Phase 4 Loop Trail -- 2,720'

Headwaters State Forest - Bigspring Lollipop & Dolves Mountain

Headwaters State Forest is a recently established piece of protected property along the North Carolina-South Carolina border in Transylvania County. Established in 2009 with the acquisition of land by local conservancy groups, Headwaters opened to the public in 2018 and encompasses nearly 7,000-acres. Named for its location surrounding the headwaters of the East Fork French Broad River the State Forest is a rugged and all but undeveloped piece of real estate containing wooded ridges and numerous waterfalls (although the advertised 20+ count may be a bit exaggerated). Since the forest is still in its infancy as public property very little, if any, infrastructure exists providing access as yet. There are only two official trailheads and maps of the roads/paths within it are vague and hard to find. For those worried that Headwaters might someday become the zoo nearby DuPont is, there is some hope…the NC Forest Service has stated it intends to build little more than a couple small parking areas. Otherwise it will remain preserved in the wild state in which it currently exists. So, for those of us with a sense of adventure and a good map, we can experience this new state forest at its most raw...untouched as-yet by the hands of man.

With 2020's COVID-19 pandemic in full swing much of the surrounding public lands of my home Transylvania County were closed to visitors. I decided, thus, that this would be the perfect time to set about exploring Headwaters. I mapped out a series of a half-dozen hikes which, when combined with earlier visits would allow me to cover most of the existing trail system within the forest. This particular hike would be taking me into the true backcountry of Headwaters State Forest, about as far from a main road or significant natural attraction as you can get on the property. My initial plan was to do what I like to refer to as a ‘lollipop-style’ hike starting from the White Oak Bridge Trailhead on Glady Fork Road, one of only two official trailheads within the forest as yet (the other being at Gum Gap). From White Oak Bridge I would ascend via The Clearcuts Road (see addendum below concerning trail nomenclature) and follow it to its eastern end at the Phase 4 Loop. At this point I’d ascend to the ridge and follow the Foothills Trail Spur west over Bigspring Mountain, back to The Clearcuts Road, and then back. I soon decided to add a bit of walking however, as there promised to be no impressive sights to be seen by just hiking the lollipop. The bonus destination I had in mind was Dolves Mountain…which I had visited one time before via Gum Gap and has, in my opinion, the finest viewpoint found anywhere in the State Forest. This added out-and-back would add around 2.5-miles and some climbing but, as you’ll see, it’s more than worth the effort to tag onto this one.

Starting from the aforementioned White Oak Bridge Trailhead a large kiosk greets you as you cross the slatted wooden bridge over the South Prong Glady Fork. Two roads split opposite directions here with The Clearcuts Road ascending to the right. From the get-go The Clearcuts Road begins to climb, and won't really let up until you step off of it.  The first mile or so involves a winding journey along the south side of an unnamed ridge extending east from South Prong Glady Fork.  The forest here is mixed, though there are some very pretty pure pine stands to enjoy as well.  At around the mile mark the top of the ridge is gained just after passing another old forest road on the right which, if followed, connects The Clearcuts Road and the Whiteoak Mountain Road used later in the hike.  After a brief descent another junction is reached in under 2/10-mile.  At this Y-junction you'll want to stay left to continue on The Clearcuts Road.  The ascent resumes at this point for just under a half-mile more as the road seeks out the escarpment crest.  If you go in the winter time you'll be able to make out the high peaks and ridges to the north (through the trees) now that you've made it above a majority of the surrounding terrain.  At the second sharp left-hand bend past the Y-junction you'll reach the point where the Foothills Trail Spur bumps up against The Clearcuts Road.  On the outside of the curve you should be able to see a concrete state line marker post painted with double blue blazes. This is the beginning of the loop portion of the hike. Later you’ll return via the Foothills Trail Spur but for now stay left on The Clearcuts Road. You’ll now be on a winding descent that gets steeper the closer you get to Jane Cantrell Creek which is reached in just over another mile. The creek is barely seen as it flows under the road from a dense covering of rhododendron and dog-hobble. Barely 1/10-mile later you’ll reach the end of The Clearcuts Road at a sharp junction with the Phase 4 Loop which you’ll now turn right onto. Once again there’s a moderately steep uphill walk to overcome, but it’s fairly brief. The Phase 4 Loop winds its way for only around a half-mile back up to the ridge and the Foothills Trail Spur. This is where the out-and-back to Dolves Mountain begins.

Head east now on the Foothills Trail Spur. The climb continues where it left off as the forest road crosses a high shoulder of nearby Little Table Rock Mountain, after-which it begins a long gradual descent which ends at the colorfully-named Grunting Spring Gap. Here the trail makes a hard right up the bank into the woods next to the road. It doesn’t take long for your surroundings to change dramatically. Back in 2016 numerous large wildfires swept the Southern Appalachians and this was one of the areas impacted by their wrath. Just as the trail steepens the surrounding landscape becomes one of burned stumps, barren rock, and charred debris. Only moss yet grows on these slopes. It’s the most devastated landscape left over from the 2016 fires that I’ve yet witnessed. Thankfully the forest greens up once again as the trail gains the ridge and, soon thereafter, rejoins the road for the final steep climb to the top of Dolves. Just before the summit the route flattens out before arriving at a small rock ledge protruding from the hillside on the north side of the summit. The panorama from here is breathtaking. Pretty much the entirety of Transylvania County is spread out below…from the hills of Headwaters and nearby DuPont State Forest, to the rolling upper French Broad Valley, to the massive ramparts of the Shining Rock and Pisgah Ridges on the far horizon. It is the finest of places to stop for a rest break before continuing on.

Departing Dolves you’ll now make the 1-1/4-mile trek back to the junction with the Phase 4 Loop where you’ll now continue on the Foothills Trail Spur to the west. This next 1.5-miles of trail is easily the most difficult of the day. Numerous incredibly steep ascents and descents are made along this stretch. The main obstacle, of course, is that of Big Spring Mountain itself. After departing the Phase 4 Loop the trail makes a silly-steep drop into a narrow gap then sets about climbing Bigspring, which has not one but two summits for you to cross with elevation lost between each. After Bigspring the trail is on the ascent again as it seeks out the unnamed ridge adjoining the mountain, which is actually higher than the mountain itself. As you approach the junction with The Clearcuts Road again there is a striking difference between forest types to the left and the right of the trail, which is following the State Line at this point. To the right (North Carolina) is an expansive stand of tall, mature pines. On the left (South Carolina) the forest is one of small hardwoods and shrubs. Keep an eye out for the concrete post mentioned earlier, where you’ll close the loop portion of the hike by returning to The Clearcuts Road where, after a left turn and a a bit over 1.5-miles of downhill walking, you’ll be back at the White Oak Bridge Trailhead where you started.

This hike is only saved by the side-trip to Dolves Mountain. Without it, this hike would be simply a challenging loop hike through the woods. The solitude is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but without Dolves the effort-to-scenery ratio is not a positive one. With Doves, though, this hike is easily one of the best at Headwaters. You get the solitude and the scenery with this option which is always a desirable combination. Just make sure you’re up for the challenge though and, as always with Headwaters State Forest BRING A GOOD MAP! I personally recommend combining the use of both the Blue Wall Map by the Pisgah Map Company and the official N.C. Forest Service map of the property. With that said, I now have the great pleasure to invite you along with me as I hike what I’ve dubbed the Bigspring Lollipop (w/ Dolves Mountain)…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.088287, -82.765058

Route Type:  Lollipop + spur        Difficulty:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  12.40 )

Hike Length:  9.1 miles                  Hike Duration:  4:00

Trailhead Temp:  55'F                   Trail Traffic:  NONE!!

Min. Elevation:  2,700'                   Max. Elevation:  3,284'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,650'            Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  181'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Foothills Trail Spur (blue), Phase 4 Loop (unblazed), The Clearcuts Road (unblazed)


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***HEADWATERS STATE FOREST is still in its early stages of development so it is possible, if not likely, that the names/blaze color of trails used here will change in the future. Please refer to the official N.C. Forest Service page for the most up to date info.***


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