Green River Game Lands, southeast of Hendersonville, NC, sits astride the Henderson/Polk County line. Paralleling the Green River Gorge, the Game Lands is a state owned tract of more than 10,000 acres with 16 miles of hiking along nine distinct named trails. As its moniker would imply, hunting, fishing, and trapping are allowed on the Game Lands during the months of September through May, so hikers should definitely be alert and wear blaze orange, or hike on Sunday when the hunters aren’t around. Trails follow a rugged terrain of steep ravines and coves, as well as several miles along the Green River through the gorge. The Green River Game Lands offers a number of scenic options for short or long, easy or difficult hiking for any outdoor adventurer. This hike occurred on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 from 10:00am to 3:45pm. Our plan was to start at the Long Ridge Trailhead on Big Hungry Road and essentially explore the trail system on the Green River Game Lands.
Hike Length: 10.9 miles Hike Duration: 5.75 hours Blaze: None
Hike Rating: Difficult, rugged and strenuous Hike Configuration: Loop
Elevation Gain: 2,333 feet Elevation Change: 1,175 feet
Trail Condition: Fair. Rugged rocky and rooted trails with no markings.
Starting Point: Long Ridge Trailhead on Big Hungry Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered one group of five other hikers.
How to Get There: From Hendersonville, NC Upward Rd. exit I-26 go east 1.8 miles. Turn right on Big Hungry Road. Go 0.5 mile on Big Hungry Road and bear left on Big Hungry, then another 0.3 mile and bear right on Big Hungry. It is 1.7 miles to the bridge crossing Big Hungry River. From there it is roughly another two miles on curvy, country road to the trailhead.
As my friend and I set out from Long Ridge Trailhead to pursue the trail system within Green River Game Lands, we didn’t have an exact plan, just a general one. We were going to play it by ear, so to speak. More like play it by feet and knees and shoulders, in other words, just see how our bodies were holding up as we reached certain checkpoints. We’ve hiked Green River before, particularly Pulliam Creek Trail and the Narrows, but the rest of the area was a mystery to us. I had recently found a decent new map for the Game Lands, so we were going exploring.
Little did I know that by the time we finished we would have traversed nearly 11 miles, climbed more than 2,300 feet, and touched each of the nine named trails in the Game Lands for at least 1/4 mile. Play it by ear indeed.
The Long Ridge Trail begins with a modest climb up an old logging road that parallels corn fields that are below and to the west. Strangely enough, nearly six hours later we would end up the hike by looking up at this trail from the fields below. Near the top of the ridge we came to a trail split, with the Long Ridge Trail continuing to the left, and an unnamed trail heading right. Keep an eye out for this. It’s kinda easy to miss. We took the left fork to stay on Long Ridge.
Continuing through a dense hardwood forest we noticed that nearly every tree on the left (eastern) side of the trail was painted blue. Perhaps this is simply over-zealous trail blazing, but it certainly seemed odd. Maybe one day I’ll be curious enough to call the state of NC and ask what the deal is with all the paint. We saw it again later with white paint on the Turkey Gut Trail.
Speaking of Turkey Gut, that’s the first trail change. Not too far past the aforementioned split, the trail narrows to a single track and heads southerly downhill on this excruciatingly named path. Being late November, the trails were covered with leaves. Not likely to see any wildlife on this day… we were making quite the racket rustling through the forest. If there were any hunters around, they probably didn’t appreciate the noisy hikers.
The next trail junction is with Stair Step Falls. It’s on the right, with a quick crossing of Stair Step Creek. We were curious about the falls, so we veered off to see what was what. The falls are right around the bend, less than a hundred yards from the junction. Below us by some 50 feet, I had to decide whether I wanted to tackle this steep hill for closeup pictures of the 4-tiered waterfall, or save energy for later in the day.
What the heck, right? That’s what I said to my companion as I cautiously started sideways down the hill. He opted to go back to the Turkey Gut Trail and said he’d meet me on the other side. I made it about 20 feet down when all the leaf cover and loose turf at my feet gave way and I slid the rest of the way on my butt. Not what I had in mind, but certainly quicker.
I’m glad I went because you can only see the lower tier from the trail above. Once at the base of this small waterfall, I was able to see through the rhododendron at the stair steps that produced its name. Not spectacular, but attractive. Now, I had to climb up the other side of the bank to get back to the Turkey Gut Trail. Fortunately, there were a number of small, spindly trees that I could use to help pull myself up, but I expended a good deal of energy that I would sorely miss three hours later. Back up on solid footing, I caught up with my friend a few hundred yards later.
The trail enters an area of forest with large boulders and outcrops and a more severe steepness to the decline. After making a sweeping turn to the east, we came to the junction with Bluff Trail. But first, we wanted to proceed to the dead-end of Turkey Gut at the Pace Cliffs.
For the first time, we were hiking on trail that was a bit less maintained. Small trees were growing in the trail, and there was blow down across the trail. This should have been a hint that maybe the effort wasn’t worth the result. When we got to the end we had a disappointing view of Pace Cliffs from across a ravine, rather than a long-distance view from the edge of Pace Cliffs as we had hoped. Still, now we know what’s there.
So back we went to the Bluff Trail junction to continue our descent toward the Green River. This is the steepest part of the downhill trek. There are a number of helpful and necessary switchbacks that enable getting from ledge to ledge as you navigate the bluffs. The trail is very narrow, and for us leaf covered as well, so watch your step through this stretch as you wouldn’t want to take a tumble that won’t stop for several hundred feet.
The reward for your patience, at the bottom of the hill, is the Green River Cove Trail. You are about 70 feet above the river here, and the trail goes both left and right. We knew that eventually we wanted to go right, but we could see to the east (left) that there was a paved road with a bridge over the river. This looked like an interesting place to explore for lunch and pictures, so we went the few hundred yards that took us to what we discovered is the Green River Cove Trailhead on Green River Cove Road.
This also happened to be the home of Wilderness Cove Campground, a seasonal recreation fun-place with tubing on Green River, a small petting zoo, and lucky for us a couple of picnic tables along the river that were a perfect spot to rest and re-nourish.
It was a gorgeous day, mid to high 50s, perfect hiking weather, with rich blue sky and cloud layering that the camera loves. I suspect Wilderness Cove can be really jumping on weekends in the summer, but for us on this beautiful November day it was peaceful, quiet solitude to enjoy sandwiches, soup and good company.
Rested and replenished, we headed back up on the Green River Cove Trail that follows within 50 feet of the river for the next 2.5 miles. This is the highlight of the trip for me. This is why I came. I enjoy water features when I hike, so I looked with interest each time the river turned another bend. I did find it somewhat disappointing, though, that the trail doesn’t follow right on the river bank like it does through The Narrows. Instead, it is anywhere from 25-50 feet away, so to get close you have to bushwhack a bit. See the photo at the top of this post for one of the few spots where I could get close.
There is one stretch of river that is more than a quarter mile long with a series of exciting rapids over very large boulders. I could see from above on the trail that the bank was somewhat sandy and navigable, but getting there meant crawling down a steep bank through thick rhododendron. I intend to go back some day and start the hike on the Green River Cove Trailhead at Wilderness Cove, when I have plenty of time to figure out how to get directly on the river to enjoy the rapids. We also passed a few small islands in the river that should be reachable with a wade in water shoes. This day just wasn’t that day. We still had to get back up out of this gorge.
And that ascent begins when the river takes a northwesterly turn away from Green River Cove Road. Gradual at first, but steepening as you approach the Pulliam Creek Trail. The Cove Trail makes a turn to the north away from the river and reaches the junction just over a rise. You can continue westerly along the river for another half mile to a dead end, then backtrack, or take the Pulliam Creek Trail back up into the heart of the Game Lands. We opted for the latter.
Pulliam Creek Trail heads east on a ridge above the river, then makes an about face to the west at the junction with Bear Branch Trail. Here we had to make a decision. We knew the Pulliam Creek Trail from previous adventures in the Game Lands, but we also knew that if we took it back to Big Hungry Road we would then have a substantial walk back to Long Ridge Trailhead on the road. We also knew by looking at the topo lines on the map that Bear Branch Trail was, literally, a bear.
Being Meanderthals, and never being accused of having much sense, we decided to test our stamina and explore the new (to us) Bear Branch Trail. We also thought of you. How would you know what to do when faced with the same decision? You can thank us in the comments below. Oh my, what a decision we made.
The Bear Branch Trail starts up immediately, and by up, I mean UP! It is steep, relentlessly steep, not just for a bit, but for what seems like a really long time. It isn’t especially far as the crow flies, but it climbs 1,100 feet in less than a mile and a half. The trail planners tried to do some switchbacks, but this is simply steep, steep terrain that has to be navigated to get back on top of Long Ridge.
With 7 miles already under our belts, this climb was extremely difficult for me. I had to stop to pant every hundred yards, and I consider myself in pretty good shape for a 60-year-old man. I hike every week, and do other exercising the other days of the week, but this trail kicked my patootie. My heart and lungs were about to burst, my hair and brow were soaked with perspiration, and my ego was savaged by Bear Branch Trail.
Just about the time I was considering my friend’s offer to carry some of my gear, we topped the ridge. Was I relieved? Boy howdy! It took us about 75 grueling minutes from the Bear Branch Trailhead to the ridge. We reached an unmarked trail junction where we had another decision to make. Without a junction sign, we were somewhat confused.
Later, when I compared the GPS map above, drawn by my iPhone, with the paper map we had, I discovered this junction is with the Bishop Branch Trail. As it turns out, if you turn south the Bear Branch Trail meets the Long Ridge Trail for the return to where we started. But to us, with a compass, south just seemed wrong. So instead we turned north up Bishop Branch.
By doing so, we got introduced to another old logging road. As it followed the ridge, there were nice views of the surrounding mountains. This was the highest we had been, probably the highest point in the Game Lands. Ah, this trail was so much easier. Wide enough to hike side-by-side and flat enough to not be gasping for air. Then it started heading down. Oh no, I thought, don’t tell me we have to go down to get back up. As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. We were simply higher than our destination.
Little more than a half mile later, the Bishop Branch Trail meets the Rock Hop Trail, the last of the nine trails in the Game Lands. As we turned first east, and then north, we came upon the fields we had seen from above on the Long Ridge Trail nearly six hours earlier. By this time, the late afternoon sun was creating a golden glow on the mown crops that dotted the fields in summer. The moon was peering down on us from a now azure sky that signaled a conclusion to this long, hard day.
As we made our way through stalks of corn still waiting to be plowed under, we could see the previous trail above us on the ridge, and ponder everything we had encountered in the Game Lands. It is a diverse property. As a hiker, whether you enjoy deep forest, or rivers and waterfalls, or the occasional high mountain vista, Green River Game Lands has it all. Sorry, no crashing surf, but there are extensive whitewater rapids on Green River.
If you’re looking for a long day hike, you can try something similar to what we did and hit every trail. If you’re interested in following the Green River for a few miles, you can do that too, from the Cove Trailhead like a group of five 70-somethings we met. Additionally, I still come back to The Narrows via Pulliam Creek Trail at least a couple times of year for the sheer excitement of the rushing wild water. The power there is awesome. So if you’re near Hendersonville, NC thinking about a hike, keep the Green River Game Lands in mind.
Update March 30, 2013: A reader reports he went to the Green River Game Lands to check out the area for the first time. “I hate to tell you,” he said, “but it looks quite a bit different. We hiked Long Ridge Trail to it’s viewpoint terminus and then connected to Stair Step Falls Trail, and finally completed the loop by taking Turkey Gut Trail back to the parking at Long Ridge.”
“Those blue and white marks on the trees aren’t there anymore… only red marks on the trees that were spared from some pretty unsightly logging. Pretty much all of Long Ridge and the upper part of Turkey Gut looks like a tree graveyard. One section is pretty much clear cut, but the more southerly portion of Long Ridge is more selective cutting.”