Cat Gap Trail to Cedar Rock Falls and Long Branch, Pisgah National Forest

There is a series of waterfalls not far from the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and State Fish Hatchery on Forest Road 475. Collectively known as Cedar Rock Falls, they carry Cedar Rock Creek on its plunge down the mountain to Davidson River. Access to these falls and the wetlands beyond is via the Cat Gap Trail, a jumping off connector trail for many of the landmark features found in Pisgah Ranger District. One connection is with Butter Gap trail as it follows Grogan Creek through Picklesimer Fields and on to Long Branch. This hike occurred on Wednesday, March 20, 2013 from 11:30am to 2:25pm. My plan was to take the western branch of Cat Gap Trail up Cedar Rock Creek with stops at the waterfalls, then continue on Butter Gap Trail to its connection with Long Branch Trail; returning the same way.

Hike Length: 5.5 miles Hike Duration: 3 hours

Hike Rating: Easy, be careful at waterfalls Blaze: Orange, blue, orange

Elevation Gain: 700 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back.

Trail Condition: Very good. Some danger on spur trails to waterfalls.

Starting Point: Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education on Forest Road 475.

Trail Traffic: I met two other groups totaling nine hikers.

How to Get There: From Brevard, NC get onto Scenic Hwy 276 west into Pisgah National Forest. Go 5.2 miles, then turn left onto Forest Road 475. After a mile, turn left into the State Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Center. The trailhead is at the west end of the parking area.

This was a solo hike for me. One usual companion was out of town visiting the grandchildren, and the other at a previously scheduled doctor appointment. So immediately I thought waterfalls. It was also about time to find a family friendly easy hike to write about, so the Cat Gap Loop immediately came to mind.

The western side of Cat Gap is a relatively flat trail, climbing only a few hundred feet over the course of a couple miles. There are several waterfalls along Cedar Rock Creek, not spectacular, nonetheless still worth seeing. Another great thing about Cat Gap is all the connections to other trails that wind through Pisgah National Forest west of Brevard.

To get started, I headed to the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education on Forest Road 475. This is also the location of the State Fish Hatchery. Even if you don’t go hiking, there’s plenty for the kids to do to get a feel for the great outdoors. Getting out on the trails only enhances the experience. The trailhead for this trek is at the west end of the parking area, near the building. It starts in the shadow of John Rock, the large imposing pluton that overlooks the Wildlife Center.

The trail starts on Horse Cove Road, crosses John Rock Branch, then immediately takes a right turn onto orange blazed Cat Gap. You’ll climb a little bit right away, but not enough to get the kids discouraged. Following a green boundary fence for the experimental forest, within a quarter mile you’ll come to a plank bridge that again crosses John Rock Branch in the midst of a beautiful rhododendron thicket.

Cat Gap Trail heads in a generally southwest direction for the next half mile through thick, mostly hardwood forest. This isn’t old growth, though there is the occasional large hemlock, dead or dying from the woolly adelgid blight. As you resume an easy climb, you’ll hear the rushing of Cedar Rock Creek to your left. The sound will get louder and louder until you can see the whitewater of lower Cedar Rock Falls through the trees 70-80 yards below. Time to make a decision.

If you want to see the waterfall up close, this will be the only difficult (and somewhat dangerous) portion of this hike. You do have to go down the hillside to the falls, so that means you have to climb back out when you’re done. It isn’t far, just steep. Can the kids make it? If they’re older than four, no problem. The other issue is the wet rocks and roots at the waterfall. They will be slippery, so keep the little ones in check.

Drop off Cat Gap on a spur trail that winds through the woods, crossing moss-covered downed timber along the way. You’re almost there when you reach a small cave-like overhang in the black granite shelf that constitutes the falls. The roar of the plunging water will permeate your senses. There’s a tingling of excitement as you edge ever closer, descending over wet roots and mud.

Lower Cedar Rock Falls is the larger of the main falls on Cedar Rock Creek, falling about 20 feet. When I was there, it had rained hard a couple days before, so there was still a pretty strong torrent over the wide semi-circular rim. There are plenty of large boulders to sit or stand on for photos, or simply to feel the refreshing spray on your face. It is well worth the effort required to climb back up to Cat Gap Trail.

Another few hundred yards up Cat Gap is the upper falls. This one is easier to get to, and it’s surrounded by a large campsite. You still have to scramble a little ways off the main trail, but it’s only a 15 foot descent. Even the toddlers can do this one.

Upper Cedar Rock Falls is only 8-10 feet and is more of a 2-tiered slide waterfall. See the photo at the top of this post (click it for a larger view). The setting is more serene, a visual delight in June when the rosebay rhododendron are displaying their finery. If you do an about face from the waterfall and look to the northeast, there is a nice view of Looking Glass Rock, making this a very scenic campsite.

Back on Cat Gap Trail, it’s only a hop and a skip to the junction with Butter Gap Trail, the next point of exploration. Cat Gap Trail crosses Cedar Rock Creek here and heads upward to Cat Gap and an eventual meeting with the Art Loeb Trail. But I took blue blazed Butter Gap Trail west to explore Grogan Creek and Picklesimer Fields.

You will immediately notice how the terrain changes as you turn to the west. The forest is replaced by open meadows and fields. You’ll follow the sandy Grogan Creek for a half mile as it twists and meanders its way through Picklesimer Fields. There was fire here before, and logging, and perhaps even over use. The landscape isn’t particularly attractive in winter, but it has a certain unique charm. I got off the main trail occasionally to follow the creek, finding lots of campsites.

This area is completely flat. It’s a gentle stroll through the fields and meadows exploring the creek. There are small sandy beaches with tiny water-smoothed pebbles. There is a beautiful spruce forest on the hillsides that overlook this pastoral wetland. I even found a few old birdhouses on wooden stakes along the creek bank. Take the time to let your kids be adventurers and find their own little treasures.

The next junction is with Long Branch Trail. Butter Gap Trail takes a decidedly southerly turn and heads on to Butter Gap for a meeting with the Art Loeb Trail and the climb to Cedar Rock. In keeping with the theme of an easy, family-friendly hike though, I took the west turn on Long Branch. The blaze markings are orange. I encountered other hikers for the first time, a group of seven, probably with a local club.

Sassafras Knob from Long Branch Trail

It climbs some at first, again not steeply, just enough to get your attention; and it re-enters the forest. This is a mixed woods of spruce and birch, pine and poplar. The trail is soft and cushy with a comfortable layer of evergreen needles shed some months before.

After a short half mile you will come to a junction with Forest Road 5095. There is a fabulous view of Sassafras Knob on the ridge to the west. You have a number of choices here. Take 5095 west where it reaches Forest Road 475 after about a mile. Take 5095 south into the spruce forest that overlooks Picklesimer Fields. Continue southwest on Long Branch Trail as it begins a strenuous climb over a knob to the Long Branch creek, or simply call this a great place to turn around and return the way you came.

And that last option is what I did. I was about 2.5 miles from the Wildlife Center. I had been leisurely hiking for about 1:45 hours, taking my time to enjoy the scenery and the fresh air. Anything more that I did at this point would begin to stretch this from an easy hike to one of moderate length or exertion.

I found a nice log to sit on for a snack, and to enjoy the warming sunshine. That warmth told me it was time to shed a layer and stow it in my pack. The return would be a piece of cake, all flat or descending, with wide, smooth well-groomed trails to follow. It was great to be out there. I had a wonderful feeling of contentment.

Continuing to explore the spur trails as I returned, I found several more campsites tucked back in coves around the meadows. Some appeared to be maintained by the Forest Service, others that they probably would not approve. When I reached Cedar Rock Creek again, I spent more time reveling in the inspiration that rushing water affords me. I ponder where it’s been, and where it’s going, and how long it’s been doing this, and what did it look like back then, and, and, and…

On the one hand I missed the camaraderie of my usual hiking partners, but solo hiking enables the mind to wander along with the feet. I was able to take my time, say to myself, “I wonder where that goes?” and have that ever-present tinge of hope for a wildlife encounter. Squirrels, birds and a wild turkey were all on this day, and that was plenty. Near the finish, I met a dad and his teenage daughter on the trail, just setting out on their own adventure.

When I got back to the main parking area, I noticed that the gate to the fish hatchery was open. Y’know, I’ve never taken the time to walk back in there, so I did. There are thousands of 10-12″ brown trout just waiting to be placed in Davidson River and other favorite waterways of the area fishermen.

If you’re looking for a place in Western North Carolina to make a day of it with your kids, then this may be a good start. You can visit the fish hatchery and the Wildlife Education Center. You can take a myriad of hikes that start from this location, including the one I just described that is very kid-friendly. It will take you three hours, or less, and enable your children to see creeks and waterfalls, forest and mountains, and to enjoy that great feeling of simply being out there.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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