Section 1 of the Art Loeb Trail is in Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, NC overlooking the Davidson River Recreation Area. The North Slope Trail is a loop contained within the boundary created by the Art Loeb and the river. Between the two trails is a connector. Combining the two via the connector makes an 8-mile loop that takes in a large portion of the forest above the river. Dense and damp in summer months, the mostly deciduous forest gets a lot of rainfall and remains green well into mid-autumn. The Davidson River Campground is nearby, so this hike can be quite popular with the campers. Our hike occurred on Thursday, August 30, 2012 from 8:45am to 12:00pm. The plan was to start at the Davidson River Campground, then follow the river westward to the North Slope trailhead. The climb begins up North Slope to a meeting with the connector trail and on to the Art Loeb Trail. We would take the Art Loeb back east and north for a return to the river.
Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 3.25 hours Blaze: Orange, yellow, white
Hike Rating: Moderate, steady climbing Hike Configuration: Loop
Elevation Gain: 1,484 feet Elevation Change: 945 feet
Trail Condition: Mostly very good. Some muddy areas along the river.
Starting Point: Entrance to Davidson River Campground on Hwy 276.
Trail Traffic: We encountered one group of teens and their chaperones.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Hwy 276 into Pisgah National Forest. Turn left into Davidson River Campground, but park before crossing the bridge into the campground.
The Davidson River Campground near the Brevard entrance to Pisgah National Forest is one of the finest in Western North Carolina with modern restroom and shower facilities available. It is near Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls, not to mention hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the national forest. It also happens to be the starting point for this hike.
After three weeks of hiking alone while the other Meanderthals were scattered far and wide across the country, one of my companions was back with renewed vigor and plenty of stories to tell. We decided to take the loop counterclockwise, so we headed around the campground along Davidson River in a westerly direction. The trail is on the south side of the river. This stretch of the Davidson is prime trout fishing water as it’s just a few miles downriver from the state hatchery.
The trail follows the river past shoals and swimming holes, small beaches and rocky crossings. The first landmark is the English Chapel, first built in 1860. By 1940, the original wooden building had all but fallen down, so the congregation pulled together to build the present rock church. The rocks came directly from the Davidson River as well as surrounding southeastern states. Colored rocks spell out the words “English Chapel” above the front entrance.
After 1.4 miles you will come to the North Slope Trailhead on the left. The riverside trail continues straight ahead, but we started our climb up the slope. Within the first hundred yards it was apparent there had been a recent prescribed burn in this area of Pisgah National Forest. With all the horrible forest fires out west this year, and seemingly every year, it’s good to see the local forest management folks take a proactive course. Unlike the drought stricken west, North Carolina forests have been blessed with refreshing rain all summer, so it has been unusually green even as fall approaches.
The orange blazed North Slope Trail climbs moderately for a mile through dense deciduous forest with occasional switchbacks to ease the ascent. With so much recent rain, the air was quite muggy, leaving a mid-morning fog in the woods. The sun rays through the trees striking the fog made an enchanting scene, one that almost made me forget how wet my clothes were getting with perspiration.
The Connector Trail between the North Slope and the Art Loeb is next. If you wish to continue the North Slope inner loop, take the easterly left fork at the junction. We continued straight ahead on the connector in a southerly direction. Look for the trail blaze change to yellow. The next 3/4 mile is the steepest part of the hike, climbing just under 600 feet. Just try to keep your focus on the beautiful laurel and hardwood forest, and off your burning lungs and legs, and you’ll be fine.
As we approached the junction with the Art Loeb Trail we encountered the first hikers of the day. It was a group of three young adult chaperones who were backpacking the full 30 miles of the Art Loeb, and wanted to make sure their cadre of teens hadn’t strayed off onto the connector trail. They were relieved to learn that it was just us coming up from below, and that their team of youngsters had indeed made the correct decision at the junction.
The Art Loeb is a white blazed trail. If you continue in a westward direction on the Art Loeb you will pass Chestnut Knob, Cat Gap, and eventually reach Cedar Rock. However, we took the hard left to go east and continue our loop.
We immediately noticed that trees near the trail were filled with very large, very intricate spider webs. Fortunately they weren’t spun across the trail. The Art Loeb gets enough traffic that the arachnids have learned to avoid spinning where hikers walk. That’s fine with me. There isn’t much more annoying on the trail than getting a face full of Zygiella silk. Am I right?
The Art Loeb continues the climb for a short bit, but then drops down 250 feet into Neil Gap, only to climb right back up again that same 250 feet. Yeah, I know. That sucks, man. It’s okay though. The next several miles are a gentle roller coaster along Shut-in Ridge as the trail begins to descend toward Brevard. Up and down, up and down, curve left, curve right.
We caught up with the chaperones taking a break, and then eventually the kids in their charge. They were all extremely polite and moved over to allow us to pass. I didn’t count, but I would estimate there were 10 youth ranging in age from 12 to 15. Being just a few miles from the eastern terminus of the Art Loeb, I suspect they had been on the trail at least three days. I went to camp a lot when I was growing up, but we always returned to the cabins at night. I imagine there is a lot to learn about yourself going on a multi-day backpacking trip during your formative years. Good for them!
About a third of the way along the Art Loeb, it crosses Forest Road 5062 that comes up from the campground. Just beware of this as there’s a little jog in the trail at this point. Go right, up the road about 20 yards to find the continuation of the Art Loeb Trail.
The forest changes a lot along Shut-in Ridge. There are stretches where the trail shoulders are covered in galax, and then ferns, and then avens. There are pockets of white pine and hemlock mixed in with the maple, oak, birch and hickory. The ever-present laurels will form a canopy above the trail, and the turtles a kaleidoscopic floor on the trail. Wait, what’s that?
Yes, our wildlife experience of the day was a box turtle with a black shell and mesmerizing gold patterns on his back and head. The markings were so intricate as to appear painted on the shell. I wondered for a moment whether this had been a pet that was released, or if this was natural design. Some of it resembled the Greek letters I had learned about in college. The turtle was about as big as my hand. It was equally entertaining a few minutes later to hear the kids behind us upon their discovery. “Wow look, a turtle!” “How cool!”
By now the fog had completely lifted, but the air had not stopped sucking the moisture out of the ground. Despite the very pleasant air temperature, this was without a doubt the most humid hike I’ve done this summer. My shirt, even my pants were totally soaked. Occasionally I would stop to wring the kerchief I was using to mop my face. I know, I shouldn’t complain. Most people were at work and here I was in the beautiful forest.
We began to hear the voices of some of those workers as the trail reached its closest point to the town of Brevard. It begins to make a sweeping left turn from the east to the north and continues its descent back toward Davidson River. It passes the Sycamore Flats picnic area along Hwy 276 and then reaches the end at a bridge over a small stream that feeds the river. Coming in from the right, from Brevard, is Estatoe Trail, a community exercise path that connects the town with Davidson Campground.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Big Bear, California, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, are the only other places that can brag about being able to walk from a downtown area into a national forest. It’s a beautiful spot along the Davidson River. That’s the picture at the top of this post. Click it for a larger image.
Turning left here, we began the nice mellow stroll back to the campground. The trail crosses under some large power transmission lines where the local garden club has done a nice job of spreading wildflowers to make the power line cut more palatable.
You can walk on either side of the river. The original trail is on the south side, and the Estatoe Trail is on the north side. There is a nice wooden foot bridge to cross the river, but we found the Estatoe Trail to be somewhat flooded, so we opted for the dryer path. It passes the Schenck Job Corps Conservation Center and then enters the east end of the campground. From there it’s less than a half mile back to the vehicle bridge and the parking area where we left our car.
If you’re a fan of forest hikes, this may be just the one for you. There aren’t any high mountain vistas to see, only beautiful trees, bushes and ground cover. The forest is filled with sounds, from the wind on the boughs to the birds in their morning revelry. This is a good eight mile leg stretcher that isn’t overly difficult. You will get your exercise, but likely won’t be sore the next day. It’s very easy to get to, less than two miles from the Hwy 280/276/64 junction in Brevard. Give it a try.