Hickory Flat Creek Cascade -- 2,650'

Headwaters State Forest - Bursted Rock Lollipop w/ Hickory Flat Creek Cascades

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 involve quite a bit of trail I had already covered, but involving a series of connector paths I had, as yet, not explored. Oh, that and there’s the little matter of the bushwhack along Hickory Flat Creek…that would be new territory as well. The plan was to begin from the trailhead at Gum Gap, one of two ‘official’ trailheads yet established at Headwaters (the other being at White Oak Bridge). From Gum Gap follow the Foothills Trail Spur westbound as far as the spur trail up to the open ledges of Bursted Rock Mountain. After Bursted Rock I’d then cut over to Hickory Flat Creek via a couple short connector trails where I’d then set about on my exploratory bushwhack. I had it on good authority that just downstream of where the Deer Feeder Trail crosses the creek there were a series of nice cascades. It would be my goal to see if this was, in fact, true. I’d hopefully complete my bushwhack by emerging on Flat Creek Road. Then by way of a return to the Deer Feeder Trail, then Slicking Gap Road, and then (once again) the Foothills Trail Spur I would make the climb back to Gum Gap.

So, first things first…the warning about the road leading to Gum Gap. It’s rough…particularly the last half-mile. Due to this fact, a high clearance vehicle is absolutely necessary to make it all the way to the Gum Gap. If you’re in a standard vehicle, you’ll have to plan on walking the final half-mile. The Foothills Trail Spur departs Gum Gap to the south and west. To start this hike head westbound, up the trail adjacent to the Headwaters State Forest Kiosk. There’s an immediate split where you’ll keep right past a red metal gate. For the first mile the trail gradually makes its way up to the summit ridge of Slicking Mountain where you might be suddenly startled if you’re not familiar with what happened here in 2016. As with many other areas of the Southern Appalachians that year, this was an area severely impacted by wildfires. The Foothills Trail Spur was used as a fire break against the flames arriving from the south and, as you’ll see when you walk the trail, a fairly effective one. Most of the way between Slicking Mountain and Slicking Gap you’ll see blackened forest to one side of the trail and seemingly untouched and healthy forest to the other. The line between life and death, back in 2016, was quite literally the trail you’re now walking along. At the 1.7-mile mark you’ll pass the upper end of Slicking Gap Road (which you’ll return via later on) and, in a few hundred yards more, Slicking Gap itself. After this the trail climbs for a short time, bounces along the ridge a short distance, then makes a moderately steep descent towards Bursted Rock Mountain. The trail to the viewpoint on Bursted Rock begins on the left (south) side of the trail beside a simple green carsonite stake. The climb to the top is short but it’s as steep as any trail you’ll find in the area, climbing some 300 vertical feet in only around a quarter-mile. The view from the ledges though is more than worth the effort. Due south, barely three miles away, rise the massive northern cliffs of Table Rock, South Carolina. The scene is stunning, with the framing of the mountain view so perfect as to almost be unbelievable.

Once you can manage to tear yourself away from Bursted Rock, return to the Foothills Trail Spur and continue west another 2/10-mile, down a series of steep switchbacks, to the next trail of the day. Arriving on the right is yet another old forest track, this one going by the name Little Busted Road, which you’ll now follow for a meandering and rather unremarkable mile north. At this point you’ll arrive at, and turn right onto, Busted Rock Road. In barely a half-mile yet another junction is reached. Needless to say, if you don’t have a map you’re unlikely to get this far. This junction marks the meeting point of the aforementioned Busted Rock Road, Slicking Gap Road, and the Deer Feeder Trail which departs to the east. This is where the side loop for the bushwhack along Hickory Flat Creek begins…if you’re not interested in attempting this part of the hike go ahead and skip to the next paragraph now. Turning onto the Deer Feeder Trail Hickory Flat Creek is reached in an easy 1/3-mile. The bushwhack begins heading downstream along the west side of the creek. I’m not going to give you a step-by-step guide to the route I took once off-trail. Suffice to say that I traveled about 1/3 mile along Hickory Flat Creek, did indeed find a few small cascades (including a truly fantastic one), all the while bouncing from one side of the stream to the other or simply walking in the creek itself. The terrain isn’t all together that rugged but the ground cover is THICK which makes for slow going at times. Eventually reaching a point where I felt the probability of finding more cascades remote, I made a short but very steep climb up to the nearby Flat Creek Road and a return to clear trails for the remainder of the day. Turning right (uphill) onto Flat Creek Road another short climb will take you to the much wider Deer Feeder Trail, onto which you’ll take another right for a half-mile to the point where the Deer Feeder Trail makes a hard right turn at Bear Camp Road for the crossing of Hickory Flat Creek where the bushwhack first began. Another 1/3-mile retracing your steps on the Deer Feeder Trail brings you back to the major junction where this little side loop began.

Those of you who opted to skip the Hickory Flat Creek bushwhack can rejoin the rest of us now. The Slicking Gap Road is the next path to follow, departing the junction southbound into a pure stand of tall pines. Though there’s not much to see along its 1/3-mile length, Slicking Gap Road is a welcome respite ahead of the return climb over Slicking Mountain. Upon reaching the sharp intersection with the Foothills Trail Spur double-back to the left and all there is to do, to finish up the day, is to overcome the 400-feet of climbing and 1.7-miles of walking to return back to Gum Gap. I really can’t say enough about how enjoyable this hike was, even including the somewhat difficult bushwhack. Of all the hikes I’d completed (thus far) at Headwaters this one probably offered the greatest variety in regards to scenery. Certainly it was the first that boasted both views AND waterfalls. Of course this hike won’t be for everyone. The route can be a bit confusing (again, TAKE A MAP) and the necessary bushwhack to see the cascades on Hickory Flat Creek isn’t something you should attempt if you’re not already comfortable with off-trail travel in the Southern Appalachians. If route-finding and bushwhacking don’t bother you, however, you’ll definitely find this to be an enjoyable day hike. Per the usual, I’ll let the pics in the album do the majority of the speaking for me. It’s therefore my pleasure to invite you along with me as I hike the Bursted Rock Loop, and do a bit of exploring along Hickory Flat Creek, at Headwaters State Forest. As always, I hope you ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.102796, -82.691209

Route Type:  Double Lollipop     Difficulty:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  11.10 )

Hike Length:  8.5 miles                Hike Duration:  4:15

Trailhead Temp:  60'F                 Trail Traffic:  1-5 people

Min. Elevation:  2,580'                  Max. Elevation:  3,220'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,300'           Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  153'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Bursted Rock (unblazed), Busted Rock Road (unblazed), Deer Feeder (unblazed), Flat Creek Road (unblazed), Foothills Trail Spur (blue), Little Busted Road (unblazed), Slicking Gap 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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