Turkeypen Gap Trail and South Mills River Trail Loop, Pisgah National Forest

I always enjoy hikes along the South Mills River in the Pisgah Ranger District. This loop follows the north side of the riverbank for several miles along an old logging road. But to get there, first you cross Sharpy Mountain from Turkeypen Gap. The trail travels through beautiful hardwood and heath forest as it roller-coasters across four gaps to its meeting with Wagon Road Gap Trail. It’s then a steep downhill to South Mills River and a lovely stroll next to the scenic mountain waterway. We took this hike on Thursday, July 17, 2014 beginning at 10:15AM and ending about 2:00PM. Our plan was to take the Turkeypen Gap Trail across Sharpy Mountain to Wagon Road Gap, then take that connector off the mountain to the South Mills River Trail for the completion of the loop.

Hike Length: 7.2 miles Hike Duration: 3.75 hours Hike Configuration: Loop

Hike Rating: Moderate. There is a half mile stretch that is very strenuous.

Elevation Gain: 1,350 feet Blaze: Blue, orange, white

Trail Condition: Mostly good. Some stream crossings on Wagon Road Gap Trail.

Starting Point: Turkeypen Gap Trailhead on Turkeypen Road.

Trail Traffic: We saw six other hikers total in two groups.

How to Get There: From Hwy 64/280 junction in Brevard, NC take Hwy 280 north toward Asheville. Go 4.5 miles to the Transylvania/Henderson County line and turn left on Turkeypen Road. Take this rough dirt and gravel road 2.3 miles to the dead end at the Turkeypen Gap Trailhead.


It’s always a good idea to stretch before hiking, as it is before any exercise or physical exertion. But the way this trail starts, it really is important, especially your groin and hip flexor muscles. When you arrive at the Turkeypen parking area, the trailhead for this blue-blazed pathway is on the left and you will see it immediately disappears upwards to the south into the woods. There are quite a few high steps through a narrow mountain laurel tunnel that will stretch those muscles for you if you haven’t already.

At a quarter mile you will reach the crest of the ridge and the first of many hickory trees along the route. On this day in mid-July we found dozens of green hickory nuts strewn about the trail. We were about a week late for the peak rosebay rhododendron bloom, as most of the petals were now on the ground along with the hickories.

Gradually climbing along the ridge, the trail reaches Simpson Gap in a little less than a mile. Another quarter mile later the hard part begins. For the next half mile, the ascent is very steep and strenuous. It’s a good idea to pause every hundred yards or so for a breather. I know I did. Despite the cool air in the morning, it was quite humid and I began to perspire significantly as I hoped for the top of Sharpy Mountain around each turn.

Also with the moist air and damp ground, the pathway was a haven for various and sundry fungus. We saw many mushrooms, toadstools and a large bright orange variety that grows on the trunks of the trees. I’ve learned over the years to pay more attention to the little micro gardens that are usually found in the soft light at the base of tall trees, and along the moss and lichen covered surfaces of the long-fallen logs.

There are occasional small openings in the forest that offer viewing of the surrounding mountains of Pisgah National Forest. In winter, no doubt this section of trail would be quite rewarding as it surveys the Blue Ridge. At the top of Sharpy we took five for some granola and to re-catch our breath.

What do trails tend to do once you reach the top of a ridge? Go down, right? The next mile offers a roller coaster ride as it descends to Sandy Gap, then back up on the crest of the ridge, and finally back down again to Wagon Road Gap. This isn’t the same Wagon Road Gap found at milepost 412 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just another place with the same name. Upon reaching the gap, you are now 2.7 miles from the original trailhead, and to the junction of the Wagon Road Gap connector trail.

Orange Fungus

Wagon Road Gap Trail is a right turn, following orange blaze now northward, and down… steeply down. Over the next half mile you will descend about 600 feet and make several rock hops across small streams leading you to the river valley. The forest along this trail is simply stunning. One particular cove is surrounded by a fern ground cover on three sides that must be at least 10 acres in size. The trees are mature and afford a soothing shade from the midday summer sun. There are three places where you will have to scramble over large downed trunks that have fallen across the trail.

Upon reaching the flat of the valley you begin to pass through and by various campsites. The forest thins somewhat and you will notice the tell-tale rock piles of the fire rings. At the 3.5 mile mark you’ll enter a large campsite that makes it difficult to follow the trail. If you listen for the sounds of the river and head in that direction, you’ll find the junction with the white-blazed South Mills River Trail as it makes a hard right turn to the east at the river.

It’s a mere one tenth mile further to the wooden suspension bridge that crosses South Mills River. At the crossing, the river is surrounded by massive rosebay rhododendron bushes and a picturesque rocky flow that rivals the beauty found along the rivers in the Smokies. Be careful when crossing the bridge. There are a couple boards that have rotted and cracked. It’s fun to walk across and feel the bounce, bounce, bounce as the suspension cables echo your footsteps.

On the north side of the bridge is another campground, one we used to enjoy our lunch and pull out the map. From here it’s a straight shot along the South Mills River Trail for the next 2.6 miles.

Once renourished we resumed our trek eastward along the north river bank. The trail here is an old logging road so it is wide, flat, and smooth. Unlike the narrow Turkeypen Gap and Wagon Road Gap trails, two people can meander side-by-side on the South Mills River Trail. The first mile after the river crossing is so straight, you can see the trail ahead of you for at least a quarter mile.

The river is simply magnificent, rivaling anything in the Southern Appalachians for sheer beauty. The loggers constructed a berm or levee along the river bank to prevent flooding of the roadway during high water season. It reminds me of a small-scale version of the levees along the mighty Mississippi, a fond remembrance of my youth.

After about a mile the river begins to twist and turn, and so the trail along with it. Small streams tumble down from the left to meet the river, including Poundingmill Branch, one that shares its name with a marvelous Fall foliage trail.

South Mills River

You will notice fins of granite bursting from the earth and riverbed, making for nice places to dip your toes in the cool mountain water and snap a photo or two. You will also notice the trail is wetter and muddier through this area, the result of the seeps and other drainages above to the north.

In an area where the river passes through a narrow gorge, the trail climbs 50 feet above river level and remains there for awhile before descending to the next trail junction. To finish off this loop, you want to take a right turn to another suspension bridge across the river. However, for your future reference, you can continue straight ahead along the South Mills River Trail for further exploration.

We were lucky on the 2nd footbridge to see some equestrian adventurers upstream at the horse crossing. Horses are common in the South Mills River area. The trails are very popular and fun for the horses as well as their riders. Once back on the south side of the river, make a right turn for the final half mile push back to the parking area at Turkeypen Gap.

I always hate this final half mile. It’s all uphill. It isn’t real steep, but just enough you get you all sweaty again after you’ve dried from the river walk. It’s always so much easier to finish a hike in a downward fashion. It is heavily eroded because it’s a connector to other trails and receives quite a bit of horse, bike, and hiker usage. I know. I’m whining again. Anyway, it only lasts about 15-20 minutes.

So let’s summarize. This 7-mile loop is a nice moderate hike with a little bit of everything. It you want exercise, there is a strenuous half-mile stretch on the Turkeypen Gap Trail. For forest beauty, it’s hard to beat the lower elevations in Pisgah National Forest for the summer green of the hardwoods and heath, not to mention the acres of ferns on the Wagon Road Gap Trail. Finally, South Mills River is one of the most scenic rivers in the South. Totally unspoiled, it is lined by rocks, crags, and forest; offers many swimming holes to cool off on a hot summer day; and is very easy to access.

I think you will enjoy this loop hike. I know I will be back to try the different seasons.



This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.


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