Cruel Descent to Paradise

Cruel Descent to Paradise

We chose Rich Falls for our Saturday hiking adventure after finding it in the third edition of Kevin Adams’ North Carolina Waterfalls guidebook. We wanted a crystal clear, private swimming hole, and a trail that would likely be deserted. I’m a social person when I have to be, but when Friday night arrives, I’m usually ready to spend time exclusively with my little family. When I’m alone in the woods with my daughter and husband it feels like the one place where I truly belong.

There was only one other car at the trailhead, and we started up an old roadbed studded with beautiful ferns, moss, and dog hobble on the forest floor. There were also the gold standard poplars, maples, mountain magnolias, and oaks. I listened to warblers singing, and the crunch of our feet, all while reminding my daughter to listen more and talk less. We jumped over shadows of sunlight dancing on our path, and plucked up a fallen mountain magnolia fruit that was still hard, green, and fragrant. It reminded us all of lemon, eucalyptus, and pine, and we took turns breathing it in as we walked along.

We hiked about three miles until the trail forked and it was time to look for the steep descent to the falls. I was fighting symptoms that felt like low blood sugar, and I was hiking much more slowly than my usual hearty pace. Jordan spotted a pink ribbon attached to a spindly tree, and I looked down with apprehension at the condition of the last leg of our journey. It wasn’t just that it was straight down without the falls in sight, but that the soil was loose and slippery. There were also low growing trees that would make for a claustrophobic scramble. I felt my internal battery powering down, and I was afraid that our seven-year-old wouldn’t be able to make it. I started down anyway because I knew the end result would be worth it. It always is!

We made it down to the falls, but hikers should keep in mind that this trail has a difficulty range of 4-9, and we reached the height of that range on this section. Our kiddo did just fine, but she’s an experienced hiker with an iron will. (Especially when there is water involved!)

Rich Falls Summer
Rich Falls Summer

We haven’t had a lot of rain this summer, so the falls was not running at its full glory.  I’d still give it a beauty rating of 7, and the plunge pool was pristine and second to none. The water was cold but incredibly refreshing, and we quickly discovered a natural water slide at the base of the falls, right before the pool. We went down feet first, head first, on our bellies, and on our sides, and we laughed into the waterfall’s roar.

We also discovered a carved out section of rock where the water gushed and flowed like the powerful jets of a hot tub. I lay down and stretched my arms above my head and let the water massage my neck and back; my body felt so good after.

Hanging Out in the Waterfall
Hanging Out in the Waterfall

We had to drag ourselves away with dinnertime approaching, and the trip out was so much more enjoyable than our descent. I loved searching for trees to hold onto, and feeling my leg muscles tighten as I stretched one leg high before bringing the other up to join it. At one point we saw a tree dangling, completely free from the earth, and we quickly scurried around it hoping it wouldn’t fall on one of our heads.

We were all alone with our thoughts on the way back to the car, and it was that perfect time of evening when the sun shines out through the trees like so many loving arms.

July 10, 2016Permalink 1 Comment

Catawba Falls Footbridge Construction Begins Next Week

Catawba Falls Footbridge Construction Begins Next Week

The hike to Catawba Falls has always involved a tricky rock-hop near the beginning of the trail. While it’s not terribly difficult or at all dangerous, it does represent an obstacle to some people who wish to enjoy the falls – especially dry!

The Forest Service long ago announced plans to improve the access to the falls, and it looks like that begins next week with construction on the footbridge near the parking area. We’ll keep updating as the project progresses. The full Forest Service announcement is below!


Alert

US Forest Service Logo

National Forests in North Carolina
160A Zillicoa St.
Asheville, N.C. 28801
Web: www.fs.usda.gov/nfsnc

Media Contact: Lisa Jennings, 828-337-1359

Catawba Falls Footbridge Construction Begins May 3

NEBO, N.C., April 29, 2016 – Construction is set to begin on Tuesday, May 3, 2016 for the footbridge across the Catawba River on the Catawba Falls Trail. The Catawba Falls Trail is a popular hiking trail near Old Fort, NC on the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest.

The Catawba Falls Trail will remain open, but the public can expect to see construction traffic in the area. The US Forest Service asks that visitors stay on established trails and steer clear of the construction area.

The Catawba Falls Trail Bridge project is part of a larger effort to provide safe access to Catawba Falls. For more information contact the Grandfather Ranger District at 828-652-2144.

April 30, 2016Permalink 1 Comment

Trip Report: Lover’s Leap Ridge and Pump Gap Loop

Trip Report: Lover’s Leap Ridge and Pump Gap Loop

Notice 4/22/15: A large wildfire has spread through the area described by this hike, and the trails are currently closed. We’ll update when they re-open, and hopefully go back for a visit to see what it looks like after it’s out.

Update 5/2/15: All trails in the Silver Mine area are open again as of today. We hope to be able to go back soon and check out what changes the fire made since our last visit in January.

Wanting to take a break from ski season, we decided to hit the trails back at the end of January. But not wanting to trudge through deep piles of wet white stuff either, we needed to find a spot that wouldn’t be buried in snow. A major storm had dumped several feet of it on the mountains about a week prior, and much of that was still hanging around.

So, looking at the snowfall maps, it appeared that the upper French Broad River area – near Hot Springs, NC – had been spared the brunt of the storm. There was a small segment of trail that I still hadn’t hiked near there, which I was hoping might be the ticket to a new “Best Hike” for our sites. It looked like I could hook it up into a moderate difficulty loop. So, with the family piled in the car, that’s where we headed. Luckily, the snow did appear to thin out as we neared the trailhead and – having warmed up considerably – what was left was melting fast.

We started out at the Silvermine trailhead, going up the Appalachian Trail beside the French Broad River. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny, windy mid-winter day and the river was flowing nicely and surprisingly clear. I stopped to get this shot of the spot where Silver Mine Branch, which we would encounter again later on, flows into the larger river.

French Broad River and Silver Mine Creek
French Broad River and Silver Mine Creek, with the Hot Springs Campground on the other side.

The trail passed a bluff, a USGS river gauging station, and then started through a series of switchbacks as it climbed up Lover’s Leap Ridge. The grade is never too steep, and the trail is well-built, so even my 6 year old didn’t have too much trouble with it. About halfway up, though, we heard a knocking and crashing sound followed by what sounded like something racing through the leaves. Downhill, directly toward us. My wife and daughter took off running back down the trail – wisely – while I stood there transfixed and watch as this stone shot out of the trees to a stop right in the middle of the trail just ahead of me!

Watch for Falling Rocks
Watch for Falling Rocks

Obviously, the freeze-thaw action was taking its toll on the loose rocks on the bluff up above, and I could now see where more of them – some much bigger than the one in that picture, too – were piled against the uphill sides of the trees beside the trail. Needless to say, we scooted on through there in a hurry to get past the crumbling action, ever mindful of the possibility of more rockfall happening up the slope. Thankfully none did.

That brought us quickly to the main event there on Lover’s Leap Ridge: the overlooks with excellent views back down to the French Broad River and the town of Hot Springs. It wasn’t the most photogenic day for the view, with the hazy air and harsh afternoon sunlight, but I couldn’t help snapping some pictures while the girls enjoyed a break and a snack.

View from Lover's Leap Ridge
View from Lover's Leap Ridge

Shortly beyond the viewpoints, the Appalachian Trail reaches the junction with the Lover’s Leap trail, which makes its way back down to the Silvermine trailhead for a nice, but short, 1.6 mile hike. We had a longer loop in mind, though, so we continued on the Appalachian Trail for its procession up the spine of the ridge. At one point, the ridge narrows and sports this knife-like rock outcropping, with steep slopes dropping away on either side.

Appalchian Trail on Lover's Leap Ridge
Appalchian Trail on Lover's Leap Ridge

Pockets of snow began to appear as we climbed, more of course on the north slope of the ridge. But that’s where the Appalachian Trail goes after cresting the top of the ridge and starting its descent toward Pump gap. I was a bit concerned that we might encounter some deeper snow and difficult going, but luckily the worst we found were a few stretches that were still covered with packed snow, interspersed with longer bare areas. We could feel the starkly colder air draining down the coves while the ridges remained warm and sunny.

Snow on the North Slope
Snow on the North Slope

The trail intersects the Pump Gap Loop trail in – wait for it – Pump Gap! The gap is purportedly named for a former water pump which delivered water to the now-abandoned town of Runion, NC, down the mountain to the right of the Appalachian Trail. For our hike, we turned left, into a grove of hemlock trees which have been saved (for now) from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid.

That stretch of the Pump Gap Loop trail – which was the part I hadn’t hiked yet – descends rapidly and almost immediately passes the headwaters of a tributary stream, which gains steam as you descend. The valley got very deep and steep slopes towered on either side. Trees towered overhead, too, as they strain to grow upwards to find some sunlight. In very short order, after a particularly steep and slick section of trail and a side stream crossing, we reached the other side of the Pump Gap Loop trail – a segment I had already hiked before. We turned left onto the out-and-back portion of the Pump Gap Loop trail, which is shaped more like a lollipop or lasso than a pure loop.

As we neared the Silvermine campground, the stream got larger and so did the trees. A mix of hemlocks, hardwoods, and white pines stretch as tall as they can in that cove. The stream has carved a deep notch into the mountainside and nearly vertical slopes rise on both sides in some places. Unfortunately, the stream has also swallowed the trail in a few spots. Luckily, these are short, and though they were a tad trickier to navigate than the intact sections of trail, it wasn’t anything my 6-year old couldn’t handle.

Steep Slope beside Pump Gap Loop Trail
Steep Slope beside Pump Gap Loop Trail

We managed to make good time for a change and found ourselves closing in on the parking area with plenty of light, even on this short winter day. The trail passes a couple of these old explosives sheds before making an appearance at the campground I’m not sure if these are used anymore – I suspect not – but the concrete bunker construction style, containers piled up against the side, and warning labels with their to-the-point message relegated us to observing from a distance.

Old Explosives Shed beside Pump Gap Loop Trail
Old Explosives Shed beside Pump Gap Loop Trail

After a short climb around the campground, back to the other end of the Lover’s Leap trail, the Pump Gap Loop makes its final descent down into the Silvermine parking area to complete the hike. I’ve been wanting to try this loop for a while, and I was hopeful that it would strike a good balance between scenery, distance, and difficulty to earn it a spot as a Best Hike on our site. I’m happy to report that it has done just that and I’ll be writing that up soon!

The above map is a raw GPS track of our route. All data in our raw GPS files are un-verified and un-corrected. Please see our Hiking, Mountain Biking, or Waterfalls sites for our guidebook-style curated information for each road and/or trail.

Trip Report: Pisgah Water Everywhere, and Much of it Falling

For the 10 days leading up to New Year’s Eve, we’d had a lot of rain in the southern Appalachians. Really, it was a tremendous stretch of wet weather. So, I just had to get out and look for some waterfalls once the clouds finally parted. My destination was the Davidson River area of Pisgah National Forest, where many well-known falls (such as Looking Glass) are located. Specifically, I was headed to the base of the Pisgah Ridge which stands to the northwest of the more level areas around the Pink Beds.

Many streams coming off that line of mountains sports a waterfall, it seems, just before spilling out into the flatter areas below. I’m not sure what the geology is that spurs this, but I’d already explored one waterfall on the stream beside the Barnett Branch trail, and I’d seen pictures of one waterfall on Pigeon Branch, another on Poundingmill Branch, another in Bennett Cove, and one on a stream in between. Further south, of course, there is Log Hollow Falls and a waterfall on each tributary north and south of that.

All are clearly visible on the high-detail terrain maps available nowadays, which are far better at revealing waterfalls hidden under the tree canopy than the old USGS topo maps ever were. So after browsing the maps, I found another stream draining the ridge where I suspected I’d find some falling water – a tributary of Thompson Creek. It’s the stream that drains the slope right below the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Flat Laurel Gap, and it exhibits that same familiar “kink” pattern on the map right where it crosses the foot of Thompson Ridge.

Kinky creek. Waterfall?
Kinky creek. Waterfall?

I’d not seen any photos of a waterfall on that stream so I figured it’d be a good one to explore and document if my hunch was correct. So that became my primary target as I headed out on a partly cloudy day, with temps in the 50’s – far cooler than we’d had in the preceding week where it’d been in the 70’s, but still warm for late December and perfect weather for my planned activities. I decided the waterfall on Poundingmill Branch would be my backup/second destination.

Before even arriving at my first hike, though, I was treated to scads of other wet-weather falls as I drove up US 276 from Brevard. There was one visible across the Davidson River just before the Coontree picnic area, on Stillwater Branch, for example. There’s a waterfall on a tributary between Looking Glass Falls and Moore Cove, which you’d never see except in winter with tons of water flow. It’s at a small pullout with a picnic table, up the cove across the creek. There was a waterfall visible in the tiny drainage east of Moore Cove – not too big, but a flash of free-falling water clearly visible through the woods nonetheless. And there were at least two of them – high ones – coming off Looking Glass Rock just south of Sliding Rock, visible from a pull-off on US 276 above a larger cascade on Looking Glass Creek.

And these were just the ones visible from the road! Imagine how many little falls must be tucked away in the folds of these hills when the water pours like this. I was doing just that as I drove down Yellow Gap Road (FS 1206) into the parking area for my first hike. Luckily, the gate was still open and I was able to drive all the way to the Thompson Creek trailhead as I had planned.

In almost no time, I was able to determine that the suspect tributary has a nice series of falls indeed. The “kinks” in the stream bed visible on the map were just upstream of where the Thompson Creek Trail crosses the tributary. And there’s not much to say about this one except that after a short hike on the trail, crossing the tributary, and taking a left upstream through the woods, I very shortly arrived at a waterfall just like I had expected. And it was actually a pretty nice one!

Lower Section of Waterfall on Tributary of Thompson Creek
Lower Section of Waterfall on Tributary of Thompson Creek

That drop wasn’t enough of an elevation difference to account for what I’d seen on the map, though, and I suspected more sections of falls were upstream. So up I went, and there were. Trouble is, they weren’t nearly as nice as the lowermost drop, and they were far more difficult to reach. I had to clamber up slopes way too steep for safety and comfort, and claw my way through curtains of stabbing greenbrier before confirming that the waterfalls existed. Here’s some pics of the middle and upper sections:

Middle Section of Waterfall on Tributary of Thompson Creek
Middle Section of Waterfall on Tributary of Thompson Creek
Upper Section of Waterfall on Tributary of Thompson Creek
Upper Section of Waterfall on Tributary of Thompson Creek

I probably won’t be visiting these again, as doing so would undoubtedly cause damage to the area. It’s just too easy to dislodge the thin soil overlying the rocks despite my best efforts. The upper drops would also be disappointing visually in anything less than very high water. Do check out the lower drop, but unless you simply must knock them off your list I don’t really recommend trying to reach the upper two at all. But I guess I’m glad to have the pictures!

Having knocked that off the list with time to spare, I headed back to the car and drove back to US 276, past the Pink Beds picnic area, and to a small pull-off beside the highway at Poundingmill Branch for my next hike. I knew there was a waterfall on this stream – I’d seen pictures of it, and marked the spot on my map. Now it was just a matter of finding it myself.

Well, that turned out to be easy. So much for my delusions of adventure for the day! An old logging trail, visible on the USGS topo maps, leads less than 1/2 mile up the left side of the creek to within sight of the falls. It’s an unofficial but obvious path, and I could even see where someone had surreptitiously cut back the growth to keep it relatively clear and easy to follow. From the end it’s just a short walk through fairly open woods to the base of the falls – not even a very steep climb.

The ridge closes around the stream into a sort of cirque, and the falls is at the head of that curved rock section. Smaller falls stream down the rock face to the right of the main one. It’s really quite a spectacular area.

Waterfall on Poundingmill Branch
Waterfall on Poundingmill Branch

But despite being a high, pretty waterfall close to a major highway, it appears to be relatively unknown with little in the way of evidence of people visiting it. If you promise to Leave No Trace, and are at all familiar with off-trail hiking, this one is highly recommended. The biggest challenge here was simply not slipping into the creek where I crossed it to get a picture, and not disturbing the lush greenery growing on the rocks below the falls.

An old logging road – FS 5032, now grassed-over and open to hiking – splits off from FS 475B (Headwaters Road) and ends in a small clearing just below the falls, providing an alternate access route. From its end, I could barely see but easily hear the falls. You could hike to the end of that road and wander up to the falls from there; or, you could do what I did, and take the trail up the stream to the falls and the road back, making a loop hike. I did this to prolong my time in the woods a bit.

The road passes through some more clearings. I went slowly, snapping pictures of the developing sunset above the open grassy areas lined with tall trees. At one point there were some vernal pools on the road containing blobs of frog eggs. Now that the weather is turning cooler, I hope those little guys survive any ice that forms to see spring!

A few more streams flow under the grassy road. On a whim, I turned up one of them, winding gently uphill into another grassy wildlife opening. Lo and behold, I spotted another waterfall coming off the ridge up above the meadow. That one also had an easy trail leading right up to its base. It was a bit more difficult to get into position for a decent picture, however. After a failed attempt at slip-sliding my way up the creek bed toward the bottom of the falls, I was forced to go back down, cross the creek downstream a bit, and go up the ridge until an opening presented itself through the trees. But it was worth it, because here’s what I saw:

Waterfall on Tributary of Looking Glass Creek
Waterfall on Tributary of Looking Glass Creek

There are a couple more drops above the section shown in this photo. It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re hiking on FS 5032. I slipped out of the cove with the light beginning to fade quickly.

After passing the gate on FS 5032, I turned left on FS 475B for about 0.2 mi. to US 276, then followed it for another 0.2 mi. back to my parking spot. I just just enough light to make it back without really needing a flashlight – although I did break it out when I dropped a key trying to fumble the door lock open. Glad I brought one this time!

Here’s some video from the upper falls on the tributary of Thompson Creek, and the falls on Poundingmill Branch.

Map Note: once again, I forgot to turn on my GPS until I’d already reached the falls, so the map below shows only my Poundingmill hike, starting at the falls and taking the road back. Connect the ends of the red line to see the approximate route I initially followed up the creek.

The above map is a raw GPS track of our route. All data in our raw GPS files are un-verified and un-corrected. Please see our Hiking, Mountain Biking, or Waterfalls sites for our guidebook-style curated information for each road and/or trail.

Trip Report: Lower Trace Ridge Reroute

Trip Report: Lower Trace Ridge Reroute

The lower portion of the Trace Ridge Trail, located in the North Mills River area of Pisgah National Forest, has recently been re-routed. It was a years-long project spearheaded by Pisgah Area SORBA, and one of the first volunteer-built sections of significant new trail in these parts of Pisgah National Forest for a while. We had just enough time last weekend to go check it out, and I wanted to re-visit some of the recently logged areas in light of the whole Forest Plan Revision and logging debate that’s going on right now.

So off we went, down North Mills River Road from the huge new Ingles supermarket on NC Hwy. 280, and we parked at the Trace Ridge trailhead parking area.

Trace Ridge Trailhead Sign
Trace Ridge Trailhead Sign

It was a very warm day for December 13, much like the weather we’d been having all month thanks to El Nino this year. The parking area was packed. FS 479 was closed beyond the turn off onto Hendersonville Reservior Road, which is the road that leads to the Trace Ridge trailhead, and the area around that gate was packed as well – folks like to park there and ride up 479 to loop back on Spencer Gap, Spencer Branch, and/or upper Trace Ridge trails.

We were on foot today, so we parked as close to the section of trail we were exploring as we could get. The trail starts on the same old road bed as before the reroute, south of the parking area, and it soon entered an area that was logged in 2014. The old road is quickly becoming a singletrack trail again.

Lower Trace Ridge Trail Clearing
Lower Trace Ridge Trail Clearing

After ambling along a fairly level stretch of trail on the ridge beside the new clearing, the trail re-entered the woods and reached the point where it used to have a junction with the Wash Creek Trail. Formerly, it began a steep, eroded descent toward the river here. But now, the eroded portion straight ahead is closed, and the uppermost portion of the Wash Creek trail has been renamed to Trace Ridge.

Lower Trace Ridge Reroute Sign
Lower Trace Ridge Reroute Sign

So the trail now turns sharply left, and begins a steeper descent on what used to be Wash Creek Trail. The downhill is short, only going as far as the old road bed Wash Creek Trail follows, and it enters the clearing again. Unfortunately, this stretch is too steep and is already eroding. Hopefully with some sustained heavy maintenance, it can be kept in check.

Lower Trace Ridge Reroute Curve
New trail for the Trace Ridge reroute on the left, former Wash Creek trail on the right. The former Wash Creek stretch, which is now more heavily used after the reroute, is already eroding with the extra traffic from Trace Ridge.

At the bottom of the hill, the Trace Ridge Trail now turns right onto the newly built segment. This new stretch of trail was a long time in the making, but it was done carefully. Using the latest in sustainable trailbuilding techniques, and a combination of hand work and machine grading, the trail already blends in well with the landscape as it winds through mostly short trees, tall rhododendron, and twisted mountain laurels. Some portions look like they could’ve been there for decades already.

Lower Trace Ridge Rerouted Section
Lower Trace Ridge Rerouted Section

The trail is not far up the slope from the creek, and although it is a descent overall, it is never steep. It only goes uphill for very short stretches to reverse the grade and get the water off. Otherwise, it is a nice hike with only a couple of spots hosting any rocks or mud. The muddy areas might need some touch-up work as time goes on to keep them in check, but otherwise it looks like this trail can be easily maintained over the long haul – not something that could be said of the route the trail originally followed.

Plus, it has a few fun features for mountain bikers to enjoy – some banked turns, grade dips, and patches of rocks. Nothing like the technical old route, but enough to keep it from becoming boring. Nice work! I only wish I’d had more time to come out and contribute to the project while it was ongoing.

In no time, the trail reaches the river bottom, where there is a clearing and the junction with North Mills River trail next to a huge oak tree.

Lower Trace Ridge at North Mills River Trail
Lower Trace Ridge at North Mills River Trail

To the right at the junction, you can see the bottom of the old Trace Ridge Trail, and why it was re-routed. The erosion on that last stretch of trail was considerable.

Lower Trace Ridge Old Eroded Trail
Lower Trace Ridge Old Eroded Trail

We had some more time to explore, but unfortunately there’s not many places you can go down here on foot – unless you’re ready to get really wet. Despite the warm December day on which we were hiking, that wasn’t really in the plan so we just did what we could.

First, we went left down to the river. The trail almost immediately crosses it, so we stopped and just watched the water flow for a bit. On the other side, the trail makes its way through what is currently a chunk of private property down to FS 1206 just west of the N. Mills River Campground and Recreation Area.

Unfortunately, that stretch of trail was closed when the property, which is completely surrounded by National Forest land, changed owners in the mid-2000’s. The new owner, who was a developer, had planned on building a large residential project in this “hole” in the National Forest, but Henderson County shot down those plans. Thankfully.

Last I heard, the property owner had ended up placing a conservation easement on most of the land, including the trail, and conservation organizations were waiting on funding to complete a purchase of the property outright. When and if that happens, perhaps that will open up some more possibilities for hiking and riding in this area. Until then, don’t trespass. We turned around.

Next, we headed upstream on the North Mills River trail through the clearing to its next crossing. This one has a bridge, however. A small path leads right just before the ford to a neat suspension bridge which will let you keep your feet dry.

North Mills River Trail Suspension Bridge
North Mills River Trail Suspension Bridge

It’s been a long time since I crossed this bridge, because it’s kind of a “bridge to nowhere”. The only thing it allows you to access is a short stretch of trail on the other side of the river, which does have a nice campsite area. But other than that, nothing. There are no trail junctions from which to form loops or extended trips upriver without fording it multiple times. There are two of these fords before the next trail junction (Yellow Gap Trail), and half a dozen before the trail ends on Hendersonville Reservoir Road. It’s a beautiful, but wet, slog.

Hopefully, in the future, a connector can be made to the stretch of trail that is now on private property just downstream on the other side of the bridge, and a couple of the loops of river that the trail now fords could be bypassed. That could bring the number of wet crossings down to a manageable one (1), and with another bridge a that crossing you could even stay dry the entire way up to Hendersonville Reservoir Road, while accessing Yellow Gap Trail and the trail to the N. Mills River Recreation Area. That would really open up the possibilities for cold-weather trips in this area.

Until then, bring spare dry gear, some sturdy hiking poles (or a bike) for stability on the slippery rocks, and prepare to get soaked – or just do what we did and turn around at the first ford.

North Mills River Crossing.
North Mills River Crossing. Darla didn’t know we were turning around and made a great effort at fording the river.

From there, we ambled back across the bridge, through the clearing, and back up the Trace Ridge Trail to the parking area making for an uneventful yet pleasant short hike. I did stop to take some more photos in the logged area and get a better sense of what impacts logging has on recreation in the National Forests.

Lower Trace Ridge Logging Clearing.
Lower Trace Ridge logging clearing. OK here, but definitely not in some places, mmkay?

While logging doesn’t preclude the opportunity for recreation in the area, the clearings are somewhat unsightly until they start growing back, but that happens quickly. Rather than clearcutting, modern Forest Service harvests like this one tend to leave some trees remaining to provide seed stock for the next generation of trees, which also serves to greatly lessen their visual impact. But the clearings can still get really hot in the summer for recreational users since the sun now pours in.

New road building is probably the worst impact from contemporary logging projects, as it can silt streams, sever trails, prompt landslides on steep slopes, and remain visible far longer than the cleared areas do as it more or less permanently alters the landscape.

Ultimately, the impact on recreation from logging (especially mountain biking) in nondescript parts of the forest like this is not a deal-breaker, and projects like this one illustrate that it can be done responsibly. No new roads were built – only existing ones were re-opened. Waterways like Wash Creek were buffered from cutting and remained pristine (visually at least). And the trees are growing back, even more vigorously than before, providing open areas for wildlife and a yield of sustainable timber products to boot. It’s not all bad.

But this area isn’t Laurel Mountain, Cedar Rock, or Harper Creek, either. It’s not Big Ivy, with its vast acreage of old-growth forest and extraordinary biological status. It’s not a rare high-elevation valley filled with bogs and rimmed with cliffs on all sides like Panthertown. As far as I’m concerned, I’m okay with responsible logging projects in places like North Mills River if they can leave the truly incomparable areas elsewhere alone. And I’m hoping that makes it into the new forest plan which will be in force for a long time to come when it’s done.

I’m glad I was able to check out the lower Trace Ridge Trail re-route and logging project aftermath, but without some improved connections I imagine I won’t be doing this trail again until I’m ready to get really wet!

The above map is a raw GPS track of our route. All data in our raw GPS files are un-verified and un-corrected. Please see our Hiking, Mountain Biking, or Waterfalls sites for our guidebook-style curated information for each road and/or trail.
December 21, 2015Permalink Leave a comment

Our Comments on the Pisgah and Nantahala Wilderness Evaluations

Our Comments on the Pisgah and Nantahala Wilderness Evaluations

Below are the comments I am submitting to the National Forests in NC regarding their Wilderness Inventory Evaluation process, which is underway as a part of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Plan Revision. They’re looking for very specific, particularly formatted comments, so due to time, I was not able to comment on all the areas I’d like to. However, I did draw up some comments for areas I felt particularly strongly about.

Where I didn’t write up any specific comments, I support the talking points produced by The Wilderness Society‘s North Carolina Mountain Treasures project. Those talking points, and the general plan outlined there, has become the basis for a proposal, the Conservation and Recreation Memorandum of Understanding, submitted to the Forest Service by a large and diverse group of organizations related to outdoor recreation in Western NC.

That proposal does not recommend wilderness designation for all of the areas the Forest Service is evaluating, nor any of the areas of the forest where mountain biking trails are currently available. However, it does recommend a baseline level of protection for all of the wilderness inventory areas which excludes most commercial logging. It proposes two new National Recreation Areas, one in Grandfather and one in Pisgah, which I also strongly support, and places areas with mountain biking trails in Backcountry rather than Wilderness areas.

The primary difference between the Talking Points/MOU and my comments are that I support Wilderness for Lost Cove but not Harper Creek in the Grandfather Mountain/Wilson Creek area.

If you would like to submit your comments, I recommend doing so using this form, which implores the Forest Service to open up discussion about management areas other than wilderness before the final plan alternatives are drafted. The language in that form addresses the whole issue I have with this part of the process, which is that they don’t seem to be taking comments on anything but wilderness at this time, and have provided very little feedback since last year’s heated discussion about what they might do to change other controversial management area proposals.

Wilderness-specific comments I submitted to the forest service start below this line, adhering to their proscribed format as closely as possible.


From: Jordan Mitchell, jordan@wncoutdoors.info
To: NCplanrevision@fs.fed.us
Subject: Wilderness evaluation input

I would like to submit the following comments relating to the Wilderness evaluation for your review before the alternatives to the new forest plan are completed.

For any of the inventory areas or evaluation categories I have not explicitly commented on, I concur with and hereby submit the comments published by the North Carolina Mountain Treasures project accessible via their web page “WIA Chart for Public Comment” (http://www.ncmountaintreasures.org/wia-chart-for-public-comment/) and the multi-organization Conservation and Recreation Memorandum of Understanding (http://www.ncmountaintreasures.org/conservation-and-recreation-memorandum-of-understanding/) regarding the wilderness inventory.

Specific Area Comments

We have specific comments to submit about the following inventory areas.

Wilson Creek

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

Poaching by mountain bikers of many trails in this area is frequent; however, there is an argument to be made that these (as well as some surrounding ones) would make great mountain bike trails and there is a greater demand for that activity region-wide.

2c) Other Solitude or Recreation

While the opportunities for recreation are excellent here, they do not necessarily feel as “unconfined” nor wilderness-like as they should for a proper wilderness designation, in my opinion.

Management

5d) Inholdings

Owing partly to the private inholding at the end of FS 4001, the area feels more fragmented than wilderness should.

5e) Ownership, Management, and/or Use of Adjacent Lands

Progressively busy roads and trails as you climb Grandfather Mountain toward the headwaters streams impact the wilderness quality downstream. While these are not present in the inventory area, they are ever present in my mind, looming above, when exploring the area.

Wilson Creek Conclusion

I would not be in support of new wilderness recommendation for the Wilson Creek area; however, I support its placement in a Management Area that maintains its roadless and natural character such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area).


Lost Cove

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

This area has considerably more designated Old Growth than, for example, the nearby Harper Creek area. The stream is wild and free-flowing, with waterfalls, large boulders, exposed rock, and deep, clear pools – all consistent with a Wilderness experience. The cliff-top areas, offering views down into the cove, show almost no evidence of human impact and feel exceptionally representative of the type of wild, natural appearance I’ve come to associate with wilderness.

1c) Presence and Extent of Improvements

Logging road beds do not appear to be as numerous or prominent in this watershed on the ground than surrounding ones, with the possible exception of FS 464A which is becoming obliterated into more of a trail as it descends to the creek.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

Of all the inventoried areas in the Grandfather Mountain region, Lost Cove has always felt to me like it has the greatest opportunities for solitude. Deeper ingress into the upper watershed area is difficult to downright prohibitive. The large stream in the cove makes for difficult water crossings, without many bridges, turning people back and enhancing solitude beyond them.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

The trail network is extensive enough to allow access to the area, but there is much less “poaching” of trails by mountain bikers in this area than, say, the Harper Creek or Wilson Creek areas. While other inventory areas are easily accessed from Forest Service roads, the Lost Cove area itself feels “cut off” from the rest of the forest and is only accessible via (at least) moderate to strenuous trails on remote sections of roads, or by cross-country trekking. Most visitor traffic stays very close to these easier access points and visitors do not penetrate into the heart of the wilderness study area as frequently.

Unique and Outstanding Qualities

4b) Outstanding Scenery or Landscape Features

The watershed is lined by mountains with foreboding cliffs on 3 sides. The eponymous stream is wide and wild, with waterfalls and huge boulders.

4e) High Quality Water Resources or Important Watershed Features

Nearly the entire Lost Cove watershed is under Forest Service ownership, making its water quality during and even long after rain events visibly higher than that of nearby areas such as Upper Wilson Creek or Harper Creek.

4f) Other Unique and Outstanding Qualities

Even the area’s name itself is evocative of wilderness!

Management

5a) Size, Shape, Configuration, and Boundaries

Waterways are such a huge part of the Southern Appalachian wilderness recreation experience. Having an entire watershed above a certain point open to recreation, without impedance, is a compelling force for an area to represent wilderness. In Lost Cove, nearly the entire watershed, from headwaters near the Blue Ridge Parkway to where Lost Cove Creek exits onto private land near Edgemont, is under public ownership. There are only a few exceptions along the very spine of the ridge. The opportunity to explore almost the entire Lost Cove watershed area, from down where Lost Cove Creek appears more like a river than a creek near Hunt-Fish Falls, all the way up to the headwaters and surrounding cliff-top mountain peaks (Big & Little Lost Cove Cliffs, Timber Ridge), unimpeded all the way by human significant intrusions (including private inholdings, busy roads, or even any significant evidence of past logging or development) is extremely compelling of a wilderness recreation experience to me.

This makes the area feel more “intact” than the surrounding inventory areas, which are much more fragmented. This type of recreation is much like what can be had in Shining Rock, Middle Prong, and Southern Nantahala wilderness areas farther south where entire watersheds are contained within wilderness.

5e) Ownership, Management, and/or Use of Adjacent Lands

The only private inholdings in the watershed – which are outside the wiilderness study area – are small and high up on the watershed, around the margins of the area, and have less of an impact than they would if they were inholdings deeper inside the wilderness or watershed boundary, as in Wilson Creek and Harper Creek. Ultimately, the presence of private land on the margins of the watershed area are not a tremendous impact on the wilderness quality of the Lost Cove area, which is significant.

Lost Cove Conclusion

Of all the areas in the Grandfather Mountain/Wilson Creek area, I support Lost Cove as the best candidate area for continued wilderness recommendation.


Harper Creek

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

While the peripheral trails are mostly on logging roads, the trails along the main stem of Harper Creek up to S. Harper Creek Falls, and along N. Harper Creek past Bard Falls and N. Harper Creek Falls pass through areas that do appear natural and unimpeded – provided that there are no water quality issues at the time.

1c) Presence and Extent of Improvements

Unfortunately there is a good bit more evidence of human intrusion into this area, including old logging road and railroad beds, some of which are appallingly eroded (such as Raider Camp).

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

Harper Creek has an extremely popular trailhead at Harper Creek Falls making it downright crowded most weekends all the way past the heavily used campsites up to the falls. Trash, discarded clothing, and permanently affixed ropes are common at the falls. Another area where you’re guaranteed to find company is at South Harper Creek Falls, and North Harper Creek Falls typically has at least few visitors due to its ease of access.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

Heavy poaching by mountain bikers of almost all trails in this area is frequent. However, the presence of private in-holdings, roads, and past human intrusion is much less impactful on the experience of mountain biking than traditional wilderness recreation and I believe expansion of mountain biking opportunities in this area is appropriate.

Management

5e) Ownership, Management, and/or Use of Adjacent Lands

The upper parts of the watershed have private inholdings at Kawana and at the headwaters of North Harper Creek which are readily visible from within the inventory area and highly popular scenic areas (S. Harper Creek Falls). And it is not unusual for there to be visible water quality issues (muddy water) downstream from these, making a long and obvious human impact all the way down the stream. The headwaters of the area’s streams, which would be a natural target for exploration, are not even part of the inventory area and are relatively highly developed.

Harper Creek Conclusion

I would not be in support of continued wilderness recommendation for the Harper Creek area; rather, I support its placement in a Management Area that maintains its roadless and natural character such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area) but allows activities such as mountain biking.


Black Mountains

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

The interior sections of this inventory area are so rugged and remote that the natural character is largely intact and not noticeably modified by humans at all. Areas near the very southern margin of the inventory area can experience noise intrusion from (primarily motorcycles on) the Blue Ridge Parkway and NC Hwy. 128 as it climbs to Mt. Mitchell; however, impacts are infrequent and not pervasive across the entire area.

1b) Deviations from the Natural Condition

Old logging roads, old railroad grades, and remnant clearings are present mostly in the southern part of the area. These areas have not been logged in a very long time and are reverting nicely to a natural condition. Especially north of Maple Camp Bald, there is very little evidence of deviation from the natural condition.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

The steep slopes of the Black Mountains and drainage valleys below present nearly unlimited opportunities for solitude. Undocumented high waterfalls and other significant natural features that are “not on the map” so to speak lead me to believe that some of these areas haven’t been visited by humans in years. The foreboding terrain makes solitude a near guarantee within.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

Trails in the margins of the area (Mt. Mitchell, Black Mountains Crest) and the Buncombe Horse Range trail do allow recreational users to access the area, but typically receive low usage (for areas farther from parking) which is consistent with wilderness. These trails are not used by mountain bikers or other mechanized users and wouldn’t be enjoyable for that type of use, making the issue of poaching here less concerning.

Black Mountains Conclusion

I believe the Black Mountains inventory area is a good candidate area for a new wilderness recommendation in the Pisgah National Forest and am in support of it in this area (especially north of Mt. Mitchell/Rock Creek drainage basin).


Craggy

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

In addition to the evidence of logging from the valley floor up to the Laurel Creek Road (FS 5548) corridor, noise from the Blue Ridge Parkway (especially motorcycle noise) is present in the upper reaches of the area. Noise impacts lessen considerably north of Walker Ridge toward Corner Rock and Big Butt and deeper into the existing wilderness study area, where there is little evidence of human intrusion of any kind. Any noise intrusion drops off in areas where the most solitude can be expected, which is consistent with wilderness.

Additionally, the slopes below Brush Fence Ridge make an excellent, gradual transition from Northern Hardwood forest to the Spruce-Fir forest zone, a transition which is even less like the hard lines found in the Mount Mitchell area due to past logging activity. It is a very natural-appearing area in addition to its considerable ecological value.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

Off-trail hiking is difficult yet rewarding above FS 5548 up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and from Corner Rock up to the Big Butt trail near Little Butt/Point Misery.

2a) Solitude

The existing Wilderness Study area is an excellent opportunity to find solitude even though it is not considered very large by wilderness standards. The area is rugged and foreboding, yet still accessible via Stony Fork Road and FS 74/Douglas Falls trail. The areas in the triangle between Corner Rock, Big Butt, and Point Misery, including Locust Pen Gap, are not normally visited and also consistent with wilderness.

These experiences provide excellent opportunities for solitude and are consistent with wilderness recreation.

Visitors are far less likely to find solitude in the area downslope of FS 5548, around FS 74 and the multi-use trail network.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

The Craggy Mountains area outside of the existing Wilderness Study Area contains an extensive network of multi-use trails, which are currently enjoyed by mountain bikers as well as other trail users.

Craggy Mountains Conclusion

Ultimately, I am in support of the plan outlined by the Friends of Big Ivy, the NC Mtn. Treasurs project, and othres: adding the area “upslope” from FS 5548 outside the existing multi-use trail network to the wilderness recommendation area. For the existing trail network and “interior” areas downhill of Laurel Gap Road, I support placement in a Management Area that maintains its natural character such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area but continues to allow mechanized activities such as mountain biking and trail maintenance with machinery.


South Mills River

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

There are considerable traces of logging in the area west of Turkey Pen Gap (around the Mullinax and Poundingmill trails), including an obvious network of old logging roads. The road up the South Mills River is another obvious human improvement in the area.

1b) Deviations from the Natural Condition

Openings in the forest near the South Mills River trail and Mullinax trails, as well as extensive areas of young appearing forests, are enjoyable to visit, but not representative of the natural condition of the area.

1c) Presence and Extent of Improvements

The old Cantrell Creek Lodge site is present in the area and an obvious relic of human impact.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

The area has high recreational use and is close to populated areas which generates high use of this area of the forest. However, solitude is achievable deeper into the area or in off-trail areas. This is more consistent with its current backcountry management status, however, than wilderness.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

The area has an extensive network of heavily used trails, which includes mountain bike trails. These trails are very important to the mountain biking community in the region and help meet the considerable demand for this activity on the forest.

South Mills River Conclusion

I am not in support of wilderness designation in this area; rather, I support this area’s placement in a Management Area that maintains its roadless and natural character such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area) but allows activities such as mountain biking.


Daniel Ridge

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

A network of old logging roads laces the southern and eastern edges of this inventory area. The impacts from past logging lessens as you move up in the watersheds; however, overall, the inventory area feels more consistent with backcountry than wilderness.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

The area has high recreational use and is close to populated areas which generates high use of this area of the forest.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

The area has an extensive network of heavily used trails, which includes mountain bike trails. These trails are very important to the mountain biking community in the region and help meet the considerable demand for this activity on the forest.

Unique and Outstanding Qualities

4c) Structures, Dwellings, Sites or Other Remnants of Past Occupation

Old power poles and lines follow the Davidson River along the Daniel Ridge trail; there are also remains of the old fish hatchery in this area. Invasives are present along this corridor as well.

Daniel Ridge Conclusion

I am not in support of wilderness designation in this inventory area; rather, I support recognizing this area’s natural character, outstanding recreation and scenic qualities, and biological importance by placing it into a management area such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area) that does this but allows activities such as mountain biking.


Laurel Mountain

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

Higher elevations in the Laurel Mountain area are good representations of the natural condition of the uncommon high-elevation environment and, as such, should be preserved.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

The area has high recreational use and is close to populated areas which generates high use of this area of the forest. While solitude can be found deeper into the area or, of course, off-trail, the usage pattern is more closely aligned with Backcountry designation than wilderness. In areas where more solitude can be found (especially upper Big Creek), noise from the Parkway begins to intrude.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

The area has an extensive network of heavily used and regionally important trails, which includes mountain bike trails. These trails help meet the considerable demand for mountain biking on the forest.

Unique and Outstanding Qualities

4b) Outstanding Scenery or Landscape Features

Pilot Rock is the dominant scenic feature in the area and it is regionally significant. The upper Big Creek watershed is pristine, roadless, and representative of some of the higher quality watersheds in the region. As such, it should be protected – but alone, may not be sufficient for wilderness designation.

Management

5e) Ownership, Management, and/or Use of Adjacent Lands

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the edge of this area. This stretch of the Parkway, as it provides access to the Pisgah Inn, is very busy and, as such, noise (especially motorcycles) from the roadway can intrude into the inventory area – unfortunately, into many of the same area where the most solitude can be found.

5f) Other Management

I am not in support of wilderness designation in this area; rather, I support this area’s placement in a Management Area that maintains its roadless and natural character such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area) that does this but allows activities such as mountain biking.


Cedar Rock Mountain

Apparent Naturalness

1a) Apparent Naturalness

This area contains a variety of old logging roads around all of its boundaries. The older, non-inventoried roads are recovering well but still obvious signs of human impact.

1b) Deviations from the Natural Condition

The Picklesimer Fields area is an unusual open bottomland area which is a fairly obvious sign of prior human occupation; there are also white pine plantations in the area that – while inviting – do not appear natural.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

The area has high recreational use and is close to populated areas which generates high use of this area of the forest.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

The area has an extensive network of heavily used trails, which includes mountain bike trails. These trails are important to the region and help meet the considerable demand for this activity on the forest.

Unique and Outstanding Qualities

4a) Rare Plant or Animal Communities or Ecosystems

4b) Outstanding Scenery or Landscape Features

In particular, John Rock and Cedar Rock Mountain, as well as the waterfalls on Cedar Rock Creek and beside the Butter Gap trail are exceptionally scenic, even if not entirely absent from signs of human impact. This makes the area feel more consistent with backcountry rather than wilderness, but deserved of protections from timber management in the future and recognition for their outstanding value to the region.

4c) Structures, Dwellings, Sites or Other Remnants of Past Occupation

The Picklesimer Fields area is an unusual open bottomland area which is a fairly obvious sign of prior human occupation; there are also white pine plantations in the area that – while inviting – do not appear natural and show that the area was occupied in the past.

Cedar Rock Mountain Conclusion

I am not in support of wilderness designation in this inventory area; rather, I support recognizing this area’s natural character, outstanding recreation and scenic qualities, and biological importance by placing it into a management area such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area) that does this but allows activities such as mountain biking.


Shining Rock Extensions

Apparent Naturalness

1b) Deviations from the Natural Condition

The Graveyard Ridge and Black Balsam areas are largely denuded and very unusual for the area. A large plantation of spruce trees exists between Black Balsam and south of the Flat Laurel Creek trail which – although beautiful – is uniform and unnatural looking. Although these areas are beautiful and harbor some fantastic, fragile natural habitats which are indeed recovering from past abuses, they are hardly representative of the original natural condition of the area.

1c) Presence and Extent of Improvements

Black Balsam is a developed trailhead with paved parking, restroom facilities, and extensive signage. This road penetrates into the area considered for extension and in fact splits the area in two.

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

There should be no expectation for solitude anywhere near Graveyard Fields or the south side of Graveyard Ridge. On the contrary, this area is one of the most heavily used in all of the Forest during the warmer months. The openness of the land is inviting to off-trail exploration, and even those areas are not free from frequent visitors. The situation around Black Balsam, to Sam Knob, down Flat Laurel Creek or the Mountains to Sea Trail to NC Hwy. 215, and indeed even reaching beyond Ivestor gap into the existing wilderness is very heavily traveled. This is not the area one looks to find solitude.

The existing Shining Rock wilderness area, by contrast, provides some excellent opportunities for solitude especially deeper within the area, but the above-mentioned areas provide a good buffer against the already-designated wilderness, proving out the forethought of those who designated those areas originally.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

An extensive network of old logging road and railroad grades, some of which are maintained as open to vehicles (Ivestor Gap) and mountain bikes (Ivestor Gap and Flat Laurel Creek) wrap around the mountains in this area. These uses of the area, which are critical and should be allowed to continue, are not consistent with wilderness.

Unique and Outstanding Qualities

4f) Other Unique and Outstanding Qualities

Despite these apparent preclusions to becoming wilderness, the areas inventoried for the Shining Rock Extensions are indescribably unique, scenic, and valuable to the region. Yet they are very fragile habitats, owing to the abuse the area has received in the past. As such, this area should be protected from extractive use and managed as backcountry as it is now.

Management

5e) Ownership, Management, and/or Use of Adjacent Lands

The Blue Ridge Parkway borders the Graveyard Fields/Graveyard Ridge area, and a near-continuous cacophony of noise (especially from motorcycles) pervades across the entire upper Yellowstone Prong valley when the road is open. Its impact wanes approximately along the spine of Graveyard Ridge, making everything north of that (e.g the Dark Prong drainage) a good candidate for additional wilderness acreage in this regard.

Shining Rock Extensions Conclusion

I am not in support of wilderness designation in most of this inventory area; rather, I support this area’s placement in a Management Area that maintains its roadless and natural character such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area) but allows activities such as mountain biking.

An extension of the existing boundaries to include the Dark Cove drainage up to the Mountains to Sea Trail along Graveyard Ridge would be appropriate, as would the inclusion of the Wash Creek and Sam Branch drainages up to the summit of Sam Knob, and also the Middle Prong Addition, expanding the acreage available to wilderness recreation in the existing areas without including all of the inventoried land.


Panthertown Valley

Apparent Naturalness

1c) Presence and Extent of Improvements

The area abuts a utility transmission line. While the presence of this line doesn’t necessarily degrade the recreational value of the area, and can even have only marginal impact on the special ecology of the area, it doesn’t smack of wilderness. The lines are visible from many points inside the inventory area.

1d) Other Apparent Naturalness

Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

2a) Solitude

There should be no expectation for solitude anywhere within Panthertown Valley, with the possible exception of some far off-trail corners of the area. Even outside the designated trail area, a vast network of smaller trails supports human ingress into the area.

The area has high recreational use and is close to populated areas which generates high use of this area of the forest.

2b) Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

An extensive network of old logging road grades, some of which are maintained as open to vehicles, wind around in this area. These uses of the area, which should be allowed to continue, are not consistent with wilderness.

The area has an extensive network of heavily used trails, which includes recently designated mountain bike trails. These trails are an important addition to the supply of mountain biking trails in the region and help meet the considerable demand for this activity on the forest.

Stand-alone Area of less than 5,000 Acres

3a) Sufficient Size for Wilderness

The area is probably barely big enough for wilderness qualities on its own if it were not for the other mitigating factors present here. However, the smallish size combined with the other mitigating factors make it unsuitable for wilderness.

Unique and Outstanding Qualities

4b) Outstanding Scenery or Landscape Features

The Panthertown Valley is known, perhaps in delusions of grandeur, to be called the Yosemite of the East. Nevertheless, it is full of absolutely stunning and uncommon natural features, including waterfalls, lazy streams in flat valley bottoms, sheer granite cliffs, and intact forests, which should be recognized and protected from extractive activities.

Management

5a) Size, Shape, Configuration, and Boundaries

The presence of the power lines in the area is problematic, because established recreational trails in the area wind around beneath them without much regard to their placement and without much impact from their presence; however, this makes establishing the wilderness boundary tricky as users would wind in and out of wilderness as they traveled.

Panthertown Valley Conclusion

I am not in support of wilderness designation in this inventory area; rather, I support recognizing this area’s natural character, outstanding recreation and scenic qualities, and biological importance by placing it into a management area such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area (or part of a larger National Recreation Area) that does this but allows activities such as mountain biking.


General Comments

Additionally, I would like to submit the following general comments which apply to all areas in the wilderness inventory.

  • The areas inventoried for this evaluation correspond well with the last remaining intact, robust, diverse, and wild publicly-owned forest land in the southern Appalachian Mountains, and in the eastern United States in general.
  • Regardless of whether they are recommended for Wilderness, all of the inventoried areas – which align closely to NC Mountain Treasure Areas – should be placed in a Management Area that maintains their roadless and natural character such as a Backcountry, Special Interest, or Special Biological Area. None of the inventoried areas should ever again be considered suitable for Timber Production and road building through a change in management area designation.
  • All natural heritage areas identified by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program should be placed in Management Areas unsuitable for timber production in perpetuity.
  • Areas adjoining the inventory boundaries that are either acquired by the Forest Service in the future or are “aged out” from the most recent timber management activities and revert to a more natural state than they are currently in should be similarly managed.
  • The impact from dead trees resulting from Balsam and Hemlock Wooly Adelgid infestations is present forest-wide, is widespread across the southern Appalachians, and should not be considered to be against an area’s wilderness potential.
  • However, stands of living Hemlock that remain as a result of active management practices not compatible with wilderness are valuable, and that should be taken into consideration if recommendation for wilderness would restrict those management practices.
  • No areas that currently contain designated mountain bike trails should be recommended for wilderness.

Sincerely,
Jordan Mitchell
WNCOutdoors.info
Asheville, NC
jordan@wncoutdoors.info

December 15, 2015Permalink Leave a comment

Trip Report: Another Waterfall in Shope Creek

Trip Report: Another Waterfall in Shope Creek

Ever since the Shope Creek area opened up to visitors a few years ago, I’ve been exploring it and poring over the maps to see what might be worth a visit up there. I’ve “found” a few un-documented waterfalls (so to speak) in other areas in the past by looking at the new high-resolution elevation data put out by the USGS.

This data is so detailed that, with some good map-making and hill-shading (such as Google Maps’ Terrain layer), you can see “kinks” in stream valleys at nearly every major waterfall in the region where the terrain drops off. It’s like the higher-tech, and higher-accuracy, version of looking for close-together contour lines on the old USGS topo maps.

Well, it turns out that “kinks” on the map can reveal un-documented waterfalls in addition to the well-known ones. And for about a year now, I’ve had my eye on the valley of a tributary of Shope Creek with a “kink” in it. I’d not seen any references to a waterfall this high up in the Shope Creek area, but it was pretty obvious from the maps that there should be one there.

The "kink", or dark area, on this creek valley (circled red) where I suspected a waterfall might exist.

Big, major waterfalls can usually be seen on aerial photos, but the smaller ones tend to be obscured by trees. But where I suspected this waterfall to be, it looked like dark rocks with maybe a small streak of white water on top. Like a waterfall, maybe. Even through the trees.

Trouble is, this little stream is way up on the mountain, just below the Blue Ridge Parkway. Meaning not much room for water to gather before coming over any potential waterfall. And off-trail waterfall hiking in the summer is not always the best idea, with low water, yellowjacket nests, snakes, poison ivy, and leaves obscuring everything. So I held out the summer before making any attempt to explore the area.

Now that the leaves are down, and we got a tremendous rainfall earlier this week, I figured it might be the time to go check it out. The crystal-clear water was really gushing in the main stem of Shope Creek, filling the whole valley with its sound. The early December weather was gorgeous (upper 50’s, at least) as I set out on the now-familiar main trail up to Forrest Falls. It was only a short hop, skip, and a jump beyond that to a short section of off-trail hiking that I was anticipating might be pretty tough as it sometimes can be. But this time, it was easy. I was there in about 20 minutes.

And, it turns out, there is indeed a nice waterfall right where I expected!

Uppermost Waterfall on Tributary of Shope Creek
Sure enough: Uppermost Waterfall on Tributary of Shope Creek

It’s not even hard to reach – although it’s about a 1000′ climb from the parking area, it’s a gradual one on well-traveled, if unofficial, trails or mostly clear old logging roads. One of which stops just short of the base of the falls.

I saw no evidence of anyone trampling around at the waterfall before me, and it’s not on any map or publication I’ve ever seen. So I have no idea if it has a name. I’m just calling it Uppermost Falls for now since it’s the highest one up in the Shope Creek area (and every other stream in WNC already has an “Upper” falls). But it’s located below Wolfden Knob, so perhaps Wolfden Falls might work. Let me know if you know its name.

Waterfall on Tributary of Shope Creek
A wider view of the falls, showing the neat, open forest setting it resides in.

I’ve put it (and all the falls I know about in Shope Creek) on WNCWaterfalls.info. No sense in trying to keep it a secret since a logging road just off a heavily used trail practically leads right to it and it’s only a matter of time before more people start showing up there. If you go, be careful – it’s a bit rough right before the falls and there are no trail signs or blazes to guide you. But I think those who have off-trail waterfall experience will have no particular trouble here and will find it worthwhile – especially after some good rainfall brings the water up!

I didn’t bother to record the track up to the falls, but decided to go ahead and do that on the way back. I explored another “trail” up and over a ridge near the parking area but that part is totally not recommended and not necessary to reach the falls. Just take the main road to where it meets up with the track below at the creek crossing. A full update to our maps of Shope Creek showing this waterfall is coming soon!

The above map is a raw GPS track of our route. All data in our raw GPS files are un-verified and un-corrected. Please see our Hiking, Mountain Biking, or Waterfalls sites for our guidebook-style curated information for each road and/or trail.
December 6, 2015Permalink 1 Comment

Trip Report: Upper Pilot Rock and Laurel Mountain Loop

Trip Report: Upper Pilot Rock and Laurel Mountain Loop

On Sunday, September 6, I took Darla the Trail Dog out for a hike in the Pisgah National Forest near the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We were looking for a moderate-length hike due to time restrictions, and since the relentless heat we’d been experiencing in late summer hadn’t let up at all, I wanted to head for the higher elevations.

So I chose to explore a small section of trail I’d never actually completed: the short section of Pilot Rock Trail from the Mountains to Sea Trail down to where it joins the Thompson Creek Trail. I decided to include that segment as part of a longer loop, including some trails I’d already done.

The parking area at the Pisgah Inn was packed. I thought about going back to the Mount Pisgah parking area, but that’s where we’d stopped to eat lunch and I knew it was packed too. We managed to find a free spot near the back of the lot, and headed north up the Mountains to Sea Trail, which begins up a set of steps and water bars past the employee housing for the Pisgah Inn. Imagine having access to this trail right out your door! I lived in a similar situation on Mt. Mitchell back in 2001, and back-door trail access was indeed a pretty neat perk for the job.

The trail winds along the ridge connecting Little Bald Mountain to Flat Laurel Gap, where the Pisgah Inn is located, on gentle grades. It passes some openings in the trees that provide views to the East at one point, and a clearing at another where wildflowers grow. The forest is mostly northern Hardwoods, with a few Red Spruce thrown in for good measure.

Spruce on the Buck Spring Trail
Spruce on the Buck Spring Trail

The Mountains to Sea Trail stretches from the Smokies to the sand dunes in Jockey’s Ridge State Park. I only hiked a tiny portion of the trail today.

We soon reached the turn-off to the southeast for the Pilot Rock Trail, which begins by ascending to the summit of Little Bald Mountain. From here to the Thompson Creek Trail intersection, I was hiking the path for my first time. And it’s a neat stretch of trail.

This Old Sign
Pilot Rock Trail sign along the Buck Spring/Mountains to Sea Trail

First, the spruces gave way to grassy openings and more northern hardwood forests as we crossed the summit and started the descent. There were a couple of switchbacks, and the trail passed through a dead stand of beech trees where some other folks were hanging out and enjoying the resulting view. Just beyond that, I found a small American Chestnut sprout that was sporting one of the earliest signs of fall, and I couldn’t help but to snap a picture.

Early September Chestnut
Early September Chestnut

The trail was on the ridge in places, and just off to either side in others. Rock outcrops loom above the trail in places, while ferns growing under the trees and amongst the grass were waving in the breeze. I’m definitely glad I decided to check it out.

It wasn’t long, however, before we reached the Thompson Creek Trail junction, so that was that – from here on out I’d be on trails I already knew. Nevertheless, I’m glad I knocked this fun little stretch of trail off my list. Darla the Trail Dog bounded a short way down Thompson Creek as I stopped to snap another picture of the trail sign, but had to beat a hasty retreat when she saw me going farther down Pilot Rock toward the Laurel Mountain Connector instead.

Pilot Rock Trail
Ridge-top Pilot Rock Trail, looking southeast from the Laurel Mountain Connector junction. A lone Red Spruce tree on the right is still there. I first noticed it when it was about head high, on a mountain bike ride in the 90's.

At the junction with Laurel Mountain Connector, the ridge widens out. We continued straight, onto the out-and-back portion of the hike. There is one Red Spruce tree here, which has grown quite a bit since I first noticed it (it was head-high at the time) on a mountain bike ride back in the 90’s. The trail follows the ridge pretty closely, through thickets of gnarly, twisted mountain laurel bushes.

Moss and Laurels
Moss and Laurels
Twisted Laurel
Twisted Laurel along the ridge beside the Pilot Rock trail

And that’s how it goes for quite a distance along the ridge – winding around with some stretches steeper than others, but that ever-present mountain laurel draped with hanging moss on all sides. As you descend, the forest only gradually changes, and some taller trees mix in.

The air was also becoming noticeably warmer, too, as we popped out of the trees into a clearing around a rock outcrop located right beside the trail. The trail actually appears to be carved into this rock at one point, and just below it is a well-engineered switchback, built up with dry-stack stone walls and cobblestone fill. Unfortunately, there’s not much of a view from this one.

Darla stopped for a bit to let me take a picture of her sitting on the rock, and lapped up some water I poured into a depression from my reservoir.

Darla Taking a Break
Darla Taking a Break

Just beyond the first outcrop on the right, a side trail descends to another outcrop with a nice view toward the Pink Beds area and the mountains beyond. Although Pilot Rock itself – which arguably has a better view – was still a short distance down the trail, it was starting to get downright hot, and I wanted to have plenty of time to get home for dinner. So the closer outcrop was the destination for this hike.

View of Pink Beds
View of Pink Beds from the outcrop beside the Pilot Rock Trail

We explored the upper side of the rock outcrop, enjoying the view and the breeze that had developed as we popped out of the trees. I noticed a (pretty big) rattlesnake skin near a free slab of rock at the edge of the woods. Good thing it’d moved on by the time we got there – although there’s no telling how far away it was, or if there were any more. Luckily, we didn’t encounter any.

After some time soaking up the scenery, we backtracked back up the ridge to the Laurel Mountain Connector, onto which we made a right turn. This trail descends gently in this direction. The forest here is different, with larger trees and some small, gnarly, yet old surviving American Chestnuts.

The connector is short, and upon reaching Laurel Mountain Trail it goes through a switchback before popping out at what has to be one of the finest campsites in the area, located in Turkey Spring Gap. It’s level and grassy, somewhat protected from the elements yet high up enough to remain cooler in the summer. Just up the Laurel Mountain Trail is a pretty good water source, which was still running even after a few months of drought during the warm season. (And judging by the name there may be a Turkey Spring nearby, I haven’t investigated). There is room enough for several tents or tarps.

Campsite in Turkey Spring Gap
Campsite in Turkey Spring Gap

After exploring the campsite for a bit, we headed up the Laurel Mountain Trail toward the Parkway. Unlike the Pilot Rock Trail which is up at the top of the ridge, Laurel Mountain is down on the north slope, and it is much wetter. There is the potential water source for the campsite I mentioned, plus several other springs/seeps which flow way beneath the trail – which is built up high on rock wall cribbing in many sections. The trail surface is still moderately rough, but not nearly as much as it would be if these massive rock walls hadn’t been built.

Everything on this stretch is covered in a thick layer of deep green moss.

Mosy Laurel Mountain Trail
Mossy Laurel Mountain Trail

Patches of pungent-smelling Galax line the trail in places, too. It’s beautiful, and even without the jaunt down Pilot Rock trail like we did, a loop from the Pisgah Inn that includes the upper part of Pilot Rock, the Laurel Mountain Connector, and Laurel Mountain would be highly recommended.

Galax beside the Laurel Mountain Trail
Galax beside the Laurel Mountain Trail

The trail climbs around a switchback and into a dark forest opening – it appears that very little sunlight reaches the forest floor here despite the lack of trees, thanks to its northerly aspect ratio.

Laurel Mountain Switchback
Laurel Mountain Switchback

Before long, the trail wraps around the north side of Little Bald Mountain and starts gaining on the ridge where it will meet with the Mountains to Sea Trail once again. But not before passing a lush, green, wet spring branch, which on the day I hiked was making the most thirst-inducing bubbling sound I’ve heard water make. Luckily I still had plenty left in my pack, because otherwise I’d have taken a gulp – filter or none!

Here’s a video from the spring; you can hear the bubbling sound near the end:

After passing the spring, we encountered the first group of other hikers we’d seen since Pilot Rock, headed down to the spring to get some water. Then almost immediately we ran back into the Mountains to Sea Trail, and turned left. The directional signs at this junction are weathered, beaten, and lichen-covered.

Lichen-Encrusted Laurel Mountain Sign
Lichen-Encrusted Laurel Mountain Sign

From that point, it was just a short uphill climb through the cool mixed hardwood/spruce forest, back to the Pilot Rock junction again, and then back downhill to the parking area to end our hike. But not before we passed through a rhododendron thicket sporting some very early signs of fall.

Buck Spring Trail Steps
Buck Spring Trail Steps

And it’s a good thing the downhill was short, because for some reason my knees were acting up on the down sections. Other than a little knee ache, it was a perfect hike for a late summer afternoon!

The above map is a raw GPS track of our route. All data in our raw GPS files are un-verified and un-corrected. Please see our Hiking, Mountain Biking, or Waterfalls sites for our guidebook-style curated information for each road and/or trail.
November 26, 2015Permalink Leave a comment

Courthouse Creek Road Bridge Project Delayed

Edit: The road has reopened as of Friday, June 10 2016 at 10 am.

Courthouse Creek Road (FS 140), which leads to Courthouse Falls among other attractions in the Pisgah Ranger District off Hwy. 215, has been closed for a while now due to a bridge replacement project. It was originally scheduled to reopen this month, but the Forest Service has announced a delay that will keep it closed until “early 2016”. The reason for the delay is cited as bad weather.

Despite the closure, you can still access Courthouse Falls on foot – it will just require a longer hike.

November 22, 2015Permalink Leave a comment

South Mills River Hike and the Forest Service Wilderness Evaluation

South Mills River Hike and the Forest Service Wilderness Evaluation

Mullinax, Squirrel Gap, & Poundingmill Trails

And A Reflection on Wilderness…ness

On Saturday, November 14, 2015, my wife and I found ourselves with some free time and a babysitter, so we headed down to the Turkeypen trailhead to do a loop that included one of the few remaining trails in the Pisgah district I hadn’t fully completed yet: Poundingmill trail (#349), which connects the South Mills River trail to the Squirrel Gap trail near Poundingstone Mountain.

Suspension Bridge over the South Mills River
I freaking love this bridge

In addition to checking this trail off the list, I also wanted to take the opportunity to experience a hike inside an inventoried potential Wilderness area to get some perspective on the Forest Service’s open request for comments on that issue. More on that to come.

Despite having a babysitter, we still didn’t have a ton of time due to the pick-up schedule and another event we had planned for that evening back in town – not to mention the rapidly diminishing light on these late autumn days. We figured we’d be able to squeeze in a 5-6 mile hike, somewhere within about a half hour drive of Asheville.

The loop we chose fit the bill perfectly: starting at the Turkeypen trailhead in the South Mills River area, down the connector to the suspension bridge, up the Mullinax trail to the Squirrel Gap trail, and then down Poundingmill, back to the South Mills River trail to complete the loop.

The forecast was finally calling for some cooler weather despite what had been a very warm autumn up to that point. Only 3 days earlier, temps had gotten up near 80 in the mountains! And that’s after two weeks of temps solidly in the “warm” category – it felt more like September than mid-November. But after what appeared to be a crisp morning and seeing terms like “chilly breeze” in the forecast, we made sure to don a few layers before heading out under a clear blue sky.

Join the Crowd

Despite considerable stop-and-go traffic on I-26, we arrived at the trailhead in plenty of time to finish the hike. Only problem was, there appeared to be no parking spots remaining! It was packed, and starting to look like we wouldn’t get the semi-wilderness hike I had expected.

Turkeypen Trailhead Signs
Turkeypen trailhead parking area and signs on a much less crowded day

We finally managed to find an empty piece of ground sort of up on a bank near the trail sign, but it was plenty big enough for my little Suzuki to come to rest out of everyone’s way.

The parking area is split up into two sections, one for horse trailers and one for cars. But don’t even think about nudging over into the horse trailer area if the car lot is full. In fact, on this day, a bright pink line had been spray painted across the middle of the gravel lot by the horse folks, presumably intended to serve as a warning to any wayward parker who may be tempted to ease that direction to find a space.

The Forest Service has talked about improving this situation in the future, though it’s not sure if funds will ever be available to enlarge this lot. The road leading up to it needs some serious work, too.

Nevertheless, once on the trail, we quickly lost the crowds and started enjoying the hush of the forest. Almost immediately, we could begin to hear the rush of the South Mills River down in the valley to our left. Since there had been plenty of rain during the preceding early November warm spell, the river was running pretty high and side streams were flowing heartily. Mud pits were out in full force attacking trouser legs and hiking boots, too.

Hardware on the suspension bridge over the South Mills River
Hardware on the suspension bridge over the South Mills River

At the swinging bridge, I stopped briefly to take out my camera and ponder the special area we were about to enter. The mountains around the South Mills River, including the one we were about to hike, lie within the South Mills River backcountry area. And it’s an area being considered for a “promotion” of sorts: to Wilderness.

This Place Has a Plan

I’ll get on with the hike description below, but first a little backstory about why I wanted to hike here this weekend.

The Forest Service is currently undergoing a revision to its official master plan which will set the direction of its forest management activities for at least the next 15 years. It’s A Big Deal. And it has not been a process without controversy. In fact, heated exchanges between the Forest Service and the general public over the nascent plan have been ongoing for at least the past year – and it’s not due to be finished until sometime in 2017.

The Forest Service divides its land up into “Management Areas” – zones, basically – to determine what types of things can or can not be done within sections of the forest, including road-building, logging, habitat restoration, mining, and so on. As it happens with nearly any government zoning proposal, opinions and tempers fly when maps are published showing Your Favorite Place to be within Your Least Favorite Zone.

And that’s exactly what happened before one particularly raucous gathering at the Big Ivy community center earlier this year. Big Ivy is another area of Pisgah National Forest about an hour north of South Mills River area near the community of Barnardsville, NC. The draft proposal was so distasteful to nearby residents and forest users that it ended up launching a group called Friends of Big Ivy and a campaign with bumper stickers proclaiming “Don’t Cut Big Ivy!”.

One of which, by the way, is affixed to the back window of my Suzuki.

Why? Because the Forest Service’s draft maps of the new management areas showed much of that area as being “suitable for timber production” under Management Areas #1 and 2A in the proposed new plan.

Here’s a couple of maps that show what I mean:

1994 Big Ivy Management Areas map, which is still in force until the new plan is done. MA 4C is "Emphasize visual quality and wildlife habitat, and older forests", NO timber production. MA 4D is "Emphasize high quality wildlife habitat, older forests", WITH timber production. MA 2C is "Emphasize visually pleasing scenery, habitat of older forests", NO timber production.
2015 Big Ivy proposed management areas map. MA 1 is "Forest Habitat Diversity", WITH timber production. MA 2A is "Restoration and Connectivity", WITH timber production. Craggy Mountain Wilderness area is slightly larger, but now ALL of the former MA 4C appears open to commercial logging.

Under the new plan, all areas outside of the small, already-proposed-for-wilderness “Craggy Mountain Wilderness Study Area” have a definitive YES in the “Suitable for Timber Production” column. Something people who love the Big Ivy area – and understand its vitally important position in biodiversity and its overall uniqueness in the southern Appalachian mountain ecosystem – could hardly stand by.

Despite the Forest Service’s insistence that there were “no plans to log Big Ivy” at that time, it wasn’t lost on the crowd that – per the proposed management areas they were showing us – they were leaving wide open the possibility to make such plans in the future if they so chose. After all, large-scale logging had already happened there as recently as the late 80’s, leaving large, ugly scars on the landscape, some of which are visible still from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

And with the expansion of the Craggy Mountain Wilderness area to include the Douglas Falls area, that prevents the kind of signage, blazing, and mechanical trail maintenance which makes the hike to the popular waterfall possible for families and kids.

Since that Big Ivy meeting, the Forest Service has called for a “reset” in its engagement with the public, saying there was much misunderstanding in the initial rounds of discussions in 2014 and early 2015. The public input has since largely reorganized away from individual contributions and re-formed in the shape of behind-the-scenes meetings with representatives from what amounts to political and lobbying groups for the purposes of this process with the goal of coalescing power to push harder on central ideas. And generate less fuss. But, at least to individuals interested in the process like myself, it’s been nothing but crickets on whether they would consider changing the base management area designations they shared with us last fall.

So logging could again be coming soon to a forest near you!

Or maybe not?

Potential Wilderness

At the current stage in the plan-making process, the Forest Service is required by law to evaluate which areas could (maybe, possibly) be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). If added to the system, those lands will be forever protected from logging, road building, and of course “fracking”. They’re touting it as the chance to re-engage with the public, hold open meetings for interested individuals, and once again solicit our input about those Places We Want To Save. As many of the articles regarding the Wilderness evaluation have been trumpeting, “Now’s our Chance”!

…Or is it?

The Forest Service has created an “inventory” of land potentially suitable to be called Wilderness: the Big W. Any lands coming even close to meeting the legal requirements for Wilderness are in the inventory; they’ve cast a very wide net.

Nearly all of Big Ivy is in it; the South Mills River Backcountry is in it, as are many other other important areas of Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests.

Here's the 2015 Big Ivy wilderness inventory map. Note how much of the area (light yellow) is inventoried as "potential" wilderness, which - if recommended as such after public input and much scrutiny - would absolutely prevent the area from being logged. If it doesn't make the cut, though, it's opened right back up to logging per the new proposed management areas!

And, separately, the South Mills River itself (and other rivers and streams) are up for potential Wild and Scenic River status, a blessing which confers its own special set of protections to the waterway, its tributaries, and the lands adjacent to them.

Once the Forest Service has listened patiently to us all cheer and/or complain – we have until December 15, 2015 to speak up and send them our comments – they’ll take what we’ve said and the data they have gathered on their own back behind closed doors to the Analysis phase of the plan-making process, to whittle down the areas that qualify for The Big W. according to the strictest interpretation of the law.

If any areas make it through unscathed, they’ll be recommended for Wilderness in the new plan; it’ll then literally take an act of Congress to make the Big W. status official for any such recommended areas.

The key here, however, is that whatever doesn’t make the cut appears to fall right back to the Management Area that gets proscribed by the new Plan. This hasn’t been explicitly stated, and keeps getting glossed over in the recent wider discussion, but I see nothing to indicate that a mere pass through the Wilderness inventory has any effect whatsoever on lands that don’t get full recommendation.

So as far as I can tell, those fall back under Management Areas like #1, which were described like this in the old 1994 plan amendment:

Emphasizes sustainable supply of timber products and motorized access into the forest for traditional forest uses.

Perhaps more has been divulged to the special interest group leaders behind closed doors.

Frankly, I’m sure a lot of the folks in the collaborative group – who were way outnumbered in every truly public meeting I ever attended, I might add – want to see expanded logging take place anyway. And weirdly, it’s being pitched as a battle between “sportsmen”, who want to see more logging, and “environmentalists”, who want everything declared Wilderness so it can never be touched.

Ultimately, what’s being widely celebrated on the environmentalists’ side as a chance for us to show our support for protection of the area’s vital forest resources starts to sound like much less of a sure thing, with the requirements for wilderness being so strict and the default management areas underlying the evaluation areas being so logging-friendly.

And to complicate things even further is what becomes of any lands that do get designated as Wilderness. Despite it’s protections against logging and other extractive uses, it’s certainly not a non-controversial designation in its own right. Because Wilderness is A Big Deal. Once an area is Wilderness, all bets are off. It means no more trail signs or blazes. It means little to no more trail maintenance or construction. Bikes are banned; groups of a large size are prohibited. Any and all mechanical transportation or equipment is prohibited.

2015 South Mills River wilderness inventory map. South Mills River is an existing Backcountry and Inventoried Roadless area, as well as the watershed for the Asheville/Hendersonville water system, making it unlikely to be logged. Other areas in the proposed Wilderness inventory? Not so much.

It becomes a Truly Wild Place, enshrined in law.

Forget the “sportsmen” who might want some intact, healthy forests in which to “sport”, and in which their sport is not outlawed! I’m talking mountain bikers here, of course.

(Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against logging or forest products in general. And much of Pisgah and Nantahala is perfectly appropriate for it. The North Mills River project, for example, seems to have been well executed in a no-one-thinks-this-is-wilderness setting. It’s just icky to imagine logging in certain parts of Pisgah — the parts which largely coincide with the Wilderness inventory areas, and which are simply not your run of the mill patches of woods. A bit of “not in my back forest” syndrome, I’d have to admit).

Many areas not far from our hike (which I’m about to get back to, I promise!), like Daniel Ridge and Cedar Rock Mountain, as well as those in other parts of the forest like Bluff Mountain are also proposed to be put in the same, new, logging-friendly Management Areas numbered 1 and 2 if they don’t cut the mustard for Wilderness. All of which are places where many forest users I know could hardly fathom a large-scale logging project taking place, but need look no further than, say, Courthouse Creek or North Mills River to see one in action or just completed, respectively.

Or Something Else?

So The Big W. is a thorny issue. Is there an alternative that gives these special places the protection they deserve without all that goes with it?

As a matter of fact, there is! Several, in fact. An example from the 1994 amendment to the current plan:

MA 5: Provide large blocks of forest backcountry with little evidence of human activities. No timber management.

Well, ok. Sweet! The description above is for the Backcountry management area designation (#5 in the 1994 plan, or #3 in the proposed new plan). (There are other Management Area designations which have more specific purposes that could work, too.) And the South Mills River, the locale of our hike, is not currently open to large-scale logging, because it is already a designated Backcountry area. The forest there is “managed” (minimally) to near-wilderness standards, but without all the dang restrictions.

Map of management areas around the S. Mills River from the 1994 amendment to the Pisgah National Forest plan. Luckily for the South Mills River, it is in MA #5: Backcountry. So even if it does not become Wilderness, it receives some protection from logging. Not so for Big Ivy, Daniel Ridge, and Cedar Rock Mountain.
2015 South Mills River proposed management areas map. Much of the same area is designated as Backcountry, or MA #3 - safe from wide-scale logging if Wilderness falls through, which I think is likely.

Best of all, it requires no act of Congress to put one of those alternative Management Areas in place – only a change to those proposed base management areas maps to fit in with the new plan.

But again, the Forest Service isn’t officially taking comment on such changes anymore, and they have made no indication if the comments and controversy that came in almost a year ago had any influence whatsoever. I get the uneasy feeling — and I hope I’m wrong — that they’re hiding under a “see the new areas that could become Wilderness!” veil when conversing with us average peons just to quell some of the controversy, all the while knowing full well that most of those areas will not get recommended for Wilderness and remain open to logging. And while the real negotiating takes place out of sight.

Signs of Logging

Now on to the rest of our trip report!

Remember, one of the reasons I chose this place for our hike was to get a better sense of what kind of forest the Backcountry management area results in, and what an Inventoried Potential Wilderness Area looks like for when I submit my comments to the Forest Service.

After crossing the bridge, we started up South Mills River trail, which initially climbs a low ridge above the river. It’s an old logging road, as are many of the trails in Pisgah. Just before the trail started descending again, we veered right on the Mullinax “trail”, uphill, on another old logging road. That continues its journey up the young ridge, which eventually grows up into something called Poundingstone Mountain farther to the northwest.

Shot-up Horse Sign
Sportsmen having fun in the forest. Sigh.

Old roads go off in every direction at junctions, hearkening back to the days when extinct species of ‘dozers roamed these hills, carving out the routes by which the virgin logs could be forcibly extracted and sent out to the highest bidder.

The trail cuts across a cove which sports a bold stream (at least during periods of wet weather like we’ve had). It then veers right onto another logging road, which goes into the cove and follows the stream up to its source. It’s only at the head of this cove does the trail stop looking like an old road, where it turns into purpose-built singletrack for a bit.

Boot-eating Mudholes
Boot-eating mudholes, which substitute tires in their diets during lean times: a sure sign of Wilderness.

We continued hiking up and over the low ridge through a series of switchbacks, closed in by rhododendron and mountain laurel along much of the way.

The Mullinax trail then descends on a winding path through some patches of dead Eastern Hemlock trees to meet up with the Squirrel Gap trail south of Mullinax Gap. From there, which appears to be an old home site of some sort since there is another clearing, we continued onto the Squirrel Gap trail – past a huge bulldozer-mound of dirt, I might add – onto what is considered one of the finest trails for hiking and mountain biking in all of Pisgah.

The great Squirrel Gap is a purpose-built, narrow, winding singletrack trail which starts just northeast of where we picked it up. And here’s where you can start to see how this area just might qualify for Wilderness. The trees get larger; there are fewer signs of logging up there. The forest closes in, yet at the same time, vistas of forlorn ridges across deep valleys appear off to the sides of the trail.

Squirrel Gap Sidehill
Squirrel Gap Sidehill

Deep piles of freshly fallen leaves nearly obscure the trail itself, leaving visible only a slightly less-steep ledge cutting along the mountainside – and the occasional blaze – for hikers or mountain bikers to follow. It’s beautiful. The mountain environment here isn’t particularly noteworthy but the sounds of civilization have disappeared. Even the sounds of the river have faded, leaving only the whispering breeze through the last of the (surprisingly still green) autumn leaves clinging to the bare branches.

For one good 15 minute span of time, where we stopped to relax at the Poundingmill trail junction, I didn’t even hear an airplane.

Our hike veered left, south, and sharply downhill here. We eeked our way into a cove forest where tall trees stood like toothpicks lined up on the steep slopes of the mountainside. A remarkable rounded lump of terrain contained entirely within the valley below was the destination for the trail, which wound across its top before dropping off the left side and crossing the very beginnings of Poundingmill Branch. One could almost be convinced that they were in a wild place, at a different time, as they descended this old path.

Rounded Hill on Poundingmill
Rounded Hill on Poundingmill

But then, someone is coming. It’s a jogger, out for a quick afternoon jaunt from the Turkeypen trailhead, heading in the opposite direction as we are, uphill. Seemingly unfazed running up the same slope I just had a non-zero amount of trouble walking down. A quick run; only about 9 miles, she said. Should be done in a couple of hours, she said. In addition to making me feel out of shape, our chat reminds me just how close to the trailhead we still are. I expected us to be back in less than an hour myself.

And then, the trail merges in with another old logging road, vanquishing any remaining notion that this is truly Wilderness. It crosses yet another road that I happen to know secretly leads back to the Mullinax trail, and this one’s covered in bike tracks. We were now on the portion of Poundingmill trail I’d already hiked before.

Poundingmill Hiker Trail Sign
Hiker Trail, also known as the Parting of the Doghobble.

We made our way down the final stretch, through sections overgrown so thickly by doghobble you could hardly tell there was still a trail save for the blazes and ancient rusty signs proclaiming “HIKER TRAIL”. The path ends abruptly on the South Mills River “trail” (wide old road), with the crystal-clear rushing river just on the other side.

Grass and Rocks on the South Mills River
Wild and Scenic? Maybe. South Mills River: Yes.

From there, it’s an easy, beautiful walk downstream past a couple of bends in the rushing river back to the one hill and the Mullinax junction, where the loop part of our hike ended. We pass a large campsite filled with tents, and a dozen or so folks hanging out and getting ready for what’s to be a fairly chilly night. We pass even more folks – groups of 10 or more – heading out as we approach the trailhead.

For us, it’s back across the suspension bridge, up the logging road connector, and back in the car, zipping off for dinner in downtown Asheville in not much time at all.

Our Evaluation

When I look back on this hike, it’s hard for me to get the sense that I was ever truly “out in the Wilderness”, although parts of it did feel relaxing and remote. All of it exudes elements of a delicately balanced ecosystem; special and – despite past evidence of human interference – even pristine. Even on a very busy day, after taking the Mullinax trail, we encountered only one other person until we were nearly back at the trailhead. The crowds do tend to stick very close to the parking lot.

At no point up to the Squirrel Gap junction does it really feel like you’re in the Wilderness. It’s a remote enough area, for sure, but there are signs of logging everywhere: gates, wide old roads, a clearing in the forest here, a patch of skinny young trees there.

I do know from experience that even further along Squirrel Gap trail past where we turned off onto Poundingmill, near Cantrell Creek, it starts to feel a lot more remote than the parts we hiked. But Wilderness?

It crossed my mind more than once that these features of a logged-out, yet healing, forest are not the types of things the very specific federal law considers favorable to a Wilderness designation. In fact, it is for these reasons I am skeptical that South Mills River would even meet the rather high bar for recommendation.

Without telling her why I chose the hike — other than it meeting our time and exercise requirements for that day — I asked my wife what she thought about it. Was it a Wilderness hike, in her opinion? Her response:

No, not really. We weren’t doing any bushwhacking; the trail was in good condition. I mean, it was very quiet, and peaceful. But I think of wilderness as really having to hack your way through on a trail that’s not in good shape. That trail was well maintained.

Now the South Mills River itself is a beautiful, pristine, free-flowing river which deserves as much protection as it can get, seeing as it’s one of the drinking water sources for the Asheville & Hendersonville municipal areas. I could totally get on board with a Wild and Scenic designation for it.

And a very big part of me wants to see these other areas – those same inventoried areas mentioned above – to become more protected, to prevent the rapacious logging and mining and other extractive activities the Forest Service deems one of the “many uses” the lands under its purview are suitable for. However, it bugs me that the Wilderness designation and all of its restrictions, along with its low chance of actualization, is the only thing they’re currently taking comments on.

Whereas, the Backcountry designation feels totally appropriate for nearly all of those same areas. I’ve hiked and biked in all of them, and while there is certainly evidence of human activity it is “little”; the scars left by logging are mostly smoothed over and healing quickly, with few exceptions.

Those places feel like backcountry. They do not quite feel like wilderness.

I get that for the huge, truly wild and hairy places like Shining Rock which have been Wilderness for decades anyway, the restriction Wilderness conveys make sense. I certainly value being able to get that experience there. But for places like South Mills River, an area that is enjoyed by a such a wide variety of people in a successful manner like it is now, I don’t like the thought of applying those draconian rules.

But the Forest Service has yet to officially ask for comment from the public on the management areas other than Wilderness. They have the power; it’s just not clear if and how they’ll exercise it.

For what it’s worth, I will be submitting my comment to the Forest Service against recommending the South Mills River area (and the others mentioned here) as a new Wilderness. It should stay exactly as it is: Backcountry. And I will support reclassification of the base management areas to “at least” Backcountry (or something more appropriate, yet similarly protective) for all of the areas added to the Wilderness inventory.

Incidentally, the areas I feel strongly about, and which made the Wilderness inventory, coincide well with the areas identified by The North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures project, and I generally agree with their comments. I may be using their talking points — they are one of the few organizations supporting “at least Backcountry” like I do for the areas that don’t make Wilderness — as a template for my own comments.

(Exception: Lost Cove, near Wilson Creek, totally feels like Wilderness to me an I would support its designation as such. That place is wild. Some will, of course, disagree with me on that).

Nevertheless, I look forward to being able to have the same experience here in the future as I did that weekend in November 2015 – except maybe on my bike next time. If I so choose.

I’ll publish the comments I submit to the Forest Service in a separate post and I encourage you to comment here, comment to the Forest Service, comment anywhere it makes a difference. Because this new plan is going to be in force for a long time, with wide consequences for the future of the places we love, like South Mills River.

The above map is a raw GPS track of our route. All data in our raw GPS files are un-verified and un-corrected. Please see our Hiking, Mountain Biking, or Waterfalls sites for our guidebook-style curated information for each road and/or trail.
November 14, 2015Permalink 2 Comments