North Mills River Recreation Area in Pisgah National Forest, along with its brother at South Mills River, has a rich trail system. It covers the Pisgah Ridge at the Blue Ridge Parkway down to the North Mills River. A combination of trails leading from the Trace Ridge Trailhead at the recreation area go up, over, and around Coffee Pot Mountain on the way up to the parkway. There are plenty of creeks and streams along the way, as well as views of the surrounding Blue Ridge from the top. This hike occurred on Thursday, March 22, 2012 from 9:00am to 12:45pm. Our plan was to take the forest service road from the Trace Ridge Trailhead to Fletcher Creek Trail, then on to Spencer Branch Trail and a climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway. On the way down we would take the Trace Ridge Trail.
Hike Length: 9.5 miles Hike Duration: 3.75 hours Hike Rating: Difficult
Blaze: Blue, yellow Elevation Gain: 920 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Very good; lots of forest road.
Starting Point: Trace Ridge Trailhead on Forest Service Road 5000.
Trail Traffic: We did not encounter any other hikers on this trail.
How to Get There: From the Asheville/Hendersonville Regional Airport travel west on US 280 six miles to the traffic light at North Mills River Road. Turn right and travel five miles to the North Mills River Recreation Area. Turn right on Forest Service Road 5000 and go 2.5 miles to the Trace Ridge Trailhead.
Despite living less than 15 miles away, for some reason I had yet to make it to the North Mills River Recreation Area. Now having been there, I see it isn’t much more than a very large camping and picnicking area, as well as fishing and frolicking in the water. Ah yes, but then there are the trails. Most notable is the Trace Ridge area over Coffee Pot Mountain.
I suppose most people actually take the Trace Ridge Trail, but we are not most people, we are Meanderthals. So instead we continued on Forest Road 5000 on foot past the barrier. It is the leftmost of the northern trailheads. Unlike the very smooth gravel forest service road up to the trailhead, once you pass the barrier at the trailhead, the road is grassier and not as wide. In other words, ideal for hiking and mountain biking.
This trail/road follows the North Mills River for a little less than a mile, passing many riverside campsites and meadows. It stays about 50-80 feet above river level, so you aren’t walking through or near the camping. Chances are you wouldn’t even notice the river and campsites from the trail in summer when the leaves are out, except perhaps for sounds. On this day in late March though, we could still see through the forest.
Very near the end of the road (if you reach it, you’ve gone too far), the blue-blazed Fletcher Creek Trail takes off upward to the right. It begins with a short series of switchbacks as you start the climb up Coffee Pot Mountain. After topping out on a ridge that skirts the western side of the mountain, the trail is a very nice leisurely stroll along a wide track through deciduous forest. There is also a thick ground level forest of the usual rhododendrons and the like, perfect habitat for wildlife. Several times we heard the thump, thump, thump warning us we were near a mighty grouse.
There is the occasional view of mountains to the north, although only in winter, and then the trail meets Spencer Branch. At this point you can continue up Fletcher Creek Trail following Fletcher Creek to Grady Fork Gap, or, since our destination was Trace Ridge we headed north on the Spencer Branch Trail. The trail blaze changes to yellow. Oddly enough, after about a quarter mile, Spencer Branch Trail meets Fletcher Creek and crosses, but then continues northward as the creek goes up to the west-northwest.
Not long after, this trail crosses another forest road (actually a continuation of FR 5000 as it winds relentlessly through the woods) and then joins Spencer Branch, a creek of about 6-8 feet width. This is beaver country, or at least it used to be. As we were commenting about all the trees with gnawed trunks, there was another thump, thump, thump and then a mad whoosh as we unintentionally jumped a grouse and he took off flying directly down the trail ahead of us. Quite the sight. You could say this is a game trail
— in three dimensions. I wasn’t quick enough with the camera though. Lesson learned.
About a quarter mile after the forest road crossing, Spencer Branch Trail reaches a clearing that is a lovely mountain scene. The creek is wider here, with lots of downed timber and other forest debris. It appears to have been the site of a beaver dam at some time past. Above the creek to the northwest is a large open field, perhaps cleared by beavers long ago. These days it’s a beautiful grassy meadow. The scene is in the photo at the top of this post: click for a larger image. Beyond the meadow is more forest, then a small unnamed mountain ridge.
Past this mountain meadow scene, Spencer Branch Trail begins to climb Coffee Pot Mountain in earnest. It gains about 500 feet of elevation over the next quarter mile. At times the trail gets a little rocky as it has become a drainage channel during rain storms.
Then suddenly, the trail pops out on top of Trace Ridge, and there you are. It sure came quicker than we were expecting, and caused us to make a mistake that would result in our return trip being over an unplanned track. We you come out on top, there are no signs to indicate this is now actually Trace Ridge Trail. There is one sign that points to Spencer Branch going down, back the way we came. We proceeded northward, to the left, toward the Blue Ridge Parkway.
After another 100 feet we came to a different trail junction. This one had two choices. There was an unnamed trail to the left, and Spencer Gap Trail to the right. Pulling out our map as good Meanderthals do, we looked for Spencer Gap, but there was no trail with that name. We simply couldn’t imagine that we had already reached Trace Ridge, so we figured Spencer Gap must be a continuation of Spencer Branch and would take us to the parkway. Wrong, kemo sabe.
The trail entered another meadow (eventually we would learn this was Beaverdam Gap) and we thought it a nice spot for lunch. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were looking at Brushy Ridge in front of us and Ferrin Knob behind. Despite studying the map again for several minutes while munching our meal, we still couldn’t place exactly where we were. No matter, it was quite serene and relaxing.
It took us half a mile to realize we had taken the wrong fork on Trace Ridge. We should have gone left on the unnamed trail. It would have been only a few hundred yards to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead, we kept winding around the ridge, but staying below the parkway. We could see it above us, but we never got closer. Then eventually we started heading down away from the parkway. Heh? What’s going on here?
Finally we reached a junction with a forest road that had a sign. Now we could check the map again to see where we were. And where we were was not where we wanted to be. We had reached Wash Creek Road which meant the trail with the sign that said Spencer Gap was actually Beaverdam Gap Trail on our map. We were now a half mile from Trace Ridge with a decision. We could see on the map that Wash Creek Road would take us back to our car, but we would miss the hike down Coffee Pot Mountain on Trace Ridge Trail. Or, we could backtrack the half mile back up Beaverdam Gap Trail to Trace Ridge.
We debated, but decided to head down on the road rather than back up. It meant we would have to slog for several miles on a forest road instead of a nice trail, but it also meant we wouldn’t have to go back up. One good thing you can say about forest roads is you make good time.
The road followed Wash Creek most of the way down, so at least the sounds were refreshing. As we neared the bottom we reached another area with several campsites including one with an equine compound. We passed some beautiful horses including a couple palaminos, one with a beautifully silky silver-grey mane.
So. The hike didn’t turn out quite like what we planned, but it was still enjoyable, at least the western side of Coffee Pot Mountain on Spencer Branch. Some day we will try this hike again but start at the parkway end instead. We would plan on going down Spencer Branch, then coming up Trace Ridge. We learn from our mistakes. Hopefully this will keep you from making the same mistake we did.
Update Wanting to find out more about Trace Ridge Trail, we went back three weeks later, on April 12, 2012. This time we made sure we wouldn’t mess up as we started the hike by going up Trace Ridge instead of Spencer Branch. Here is the trail map for the hike we originally intended.
The orange blazed Trace Ridge Trail climbs almost 1100 feet in just over three miles. It’s only moderate difficulty because it makes this climb in a terraced fashion. It will go up for a couple hundred yards, then it will be flat for a couple hundred yards, then go up again for awhile. It offers the chance for a breather every so often, making the climb one that doesn’t require a lot of rest breaks. Coffee Pot Mountain was covered with blooming dogwood as we made our way to the top, something that wasn’t yet out to enjoy just a few short weeks earlier.
At the top of the ridge, this time we corrected our previous error and went left at the fork. Trace Ridge Trail continued its climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We popped out at mile 401, just a hundred yards west of the Beaver Dam Gap Overlook. It was an ideal spot. This stretch of the parkway has been closed for a couple months while they work on tunnel repair, so we had the road all to ourselves. The parkway is always enjoyable when there is no traffic. It also just so happened there was a picnic table at the overlook, perfect for our well-earned lunch after the climb.
Following lunch we walked the parkway westward about a quarter mile to get a look at Mt. Pisgah. It’s easy to recognize with the TV tower that sits atop its 5,721 foot peak. The forest had greened considerably since our last venture up Coffee Pot Mountain. The wildflowers were out too… violets, iris and daisies.
For the trip down, this time we took Spencer Branch to Fletcher Creek
— the way we went up the first time. With the short walk on the parkway, the hike totaled 10.7 miles and took us a little over four hours, including our stop for lunch. It’s nice to know now what we missed a few weeks previous, and I still think it would be interesting to try this hike from the top down when the parkway reopens.
I added three more photos at the end of the gallery below. Compare the difference three weeks makes in the look of the forest.
Update February 12, 2015: After nearly three years since our last visit, it was time to hike this loop in North Mills River again. We wanted to see the end result of the Brushy Ridge Logging Project, and to stretch our legs on this longish trail.
Well, the logged area looked like you would surmise, like a bomb went off. It isn’t “clear-cut,” but they sure didn’t leave much. The forest will eventually heal itself, but Trace Ridge just isn’t going to be the same for five years, or more.
What helped make up for that disappointment, however, was: THE BEAVERS ARE BACK! The beaver pond on Spencer Branch that was abandoned many years ago is active again. There are two dams, a primary and secondary, one large lodge and another that looks to still be under construction. There were mallard ducks swimming on the pond, and the ecosystem looked extremely healthy. YAY BEAVERS!
Here are some new photos. Enjoy!