There’s a trail from Scenic Hwy 276 that parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway as it winds around 10 ridges and makes 13 easy stream crossings on its way to the Pisgah Inn on the Parkway. Buck Spring Trail eventually ends up at the site of the former hunting lodge of George W. Vanderbilt II, the father of Pisgah National Forest. In the spring this trail is alive with abundant wildflowers and songbirds. When the leaves are down in winter, it offers views of the Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site in the valley below. This hike occurred on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 beginning at 10:00AM and ending about 3:05PM. Our plan was to take the Buck Spring Trail from Hwy 276 to Pisgah Inn, then return.
Hike Length: 12 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours
Blaze: White Hike Configuration: Out and back
Hike Rating: Moderate, but only for the length. Otherwise, quite easy.
Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet Elevation Change: 1,100 feet
Trail Condition: Mostly good. Some exposed roots and rocks. Easy creek crossings.
Starting Point: Parking area on Scenic Hwy 276.
Trail Traffic: We encountered one group of five other hikers.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take Scenic Hwy 276 north toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. Look for a pullout on the right 7 miles past Looking Glass Falls, and 1.5 miles past the Forest Discovery Center. The trailhead is at the pullout.
Most people who do this trail start at Pisgah Inn and hike east to west. However, in winter when the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed, you can’t get to the inn. So we took it from west to east. The pullout on Hwy 276 at the trailhead is a mile and a half past the Forest Discovery Center, on the right. There is enough room for four cars, which shouldn’t really ever be a problem, except perhaps on a weekend during leaf peeping season.
Right off the bat, the trail drops almostt 100 feet, so remember that at the tail end of the hike. You will finish with a climb back to your car. Otherwise, Buck Spring Trail is an almost flat stroll through ever-changing forest. It’s actually gaining elevation, about 400 feet over five miles, but the ascent is so gradual that you can’t even notice it. Be prepared though, for the last mile to the Inn. That’s when the trail steepens to climb the remaining 700 feet.
There are a number of small stream crossings along this trek. None are really problematic, as long as you pay attention and watch your step. Mostly you’re rock hopping, so just don’t be dumb and try to be too cute. Listen to Meanderthals
— we know from experience. The first two crossings are the west and east forks of Bearwallow Branch, and the east fork has a picturesque small waterfall tucked away in an alcove.
At the 1.2 mile mark the famous Mountains to Sea Trail will come down the hill from the left. From this point on, the two trails are merged and the blaze marks are the traditional white of the MtS. Then it’s across another stream and just another two-tenths to a 2nd trail junction
— this one the Barnett Branch Trail. You can follow Barnett Branch all the way to Pink Beds if you choose.
Soon after the trail junction are the two forks of Barnett Branch itself. These are two of the widest of the crossings. You know that wherever there are stream crossings, there will soon be ridge roundings. The Buck Spring Trail ultimately makes 13 crossings and rounds 10 ridges. All of this drainage ends up in Mills River and the Cradle of Forestry below. The last of the named crossings is called Poplar Creek. Then I guess they got tired of giving them names because there are so many.
An advantage of hiking Buck Spring Trail in winter is the ability to see through the forest. As you progress from ridge to ridge, you will see sights along the Blue Ridge Parkway directly to your north and above, as well as landmarks off in the distance southward. Among them are the fire and communications towers on Fryingpan Mountain, and the massive granite face of Pilot Rock.
The foliage surrounding you also makes some serious changes, from a mostly hardwood forest of beech and poplar, oak and birch on the western end of the trail, to pockets of thick mountain laurel and rhododendron. There is one spot where the rhododendron is so mature that the trunks are 4-5 inches in diameter and the thickets are so dense that you could get lost for days. It’s a perfect spot for a campsite, one that is protected by the laurels from the wind. That’s the photo at the top of this post. Click it for a larger image.
You will find yourself often walking through a green tunnel. The laurels are so prevalent that they have formed a canopy above the trail. Especially during the bloom seasons in May and June, this area is remarkable for the succulent blossoms and wonderful aromas that permeate your senses, not to mention the songbirds. Our little feathered friends love this area above the Pink Beds and Cradle of Forestry. Who wouldn’t? It’s a great place to hang out.
Somewhere near the 5 mile mark, the trail turns decidedly north and the ascent gets steeper. Not so much at first, but about the time you begin to see the Pisgah Inn on the precipice above you, the climb to the Parkway begins. There are three dramatic and long switchbacks. The first goes from north to east, the second is a hairpin from east to west, and the final one another hairpin from south to north. It’s a hefty push to reach the top, but once you do, seemingly the whole of the Blue Ridge opens up before you.
The Mt. Pisgah area has been a popular resort destination for a number of years. The first Pisgah Inn opened about 1919. This rustic old Inn was a welcome journey’s end for thousands of travelers escaping from the heat of the lowlands in the summer. Development of the modern Pisgah Inn began in the early 1960’s. The Blue Ridge Parkway through the Mt. Pisgah area opened for travel in the mid-60’s. The present Pisgah Inn was built in 1964. It normally operates from April 1 to October 31.
From the front of the inn you can see Mt. Pisgah, the namesake. The Blue Ridge Parkway winds between the inn and the mountain. Buck Spring Trail actually continues beyond the inn another mile to the former location of George Vanderbilt’s Buck Spring Hunting Lodge. From there you can hop on a trail to the summit of Mt. Pisgah.
The back of the inn looks out over the Blue Ridge. Directly below is the substantial forested valley of the Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site, including Pink Beds. Due east is the long ridge of Laurel Mountain and to the southeast is Pilot Rock. To the southwest the Blue Ridge Parkway winds its merry way from ridge to ridge as it hugs and caresses the WNC high country.
It’s great to be here off season because you have the place all to yourself. You can sit on the deck of what is the restaurant in summer and imagine dining with Vanderbilt and Clingman, or Schenck and Pinchot. There are no car sounds on the Parkway because it is almost always closed from December thru March. We even managed to come on a day when the breeze was down, so we weren’t pestered by nearly always present wind.
The return is the same way you came. Remember that you are six miles out, so by the time you finish you have 12 long miles on your boots, a pretty darn lengthy day hike. About half way back it began taking a toll on me, not so much with fatigue, but more with boredom. I even commented to my companion that this might be a really boring hike in the summer because you wouldn’t be able to see anything. Just mile after mile after mile of green forest. Don’t get me wrong. I like forest hikes as much as the next guy, but 12 miles of it isn’t particularly exciting.
About a mile from the finish we encountered a group of five other hikers who looked to perhaps be college students on spring break. Not long after that we saw three tents pitched in the woods that weren’t there when we started. Apparently the hiking group arrived after us, setup camp, and then hit the trail for a hike.
At the end, we had that final hundred foot climb back to Hwy 276. We completed the hike in just a little over five hours, a pretty good pace for 12 miles, and another indicator that this is mostly a flat, easy trail. Really the only breaks we took were one for lunch, some time at Pisgah Inn, and the occasional photograph.
To summarize, if you like multi-forest hikes, then you would probably enjoy Buck Spring Trail. There are typical WNC hardwoods, lots of laurel and rhododendron, and even some spruce as you near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trail is very easy to hike, and not at all strenuous until you get close to Pisgah Inn. This is definitely a four season hike. Even in the dead of winter with snow on the trail, it would still be easy to follow. You wouldn’t be able to start at the Pisgah Inn end because of the Parkway, but the road crews do a nice job of keeping 276 clear and accessible.
Update July 20, 2016: How about a summertime visit to this ridge hugging trail? There isn’t much to see of the mountains with the tree canopy in full force, so I focused my camera at ground level. What do you think?