Looking for a hike that includes streams and rivers, hardwood and conifer forests, plentiful rhododendron, and some climbing for good measure? Then the trails along South Mills River that embark from the Turkeypen Trailhead may be just the ticket. Situated in the southeastern corner of Pisgah National Forest, the Mills River Area is the largest in the Pisgah Ranger District, but also perhaps the least well known. Somewhat remote, this area ranges from 2400 feet elevation at the river level to well over 4000 on the mountaintops. The trails are a little less traveled, yet are maintained in excellent condition. There are more than two dozen distinct named trails in the Mills River Area totaling almost 90 miles, so there is plenty to explore, see and do. This hike occurred on Thursday, October 27, 2011 from 8:45am to 12:45pm. Our plan was to begin at the Turkeypen Gap Trailhead and take the South Mills River Trail to the Bradley Creek Trail, follow that up to Pea Gap where we would join the Squirrel Gap Trail to Mullinax Gap. From there we would decide whether to take the Mullinax Trail back down to the river, or continue on Squirrel Gap to Poundingstone Mountain and then take Poundingmill Trail back down. Either way we would rejoin the South Mills River Trail and head back to the Turkeypen Trailhead.
Hike Length: 5.8 miles Hike Duration: 4 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate Blaze: Orange, blue, orange, white
Elevation Gain: 1200 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Excellent, some overgrowth on Poundingmill.
Starting Point: Turkeypen Gap Trailhead on Turkeypen Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered two other hiker/campers on the trails.
How to Get There: From 64/280 junction in Brevard, NC take Hwy 280 north toward Asheville. Go 4.5 miles to the Transylvania/Henderson County line and turn left on Turkeypen Road. Take this rough dirt and gravel road 2.3 miles to the dead end at the Turkeypen Gap Trailhead.
View South Mills River Area, Pisgah National Forest in a larger map
For the second week in a row, I went hiking where I had never been before. Unlike last week, at least this time I had a trail map. Good thing too, because the loop hike we chose changed trails four different times. I pulled out the map frequently on this hike.
From the Turkeypen Trailhead it’s a short hike downhill to South Mills River. On the left is one of those cool swinging suspension bridges that bounces up and down and side-to-side when you walk across. It’s hard with two people on the bridge at the same time because it doesn’t bounce in sync with your walking gait… not to mention the difficulty taking pictures. All it took was a little patience to wait for the bridge to settle down and I got some nice early morning shots of the river. Suspension bridges are fun when you’re just 20 feet above a river. It’s a totally different story when crossing one over a 1000′ deep canyon. No thank you.
On the other side of the bridge is the white blazed South Mills River Trail. We headed north (to the right), and expected our planned loop to return us to this spot from the south. The trail mirrors the river for approximately a mile, following its twists and turns through Pisgah Forest. We were very fortunate to catch this hike at a great time
— the early morning light made for nice reflections in the clear water of the river
— and the seasonal foliage colorings made this a sensory delight. We took our time, stopping often on rocks that jutted into the river to look up and downstream. There was new beauty to behold around every curve in the river. The forest was a mix of hardwood and fir, with lots of rhododendron thickets as well. Surprisingly, there weren’t many oak trees. We saw hardly any acorns.
After a mile we came to a trail junction, the first of many on this day. To the right was the Riverside Trail, one that continues to follow the river bank. Some day I will take this trail, but it has six river crossings, so I think summer will be better. The air temperature was in the thirties. I may be a Meanderthal, but I’m not going to wade in a cold river. Instead we took the left fork, the orange blaze Bradley Creek Trail, and for the first time began climbing. Up we went, just over a quarter mile, to Pea Gap and our next trail junction.
We had another choice at Pea Gap. The Bradley Creek Trail continues to the right, and way on up north into Pisgah Forest. Again, some day I will try this trail as well. There are so many good trails to choose in the South Mills River Area. But on this day we went left on the Squirrel Gap Trail. The trail blaze changed to blue. Since we had climbed a few hundred feet, the leaves were really off the trees and covering the trail. We made a swishing sound as we climbed the ridge. Surely there wouldn’t be any wildlife for us to see. They could probably hear us coming on the other side of the ridge.
About 3/4 mile along the Squirrel Gap Trail we reached Mullinax Gap. Yes, there are a lot of gaps and trails to deal with, and you know what else? Another decision. Do we take the Mullinax Trail back down off the ridge to the river, or do we keep going up the mountain on the Squirrel Gap Trail? My companion had a meeting later in the day, but we still had plenty of time, so we decided to continue exploring. Mullinax Gap has a handful of very nice primitive campsites, so keep that in mind if you find yourself in this area late in the day.
The next section of the Squirrel Gap Trail was the steepest we encountered, though still not overly so. When we reached Poundingstone Mountain after another 3/4 mile, we had climbed a total of about 1200 feet from the river, but weren’t tired at all. The grade is gradual and the scenery is terrific, so we weren’t even breathing hard. The trail winds around the mountain from the east, and then from the north, before reaching the top and the junction with Poundingmill Trail. There are a couple of large logs strategically placed at this junction that made an ideal location for lunch. This spot has a southern exposure, so it gets more sun, and the forest still had its colorful leaves… just a preview of what was to come next.
The orange blazed, 1.5 mile Poundingmill Trail was the most interesting on this hike. Dropping down the south side of the mountain, the trail lead us through a young sapling forest displaying perhaps the best autumnal brilliance I saw this season. With a crystal clear mountain blue sky in the background, the forest was like a color wheel with every shade imaginable. We were fascinated, and dawdled so the experience would last.
The Poundingmill Trail drops 1200 feet as it approaches its namesake, Poundingmill Branch. The lower we got, the more colorful the forest got, until the creek showed up on our left and the forest changed. Suddenly we were back in with firs and rhododendron. The vegetation thickened as well, sometimes overgrowing the trail a bit, the only place on the hike where we experienced that. The trails on this hike were in outstanding condition.
The final 1/4 mile on the Poundingmill Trail had to set a personal record for creek crossings on one trail. Had I known to count, I would have, but I’m guessing there were at least a dozen crossings of Poundingmill Branch at the bottom of this trail. It was no problem for us at this time of year
— the stream was shallow and gentle
— and it was easy to hop across rocks. We managed to keep our feet dry. The spring runoff may be an entirely different matter. I think this trail might be quite difficult in May and June.
We also saw only our third snake this year, kind of a surprise so late in the season. Fortunately it was just an immature queen snake who was so terrified of us it never moved. We basically hopped right over it.
Where Poundingmill Branch spills into South Mills River, so too does the Poundingmill Trail join with South Mills River Trail once again. For awhile the trail stays along the bank and affords numerous great photo opportunities, but it reaches a marshy stretch of the river where the trail goes up on the hillside. This area, looking down on the river, is another of the unique aspects we enjoyed on this cobbled together loop. After a mile and a half, the South Mills River Trail arrives back at the suspension bridge, this time from the south. Remembering the little stretch of downhill hiking from Turkeypen Gap to the river, it was a bit of a bummer to have to climb back up to our car after putting nearly six miles on our feet.
There was some kind of a group outing getting all their gear together at the trailhead when we returned. Eight guys, with full overnight backpacks, were mapping out their strategy while they made their final check offs. I would have liked to see them crossing that suspension bridge. Bounce, bounce, bounce!
This was one of my favorite hikes of the season. The scenery was beautiful. The trails were in excellent shape. The distance was just right. The fall foliage was stupendous, and I enjoyed the time with my hiking friend. I’m glad I finally ventured into the South Mills River Area of Pisgah National Forest. I will definitely be returning to catch some of the other trails that traverse the region. It should be neat in summer when we can wade through the river just like Meanderthals.
Update On February 9, 2012 we did essentially this same hike with a little extra trek further up the Bradley Creek Trail. We ran into a washed out bridge over Bradley Creek, so we turned around and continued up the Squirrel Gap Trail. I updated this trail report to post the GPS track map of the hike taken with the Trimble Outdoors smartphone app. See below.