The southeast corner of Shining Rock Wilderness is filled with rivers, creeks and streams tumbling down from the mountains that rise above 6000 feet in the high country. Included among these waterways is the East Fork of the Pigeon River, otherwise known as Big East Fork. A trail follows the river from Hwy 276 to the confluence with Greasy Cove Prong and beyond. This Big East Fork Trail passes several coves and small waterfalls as it climbs nearly a thousand feet through dark and deep forest. The final push is a climb out of the wilderness from Bridges Camp Gap up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is one of those great wild places that Shining Rock is known for. Our hike occurred on Thursday, July 26, 2012 from 8:15am to 11:15am. The plan was to take the Big East Fork Trail along the Pigeon River to Greasy Cove, then join the Bridges Camp Gap Trail up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Hike Length: 6.1 miles Hike Duration: 3 hours Blaze: None, wilderness
Hike Rating: Moderate Hike Configuration: Point to point
Elevation Gain: 1,042 feet Elevation Change: 1,385 feet
Trail Condition: Extremely rocky and rooty, slippery and treacherous. Typical wilderness.
Starting Point: Big East Fork Trailhead on Hwy 276.
Trail Traffic: We encountered one group of eight hikers.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy 276 into Pisgah National Forest, and all the way to the top at Wagon Road Gap where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 14 miles. Continue down Hwy 276 another 2.7 miles to the auxiliary Big East Fork parking area, which is unsigned, and on the left before the highway bridge. The primary parking lot is signed, and after the bridge.
Even though this is doable as an up and back hike, we chose to use two cars, one at each end of the trail. We started by taking my car to the Looking Glass Rock Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 417. Then we took my companion’s vehicle off the parkway and down Hwy 276 to the lower trailhead. We would be hiking from lower to upper, or top to bottom on the map above.
The easiest place to get lost on this hike is before you even start. It’s where you park your car and look for the trailhead. There are two distinct parking areas within a few hundred feet of each other on the left side of Hwy 276. One is on the east side of the river, the other on the west. The larger of the two parking areas, and one marked with a large national forest sign as Big East Fork, is not the one you want. That goes to Old Butt Knob and Shining Creek Trails. For this hike, you want the smaller, unmarked parking area that is a tenth of a mile before the highway bridge on the east side of the river. If you see the highway bridge and the Big East Fork sign, you’ve gone too far.
WARNING This is a wilderness trail! There are no blaze marks to identify your path, so you should definitely have a compass and a map with you. You can get lost. The trail itself is very rocky and rooty. It is quite easy to stumble and fall, or twist an ankle, or worse. The rocks on the river bank and in the river are treacherous and slippery. They may look completely safe to walk on, but they may tip or teeter from your weight. There is a thin coating of moisture and moss on the rocks that make them extremely slick. Even with the best gripping shoes, you are very likely to slip and fall. You don’t want to hit your head, so trekking poles or a hiking stick would be useful for support. Having said all that, this is a beautiful hike along a wild river. Just be careful.
When you plunge into the forest, it’s like that old game from decades ago, Colossal Cave Adventure. You’ve entered a maze of twisty little passages, dark and deep. The forest is very dark. It’s made up of red and striped maple, hemlock, yellow birch, dog-hobble, and thick, thick rhododendron. The trail passes through occasional bogs and springs, so mud will cling to the grid on your shoes. It isn’t long before you hear the rush of the East Fork of the Pigeon River as you reach Rocky Cove.
On this lower section, the river is rather benign. There are lots of bowling ball and beach ball sized boulders in the river, but not much water in mid-summer. I began to notice the tulip poplars, their large elephant ear leaves reaching full size this time of year. I also noticed how tricky those river rocks were going to be. With the mud on my shoes and the slick surface of the rocks, I could see that taking photos was going to be a slow and careful process.
About three-quarters mile upriver from the trailhead, Shining Creek flows into the river from the west. That’s the picture at the top of this post. Click it for a larger image. There’s a pretty good campsite there. In fact we saw a makeshift lean-to that someone had probably put together quickly in one of the nasty thunderstorms we’ve had here recently. We also noticed the first of what would be many great swimming holes. Oh, to be young and carefree again.
The next stream is Bennett Branch, this one coming down from the east. There’s a switchback in the trail as it climbs away from the river for the first time. This gets you around where Bennett Branch spills into the river. The crossing is not a problem. Just plant your feet squarely on the rocks and logs that cross the creek.
What’s that? Suddenly we could see light, quite unusual in this thick forest. For the first time, we got a view of something above the tree canopy. To the southwest is Raven Cliff Ridge, a large rocky cliff that stands several hundred feet above the river level. This ridge splits the drainage from Shining Creek on its north side and East Fork.
The trail continues following the river and crosses areas of exposed bedrock that have been carved over the ages. My friend has a 10-day backcountry adventure coming soon in King’s Canyon, so he was practicing by carrying his fully loaded backpack. These granite slabs make great spots to rest and take a load off. On a cool spring morning I could see myself sitting on these rocks for hours, lost in my surroundings.
Next is another series of coves, these known as Little Buckeye and Big Buckeye. The forest floor is covered with fern and galax. There are campsites here, and more of the inviting swimming holes. We passed a group of junior high type teens, loaded down with full packs, and smelling of a few days in the wilderness. It was a relief when we also passed their chaperones about 100 yards behind.
As the river and the trail take a southeasterly turn, it gets a little steeper. From here the river begins to rage with whitewater as there are small waterfalls seemingly every couple hundred yards. The river has to carve its way through narrow channels in the bedrock, making for beautiful sights and sounds. With all this allure also comes danger. The terrain is quite rugged. The river banks are much steeper and trickier to navigate. It takes some careful scrambling to get in position for photographs.
The river then makes a big sweeping curve so that we were now heading pretty much due west. Looking at the topo map I could see why. It’s flowing around Nobreeches Ridge. There’s bound to be a story there, one of those the old-timers tell so well. If there are any locals out there who know the naming etymology of Nobreeches Ridge, please use the comments below and share the tale.
After about 3.5 miles on the trail, it suddenly becomes Bridges Camp Gap Trail. This is the boundary of the Shining Rock Wilderness, as the river is now in Pisgah National Forest and the trail has a different name. You’ll also notice the yellow blaze marks on trees now that you’re out of the wilderness. Not much further and the trail comes to the confluence of Greasy Cove Prong with East Fork. The Prong comes down from the west and there are several campsites. There is a rocky crossing here that I have written about before in the Greasy Cove trail report. That hike was a fond memory, the creek crossing not so much.
The trail takes a decided southerly turn and begins another steep uphill climb. There is one of those Forest Service trail markers here to point the way. Good thing, because otherwise the trail is kinda hard to notice because of all the campsites.
There is one more area of campsites along the East Fork and then the trail leaves the river for good. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is the crossing for Greasy Cove Trail. My companion tells the story about doing so the first time he came here and spending an hour on the other side of the river looking for a nonexistent trail. So if you’re coming down the trail from above, go past this spot and cross at the next series of campsites.
The final quarter mile is a climb away from the river and toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. You will notice the sound changing from rushing water to roaring Harley-Davidson engines. The trail spills onto the Parkway just a couple hundred yards from the overlook where we parked my car. We were the 2nd car there early in the morning. Now, just over three hours later, the pullout was packed with teens heading to nearby Skinny Dip Falls. It’s probably odd to the Parkway tourists who try to pull into this overlook to peer at Looking Glass Rock that there’s nowhere to park.
We finished off the day by driving back down to Big East Fork to pick up my friend’s pickup and conclude another successful hike. Ah, such a life!
I truly enjoyed this hike. The river is beautiful, and rugged, and exciting. The hike is not particularly difficult, as the climbing is relatively steady. There aren’t any really strenuous stretches. This is another trail I will relish exploring seasonally. I look forward to the beautiful colors of the hardwoods in the fall, and I’d like to try this hike in winter just to be able to peer through the trees at the surrounding wilderness. We took our time and were very careful on the slippery rocks and roots, and made it through without incident. That would be my warning for you. Be aware of the potential for slips and falls and you too will appreciate Big East Fork in this little corner of Shining Rock Wilderness.
Update July 10, 2015: Made another trip along this beautiful river with Griztrax. The rosebay rhododendron was in full bloom, the fresh mountain water was flowing well, even the humidity was tolerable. We also found fresh monarda and honeysuckle along the way, and the occasional snail or mushroom to pique our curiosity. We did a shuttle hike top to bottom choosing the nice easy relaxing route so we had plenty of time for pictures… and reflection.