Looking to do some ridge hiking down, down, down from the Blue Ridge Parkway into Pisgah National Forest? Overlooking North Mills River, the Little Pisgah Ridge starts at 4,800′, then drops down into the Big Creek drainage some 2,100 feet below. Catch your views of the mountains on the Parkway before you start because this is a heavily forested hike that instead offers a myriad of wildflower sights and scents. Enjoy the creek at the bottom, then it’s a long, hard climb back up the ridge to complete the round trip. This hike occurred on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 from 8:15am to 12:00pm. Our plan was to descend the Big Creek Trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the bottom of the Little Pisgah Ridge at Big Creek, then return the way we came.
Hike Length: 5.8 miles Hike Duration: 3.75 hours
Hike Configuration: Down and back Blaze: Yellow
Elevation Gain: 2,170 feet Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous.
Trail Condition: Good, some roots and overgrowth.
Starting Point: Trailhead at Little Pisgah Ridge Tunnel on Blue Ridge Parkway.
Trail Traffic: We did not encounter any other hikers.
How to Get There: From Asheville, NC take the Blue Ridge Parkway south to milepost 406.8. Cross through the Little Pisgah Ridge Tunnel and park on the south side. The trailhead is at the exit from the tunnel.
Heading south (really more southwest) out of Asheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway climbs from the French Broad River valley up Pisgah Ridge. Views along both sides of the road are breathtaking, including North Mills River on the south side of the road, and Hominy Valley on the north. You will pass through five parkway tunnels before reaching the Little Pisgah Ridge Tunnel. Just after you pass through this last one, look for the limited parking on the side of the parkway.
The trailhead is just on the south side of this tunnel. There are no signs to mark the trail, just a yellow blaze paint mark on a boulder. The trail heads in a northeasterly direction, paralleling the Little Pisgah Ridge Tunnel. The trail remains flat for the first couple hundred yards. Don’t get used to this … it’s the last you will see.
You come to a hard right turn at some old log steps that take you steeply down and begin the descent of Little Pisgah Ridge. On this day the white spike blossoms of the galax were out, and surprisingly, even the mountain laurel was still in full bloom at this elevation of about 4,800 feet. Not a lot of sun reaches the forest floor, so the laurels stayed cool enough to maintain their blossoms even this late into June.
For the next mile the trail is basically a tunnel through the laurels, with a canopy above, and fallen petals on the forest floor. In winter, you may be able to see through the forest to the many ridges that funnel from the Parkway to the North Mills River Area of Pisgah National Forest. In June, all there is to see is beautiful lush green forest.
At about 4,000 feet we started encountering flame azalea blooms, another surprise at this low elevation. I had been above 6,000 feet in recent weeks and the azalea were exceptional there. It was definitely a nice surprise to still catch so much of the stunning orange flowers this near July.
Beginning about 3,500 feet, the forest changes from mostly laurels to a mix of beech, birch, and other typical Pisgah hardwoods. We were pretty sure we even located a few rare chestnuts along the way.
Another thing I’ve noticed a lot of this spring, considerably more than in years past, is snails. A couple weeks ago along the Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, they were plentiful. Again on this trail. Must be something about the very moist spring this year.
About an hour into the descent, we began to hear the faint sound of rushing water, and of course the closer we got, the louder it became. There are few forest sounds more inviting than the low ssshhh of a mountain stream. We are so fortunate in Western North Carolina to have a plethora of fresh water runoff from the massive mountains of the Blue Ridge and Smokies.
After a total descent of 2,100 feet, we reached Big Creek. At this point, the trail takes a left turn and begins the 2nd half of its journey that eventually ends in the North Mills River Recreation Area. There are numerous creek crossings, some in knee deep water. We purposely didn’t plan on that for this day, so we decided to follow the creek until we encountered the first crossing.
It didn’t take long, perhaps just under a quarter mile before we reached the entry of Bee Branch into Big Creek. There, the water was a little too deep to cross without water shoes, so it was time to turn around. Coming up from the other end of Big Creek Trail will be a hike for another day.
We returned to the trail junction, even continuing beyond along the creek bank looking for photo opportunities and a nice spot for lunch. We definitely wanted to re-nourish before the hard climb ahead. Finding a picturesque place about 100 yards up stream, we shed our packs and rested. The photo at the top of this post was taken at our impromptu picnic location. You may click for a larger image.
As they say, what goes down, must come up. No wait… well anyway. If you start a hike by going down, you have to finish by going up. And so we pulled the straps tight and started back up. The forest floor is literally covered with beautiful verdant ferns … hundreds, if not thousands. So at least the hard climb ahead began with a beautiful scene.
It took just under two hours for us to climb back up the 2,100 feet and 2.5 miles. Along the way we were treated to even more wildflowers. These weren’t awake yet when we passed in the early morning. Now, as the warmth of the day arrived, they opened their yellow and white and blue petals for us to enjoy.
To summarize, the Big Creek Trail on Little Pisgah Ridge is ideal for getting some serious hiking exercise because of the significant elevation change over a relatively short distance. The climb back up the ridge is a strenuous pull. In late June we were treated to a vivid wildflower display that included laurels, azaleas, violets, galax, and avens. Consider making a full day of it by continuing along Big Creek, but if so, be sure to bring water shoes.