Arriving before the morning sun had a chance to melt the fresh dusting of snow, I walked this short loop in the southwest corner of DuPont State Forest with the sound of woodpeckers filling the air… and not much else. It was quiet. A half inch of snowfall muted the normal sounds. I purposely picked this woodsy loop. Usually enjoyed by mountain bikers, I guessed correctly that I would have it all to myself on this day. So for two serene hours I strolled along Pine Tree and Cascade trails following rabbit and squirrel tracks and listening to the rat-a-tat of the pileated woodpeckers. This hike was on Thursday, January 21, 2016 from 10:15AM to 12:15PM. My plan was to take Pine Tree Trail to Cascade Trail to complete a 3.5 mile loop.
Hike Length: 3.5 miles Hike Duration: 2 hours
Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: None needed
Hike Rating: Easy. Minimal elevation change, no creek crossings.
Elevation Change: 270 feet, gain 310 feet Elevation Start: 2,785 feet
Trail Condition: Very good. Mostly maintained by mountain biking clubs who do a wonderful job keeping the trails clear and firm.
Starting Point: Junction of Staton Road with Cascade Lake Road.
Trail Traffic: I had the forest all to myself on this snowy morning.
How to Get There: DuPont State Forest can be accessed from Hendersonville via Kanuga/Crab Creek Rd., from Asheville/Brevard via US64 and Little River Rd., or from Greenville, SC via Cedar Mountain and Cascade Lake Rd. Trailhead is at the corner of Staton Road and Cascade Lake Road. Look for printed trail maps at the major public parking areas.
As I drove Staton Road through DuPont State Forest, past the parking areas at Lake Imaging and Hooker Falls, then High Falls and the Visitor Center, they were all empty. DuPont State Forest was silent… seemingly abandoned, devoid of people. Somewhat surprising how a simple half inch of snow the previous afternoon will do that. I saw it as an opportunity.
At the south end of Staton Road
— where it meets Cascade Lake Road
— is the trailhead for Pine Creek Trail. There is enough room for a couple cars to park at the road junction across the street from the trailhead. As I was getting out of my car a woman in a Cadillac pulled up along the icy road and asked if I needed any help, the first person I had seen since arriving in DuPont. “No,” I said with a big smile on my face. “I’m going hiking.”
My plan was to arrive early enough before the morning temperature sprung above freezing, beginning the snow melt. Mission accomplished. There was still a good half inch of crunchy virgin snow at the trailhead. As I dove into the forest, everything was covered with a fresh dusting of white powder… quite picturesque. The morning sun was rising, and shining through the tree branches casting a yellow glow on the droplets of moisture.
Based on the name of the trail, I was expecting to pass through a major white pine plantation like those found in the Guion Farm area. There were a few pine trees, mostly immature, but the majority of the forest was typical hardwood and lots of rhododendron minus, the smaller cousin of the larger rhododendron maximus. There was also plenty of ground level holly and galax, ground cedar and dog hobble.
The air was completely still, and silent, except for the machine gun pounding of the woodpeckers. It was if they were surrounding me. I would hear one to my right, then behind me. Another would rat-a-tat straight ahead… a cacophony of pileated percussion. All I needed now was for an orchestra to strike up Kremer and Polunin’s Snow Symphony.
At the half mile mark I came upon Longside Trail, and the end of the virgin snow. It seems a pair of mountain bikers had passed from Pine Tree Trail onto Longside sometime the previous afternoon in the opposite direction I was traversing. I would follow their twin pair of tire tracks for the rest of the hike. By the way, this loop is an excellent (but short) mountain biking track with many banked curves and rocky jumps. A consortium of bike trail clubs did some major work on these trails in 2009 making them top notch. Combine with other trails in the Corn Mills Shoals area for a longer ride, or hike.
Pine Tree Trail is heading mostly north, and after about a mile it crosses Staton Road and turns in a westerly direction. Soon after crossing the road, it makes a hairpin turn and parallels Sheep Mountain Trail for a few hundred yards before crossing it at the junction with Cascade Trail. Here on the western side of the road I was beginning to see the first signs of the snow beginning to melt. There were a few tall, mature pine trees on this side of the road as well. Perhaps the trail name came from here.
Cascade Trail, named for nearby Cascade Lake, is mountain laurel country. The bushy tree lines both sides of the trail for nearly its full length. I also began to notice tracks of small wild animals imprinted in the snow. I definitely recognized rabbit and squirrel and different kinds of birds hip-hopping along their merry way. Never saw any of the critters, but their were plenty of tracks.
Cascade Trail traces a zig-zag pattern through the woods, turning south, then east, then back south again. What limited climbing there is throughout this loop is found in this section, and the trail is kind of perched on a hillside. As you near the southern end you will come upon a couple of openings in the forest… large slabs of granite covered with moss and reindeer lichen. This is the beginning of pluton country, found more dramatically a mile farther south on the Micajah Trail.
At the second opening I found a seat on the ledge and enjoyed lunch. I could now hear the drip-dropping of snow melt as it splashed upon the granite surface. The sun was glorious on my face… one of those magnificent Carolina bluebird days. Everything smelled fresh and clean. The temperature was warming nicely as afternoon approached. I removed my knit cap, gloves and jacket.
Not far beyond my lunch spot Cascade Trail rejoins Pine Tree trail and turns to the east. You have a decision here. You can either continue straight ahead on Cascade Trail a quarter mile to Cascade Lakes Road for the return to the beginning of the loop, or you can turn left onto Pine Tree Trail for the quarter mile back to Staton Road. I chose the latter.
In summary, I received everything I was wishing for from this gentle little loop. I was hoping to get out and play in the first snowfall of the winter. Check. I was looking for something short and easy so I wouldn’t be slipping and sliding the whole way. Check. What made it even better was the serenity I was able to experience. I would have been happy to share the trail with other hikers and bikers, but it just so happened no one else chose to venture out on this day. If you’re looking for a brief two hour stroll through quiet DuPont forest, consider this one.