The Riverside Trail along the South Fork of Mills River in Pisgah National Forest is a great opportunity for boys to be boys, and girls to laugh at them, as the trail fords the river several times. You’ll get to wade in a crisp, cool mountain stream up to your knees as you negotiate the current and the smooth, slippery rocks on the bed. Enjoy the peaceful sounds of the babbling water as you hike alongside this beautiful mountain river that’s full of twists and turns. Start with the two-mile Vineyard Gap Trail up and over Forge Mountain to make a loop of the hike, then put away the boots and get out your water shoes. Obviously this hike is best during warmer weather, unless you don’t mind freezing your tootsies. This hike occurred on Thursday, May 31, 2012 from 8:55am to 12:40pm. Our plan was to take the Vineyard Gap Trail over Forge Mountain to connect with the Riverside Trail, then follow the S. Mills River back.
Hike Length: 7.3 miles Hike Duration: 3.75 hours
Hike Rating: Easy Blaze: Yellow, both trails Hike Configuration: Loop
Elevation Change: 685 feet Elevation Gain: 895 feet
Trail Condition: Good; fording a river several times on slippery rocks.
Starting Point: Turkeypen Gap Trailhead on Turkeypen Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered no other hikers, but there were horseback riders.
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.
Warning! This is a fun hike, but it does deserve a bit of caution. After all, you will be hiking in the river for part of the journey. I would not recommend fording the river in bare feet. The riverbed is quite rocky
— it isn’t smooth sand
— so you could slip or get your toes wedged between rocks. Something like water shoes or waterproof sandals is fine, but probably not flip-flops. There is some current that will try to pull you down, so if you have trekking poles or a hiking stick they would be useful. If there has been a lot of recent rain in the area the current is likely to be a bit stronger. If you’re worried about expensive electronic equipment like cameras and smartphones, you may want to consider a dry bag as well.
Turkeypen Road, the dirt and gravel road that goes from Hwy. 280 to the trailhead got a little rough over the winter. There were some pretty good size potholes. You can still make it fine with a conventional 2-wheel drive vehicle, but until it gets graded just take it slow and easy.
Enough with the cautions, let’s get on with the hike. The Vineyard Gap Trail (#324) is on the right side of the parking area at the dead end on Turkeypen Rd. It starts off immediately going uphill. There isn’t much climbing on this hike. It’s all at the beginning and the end. But you will go up about 300 feet in the first 15 minutes. After the first climb, our crew reached a small flat area where the trail took a hard right. There is a sign there, but be aware and don’t go left.
The trail climbs moderately to the ridge of Forge Mountain. In the fall and winter when the leaves have fallen, there are some nice views to the northwest. Be sure to follow the yellow blazes marked on trees since there are unmaintained side trails that intersect. The forest alternates from hardwoods to laurels. There are the requisite rhododendron canopies. It wouldn’t be Pisgah National Forest without them after all.
From the summit of Forge Mountain the trail makes a sharp turn to the northwest and drops steeply nearly 700 feet to the South Fork of Mills River. Here Vineyard Gap Trail ends and the Riverside Trail (#115) begins with a fording of the river. For us, that meant it was time to change footwear and secure our gear. On this last day of May, the water was cold, but really not as much as I expected. We didn’t know it at the time, but this first one turned out to be the deepest of the crossings that were ahead of us. Near the north bank the depth reached about the middle of my thighs, but none later were above my knees.
We approached the first crossing with just a touch of trepidation, not knowing the water temperature or the swiftness of the current. It didn’t take long to realize this was doable and on subsequent crossings we plunged right in with reckless abandon. We wouldn’t be good Meanderthals if we didn’t. On this day we had a new member of our troupe of wayward vagabonds, so we broke him in right. Hey! Walking in a mountain stream is great fun, no matter your age.
The Riverside Trail is appropriately named as it follows all the myriad twists of the river, never getting more than 25 yards away. The river itself is a lazy one. Unlike many of the rivers and prongs in the Blue Ridge Mountains there’s no whitewater here. It isn’t a big river
— no more than 40 feet at its widest. We were following the trail upstream, in a generally northeast to southwest direction, but the river turns so much that there’s something new to see round every bend. Most of the photographic spots are on the corners.
The 2nd crossing was a little testier than the first. The trail picks back up on the opposite bank about 25 yards upstream, so you’re not only crossing, but also going against the current. The rocks on the riverbed are also bigger here, so watch your step. Leave it to me to cross to the wrong place. What I saw on the other side wasn’t a trail at all. Thankfully the other guys were more astute than I and found the correct point.
Once back on the original side of the river where we started, we noticed a sort of berm, or levee between the trail and river. No more than five feet high, there were stretches on both sides of the river where this flood control was deployed. The trail is a little wider here, a combination of crushed leaves and mud. Since this is also a horse trail, sometimes there are different crossing points for hikers of the two or four-legged variety.
Speaking of horses, as we reached the third river crossing, so too did a group of four equestrians on the other side, coming toward us. That’s one way to get across the river without getting your feet wet. We gave them a wide berth and all the horses were not only well behaved as they crossed the river and passed us, but also a lot better at fording streams than we are.
The 3rd river crossing is by far the most scenic. There is a series of granite fins jutting out of the river, topped with moss and fern. On the far side of the river is a sandy and rocky shoal with a campsite, and a great spot for lunch. The whole area is encompassed by a large turn in the river that enables viewing upstream and down. As luck would have it there is a very large downed tree right along the bank that makes a perfect seat. We took off our packs, pulled out our sandwiches and snacks and reveled in the beauty and the perfect weather.
After lunch, I took a little time for some pictures while the other guys were chatting. I’d managed to stay on my feet so far through three fordings of the river, but when I got up from my seat on the ground near a picturesque clump of grass (seen at the top of this post), I stumbled and nearly fell head first into the river. Good for me I was able to catch myself on the aforementioned log. It sucks getting old.
Upon our return to the trail we passed a particularly lovely forest grove covered with ground cedar and shaded by tall hemlock. The forest service must also recognize the appeal of the area as they have placed a number of campsites along this stretch of the trail. The river is a ready water source, the ground is soft, and the trees form a canopy to protect from bad weather.
The next two river crossings come in rapid succession over the next half mile. The fourth is much like the 2nd where the outgoing trail is a couple first downs upstream. There is a little bit of whitewater here from larger rocks on the riverbed, and the current is the strongest of the crossings. Just take your time and all will be well.
The 5th crossing is a pretty easy one, but we suffered our first downed Meanderthal of the day. One of our stalwarts got a little off balance and took a bath on his right side. No harm, no foul as he popped right up with a sheepish smile, hoping nobody noticed. And before you ask, no, it wasn’t me… this time.
Not far at all after this crossing, the Bradley Creek Trail (#351) appears on the right, coming down from Pea Gap. If you want to make a longer hike, this trail is an option. Otherwise, the two trails join as they continue along the river. In fact, there are a number of options on the rest of this hike to either extend it, or do it a little different from us. There are two more places where you can cross the river again if you so choose. By now we had enough of tromping along in wet foot gear and put our socks and boots back on. Blisters are no fun.
The last stretch along the river before the suspension bridge is quite pretty. There are more twists and turns in the river. There are more campsites, as well as creeks tumbling down from above to blend into the river. Small beachy areas appear along the riverbank that I suspect are popular with teens and families in the summer. On this day they just happened to be great for the cameraman too. I’ve been here in the fall and the foliage coloring is awesome. This time it was green, green, green.
About a hundred yards before the suspension bridge you can turn right on the South Mills River Trail (#133) if you wish to take in more of the river. That trail traverses higher above the river rather than riverside. However, if you take the left fork you come to a plank and cable bridge over the river. If you get four grown men all on the bridge at the same time walking off-step it tends to sway, bob, and weave quite a bit. You may want to be smarter than us and take it one at a time.
The final quarter mile is all uphill, climbing about 250 feet. If you’ve been on a longer hike it can be a little tiring to finish with this push upward. But our hike was short enough that it was no problem. There always seems to be a lot of horse manure on this stretch of trail, so watch your step. Finally, it pops out on the west end of the Turkeypen parking area behind the large signboard.
The Riverside Trail in the South Mills River area of Pisgah National Forest is truly fun. It’s good to get out of your stodgy, serious self occasionally and be a child again. Hiking in a river is exciting. One of my all-time favorite hikes was in a river. Starting this loop with a climb over Forge Mountain on Vineyard Gap Trail is good exercise and then the merriment begins. This hike is very family friendly and recommended for kids from 1 to 90.