Sometimes even the most benign little trail can be filled with wondrous surprises. Nestled in a small valley between Bryson and Caney Mountains in North Mills River, North Carolina, and surrounded by Pisgah National Forest, the Foster Creek conservation easement and trail is just such a place. Barely a mile in length, and nearly flat, this four-season trail is ideal for novice hikers or parents with young children. With a soft, cushioned pine straw bed, and lined with wildflowers, ferns, and fungus, you might even consider trying Foster Creek Trail barefoot. Whatever you wear, be sure to take your time and enjoy the sensual beauty. This hike occurred on Tuesday, June 4, 2013 from 9:35am to 11:10am. My plan was to explore this 1.1 mile stand-alone trail in an out-of-the-way part of North Mills River, then come back the same way.
Hike Length: 2.1 miles Hike Duration: 1.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: Orange Elevation Gain: 105 feet
Hike Rating: Quite easy, good for all ages, young or old.
Trail Condition: Excellent, pine straw bed.
Starting Point: Trailhead at the end of Foster Creek Road.
Trail Traffic: I had Foster Creek Trail all to myself. Well, there were birds and such.
How to Get There: From Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) take Hwy 280 west 3.6 miles, turn right on North Mills River Road. Go 1.4 miles, turn right on Foster Creek Road. This is a gravel road (work in progress to pave). After 1.0 mile, Foster Creek Road splits. Take the right fork and go 0.1 mile to the trailhead on the right. There is only room for 2 cars.
In 1996 John P. Humphrey donated a conservation easement on 180 acres of his mountain farm to Henderson County’s newly formed Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). It was CMLC’s inaugural conservation project and proved to be the springboard for a movement of preserving land in the Western North Carolina region that is still going strong today. The easement safeguards water quality on Foster Creek, a headwater tributary of the Mills River. A rare Southern Appalachian bog and nearly 300 species of plants and animals also find safe harbor on this land.
When I was driving on Foster Creek Road, I passed a work crew with a road grader, backhoe and dump trucks. I suspect they are within weeks of paving the road, making it even easier to get to the trailhead in the future. The trailhead is up the right fork at the end of the main road, with very limited parking. There are two large boulders preventing ATV access, and two yellow signs indicating the trail is closed to vehicles.
The Foster Creek Trail travels from south to north, crossing Foster Creek once on a foot bridge less than a hundred feet beyond the southern trailhead. While the trail more or less follows the creek, it is a good 50-100 feet away. This is a forest hike, and a beautiful forest it is.
Soon after crossing that foot bridge you will enter the meat of the forest, dark and lush, with a wide assortment of tree varieties including both evergreen and hardwoods. The trail itself is a single track, very easy to follow, and covered with a soft and springy layer of pine straw.
I happened to hit Foster Creek at peak mountain laurel bloom. The white variety of these lovely blossoms were in vivid display all along each side of the trail. Mixed with the spring green of the leaves, and the wonderful scent, this awakened my senses right away. This was going to be a fun path.
Just a few hundred yards up the trail, the ground cover changed to a carpet of ground cedar, one of the common forest floor layerings in WNC. Not long after, the trail was lined on both sides with sweeping branches of fern
— 6-8 inches high. The scene is particularly enticing here. That’s the photo at the top of this post.
Since I was in absolutely no hurry on this day, I kept my eyes peeled for anything unusual, and my patience was rewarded when I saw my first lady slipper of the season. I had missed the peak bloom by 3-4 days as the leaves had brown tips, but the flower itself was still an alluring mauve coloring. As I continued onward, there were quite a few more, but again I was just a few days too late. You may want to keep in mind for future reference that these orchids bloom the last week of May on this trail.
A little past half way up the trail you will enter an area of dense, tall pines that reminded me of the lodge pole variety so common in the Rocky Mountains. There was little sunlight on the forest floor, shining through like spotlights on a stage.
I was enjoying the total environment so much, before I knew it I had reached the northern end of the trail. There are options here. You can take a left that brings you back to the southern end on a one lane road that follows Foster Creek, or you can simply about face and return the way you came. That was my choice since I’m not a road kinda guy.
I was entirely pleased with my decision when I found two items of great interest that I hadn’t noticed on my northward pass through the woods. 10 feet off the trail were two of the largest fungi I’d ever seen
— Berkley’s polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi). The largest of the two had nearly the diameter of a small car tire. Yellowish-cream colored with orange rims, these fungi were at the base of an old pine.
Something else I noticed even more on the way back was the multi-colored paint on a large portion of the trees. There was pink, cyan, orange and blue paint … more than just trail blaze. Some of the paint was at the base, and some at eye level. The last time I saw a rainbow of paint like this, at Green River Gamelands, a few months later the forest was clear cut. Let’s hope that isn’t the plan at Foster Creek.
One last surprise awaited me as I got back near the southern end of the trail. 75 feet off-trail I noticed an orangish color in the forest, so off I went to investigate. Sure enough, there was a blooming flame azalea, one of the prettiest wildflowers in the Appalachians. What a treat I’d had today with laurels and lady slippers, and now this.
It took me about an hour and a half to complete the out-and-back 2.1 miles of Foster Creek Trail, but I really dawdled, and setup my tripod for lots and lots of pictures. If you happen to live in Mills River, this would be a terrific place to get out for an early morning exercise walk before work. If you walk at a brisk pace, you could easily complete this in 30-40 minutes.
Don’t let this short trail fool you. It is absolutely stunning forest, especially at this time of year with so many wildflowers in bloom. Make an effort to head to Foster Creek to enjoy the surroundings, and take your whole family with you.
Information received from WNCOutdoors.info:
With regards to the paint you saw…yes, this area is slated for logging and the trail is to be converted back to a road as a part of the Brushy Ridge project. Not sure if that’s why the paint is there, but the project was pushed through the Forest Service’s evaluation process despite heavy public opposition.
So if you want to check out this trail, it sounds like you better do it soon because it will be gone.