Headwaters State Forest - Bursted Rock & Dolves Mountain (10-28-18)
Headwaters State Forest is a brand new piece of protected land, located along the southern border of Transylvania County, which only officially opened to the public as of September 2018. At 6,000+ acres in size the new State Forest, as its name implies, protects a portion of the ecologically and recreationally important French Broad and Savannah Rivers. It is a landscape of low ridges and narrow valley’s through which flow numerous wild streams. A number of all-but-unknown waterfalls are also hidden within its boundaries. Largely undeveloped, the property is heavily wooded and difficult to access. The good news is, for those of you worried Headwaters might turn into another zoo like nearby DuPont, the State Forest Service intends it to sty this way. Headwaters will be open to hikers, hunters, fisherman, and others but there are few if any plans for serious development. This means that if you want to see what there is to discover at Headwaters State Forest you’re likely going to have to do a bit more research and planning than usual. This is especially true in these early days of the forest being open to the public as there are few if any publications that have been released. In this particular album I’ll be taking a hike out to what will surely become two of the highlights of the new State Forest…the two wonderful overlooks at Bursted Rock and Dolves Mountain.
As I mentioned previously access is the first hurdle to overcome if you want to check this hike out for yourself. The starting point is located at the remote Gum Gap, on the North Carolina/South Carolina State Line. To reach Gum Gap follow the gravel Happy Acres Road off of East Fork Road near the community of Cedar Mountain. Happy Acres Road gets increasingly narrow and rough the farther down it you drive but it should be passible for most vehicles for the first three miles. It’s the last half-mile before Gum Gap that could cause problems. Along this last stretch of road there are a couple rocky sections and one spot prone to flooding which could be problematic for lower-slung vehicles. I made it in my sedan on this visit but I’m not sure I’d do it again in the future. An optional starting point is located about a half-mile before you reach Gum Gap where a red metal gate blocks another old road heading into the forest to the south. Parking here will add about a mile round-trip to the hike but will save you from driving the roughest section of the road to Gum Gap (you just have to walk it instead). Once at Gum Gap, whether you arrive by vehicle or by foot, you’ll find a large open area with a newly constructed Headwaters State Forest kiosk at the far end. Facing the kiosk on the left an old forest rod continues into the woods. This is the direction to go.
Immediately upon setting out along the old road west from Gum Gap you reach a split. Take the right fork along which you should be able to spot the tell-tale blue blazes of the Foothills Trail (actually, it’s a 15-mile spur of the Foothills Trail leading from Sassafras Mountain to Caesar’s Head, but that’s really not important for this hike). With blue blazes in sight the route should now be pretty straight forward for the first two-and-a-half miles as the trail follows the old road along the ridge to the west. At about the three-quarter mile mark the trail tops off on the north ridge of Slicking Mountain. At this point you can start to see the scars of the 2016 Pinnacle Mountain fire along the south side of the trail. The old road was used as an effective fire break at the time and, at least in this area, it was the northern extent that the fire reached. After Slicking Mountain the trail begins to descend towards Slicking Gap. This portion of the hike gets moderately steep in places and is something to consider as this steep downhill grade will be an uphill climb on the way back. Also along this section you’ll start seeing Greenville Watershed signs along the south side of the trail which is an indicator that the road here is following the State Line. At about 1.5-miles the Foothills Trail intersects another major forest road arriving from the right (south) and, about two-tenths of a mile later, arrives at Slicking Gap along a wide right-hand bend. Beyond Slicking Gap the route bounces up and down along the ridge, making for a decent workout, before arriving at the spur trail to Bursted Rock on the left at the 2.5-mile mark. There are no major signs marking the spur, just a simple unmarked green carsonite stake. It’s located on a non-descript right hand bend in the trail where you can see the high ledges of Bursted Rock through the treetops ahead.
Making a left onto the spur the steepest climb of the hike begins. The path is faint but, at least on my visit, was easy to follow as it climbs the steep eastern summit ridge of Bursted Rock. You’ll know when you’ve arrived at the overlook as the path emerges onto a long, open, and sloping rock face. To the south, barely three miles distant, are the towering cliffs of Table Rock Mountain in South Carolina. It’s almost as if this ledge was placed here specifically for the purpose of viewing Table Rock, so perfect is the angle. The only thing to consider on a visit, if you’re interested in getting decent pictures, is to go early in the morning. By noon the sun sits directly over Table Rock hiding the cliffs in shadow. I arrived at 11 am and it was already too late for decent shots so, after a brief stop, I returned back down to the Foothills Trail and hung a left to continue on towards Dolves Mountain. From the spur trail to Bursted Rock the Foothills Trail descends moderately to the low point, elevation-wise, of the hike before beginning a long gradual climb over the next mile to the summit of Dolves. This stretch of trail continues to be rather unremarkable but, if you visit when I did, at least you’ll have some nice fall colors to look at. The overlook atop Dolves is hard to miss as it’s directly of the side of the trail. Here a small ledge provides sweeping views to the north. Much of the land comprising Headwaters State Forest can be seen here…indeed so can most of Transylvania County. Toxaway Mountain and the Great Balsam Range can be seen to the northwest while on the far horizon directly ahead is the Shining Rock and Pisgah Ridges. It a fantastic spot to sit and just enjoy the quiet beauty of the spot. Odds are you’ll have it to yourself also…just you and the forest and the sky…which makes Dolves Mountain, in my humble opinion, the highlight of the hike.
After finishing atop Dolves Mountain the return trip simply involves retracing your steps along the Foothills Trail, four miles back to Gum Gap. If you didn’t notice the roller-coaster nature of the trail on the way out you definitely will on the way back as the vertical gain starts to add up as well as the mileage walked. The climb back up from Slicking Gap seems especially steep. Despite the workout, though, it’s a relaxing walk through the quiet woods and before long you’ll find yourself back at your car. Overall this was a very enjoyable hike. It’s a workout, to be sure, but it’s not altogether rugged or steep (with the exception of the climb up Bursted Rock). I’ve seen a few reports of folks only making the walk as far as Bursted Rock but I feel, if you have the time and energy, that you should definitely walk the additional mileage to include Dolves Mountain as well. The view is more than worth the extra effort...in my opinion even better than the one had from Bursted Rock. In addition to the views this is also a wonderful place simply for the solitude it offers. Being such a new public property few people know of it yet and, unless access is greatly improved, it’s likely to remain that way. With all that said I would now like to make my official introduction of Headwaters State Forest to you…I hope you find it as enjoyable as I did…
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.102796, -82.691209 (Gum Gap)
Alternate Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.106004, -82.689745 (Avoids rough road before Gum Gap; add 1-mile round-trip)
Route Type: Out-and-back Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 8.2 miles Hike Duration: 3:15
Trailhead Temp: 40'F Trail Traffic: NONE!!!
Min. Elevation: 2,760' Max. Elevation: 3,284'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,350' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 165'
Trails Used (blaze color): Bursted Rock Spur (unblazed), Foothills (blue)