Usually when you come here you will find a cheerful description of a scenic hike that was fun, and that I recommend for your enjoyment. Instead, I am going to suggest that you stay away from this hike if you value your safety and security. The Brush Creek and Burnett Gap Trails are so terribly maintained as to make them virtually impassible. I’m sure at one time these trails near the French Broad River were quite exhilarating. There are some impressive views of the surrounding mountains from the Brush Creek Ridge. However, this is an example of what can happen when Forest Service funding is cut and the nearby area is impoverished. Potential trail volunteers have more pressing matters to attend to in their everyday lives. This hike occurred on Thursday, April 26, 2012 from 11:00am to 3:45pm. Our plan was to take Logging Road 5105 off Forest Road 209 to the Brush Creek Trail, then follow the Brush Creek Ridge to Logging Road 5103. The road would then meet the Burnett Gap Trail for a return to Forest Road 209.
Hike Length: 8.3 miles Hike Duration: 4.75 hours
Hike Rating: Very difficult (strenuous) Blaze: Yellow on both trails
Elevation Change: 1235 feet Elevation Gain: 2565 feet Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Absolutely horrible.
Starting Point: Logging Road 5105 on Forest Road 209.
Trail Traffic: There were no other hikers.
How to Get There: From Hot Springs, NC take Hwy 25/70 west into Tennessee then across the French Broad River. Turn right on Forest Road 209 immediately after the bridge. It is nearly three miles to Allen Branch Pond. The trailhead for Logging Road 5105 is just past the pond on the left.
The drive from our home in Western North Carolina just across the border into Tennessee is roughly 90 minutes, most of it on Hwy 25/70. We passed through the quaint mountain town of Hot Springs, a popular spot for Appalachian Trail through hikers. Perhaps we should have known by the early warning signs what was to be in store for us this day. About half way there the sky opened up. As they say, it was raining cats and dogs. Turns out maybe we were fortunate that torrential rain was all we saw as the region was ripped by high wind and large hail. The debris would be evident later all over the roads.
The next warning sign was the bridge across the French Broad River. It was closed for construction. Fortunately, there was another bridge about 5 miles west on Fugate Road. Since it was still raining hard we needed to kill a little time, so we took a drive through the bottomland town of Del Rio and up a forest road on Round Mountain. This road went on seemingly forever, but we did find a nice clearing for pictures of Neddy Mountain across the French Broad valley. That’s what you see at the top of this post.
We crossed the river on Hwy 107 and headed back east on 25/70 toward the other bridge. Just on the north side of the construction is Forest Road 209, our entrance into Cherokee National Forest. Immediately we were stymied by a very large downed branch lying squarely across the road. This had been quite a storm. Working as a team we were able to drag it to the side and continue on our merry, but clueless way.
Our intention was to start on the Burnett Gap Trail and do a clockwise loop, but we never saw the trailhead. Later, when we exited this point we could see why. We reached Allen Branch Pond
— at the other end of the loop
— and decided to change to a counter-clockwise hike rather than backtracking to search for Burnett Gap. Just a short hundred yards or so past the pond, Logging Road 5105 takes off to the northwest. That would be our starting point.
The beginning was innocuous enough. The road/trail was covered with a soft, thick grass that was colored in that delightful bright spring green. Other than the occasional downed tree across the road, it was a nice track. The road dead ends after about three-quarters mile and we had to hunt for the Brush Creek trailhead. Eventually we found it at the north corner of the cul-de-sac formed by the end of the road. As it isn’t very well marked, it’s likely you will go past it as we did.
The Brush Creek Trail begins climbing immediately to the north, up Brush Creek Mountain. Over the next couple miles we would climb from 1600 feet to the summit of the mountain at 2690. But a good portion of that would be without advantage of a trail. You see, the trail is so overgrown to be very difficult to follow. From the charred embers on the ground, and the blackened trunks of trees, it was apparent there had been a prescribed burn in this area of the national forest within the past couple years. The brush, including laurels and wild berry varieties, was returning healthy and dense. Without the occasional hard-to-find faded-yellow blaze markers we would have had no clue where the trail was.
Compound that with a very large number of downed trees across the trail from years past, and it was extremely difficult to keep our bearings. It didn’t take long before the compasses came out of our packs and into our pockets. We are firm believers in Leave No Trace, so we don’t like to go off trail and tromp on the ecosystem. We simply couldn’t help it as it was next to impossible to stay on the trail. In a series of switchbacks, a few times we completely lost the trail. We would look up the mountain for a rim and head that direction. Lucky for us, our years of experience proved beneficial as those rims represented the edge of the trail bed.
As the trail approaches the summit of the Brush Creek Ridge, it makes a hard turn to the left, generally west-southwest. The deciduous forest opens for a bit to provide a picturesque view of the Meadow Creek Mountains away to the north. The sky was darkening again, and we needed nourishment after the hard climb, so it was time to pull up some rocks and have lunch. We studied the map and compass and debated whether to continue or turn back. Heck, the trail couldn’t get any worse, right? What do you think we did? We are Meanderthals, after all. Yes, we decided to push on. Little did we know what was in store.
It was about the time we reached the second summit along Brush Creek Ridge that the trail quality got even worse. The brush was thicker and now a heavy woodland of immature trees spanned the trail, right at face level. We were literally knocking them to the side with our arms and elbows. Meanwhile, the briars and brambles were grabbing at our legs. Wouldn’t you know I chose to wear shorts when I dressed in the morning, so now my shins were one big scratch. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.
We completely lost the trail. Between the downed timber blocking the trail at every turn, and the ground-level overgrowth in each direction, the trail was gone. We made a 100 foot loop looking for blaze marks on every tree, to no avail. Keeping our wits about us, we remembered the 10 Essentials. We took mental inventory of our supplies, and most important to us at this moment was navigation; our map and compass. To top it all off, there was a fog and mist moving in, as well as darkening clouds to the west.
We studied the map thoroughly. As long as we continued in a southwesterly direction, down the ridge, we had to eventually meet the eastern fork of Logging Road 5103, our connector to the Burnett Gap Trail. Even if we strayed a little west or south, the road was at the bottom of the ridge. Now the question became, what is between here and there? We inspected the topo lines carefully, looking for a cliff that would impede our descent. We could see it was steep, but there didn’t appear to be any abutments. How about creeks? Yes, we would cross Bryant Hollow. We just had to hope it would be passable.
And so we set out. No kidding about the steep part. We dropped 800 feet in about a half mile, without a trail to slow our descent. The wet leaves covering the wet rocks and the decaying wood were slippery. The brush was constantly tugging at our ankles. I couldn’t tell you how many times I had to re-tie my shoe laces. There was a saving grace though, to keep our attitude positive. The mountain laurel were just a week away from sharing their full regalia, so the pink blossoms were a beautiful sign of encouragement. And then we reached the hollow.
It was dark and dreary, and ominous. We were in a bowl, with nowhere to go but up. We found a log to sit on and pulled out the map again. The same applied now as before. If we continued south to southwest, we had to meet the logging road. I took a little extra time to think about how I was prepared if we got completely lost. I had plenty of supplies, but I was mostly worried about the weather. There were more storms forecast. Oh well, there were still about five hours of daylight left, so I put on my positive face and followed my companion.
We climbed above the creek, then skirted the hillside in a southerly direction for little more than a few hundred yards, and then YAHOO! There ahead was the logging road, and we caught a break. As we headed east on the track, it turned out that we were only a tenth mile from Burnett Gap Trail. How lucky could we get? Be warned though. There is no trail marker here, so we had to presume this was the junction we wanted. When seeing the first yellow blaze mark a couple hundred feet later we breathed easier. Too bad the trails are both blazed yellow though. It can be confusing.
We had one final climb facing us, about 400 feet. By now, I was definitely weary from all the bushwhacking. This additional steep climb did nothing for my resolve. At least my friend admitted he was tired as well, so I knew it wasn’t just me. I took encouragement from that in some convoluted way. The Burnett Gap Trail started out pretty good. At least we could see it.
Notice I said started out. It didn’t take long before this trail was just as hard to track as the other. More downed trees, more overgrown brush, more faded blaze markings. It’s been a long, long time since this area of Cherokee National Forest has had any serious trail maintenance performed. It is in a very remote area, so I suspect there isn’t much local population base to pull volunteers from. Combine that with abject Appalachian poverty and perhaps it becomes understandable.
To keep our spirits up we would holler out “Yellow!” every time we saw a blaze marking, and you know what? We made it. The bottom section of the Burnett Gap Trail is perhaps a mile long in total, then it pops out on Forest Road 209. I turned to look at the trailhead to see why we missed it when driving by in the morning. The trail marker was half blown away by shotgun blasts and the foliage was completely grown up around the turf. It was hard to see just standing there 10 feet away.
It was still a two mile walk back to Allen Branch Pond and the car, but by now we were tickled pink to be on solid ground in a place that we recognized. A gravel forest road never looked so good. We said our appropriate thanks for getting out of the situation safely and without injury, and before dark and the next wave of storms. On the drive back to North Carolina we got dumped on again.
Warning! I suggest you think long and hard before attempting this hike. In it’s present condition, it simply isn’t safe. It’s too easy to get lost. It’s too easy to get hurt. It’s too easy to panic and make poor decisions. Thank goodness for my years of experience, and for even more experience from my friend. If you are a novice hiker DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS HIKE! Despite our experience we found ourselves in a situation we don’t like to be in. This was an excellent reminder how important a map and compass are, especially when you’re going somewhere you’ve never been. It was a good alert for me to not become complacent about The Ten Essentials.