Think of Wilson Creek as Linville Gorge lite. A long, rugged wilderness gorge running from the nearly 6000′ mountain peaks at its north, Wilson Creek shares many similarities with its bigger brother to the west. Wilson Creek was named a National Wild and Scenic River in August, 2000. The gorge area is a haven for recreation including hiking of course, but also fun for kayaking, camping, fishing, tubing, you get the picture. There are dozens of trails throughout the recreation area, including this one that follows the upper reaches of the gorge for six miles. Much of this region is backcountry, so the trail can be confusing. This is one of those hikes where map and compass are your friends. Don’t leave home without them. This hike occurred on Wednesday, October 10, 2012 from 9:30am to 11:30am. My plan was to start at the trailhead for Wilson Creek Trail #258 and go for a couple hours.
Hike Length: 3.7 miles Hike Duration: 2 hours Blaze: Orange, none
Hike Rating: Moderate, rugged Hike Configuration: Out and back
Elevation Gain: 570 feet
Trail Condition: Rugged and poorly marked. Difficult to follow.
Starting Point: White Rocks Trailhead #264 on Edgemont Road.
Trail Traffic: I did not encounter anyone else on this hike.
How to Get There: From Asheville take I-40 East to Morganton. Use Exit 100 (Jamestown Rd.) north. Follow Jamestown Rd. to the junction with NC Hwy 181 and turn left. Follow 181 north for 12 miles to Brown Mountain Beach Road and turn right at the Smyrna Baptist Church. Go about 5 miles just past a bridge over Wilson Creek, then turn left to stay on Brown Mountain Beach Road. Follow Wilson Creek through the settlement of Brown Mountain Beach, then into the protected gorge section. The Wilson Creek visitor center is on the left 5.5 miles past the left turn. From there, continue on Brown Mountain Beach Road to Edgemont Road (Hwy 90) and turn left. Go past Mortimer to the end of Hwy 90, but continue straight ahead on Edgemont Road for another 3.7 miles. The trailhead is on the left with parking for 1-2 cars. The trailhead is not signed.
It was a gorgeous morning as I drove north from Morganton to the Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River area. As I turned onto Brown Mountain Beach Road, the early sun was striking Smyrna Baptist Church just right, so I stopped for a picture. The congregation must be very proud of their church. The maintenance is immaculate. Further down the road, I entered farm and horse country and stopped for a few more pictures. This was going to be a nice day.
So I drove past the Wilson Creek Visitor Center on Brown Mountain Beach Road and I kept driving util I reached Hwy 90 then turned left. I passed Mortimer campground and reached a sign that said it was the end of Hwy 90. But Edgemont Road continued straight ahead, so I kept looking for the trailhead for the Wilson Creek Trail. The road began to climb steeply, switchback after switchback, and still no trailhead.
Stopping every 5 minutes or so to check my map, looking for any kind of landmark, I was still clueless about where the trailhead might be. Eventually I reached the height of land and started down the other side. Realizing this couldn’t be right, I turned around to make another pass at finding the trailhead.
Finally, there was a small place on the side of the road with enough room for a car, maybe two, and it almost looked like there was a worn path heading off into the woods. So I parked, headed down the path a bit, and guess what… I found a blaze mark. So this was a trail! On my map, the White Rocks Trail #264 is designated with an orange blaze. The blaze I had seen was orange. This was another way to access the Wilson Creek Trail, so I put on my pack and camera.
Much as I discovered the day before when I went to Harper Creek Falls, the trails in this area are not very well marked. There was no trailhead sign that I could find anywhere. I found more orange blazes as I continued farther down the trail, but they were worn and barely visible.
Not long into the hike, I happened upon some slabs of granite that I assume gave the trail its name. I could barely make out some high ridges in the distance through the trees. There may be some nice views along this trail in winter. After a quarter mile, or less, the trail begins a descent along Crusher Branch, frequently traversing right through the middle of the stream. This trail doesn’t get much use. It is overgrown and eroded from being so close to the creek bed. The fallen leaves didn’t help much either with being able to identify the path. I kept my eyes closely peeled.
Another quarter mile down, the trail clears Crusher Branch and continues a steeper descent through a mixed forest of hardwoods and evergreens. Beware of false trails. I encountered a few, but generally kept a downward and westerly direction. The occasional very dim orange blaze helped. Sounds of rushing water get louder as you approach Wilson Creek at the bottom of the drainage. It’s 470 feet of decline in 0.8 mile from the White Rocks trailhead to Wilson Creek.
The Wilson Creek Trail #258 comes in from the south and continues along the bank northward into the designated Wild and Scenic Area. The total length is six miles. Where the White Rocks Trail meets Wilson Creek is about two miles up the trail. I didn’t have time to hike the full length, but I intended to go a mile or so upstream until I found a nice place for pictures and lunch.
My map indicated that the Wilson Creek Trail had no blaze markings, however, I began seeing blue blazes. So I pulled out the map again to see if I could possibly be in a totally different place, but decided this had to be trail #258. Perhaps they blazed the trail since my 3-year-old map was printed. Funny thing, after 200 yards I never saw another blaze.
The trail itself varies from wide and clear along the east bank, to rock scrambling in the creek bed. Fallen leaves again made it difficult to follow in places, but as long as I kept the creek to my left how could I go wrong? Some places the vegetation along the creek bank is so thick that the trail passes 20 yards away. The occasional granite outcrop will require a brief climb up and over to continue along your merry way.
It was pretty evident to me that the water level in Wilson Creek was considerably lower than normal, not unusual for October. That certainly helped on those occasions when the trail actually dipped into the creek bed and was a hop, skip and jump from rock to rock. Many of the stones are well worn and rounded from centuries of smoothing by the rushing water.
I found a spot about a mile upstream from the trail junction where a large granite slab adorned the creek bed. This looked like lunch. I could see a hundred yards up and downstream, so this would be nice for pictures too. The photo at the top of this post came from here. Click for a larger image if you like. I felt very alone. This area is extremely secluded, definitely wilderness. It was wonderful.
The forest was just beginning its autumnal array and the sky was that crisp Carolina blue. The water in Wilson Creek was crystal clear and fresh, with sun rays blinking and shimmering as it trickled across the cobbles. There was just enough of a breeze to loosen the chromatic leaves for a twisting glide on the currents, and a new home on the forest floor. This is why I hike.
Lunch was good too. I stayed for about half an hour simply enjoying the best nature has to offer. Re-energized, it was time to work my way back to the White Rocks Trail. That 400+ foot climb back up out of the gorge went quicker than I expected. On the way down I was thinking how the return would be a bit strenuous, but the beauty I found on Wilson Creek carried me back up Crusher Branch without a second thought. I reached my car in seemingly less time than it took to get down.
On the way back down the mountain, I continued to look for the Wilson Creek Trailhead, but never did see it. Until the next time I visit this area, its location will remain a mystery to me. I definitely want to hike the full length of the Wilson Creek Trail some day, so I’ll have another chance to find that trailhead.
On this day, I went back past the Visitor Center and then began to stop at pullouts on Brown Mountain Beach Road. There are wooden stairs and railings that go down from the road into the gorge for the fishermen, swimmers, and the curious like me. I spent close to an hour just enjoying the disparate scenes in the gorge and taking photos to remember the day. You can view many of them in the latter half of the gallery below.
I enjoyed the two days spent in Wilson Creek Gorge. There are dozens more trails to explore than the few that I took on. Turned out I was probably about ten days too early to catch peak leaf peeping season, but I’ll make note of that for future opportunities. This hike didn’t go exactly as planned because I substituted White Rocks Trail, but that worked out fine. While not as spectacular as Linville Gorge, Wilson Creek still has a lot to offer and is definitely less crowded. My only complaint would be the poor trail markings. It’s too easy to get lost. However, don’t let that deter you from a nice wilderness experience. Just be sure to have a map and compass.