When George W. Vanderbilt constructed the Biltmore House, he hired forester Gifford Pinchot and, later Dr. Carl A. Schenck to manage his forests. Over 80,000 of his woodland acres became the home of America’s first forestry school and the heart of the East’s first national forest. Now comprising more than 500,000 acres, Pisgah National Forest holds a vast history and breathtaking natural scenery. The forest sits in the heart of the southern Appalachians and includes Linville Gorge, Catawba Falls, Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River, Roan Mountain, Max Patch, Shining Rock Wilderness, and Mount Pisgah. Author and naturalist Marci Spencer treks through the human, political and natural history that has formed Pisgah National Forest.
Scale a bald summit or view one in awe from a distance. Remain quiet while eyes are cleansed of trials back home and drift across soft, blue, misty ridges rolling into one another as if permanently pushed together by a massive wave.
And so, Marci Spencer invites you to discover Pisgah National Forest. In her new book Pisgah National Forest: A History, North Carolina environmental educator Spencer tells the story of how Pisgah NF came to be. “Its story includes Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Carl Schenck, politicians, conservationists, activists, and others who campaigned for the federal government to protect its forested natural resources. Pisgah’s history is also a story of foresters, wildlife officers and timber management staff tending those woodlands, as well as those people who owned the land before it became a national forest. Pisgah’s story involves scientists and botanists who discovered new species and researchers who collect years of data to guide future management plans. Pisgah’s tale includes hikers, hunters, birders, campers, fishermen, rock climbers and all others who enjoy its recreational opportunities.”
The modern history of Pisgah National Forest begins with George W. Vanderbilt. In the late 19th century, he fell in love with the southern Appalachian mountains and forests and purchased more than 80,000 acres to surround his grand and glorious Biltmore House mansion in Asheville, NC. He also built a hunting lodge near the summit of Mount Pisgah called Buck Spring Lodge. He hired Gifford Pinchot, a renowned forester, to manage the huge woodlands. By doing so, he began the process of protecting this natural playground so that future generations could enjoy and discover that same love and fascination.
The Southern Appalachians were once promoted for the area’s curative powers. Tuberculosis specialists opened pulmonary treatment and study centers.
Even before Pisgah National Forest existed, people came to the mountains of Western North Carolina. The air was clear and the water clean, and the cool summer temperatures and low humidity made it an ideal place to get away from the TB and malaria filled southern coast. Warm water springs were said to cure much of what ailed you, and mountain living slowed the pace of life, enabling relief from the pressures of the helter-skelter big cities. To a large extent, the benefits of mountain life still exist today.
In May, 1913 Vanderbilt estate officials had met with the National Forest Reservation Commission at Buck Spring Lodge offering to sell 86,000 acres of Pisgah Forest to the federal government. By March, 1914 Vanderbilt was gone, dying from complications following an appendectomy. Vanderbilt’s widow Cornelia continued to negotiate the sale of the Pisgah property, and final agreements were reached in 1916, forming the heart of Pisgah National Forest.
That sale began the process of conservation. The former Vanderbilt land was a wonderful starting point. Pinchot was now working for the government, and Vanderbilt had hired Dr. Carl A. Schenck to replace him. Schenck founded the nation’s first forestry school, right in the heart of what is now the Pisgah Ranger District, at a high mountain valley known as Pink Beds. More than 300 foresters graduated from Biltmore Forest School. Four graduates of the school became superintendents of national forests, including Verne Rhoades (class of 1906) who was to be the first supervisor of Pisgah National Forest, campaigned for the preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and helped start the Carolina Mountain Club. By 1913 however, numerous American colleges and universities were offering degrees in the field of forestry. Fewer than 20 students enrolled that year, and by November the school was closed.
During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps operated out of many camps in what is now Pisgah National Forest. By 1942 when the CCC ceased operations, NC recruits had built 2,600 miles of roads, 400 miles of trails (including work on the Appalachian Trail), 1,000 bridges and 1,800 miles of telephone line.
Evidence of the work of the CCC is scattered all throughout Pisgah NF. You can’t go on a hike without seeing something that the CCC had their hands on. Among their accomplishments was the contruction of 14-mile Yellow Gap Road from North Mills River to Pink Beds. There are a dozen hiking and mountain biking trails that start or end on Yellow Gap Road. It is one of my favorite places to begin a hike. If you’re looking for an impromptu hike in Pisgah, you could do a lot worse than to start on Yellow Gap Road.
What you are also likely to find on any hike in Pisgah is remains of the logging and timber history. Many of the roads that twist and turn through the forest were built by the loggers. There is evidence of small gauge railway that was used to move downed trees. Dams and log flumes were constructed. You will find half buried cable and trestle scattered throughout. It was the demise of the timber industry that ultimately led to the massive expansion of Pisgah National Forest. Extremely prescient individuals in the U.S. Forest Service saw the opportunities to jump in and snap up the land from bankrupt loggers.
Spencer devotes a great deal of her book, with lengthy chapters, to the development of each of the three ranger districts within Pisgah National Forest. The Grandfather District is known, of course, for Grandfather Mountain, but also for Linville Gorge Wilderness and Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River.
Called Esseeoh by the Cherokee, meaning “river of cliffs,” Linville’s features are always photogenic.
Some of the most rugged terrain in all of the eastern U.S. is contained within Linville Gorge Wilderness. Protected as an original asset by the Wilderness Act of 1964, Linville Gorge is a haven for hikers, rock climbers, kayakers, campers and folks just looking for a really good time in an awesome gift of Nature. Its smaller neighbor to the East, Wilson Creek (I like to think of it as Linville Gorge lite), is no less rugged or picturesque. Locals are extremely proud of their home and heritage there, and they make great efforts to help preserve its beauty and character for the future.
In the chapter about the Appalachian District, Spencer details the history and path of the Appalachian Trail. The AT makes its way through the Appalachian Ranger District from The Smokies to Max Patch and Hot Springs and on across the balds of Roan Mountain. When Earl Shaffer hiked the full length of the AT in 1948 becoming the first thru-hiker, Pisgah National Forest rangers radioed from fire towers 500 miles from the Smokies to Shenandoah to report his progress.
The Pisgah Ranger District is my stomping grounds. It is closest to my home, and my go to place for enjoying a day in the woods. Perhaps my favorite trail of all is the famous Art Loeb Trail, a 30-miler that begins along Davidson River near the Pisgah District ranger station, and ends at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp at the foot of Cold Mountain. Along the way it passes by the many plutons found in the district, crosses Pilot Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway, enters Black Balsam and Shining Rock Wilderness.
Along with Linville Gorge, Shining Rock Wilderness was one of the original protected wilderness designations in 1964. There are six peaks within the area that exceed 6,000 feet elevation, many of them with bald summits, offering dynamic 360
° panoramic views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and Pisgah National Forest. It just doesn’t get much better, and Spencer explains how all of that vast natural beauty became protected in perpetuity.
Since moving to the southern Appalachians from my home in West Virginia in 2003, I have hiked and volunteered throughout Pisgah National Forest. It is my backyard playground. I’ve learned a lot about the forest’s history over the past decade, but Spencer’s book enlightened me to a great deal of minutiae that I found quite interesting. Among the snippets that I previously did not know:
I keep Pisgah National Forest: A History close by now. It is an excellent reference resource. Whenever I’m putting together a trail report for my experiences in Pisgah National Forest, now I have even more information available that shares stories about those who walked the same paths a century before. I am a lot less likely to take my fun in Pisgah for granted. It took decades of hard work, persistence, and sometimes disappointment before it all came together as the Pisgah we enjoy today. Spencer’s book will help me appreciate every step I take going forward.
After retiring as a nurse practitioner, Marci Spencer earned her certificate as a North Carolina environmental educator and a Blue Ridge naturalist. She is the author of Clingmans Dome: Highest Mountain in the Great Smokies and a soon to be released children’s book based on a true story called Potluck, Message Delivered: The Great Smoky Mountains Are Saved! Marci says she is “Pisgah People.” That’s what she calls us
— hikers and historians; rock-climbers and explorers; conservationists, artists, writers and photographers; and foresters, researchers, and data collectors. Whether its water, woods, mountain top or cove, people have connected to Pisgah for generations.