you are in good physical condition before tackling this trail. Numerous switchbacks may tempt you to take shortcuts, but this causes a great amount of damage and erosion, so please stay on the trail. As you climb you will notice changing forest types as the soils become drier and less fertile. Table mountain pine seems to grow out of solid rock in some places. After two miles a spur trail to the left affords a beautiful view and is a good destination for those people who decide not to go all the way to the top. The last mile is steep, and the view seems to come from nowhere as the trail tops out and you gaze across a wide valley to high balds and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the distance.

Looking Glass Rock

Mount Pisgah Trail

Distance: 1.5 miles
Blaze: None
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Dunsmore Mountain, Cruso

Access: Drive 0.75 mile north of the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Mount Pisgah parking area. The trail begins at the far end of the parking area.

Attractions and Considerations: This trail takes you to the top of Mount Pisgah, from which many landmarks in this area receive their name. History tells us that a minister climbed this mountain and looked down upon the fertile French Broad River Valley and saw it as a “promised land.” Mount Pisgah is the point from which Moses looked into the Israelites’ Promised Land, hence the name.

On clear days, this trail is very popular because it offers a 360-degree view from the top. Though a short trail, it is fairly strenuous. There are some switchbacks and rock steps, which make the climb more manageable, along with benches that are placed at good locations for you to catch your breath. There is a viewing platform at the top, which was built by the Youth Conservation Corp in 1979. Aside from the WLOS TV tower, the view is unobstructed. On clear days you can see the French Broad River Valley, Asheville, Waynesville, and most points on the Pisgah District.

North Slope Trail

Distance: 4.5 miles
Blaze: Orange
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Pisgah Forest

Access: Turn onto the road to Davidson River campground, 0.25 miles south of the Pisgah Ranger Station on U.S. Highway 276. Park in the Art Loeb Trailhead parking lot. Cross the Davidson River bridge and follow the Exercise Trail, which overlaps the North Slope as far as the English Chapel. Mountain bikes must access the trail from the Riverside Loop in the campground, where it leaves from beside a restroom.

Attractions and Considerations: The trail parallels the Davidson River for over a mile and receives much use from children and families. About 0.25 mile after leaving the campground area, the trail turns to the left and climbs steadily uphill to the crest of North Slope Ridge. In early June travelers will see a beautiful display of mountain laurel along this section. Here the trail again turns left, but if you continue straight ahead on the North Slope Connector, blazed yellow, you will climb steeply to the Art Loeb Trail. From this point, the North Slope Trail descends gradually on an old road before ending at the campground amphitheater parking lot. Turn right onto the campground road and go 0.25 mile back to the Art Loeb Trailhead. This trail is open seasonally to mountain bikes from October 15 through April 15.

Pilot Cove/Slate Rock Trail

Distance: 4.3 miles
Blaze: Blue
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Dunsmore Mountain

Access: Follow U.S. Highway 276 north from the Pisgah Ranger Station for 11.5 miles, then turn right onto FS Road 1206. Go about 7.5 miles to the concrete bridge that crosses Slate Rock Creek. The trail begins on the left next to the creek.

Attractions and Considerations: This trail begins by following Slate Rock Creek. This is an easy to moderate grade with several stream crossings. Slate Rock Creek is typical of mountain streams with small cascades and an abundance of mosses and ferns. In the summer, wildflowers are prolific. The trail leaves Slate Rock Creek after almost three miles and climbs up Slate Rock Ridge. Here, at the gap, the Pilot Cove Loop intersects to the left. Continue straight ahead and the trail will descend to Pilot Cove. You will pass through some open, grassy fields before crossing the creek. You will cross the creek again, then pass the other end of Pilot Cove Loop. Shortly thereafter you will return to FS Road 1206. A left turn onto the road will bring you back to the start, after 1.5 miles. Many hikers opt for a car switch.

Pilot Rock Trail

Distance: 3.6 miles
Blaze: Orange
Difficulty: Difficult
Maps: Dunsmore Mountain

Access: Begin from the Pisgah Inn parking lot, milepost 410 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Look for the wooden trail map between the dorms and the Inn. Walk north on the trail toward the Buck Springs Lodge site. Pilot Rock Trail will intersect after 0.4 miles. The other end of the trail is on FS Road. 1206, 4.5 miles from U.S. Highway. 276. A car switch is necessary.

Attractions and Considerations: After leaving the parkway trail, the Pilot Rock Trail climbs up Little Bald Mountain, which is a grass savanna. In the summer you are likely to hear the drumming of ruffed grouse. The trail then descends moderately down a dry ridge until reaching the top of Pilot Rock. From here, you will have a breathtaking, 180-degree view of the surrounding mountains. Some of the most prominent features are the Pink Beds Valley, Cedar Rock, and Funneltop Mountain. After leaving the crest of Pilot Rock, you will come to the steepest section of trail. You will descend 600 feet in less than a mile on a series of switchbacks. The trail terminates on FS Road 1206 at Grassy Lot Gap.

Vineyard Gap Trail

Distance: 3.3 miles
Blaze: Yellow
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Pisgah Forest
Access: Begin from Turkey Pen Gap Trailhead at the end of FS Road 297. To reach this trailhead, take Highway 280 to the Transylvania/Henderson County line and turn northwest onto FS Road 297. It is a five-minute drive to the end.

Attractions and Considerations: Begin from the trailhead at a set of steps. The trail climbs moderately to the ridgetop of Forge Mountain. In the fall and winter, you’ll enjoy some nice views. Be sure to follow the paint blazes, because some unmaintained side trails intersect. From Forge Mountain, the trail makes a sharp turn and drops steeply to the South Mills River, which must be forded. A short side trip downstream will bring you to an old homesite, which still has the remains of the foundation. From the South Mills River crossing the trail is easy, though you must ford Bradley Creek three times. The last section of the trail is also open to horses. The trail ends at Bradley Creek Trail, the site of an old iron forge. Some nice campsites are along both South Mills River and Bradley Creek.

Art Loeb Trail, Section 1

Distance: 12.3 miles
Blaze: White
Difficulty: Difficult
USGS Maps: Shining Rock, Sam Knob
Access: Turn onto the road to Davidson River Campground, 0.2 miles south of Pisgah District Ranger Station on U.S. Highway 276. Park in the Art Loeb Trailhead parking lot. The other end of this section is at Gloucester Gap on FS Rd. 471, where overnight parking is not recommended.

Attractions and Considerations: The Art Loeb Trail, 30.1 miles long, is a national recreation trail and named after a local hiking enthusiast. The trail traverses beautiful, but rugged terrain from some of the lowest to some of the highest points on the Pisgah District. Most of the Art Loeb Trail is overlapped by the Mountains-to-the Sea Trail, which is blazed with three-inch white dots. Section 1 begins at the Davidson River and climbs steeply to Shut-in Ridge. Once up, don’t expect that the hard part is over. This trail will take you up and down knobs, along ridges, and down into several gaps. Points of interest include ridgetop views, Cedar Rock Mountain, and Butter Gap Shelter, where there is a spring.

Art Loeb Trail, Section 2

Distance: 7.2 miles
Blaze: White
Difficulty: Difficult
USGS Maps: Shining Rock, Sam Knob
Access: Start from Gloucester Gap, which is 4.5 miles west of the State Fish Hatchery on FS Road 475. (It is not recommended to leave cars overnight here.) See Access to trail #21 for directions to the other end of this section.

Attractions and Considerations: From Gloucester Gap the trail climbs to Pilot Mountain, a former fire tower site with a 360-degree view. In mid-May, the north side of Pilot Mountain is abloom with pink shell azalea. There is a shelter and spring at Deep Gap. The trail then climbs to the Blue Ridge Parkway, winding through a mature upland hardwood forest. From the Parkway it is a steep climb to Silvermine Bald where there is a transition from a hardwood forest to a spruce-fir forest.

Grass balds and an abundance of catawba rhododendron make this a good spot to hike in late June when these showy shrubs bloom. Near Silvermine Bald, the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail splits to the west while the Art Loeb Trail follows the ridge northeast to FS Road 816.

Art Loeb Trail, Section 3

Distance: 6.8 miles
Blaze: White
Difficulty: Difficult
USGS Maps: Shining Rock, Sam Knob, Cruso
Access: From U.S. Highway 276, travel 8 miles south on the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn onto FS Road 816. Go 1 mile to the crest of the hill, where the trail crosses.

Attractions and Considerations: The first half of this portion of the Art Loeb Trail is perhaps the most spectacular. Black Balsam and Tennant Mountains both exceed 6,000 feet in elevation. Grass balds provide outstanding views during clear weather, but at this high elevation, you can expect cold, rainy weather year-round. A beautiful five-mile loop may be made by combining the Art Loeb Trail with the Ivestor Gap Road. At Ivestor Gap the Art Loeb crosses in Shining Rock Wilderness. Be prepared to practice map-reading skills because there are no blazes or signs in the Wilderness. Wood fires are not permitted in Shining Rock and a group limit of 10 is enforced. Wilderness is managed for solitude and a primitive landscape; please help foster this by being quiet, choosing rest stops out of view, and using existing campsites. This section of the Art Loeb Trail ends at Deep Gap.

Black Mountain Trail

Distance: 9.8 miles
Blaze: White
Difficulty: Difficult
Maps: Pisgah Forest, Shining Rock
Access: Black Mountain Trail begins at the end of the parking lot next to the Pisgah District Work Center on U.S. Highway 276. The work center is 0.1 miles south of the ranger station.
Attractions and Considerations: This is a rugged trail, but is well worth the effort. Most of the trail is overlapped by the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which is marked by a white dot. Numerous trails intersect Black Mountain; check your map for loop opportunities. The first mile of this trail is fairly easy, but after leaving Thrift Cove, it climbs up and over Little Hickory Knob, an 800-foot elevation gain in less than a mile. From here, the trail becomes more moderate as you drop down to Pressley Gap then up the shoulder of Black Mountain. The view from the top of Clawhammer Mountain is a treat. Shortly after crossing the gravel road at Buckhorn Gap, you will come to Buckhorn Gap shelter, where there is a spring. From here, the trail climbs Soapstone Ridge, which offers nice views in the winter. The trail ends at Club Gap.

Buck Springs Trail

Distance: 6.2 miles
Blaze: White
Difficulty: Moderate
Maps: Shining Rock, Cruso

Access: Drive to the Pisgah Inn, Blue Ridge Parkway. Park in the Inn parking lot. The trail begins behind the dining room and goes southwest. Another access is from U.S. Highway 276, about 3 miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway (or 9 miles north of the ranger station).

Attractions and Considerations: Most hike this trail from the Pisgah Inn down to Highway 276, which requires a car switch. With the exception of the first half-mile, which is moderately steep, the trail is a gradual, sloping grade. The trail has 13 easy stream crossings while winding around 10 ridges. Many of these stream crossings have pretty cascades that are worth admiring. In the spring and early summer, this trail is alive with the sound of songbirds, which include a variety of warblers and vireos. Wildflowers are also abundant from April through October. This trail is truly a nature lover’s dream. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail overlaps Buck Springs for most of its length, but if hiking down from the Pisgah Inn, it will leave Buck Springs approximately one mile before reaching Hwy. 276 and drop steeply to the south. The Buck Springs Trail continues on an easy side slope to the west.

Buck Springs Overlook. Photo: Warren Reed

Mountains-To-Sea Trail

Distance: 57.6 miles
Difficulty: Difficult
Blaze: White Dot

Access: There are several access points to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail on the Pisgah District. The most used are the Art Loeb Trailhead, Black Mountain Trail, Shut-in Trail, or from NC Highway 215.

Attractions and Considerations: The Mountains-to-Sea Trail will eventually extend from one of the highest points in the North Carolina mountains, Clingman’s Dome, to the lowest elevations on the Outer Banks at Nag’s Head. It will cover almost 700 miles when it is completed. Plans call for completion by the year 2020. This will be a travel way with various sections open to hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and canoeing. The trail is completed through the Pisgah District and covers 57.6 miles. This is a strenuous trail, and after all of the ups and downs, you will have climbed over 20,000 feet in elevation! The trail enters the Pisgah District at Haywood Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway and leaves at the French Broad River. You will pass through just about every ecosystem found in the southern Appalachian Mountains from high-elevation grassy balds to cove hardwoods forests, and from mountain ridges to thickets of rhododendron. Though mainly a foot trail, some sections are open to mountain bikes. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail overlaps other district trails, listed below. It is identified by three-inch, white painted dots, with the exception of the Middle Prong Wilderness where routed wooden signs point the way. When overlapping other trails, you will also see the rectangular paint blaze used to identify them.

Trail Section Distances:
Middle Prong – 4.5 miles
Silvermine Bald – 2.0 miles
Art Loeb – 18.5 miles
Sycamore Cove – 1.0 mile
Black Mountain – 7.1 miles
Pink Beds – 3.1 miles
Buck Springs – 5.1 miles
Shut-in – 16.3 mile

Shut-In Trail

Distance: 16.3 miles
Blaze: White
Difficulty: Difficult
Maps: Dunsmore Mountain, Skyland, Asheville

Access: One end of the trail begins near the French Broad River where the Blue Ridge Parkway exit ramp intersects NC Highway 191. There is a small, gravel parking area here. The other end is at the Buck Springs Overlook near the Pisgah Inn. There are many access points along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Wooden posts with a white hiker symbol mark these crossings.

Attractions and Considerations: Shut-in Trail was probably named for the rhododendron thickets which makes the hiker feel “shut-in.” George Vanderbilt constructed this trail in the 1890s to reach his Buck Springs Hunting Lodge from the Biltmore House. Later, this route was converted to a hiking trail. It is now a part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. In 16.3 miles, the trail climbs from an elevation of 2,025 feet to 5,000 feet. In places, the ascent can be quite challenging. Except where the trail crosses the Parkway, it offers a quiet walk through beautiful hardwood forests with many nice views of the valleys below. Despite its proximity to the Parkway, this trail does not receive much use.

South Mills River Trail

Distance: 12 miles
Blaze: White
Difficulty: Difficult
Maps: Pisgah Forest
Access: You may begin from either the Turkey Pen Gap Trailhead at the end of FS Road 297, off of Highway 280 near the Transylvania/ Henderson County line, or from the end of FS Road 476 in the Pink Beds area. (Horse trailers should not go beyond the loop campsite on the right on FS Road 476 because there is no turn around at the end.)
Attractions and Considerations: Though this trail is on a relatively easy grade, there are nine bridgeless river crossings, thus the “Most Difficult” rating. From the end of FS Road 476, hike 4 miles to Wolf Ford, where there is a nice campsite. There is a suspension bridge for hikers, but from here to Cantrell Creek there are no bridges. You will notice signs of the old railroad for the length of the trail. Look for old trestles at a stream and river crossings. Due to the trail being located at the bottom of a steep valley, it remains cold in the winter but is very refreshing in the summer. Between Cantrell Creek and the Turkey Pen Gap Trailhead, there are suspension bridges for hikers to cross. There are numerous intersections with other trails for loop opportunities.

Turkey Pen Gap Trail

Distance: 5.5 miles
Blaze: Blue
Difficulty: Difficult
Maps: Pisgah Forest
Access: From the ranger station take Highway 276 south to Highway 280. Travel east on 280 about four miles to the Transylvania/Henderson County line and turn left onto FS Road 297. Follow FS Road 297 to the end. The trail begins from the parking lot. (This trailhead has limited parking.)

Attractions and Considerations: This is one of the most challenging trails on the Pisgah District, but is also one of the most pristine. The trail begins at Turkey Pen Gap and climbs steeply up to the top of Sharpy Mountain. If you survive this climb, you will most likely finish in good shape. Be prepared to cover a series of steep ascents and descents along the entire length of the trail. The trail follows the top of a ridge and affords scenic views into the South Mills River valley. An intersection with Wagon Road Gap Trail provides a loop hike when combined with South Mills River Trail. This trail ends at the Black Mountain Trail. Plan to carry any water you will need because most of the trail is on a dry ridge.