Pink Beds Loop Hike
This hike loops you around a unique, flat, high-elevation valley. You'll see rare mountain bogs, including glimpses of some rare and endangered species of plants if you're lucky. You'll pass through a forest in transition, as beavers have dammed the South Fork Mills River to form their ponds, which are drowing out the trees. You'll also find crystal clear brooks, wildlife meadows, and scenic fern-filled woods. This forest is one of the first to ever be managed through modern forestry techniques, earning it the nickname "The Cradle of Forestry in America."
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Total Length: 4.3 mi
- Trail Tread Condition: Some Obstacles
- Climb: Few Hills
- Lowest Elevation: 3150 ft
- Highest Elevation: 3290 ft
- Total Elevation Gain: 200 ft
- Trails/Roads Used: Pink Beds Loop, optionally, Mountains to Sea Alternate
- Hike Configuration: Loop
- Starting point: Pink Beds Picnic Area
- How to Get There: From Asheville, take I-240 west to I-26 east to the exit for the Asheville Airport (exit 40). Turn right onto NC 280; follow this 4-lane highway for 16 miles toward Brevard. At the intersection with US highways 276 and 64, turn right onto US 276 west (follow signs for Pisgah National Forest). Proceed up 276 for 11.4 miles to the Pink Beds Picnic Area, just past the Forest Discovery Center. The trail starts at the sign board at the back of the lot.
This relatively flat loop takes you through several interesting areas in the Pink Beds valley. Named for the profusion of pink wildflowers that grow here in the spring (including mountain laurel and rhododendron), this relatively flat valley sits at a high-elevation (about 3200'). It also contains some very large pine trees, rare mountain bogs, streams with beaver dams, clear babbling brooks, and scenic open woods.
Begin the hike on the wide trail behind the sign board with the map, on the left side of the parking area. This loop can be hiked either way, but I'll describe it in a counter-clockwise fashion. Go down the hill and bear right after crossing the fledgling South Fork Mills River - which is just a creek at this point - on a small log bridge.
Having just tumbled off the ridges above, this river grows to become one of the larger tributaries in the French Broad system. This river is up for National Wild and Scenic River status. If it happens, it will be the longest river in the state in this system. The river's headwaters are here in the Pink Beds valley, protected on all sides by large mountains from pollution. It's a good thing, because the city of Asheville draws from this river for drinking water further downstream.
This area is also notable in that it is part of the area called the Cradle of Forestry in America. This is where modern forestry research, techniques and education began. You can learn more about that back down 276 a few hundred yards at the Forest Discovery Center and museum.
The trail starts out narrow and sometimes muddy, with lots of man-made structures to carry you over the mud. Footing is generally good, though there are lots of roots in places. Coursing through an undergrowth of Mountain Laurel, there are some very large pine trees at the beginning of the hike and their soft needles carpet the path. The trail loosely follows the South Fork Mills River until the tip of the loop, occasionally crossing it and its tributaries on log or plank bridges. One crossing is on an innovative bridge made out of a huge fallen tree.
The woods are very lush and there are flat, boggy areas - more reminiscent of something you'd see on the coastal plain than in the mountains. These upland bog areas contain several rare and endangered plant species such as Swamp Pink (Helonias bullata), so enjoy their unique beauty from on the trail. Other areas of the forest are more typical of what you usually find across the southern Appalachians, with tall mixed hardwoods trees and some pines and hemlocks.
You will come to the intersection with the Barnett Branch trail. To the right, the trail ascends Soapstone Ridge to reach the Black Mountain trail on Rich Mountain. The Pink Beds Loop continues straight; however, the Barnett Branch trail also goes left through the middle of the loop, across a long bridge & boardwalk, making a half-loop hike possible. This is recommended if you're short on time, or especially if flooding from beaver dams is encountered later on.
Note: the Forest Service has recently completed a trail re-route in this area. Please follow posted signs closely to stay on the Pink Beds loop trail in this area until we get a chance to do another field visit. I believe the re-routed loop is co-signed with the Barnett Branch for a short distance. However, on my last visit, sections of trail before the Barnett Branch intersection were partially flooded as well. According to comments on this page, the trail is open and accessible all the way round as of January 2013 (thanks Jake!).
Past this intersection, the Pink Beds Loop trail used to pass into an open area of tall grasses and dying trees. This is where beaver dams have played their part in changing the forest and they have made quite an impact. Large pools of water drift lazily past the former trail and dead skeletons of mountain laurel bushes and trees line the pools' banks. In addition to flooding from beaver dams, massive floods from tropical storms in 2004 washed away any trace of the bridges that once existed here. Before the trail was re-routed, hikers sometimes had to do what my wife and I did once - take off our boots, hike up our pants, stick our feet in the muck and wade through waste-deep, ice-cold mountain water to reach the trail on the other side!
Past this crossing - or beyond the re-route and new crossing - the trail dries out a bit and travels through fern-filled woods. You'll come to the next intersection, which is a trail leading to the gauging station and parking area on FR 476 - the old South Mills River Road. Turn left here and begin a gradual ascent into the "foothills" (so to speak) of the Pisgah Ridge.
The trail never gains an appreciable amount of altitude but it does dry out a bit as it rises above the valley bottom, and takes you through beautiful open forests of oak and tuliptree. The trail gradually turns into more of a woods road as it loops around and heads back toward the parking area . You will cross several crystal-clear tributaries trickling down from the Pisgah Ridge. There are many tunnels of rhododendron along this stretch, and if it starts to rain you will stay dry for a while. Then again, if it stops raining, they will drip on you for a long time after as well!
Toward the end, the trail will pass through several large clearings in the forest. These openings are man-made. These meadow are "wildlife openings" which the Forest Service keeps mowed for the benefit of grazing animals and those which like to live on the fringe areas between woods and grass, such as deer and wild turkey. Hike this section at dawn or dusk and you're likely to see one of them.
Reaching the fields signals your approach toward the end of the loop. When you reach the fork, turn right, and climb the small hill back up to the parking area, picnic area, and your vehicle.
View more photos in this hike's gallery.
Here's an interactive GPS map of this hike. Yellow highlight indicates the route followed by this hike within the trail network. Only the trails and points of interest along the hike, and those in the immediate vicinity, are shown. For expanded maps, see this hike's Trailhead area.
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