Florence Nature Preserve, Hickory Nut Gorge

Donated to the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy by Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Florence in 1996, the Florence Nature Preserve is 600 acres on the slopes of Little Pisgah Mountain. With more than five miles of public hiking trails, much of them along a beautiful mountain stream, the preserve contains old growth forest, views of Hickory Nut Gorge, remnants of old cabins, and several small waterfalls. Seasonally there are a variety of rare plants including yellow lady slipper. CMLC conducts regular ecological monitoring of the preserve, implements conservation plans for habitat enhancement, and ensures that the preserve remains safely accessible for future recreational use through their trail maintenance volunteers. This hike occurred on Friday, November 18, 2011 from 11:00am to 1:45pm. My plan was simply to explore. I’d never been to the preserve before, so I took a map, and a willingness to see where the trails would lead me.

Hike Length: 6.5 miles Hike Duration: 3 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate, some climbing. Hike Configuration: Lasso

Blaze: Yellow, Blue, White, Red, Orange Elevation Gain: 1,230 feet

Trail Condition: Very good, a few small stream crossings.

Starting Point: Trailhead is at the old chimney on Hwy 74A.

Trail Traffic: I was alone in the forest.

How to Get There: From Hendersonville, NC take Hwy 64 east to the junction with Hwy 74A at Bat Cave, turn left on 74A. Go 3.9 miles to the old chimney on the right. From Asheville, NC take Hwy 74A to Gerton. Go .9 mile east from the Gerton Community Center to the old chimney on the left.

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Florence Nature Preserve is private land owned by the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. I believe they are holding it as part of their master plan to turn Hickory Nut Gorge into a state park. They generously offer the preserve for public recreation, but it behooves us to be on our best behavior while enjoying the hiking trails. Hunting, fishing, trapping, wild plant collecting, overnight camping, and motorized vehicles are not allowed throughout the preserve. Mountain biking is not permitted on the Blue Trail. CMLC offers a trail map on their website that you may find more useful than the terrain map I generated above. If you take a look at their map you will see the trails are designated with colors. I spent some time on each of the colored trails.

There’s a lot to be said for hiking alone. I know, all the hiking safety suggestions recommend always having someone else along, but occasionally it is good for the spirit to get out in the forest by yourself. I always enjoy hiking with my regular companions, but on this hike they were not available, so I headed out to explore with just me, myself, and I. Because of the safety concerns, my senses were more acute. I was looking and listening for wildlife and other hikers, just to be prepared.

My hike started at an old cabin foundation with a stone chimney along Hwy 74A east of Gerton. This is presently the only public access into the Florence Nature Preserve. Apparently there used to be other trailheads, but they are all on developed private land, so the need for this public access arose. The first trail here is known as the Little Mt. Pisgah Trail and is blazed yellow. There is a sign just past the start that warns of steep, uneven terrain. I can certainly vouch for the steep. There is only 800 feet of climbing in the preserve, but 500 feet of it is in the first quarter mile on the Yellow Trail. Make it through that and the rest is a piece of cake. 15 minutes in I came upon a small log cabin with a tin roof. It seemed to be more an old shelter than a former home. From what I have learned, those who used to live on this land a century ago were farmers and loggers.

After a half mile on the Yellow Trail, it comes to a junction with the Blue Trail, and to a mountain stream that flows to the Broad River below. If you turn left and head south on the Blue Trail there are a couple of small waterfalls. I turned right and continued up the mountain.

Old Chimney Along Hwy 74ANow that there was a water source, the rhododendron dominated the landscape. Much of the Blue Trail is under a rhododendron canopy as it follows the course of the water upstream. A further quarter mile brought me to remnants of another stone foundation that had been a log cabin in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although a little chilly, it was a beautiful day with a cloudless azure sky. With all the leaves now off the trees, that sky became a large part of my field of vision. I paused many times to marvel at the richness of the color in contrast with the bare hardwood forest.

As the Blue Trail continues northward, there are spur trail options for reaching the Little Pisgah Mountain plateau. You can stay on the Blue Trail all the way to the mountaintop, and beyond, to a dirt road known as the Old Buncombe Turnpike. Or, there are the other options. On the left there is another yellow trail that ends up meeting the White Trail. I went past this one (because there aren’t any noted landmarks on the map) and took my left turn on the White Trail. It approaches the top of the mountain from the east. The White Trail winds itself through the center of the preserve and eventually joins the Old Buncombe Turnpike on the western side. However, I made another change, turning right onto the Red Trail.

Going south, or left, on the Red Trail is a means of turning this hike into a loop. It goes to the southwestern corner of the preserve, then turns abruptly east where it meets the southerly end of the Blue Trail. I believe the Red Trail is also known as the Hickory Nut Gorge Trail. It is difficult to tell because there are signs with trail names, but they seem to go with old trails that are no longer in use. Stick with the colored blazes and you’ll be fine. That loop will be another hike for another day. On this day, I turned right on the Red Trail and followed the Little Pisgah Mountain plateau.

The Red Trail is a beautiful stroll on flat terrain through a forest mixed with saplings and old hulking greybeards. My every step rustled the fallen leaves. I found myself pausing frequently to let the camera capture the moment. The leaves on the ground were mostly brown now; all the trees were bare; there was the occasional green of a rhododendron or out-of-place conifer. Fortunately for my allergies most of the ragweed tops were gone, but a few still remained. Then the trail came to my destination the mountain meadow.

All the Leaves Are GoneThe meadow isn’t large, perhaps the size of a Little League baseball field. This time of year it was covered in dying tall grasses and briar thickets. It seems the Convervancy is doing some habitat enhancement in this meadow. There are several chicken wire cylinders protecting some form of plantings they have done. It was difficult to tell what the plants are. Perhaps in the green season it would be easier. There was also a lone spruce tree in the meadow. Perhaps 12 feet tall, it’s pictured at the top of this post. I felt a kind of bond with this spruce all alone in a mountain meadow without a care in the world. It was soothing.

At the north end of the meadow are trail options as the Red Trail meets the Blue trail. A left turn goes to the far northern boundary of the preserve where it meets the Buncombe Turnpike. I turned right across a surprising concrete bridge that must have been left from the days the turnpike was still in use. The Blue Trail begins going slightly downward until in short order it reaches a junction with the Orange Trail on the left. This is a dead end spur trail that goes through the forest to a rock outcrop sitting on a ledge of the mountain… a perfect spot for lunch and pictures.

The outcropping isn’t large and it isn’t an overlook, but it is a very nice place to sit for awhile. I took the pack off to rest my shoulders and pulled out my sandwich and fruit. Because the leaves were off the trees, I had somewhat of a view of Shumont Mountain overlooking the Hickory Nut Gorge to the east. To the south I could make out the large granite cliffs that comprise the southern wall of the gorge. I suspect you would never know they were there in the summer. The forest would be full and this outcrop would be nothing more than a good spot to rest and contemplate. There are advantages to continued hiking in the late fall and winter.

The forest was quiet, but filled with sound. This is why it is nice to occasionally get out on the trail alone. I could hear every bough creak from the light, wispy breeze. I listened and watched carefully for critters of some kind but to no avail this time. There were a few birds above me, no doubt complaining to their mates about my presence. The air had that essence of dried leaves that I’ve come to know in Novembers past. There was moss on the rock; velvety to the touch. All that, and the succulent taste of a scrumptious Henderson County cameo apple from Grandad’s.

Returning on the Orange Trail, when I got back to the Blue Trail I turned left this time to begin going back down the mountain. There is one short stretch before returning to the junction where I took the White Trail on the way up. The remainder of the hike was simply downward the way I had come on the Blue Trail, and then a left turn back onto the Yellow Trail. I know, easy for me to say, but it really is easy. Just look at the map.

I’m glad I discovered the Florence Nature Preserve. I have my Mom to thank for that. She saw it mentioned in something she read and called it to my attention. This is easily a four season hike. There’s nothing that would be especially dangerous in the snow and ice of winter, and the only thing that might slow you down during the warm seasons is sweat from that initial climb. I will return to explore more of the Red Trail and the waterfalls on the southern end of the Blue Trail. If you go, enjoy, but remember that the Conservancy will appreciate it if you leave it as you found it.

Update In December 2011, CMLC began construction on a new section of hiking trail that connects CMLC’s newly opened trailhead on Highway 74A to the 600-acre Florence Nature Preserve (FNP). Located in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge near the hamlet of Gerton, the new section of trail will replace a steep and eroded trail that currently accesses the FNP. This new, sustainable trail will feature multiple switchbacks to improve the grade of the ascent to FNP. The new route, open to foot traffic only, will also incorporate multiple natural and cultural points of interest as it accesses the Preserve and its five-mile hiking trail network on the slopes of Little Pisgah Mountain. The existing trail will be closed following construction of the new access trail. Construction of this trail re-route is scheduled to be completed in January 2012. CMLC news release 12/14/2011

 

 

Updated March 20, 2014: My regular hiking companion and I made another visit to Florence Nature Preserve to see for ourselves the trail improvements that have been made in the last two and a half years, and I must say, I am impressed! The work that was done on the extremely steep climb at the beginning has made this an entirely different hike. The use of switchbacks and a different route to the cabin now makes this only moderately difficult at best. Thank you CMLC.

There is also a new sign at the trailhead promoting the Preserve as part of Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, making it easier to find and recognize the trailhead. The lone spruce at the junction of the blue and red trails is now at least twice as tall as it was in November, 2011. Don’t the kids grow up fast?

Here are a few more photos from this hike:

 

Updated July 7, 2014: Went for a summer time stroll through the preserve. I happened to catch peak rosebay rhododendron season and some views of the surrounding countryside.

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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