North Mills River Recreation Area in Pisgah National Forest, along with its brother at South Mills River, has a rich and varied trail system. Among them, Fletcher Creek is a typical streamside trail that passes an old beaver pond, thick forest of hardwood and hemlock, several grassy meadows and a number of log bridge crossings over Fletcher Creek, Spencer Branch and Middle Fork. This isn’t particularly difficult hiking, but it is deceptively long. Keep your eyes and ears out for mountain bikers as this is a very popular track for them as well. This hike occurred on Tuesday, January 8, 2013 from 10:00am to 2:45pm. Our plan was to take the forest service road from the Trace Ridge Trailhead to Fletcher Creek Trail, then on to Neverending Road and a connection with Middle Fork Trail. From there we would head to Spencer Gap for the return via the forest service road.
Hike Length: 11 miles Hike Duration: 4.75 hours Hike Rating: Moderate
Blaze: Blue, orange Elevation Gain: 1,008 feet Hike Configuration: Twisty loop
Trail Condition: Mostly good; some bicycle tire rutting.
Starting Point: Trace Ridge Trailhead on Forest Service Road 5000.
Trail Traffic: We did not encounter any other hikers on this trail.
How to Get There: From the Asheville/Hendersonville Regional Airport travel west on US 280 six miles to the traffic light at North Mills River Road. Turn right and travel five miles to the North Mills River Recreation Area. Turn right on Forest Service Road 5000 and go 2.5 miles to the Trace Ridge Trailhead.
Occasionally when I am studying a trail map for an appropriate hike, I will underestimate the length or the elevation gain or the duration. That’s why I also look for websites like this one to assist with that kind of information. I badly misread this hike when perusing the map. I was searching for an easy to moderate 6-7 miler for a mid-winter day. My companion and I usually save the epic day hikes for good weather months.
By the time we finished this hike, my smartphone had measured the track as 11 miles. We’re generally pretty good at estimating a hike’s length when we reach the end, but this one we guessed at perhaps seven miles. It didn’t seem that long, we weren’t especially tired. One tell-tale stat, though, was that it took nearly five hours.
When I got back home and uploaded the GPS track and saw the 11-mile total I was quite surprised. I sure misread the map. I wanted to mention all this simply to pass along the information. While this hike isn’t at all difficult, it is leaning toward the longish side for a day hike. Keep that in mind when you’re making your choice.
Fletcher Creek Trail, like many others in the North Mills River area of Pisgah National Forest, begins at the Trace Ridge trailhead. There is a large parking area on Forest Road 5000 that could accommodate 15-20 vehicles. There are two forest roads that take off from the trailhead. One goes up Trace Ridge and the other, #142, is the connector for Fletcher Creek.
This road winds through the forest following North Mills River for about 1.5 miles before reaching the Fletcher Creek trailhead. You won’t notice it going this direction, but this road goes steadily downward. When you’re coming back later, having nine miles on your feet, you will definitely feel the incline.
Fletcher Creek Trail takes off to the right and up the hill. Look for blue blaze markings. You’ll be climbing for the first mile, but not much, until you reach the level of the various waterways including Fletcher Creek and Spencer Branch. Even though our plan was Fletcher Creek, we took the Spencer Branch Trail for about 1/2 mile to see the abandoned beaver dam, then backtracked.
Back to the junction with Fletcher Creek and Spencer Branch, we did a wide crossing of Fletcher Creek. There are strategic stones that will assist, but it’s a good idea to have waterproof boots just in case.
Enter the land of meadows for the next couple miles. You will parallel Fletcher Creek, sometimes crossing back and forth, but you will also encounter a series of 5-6 different mountain meadows along the way. The first is on the other side of the beaver pond, for a little perspective on where we were before. Some are designated as gamelands. Some are swampy and marshy. Some have a tall variety of grasses, including one that had brush with a purplish tint.
Eventually Fletcher Creek Trail ends at another section of Forest Road 5000, also known as the Neverending Road. Take a left (southeast) to head toward Middle Fork. You will understand this road’s nickname as you wind and curve seemingly through all of Pisgah National Forest for the next couple miles. It’s scenic. We found a nice sunny spot for lunch along the road. The photo at the top of this post was taken there. But it seems to go on forever. I don’t know about you, but I usually prefer trails to forest roads.
The junction with orange-blazed Middle Fork Trail is well marked and takes off to the left (east) from the Neverending Road, which just keeps on going even farther and farther into the forest. Middle Fork is named for the Middle Fork of Fletcher Creek. Perhaps they ran out of names for the various streams, creeks and branches. So Fletcher Creek has multiple forks.
Middle Fork Trail is just a mile, flat and easy, through a mostly hardwood forest with the creek babbling alongside. It’s the kind of trail to take your time, enjoy the sights and sounds and smells, and remind yourself why it’s so great to be out in the woods. At the end, you’ll reach Spencer Gap and have a couple options to return to the parking.
If you hang a left, it’s just a couple hundred yards back to the junction of Fletcher Creek and Spencer Branch Trails. If you go right (south) you’ll be on Spencer Gap Trail with an opportunity to see the Hendersonville Reservoir. The blaze markings are blue on Spencer Gap Trail.
It’s about a mile to the reservoir and the junction with Big Creek Trail, a long 5-miler that climbs all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The reservoir is small, really not much more than a pond. North Mills River is dammed on one side with a waterfall feeding the reservoir on the other. The forest service has even placed a couple picnic tables here.
On the east side of the reservoir you’ll pick up the forest road that goes back to the parking area. It’s maybe a half mile to the point where Fletcher Creek Trail peeled off up the hill, followed by that slow, steady climb of 1.5 miles back to the car.
In summary, this is a nice hike for winter; not too difficult, with lots and lots of forest and a few creek crossings, so watch for ice. It is a bit on the long side, but if you know that going in, it’s an easy 11 miles. Throw some lunch and plenty of water in your pack, and you can do this hike in 4-5 hours.