Hidden deep within the Mills River area of Pisgah National Forest, the Pilot Cove/Slate Rock Creek loop trail is primarily a water feature hike. There are two notable waterfalls and several cascades on Slate Rock Creek, and views of Slate Rock through the trees. We encountered several creek crossings (some wading, some with log bridges), and a relatively young forest. This hike occurred on April 14, 2011 beginning at 10:45AM and ending about 2:15PM. The plan was to take the Pilot Cove Trail through Pilot Cove then up on the rim overlooking Slate Rock. From there it meets the Slate Rock Creek Trail for the descent along Slate Rock Creek on the back side of Slate Rock. The eastern and western trailheads are then about 1.5 miles apart on Forest Road 1206.
Hike Length: 6.8 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours Hike Rating: Easy to Moderate
Blaze: Blue Elevation Gain: 700 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Mostly good, some roots and puddles
Starting Point: Pilot Cove Trailhead on FR 1206
Trail Traffic: We did not encounter any other hikers on this day.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy. 276 into Pisgah National Forest. Go just past the Forest Discovery Center and Pink Beds, turn right on Forest Road 1206. It is 5.25 miles to the Pilot Cove Trailhead on the left.
View Pilot Cove/Slate Rock Creek Trails, in a larger map
There are a lot of trailheads on Forest Road 1206, but they are not always easy to find, so keep your eyes peeled. The Pilot Cove Trail is 5.25 miles in from Scenic Highway 276, then it is another mile and a half to the Slate Rock Creek Trail. We chose to start at Pilot Cove and take the loop clockwise. Research indicates that mountain bikers like to do this loop from Slate Rock Creek though. The first mile and a half took us through Pilot Cove, a flat, forested area with views through the trees of Slate Rock to the northeast. Seasonally, when the leaves are on the trees, these views would not be available. At ground level we saw bluets, trillium, and asters.
After getting through the cove and beginning to gradually climb, the forest changed to young saplings. The forest was quite full, so at some point a few decades from now there will be a battle for sunshine and who can grow fastest. For now, it makes for a very pretty scene. Even without their leaves, this thick wooded area has a remarkable peacefulness and beauty. It is also, I suspect, quite colorful in autumn. The next half mile is a fairly steep climb of 400 feet to the ridge above. This is the only section of the trail that is moderately difficult, the rest is either flat or downhill. There was a lot of galax, ground cedar and moss along the side of the trail. At the top, the trail forks. The Pilot Cove Loop goes right, to the rim of Slate Rock, and a return to the Pilot Cove trailhead. Straight ahead, and down, is the Slate Rock Creek Trail. That’s where we went.
It didn’t take long before we encountered Slate Rock Creek. Over the course of the three miles down, I lost track of the number of times we crossed the creek, but it was more than six and less than 12. Some crossings had log bridges, others were a hop-skip-and-jump across. At times, the trail would hug a hillside while the creek plunged below, but much of the downward hike followed along the creek bank. There were two significant waterfalls on the trail. The upper falls was about a ten foot cascade that didn’t have much water yet. The trail crossed a log bridge right at the base of the falls. Not long after the upper falls, we found some nice logs on the side of the trail and had our lunch. The sounds from the creek and the breeze were quite refreshing. The lower falls, another mile and a half downstream, can be heard from several hundred yards away. This one was a twenty footer, and flowing quite freely. The trail was probably 50 feet above the base of the falls, so I scrambled down the steep hillside to get a better view and a few pictures.
There appear to be natural springs along the Slate Rock Creek Trail. There were a few stretches where the trail was quite puddled, and obviously stayed that way, because trail maintenance volunteers had made efforts to improve the trail condition with strategic log placement. There were a few rocky surfaces that were a bit slippery, so be careful. Between the two waterfalls is another cove-like area with beautiful mountain meadows, where the creek slows to a crawl and there is a backside view of Slate Rock. The photo at the top of this post is the scene. We paused for several minutes at a spot along the creek where the bank was covered with bright green moss, and the water showed some evidence of minerals. Some of the rhodos stood 20 feet tall.
The last mile along Slate Rock Creek was relatively flat, with the creek continuing on our right. There was the occasional cascade to fill our ears, along with the sounds of the forest. 5.3 miles from the beginning of our hike, we came back to Forest Road 1206 at the Slate Rock Creek Trailhead. There were a couple guys getting out of their car who were probably heading up the way we just came. Across the gravel road was a beautiful scene where Slate Rock Creek plunged further down the forest for its eventual meeting with Mills River.
We still had 1.8 miles to go on the forest road back to the car. It was mostly uphill, about 300 feet in total, but gradual. The forest was very thick here and water was everywhere. There are any number of creeks running through this area, as the water finds its way off the mountains that are 3,000 feet above along the Pisgah Ridge. This hike was a refreshing one with meadow, forest, and water. We lucked into a beautiful day as the weather has been quite stormy here the past couple weeks. This is a mostly easy stroll through the forest with only light pack requirements. If I were to do this hike again, I think I would start at Slate Rock Creek and go counterclockwise, because it enables you to also take the trail to the rim of Slate Rock without doubling back. If you give it a try yourself, let me know what you think.
Update. I had a chance to revisit this hike on May 16, 2011 to try it in a counterclockwise direction. I also took the Pilot Cove Loop Trail to Slate Rock which did, in fact, turn out to be the highlight of this hike, as I suspected. Slate Rock curves around Slate Rock Ridge for about 210 degrees and offers terrific views of Pilot Rock, Pilot Mountain several miles in the distance, and Pilot Cove down below. The climb up Slate Rock Creek Trail is longer than the Pilot Cove Trail, but no more steep, still a gradual climb that follows the creek nearly the entire way. We paused several times to daydream alongside the fresh, clear water of Slate Rock Creek. The addition of the Pilot Cove Loop added a bit more climbing to the hike, but probably no more than 100 feet. The forest had greened considerably since I visited this area a month before. My brother and I stayed nearly an hour on Slate Rock taking in the beautiful scene and enjoying the crisp, spring-time air. It was a great spot for lunch and conversation.
Update Meanderthals visited this hike again on Thursday, July 19, 2012. The summer season makes quite a difference in the surroundings and scenery. The forest is full of lush, green ferns
— frankly, a quite amazing display. You can no longer see through the forest to get a glimpse of Slate Rock from below, but the smells and sounds of the forest are invigorating.
This time we took the inner loop, climbing up the Pilot Cove/Slate Rock Trail, then connecting with the Pilot Cove Loop rather than the Slate Rock Creek Trail. It takes about two and a half miles off the hike and offers the opportunity to visit Slate Rock, a must see. From the edge of Slate Rock we could view the 6,500 acre Cradle of Forestry area where the U.S. Forest Service first began training its conservation management employees a century ago. The Blue Ridge Parkway is also visible as it winds along Pisgah Ridge, but the highlight is across the cove. Looking from one pluton to another, Slate Rock has a wonderful view of Pilot Rock and the ridge that runs down to it.
I’ve added a GPS tracked map below, and a new photo gallery so you can compare the seasonal changes.
Update Meanderthals visited this hike again on Friday, April 11, 2014, this time taking the loop counter-clockwise, starting up Slate Rock Creek first. At this time in early spring, the trees weren’t out yet, but there were a few wildflowers announcing their presence, mostly violets and bluets.
I also decided to check out the manway that climbs from the creek crossing up to the Laurel Mountain Trail another thousand feet above to the north. It’s a very tough climb, finally popping out at Sassafras Gap after an additional mile and a half. I continued west on Laurel Mountain Trail to Good Enough Gap, turned around, and returned back down the manway to the creek crossing. This little excursion added a total of four miles to this hike.
From there it was up to Slate Rock Ridge, then on to Slate Rock for one of my favorite views in all of Pisgah National Forest. The scene from Slate Rock of Pilot Rock, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cradle of Forestry, and Pilot Mountain far in the distance is one that I enjoy thoroughly. It’s a quiet moment of solitude that leaves me pondering the upheaval that took place eons ago creating these massive granite plutons.
The good news about doing this loop counter-clockwise is that the final 1.8 miles trudge on Yellow Gap Road is downhill. As a result, I recommend taking this hike from the Slate Rock Creek end first. It’s good to get the majority of the climbing out of the way first, when your legs and lungs are fresh. That way you can relatively coast on the way back down.
I’ve added another GPS tracked map below, and a new photo gallery so you can compare the seasonal changes. Look for the manway to Laurel Mountain Trail in the far north portion of the map.