John Rock Loop Hike
At A Glance
Tread Condition: Moderately Rough
Climb: Climbs Steeply
Lowest Elevation: 2350
Highest Elevation: 3320
Total Elevation Gain: 1000
Starting Point: Parking Area at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education (Fish Hatchery)
This hike takes you past a small but attractive waterfall, up to the top of John Rock, which is the large mountain you see looming behind the Fish Hatchery parking area in Pisgah National Forest. Views of the valley below, up to the Pisgah Ridge, and across to Looking Glass Rock are this hike's main scenic attraction besides the waterfall. It also passes by tranquil meadows near Picklesimer Fields, and through some nice displays of wildflowers in the spring.
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). Follow US 276 for 5.2 miles; turn left onto FR 475. Go 1.4 miles to the Center for Wildlife Education and Fish Hatchery. Turn left, cross the bridge and park in the parking lot.
Begin the hike by following Forest Service Road 475C out of the parking lot. It's the paved road on your left if you're standing in the parking lot and facing the main building, leading toward the dumpster (with John Rock behind it). (The portion leading along the Davidsion River near the picnic tables is where you will return.) Go around the gate and immediately cross a bridge. Immediately after that, turn right onto the Cat Gap Loop trail.
This trail will get your blood pumping from the start, with a climb up some log steps, but it soon levels out to a gently rolling grade. It lies just outside of a forest demonstration area delineated by a green chain-link fence on your right. Look inside the fence to see the last remaining healthy hemlock trees in the area (they've been treated with insecticide; most of the rest on this hike are dead). The trail will cross one small tributary, which you can rock-hop.
The forest here has many different varieties of trees: cove hardwoods (namely tuliptree and oak), white pine, (formerly) hemlock, and more. In places there is an extensive ground cover of Lycopodium - also called "ground pine" and "running cedar". Ground pines are some of the oldest varieties of plants in existence, and they used to dominate the landscape with tree-sized forms. Now diminutive, this cute little plant looks like a 6" high forest of its own! The spores of this plant are very flammable, and were once used to make flash bulbs for photography.
Shortly, you'll come to a footbridge over Cedar Rock Creek; cross it, cross the gravel road just after it, and pick up the Cat Gap trail again on the other side. A short, steep climb takes you up to an old roadbed soon and moderates considerably again. From here it becomes a wide, eroded trail that will take you high up along the side of the valley.
You will pass the weir where the water is diverted into the fish hatchery, far down below you on the left. The cold, clear waters of Cedar Rock Creek are perfect for raising the trout in the hatchery.
At times, rhododendrons arch over the trail forming a "tunnel". You'll pull away from the main valley and head up a side cove, then cross a very low ridge. Soon you'll start to hear (and see, now that the hemlocks are dead) Cedar Rock Falls on your left. The trail will pass by a nice but overused campsite with a small cascade beside it; the main falls are just downstream. To get to the base, follow the path downhill from the campsite. Bear left where the path drops over a small ledge to find a less risky route around and down. It's worth a visit but be very careful around waterfalls and slick rocks. There are high drop-offs in this area.
Back on the main trail, continue past the campsite and another small chute. You'll reach the intersection with the Butter Gap trail, at a big rock slab. Our hike goes left across the bridge, remaining on the Cat Gap Loop, but you may wish to explore to the right a bit, which is an open area known as Picklesimer Fields. It reminds me of a mini version of the Pink Beds area, with slow, meandering streams winding through shrubby and open areas.
Back at the rock slab, Cat Gap Loop goes left across a sketchy log bridge, right at the point where the lazy stream starts to drop out of the level valley bottom and over the falls. You'll then begin heading upstream through the southern arm of the valley along Cedar Rock Creek, which carries some of the same characteristics as the northern portion along the Butter Gap trail. I saw a rattlesnake not far off the trail here in May 2013 - this is definitely the type of area they like to hang out, so keep that in mind. The trail crosses the creek again on another log bridge and comes out in a planted stand of white pines where there is almost no undergrowth, before continuing upstream.
The trail will cross the creek again - this time, it's a rock-hop - and then become significantly steeper. It pulls away up the mountainside and works its way up onto the nose of a ridge. Then, you'll switchback up the ridge, which is located between John Rock Branch and Cedar Rock creeks. Footing is generally good, though there is some erosion, and a there are a few rooty and rocky sections.
The trees become older, and you'll be traveling through a mixed hardwood forest typical of these sloped areas at this elevation. The thick understory of mountain laurel and rhododendron would make traveling off-trail extremely difficult. It also poses somewhat of a fire hazard. Since the era of fire suppression, undergrowth like this has become much more common. The Forest Service sometimes use controlled burns to reduce fuel loads and open up areas such as this. Nature uses wildfires to do the same thing, but in a much more dramatic, uncontrolled fashion.
The climb will lessen, and you'll reach the intersection with the Cat Gap Bypass trail. Turn left here, onto the Cat Gap Bypass. (Straight ahead, the Cat Gap trail climbs to reach the Mountains to Sea Trail northeast of Cedar Rock Mountain, in Cat Gap).
This trail traverses a high slope below Cat Gap, at the head of John Rock Branch at about 3100' in elevation, and provides a much easier, shorter, and faster way to John Rock than going through Cat Gap itself. You'll pass through varied forest environments in rapid succession. As you go out around ridges, look for mostly oak trees. When you dip into the small coves you'll find tuliptree and (formerly) hemlocks. In the wintertime you can catch views of the side of John Rock through the branches.
You'll come to a four-way intersection in a deep gap to the south of John Rock. Turn left here onto the John Rock trail. (To the right, the Cat Gap Loop trail climbs up to Cat Gap and the Mountains to Sea Trail, mentioned above. Straight ahead is also the Cat Gap Loop, which promptly descends into Horse Cove). Here, you begin an extremely steep climb up to an unnamed knob along the ridge leading out to John Rock.
This section of trail could afford some switchbacks, or even to skirt around this knob entirely, but for now it doesn't. Watch your footing, as the trail is rocky and deeply eroded with roots crossing the trail, suspended a foot or more in mid-air in places. The rough section of trail is short-lived; after reaching the top of the knob, you'll head gradually down again toward John Rock. This is the highest point on the hike, at approximately 3320' in elevation.
There is one more short climb, then another descent, before the trees become smaller and disappear, and you pop out onto the face of John Rock itself. This goes without saying, but: be extremely careful here! It's a 200' sheer drop to the rocks below. It's nearly level and not unsafe to enjoy the view from the edge of the forest if the rock is dry, but watch out for wet rocks and slippery things like leaves, pine needles, moss, and algae which could send you sliding downhill!
Enjoy the view north across the valley of Looking Glass Rock and of the Fish Hatchery below. Bring a pair of binoculars and see if you can pick out your car in the parking lot! To your left (northwest) is the Pisgah Ledge and all the ridges extending off from it. Just to the right of Looking Glass Rock (northeast) is Coontree Mountain, and to the right of that is Bearpen Mountain.
After you're done soaking up the views, head northeast along the edge of the woods to the right, and pick up the trail again heading downhill. This is the continuation of the loop, and it heads in a generally southeastern direction.
You'll pass through a large, flat area to the east of John Rock, where the trail winds around a bit. Then it drops downhill slightly into a cove filled with a dense undergrowth of rhododendron and mountain laurel.
From this cove, the trail begins winding back uphill again slightly, over into the next cove, where it starts to descend in earnest. You'll bottom out at a crossing of Horse Cove Creek; on the other side you'll reach the eastern intersection with the Cat Gap Loop trail.
Turn left here, downhill. The lush forest in this area is dominated by tall, straight tuliptrees, one of the most common Cove Hardwood species. Dark, lacy hemlocks used to grow in the shade of the tuliptrees here, waiting paitently for a chance to dominate the canopy some decades into the future, but unfortunately, they are all dead or nearly so now. You'll reach another intersection with FS road 475C; go straight across and continue on the trail downhill.
Horse Cove starts leveling out soon near its confluence with East Horse Cove; then the trail will pass out of the mouth of the cove and begin heading upstream beside the flat, gently flowing Davidson River.
The river is mostly calm, but some steeper sections do contain a few scenic rapids. Although you are climbing very slightly on this section of trail, you'll hardly notice it compared to the rest of this hike. Several small tributary streams and seeps pass beneath the trail to join the river. Once dominated by cool, dark hemlock trees, this section of forest is returning to a place of cove hardwoods.
Near the end of the hike, a large, once-attractive campsite opens up to your right. (Dying and falling hemlocks will make this a bit undesirable for a while). But this is a great place to relax by the river at the end of a great hike. Finish by crossing the last bridge over Cedar Rock Creek and you'll end back at the far end of the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education parking lot, and your vehicle.
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