Gordon Mountain Road -- 2,830'

Headwaters State Forest - Gordon Mountain & Graveley Falls

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 is the first of those hikes, surrounding the beautiful Graveley Falls which I had managed to visit a couple years before the State Forest even officially opened.  This time, however, I wouldn't be making the simple out and back to the falls but rather exploring the trails systems leading both to and surrounding them.  At first I assumed it would involve a double out-and-back up the neighboring Gordon Mountain and Graveley Mill Shoals Roads (see the note below concerning trail names).  I was pleased to discover though that an existing path is present connecting the north ends of each which allowed me to turn my route into a much more enjoyable lollipop-style one.  I therefore would begin from the White Oak Bridge Trailhead on Glady Fork Road.  This is one of only two 'official' trailheads within the forest at this time (the other being at Gum Gap).  After crossing the old wooden bridge over the South Prong Glady Fork a large wooden kiosk is reached with old roads leading both to the left and the right.  Take the left hand road to start up what for now is being called the Graveley Mill Shoals Connector Trail.  As with most "trails" within Headwaters this one follows a partially overgrown roadbed.  The Connector Trail is only about a half-mile long and involves a fairly easy walk with only minimal elevation change.  About a quarter-mile in the trail makes a sharp switchback to the left that can be easy to pass as it actually appears the road continues ahead at that spot.  After the sharp left the Connector Trail soon reaches its crossing of the South Prong, where the remains of a log bridge span about 80% the width of the stream.  If you're agile enough you should be able to make the leap to the far bank, if not you'll have to wade.  After reaching the far bank there's only a short uphill walk left before reaching the Graveley Mill Shoals Road which you'll bear right (east) onto.  A short distance uphill is another trail split.  Here the Gordon Mountain Road breaks uphill to the left and marks the start of the loop portion of the hike.

The next 1/3-mile of walking is steadily uphill, at a moderately steep grade, as the trail/road seeks out the crest of the ridge east of Gordon Mountain.  Upon gaining the crest of the ridge the Gordon Mountain Road veers to the right with a spur road heading back left to the north.  This side road, which in this album is referred to as the Gordon Mountain Summit Spur, does what the name implies.  It leads, in about 2/10-mile to the heavily wooded north summit of Gordon Mountain.  There are no views to be had and a prominent 'NO TRESPASSING' sign warns hikers to go no farther.  So back to the Gordon Mountain Road you'll now beginning the long meandering journey back into the South Prong Glady Fork river valley.  About a quarter-mile past the Summit Spur junction you'll reach a sharp left-hand switchback along the steepest portion of this stretch, going another half-mile north until, once again bumping up against private property, the trail makes a sharp right turn along the northern boundary of the State Forest.  This is the "mystery section" of trail that a majority of isn't shown on maps.  The trail, now truly a trail and not a roadbed, cuts a near straight line along the north boundary line before one final steep drop back to the floor of the valley along nearby South Prong Glady Fork.  Turning southerly once again it isn't long before the trail opens up onto an old roadbed once again, which is actually the far north end of the Graveley Mill Shoals Road.  After an extended flat stretch along the floor of the valley the trail climbs again for a brief time before arriving at Graveley Falls.  The falls can't be missed as they can be seen through the rhododendron from the trail.  A steep scramble path leads down to a slick moss covered rock at the base of the falls, where you'll have to move around a bit to get a clear view of the cascade through the thick overhanging foliage.  The falls are only about 15' in height but the setting and the large shallow pool at its base create a scene far more beautiful than its size may imply.  Scrambling back up to the main trail you should also be able to easily locate the faint trail to the crest of the falls which provides another stunning vantage point from which to enjoy this wonderful little cascade.

After Graveley Falls you'll continue north on the Graveley Mill Shoals Road for another undulating, winding half-mile back to the junction with the Gordon Mountain Road where the loop portion of the hike began.  A couple hundred feet farther will bring you to the left turn onto the Connector Trail, the hop or wade across the South Prong Glady Fork and the remaining short and easy walk back to the White Oak Bridge Trailhead.  Overall this is a wonderful little stretch of the legs.  Not overly taxing it's a great introductory hike for Headwaters State Forest.  Most of the natural environments commonly seen within the property are on display here as well as what is sure to become one of Headwaters most popular highlights, that being Graveley Falls.  You could certainly just make the quick 2-mile out-and-back to the falls rather than the whole loop described here but then, in my opinion, you'd miss out on what I consider Headwaters most notable resource...solitude.  In the warmer months you're not likely to visit the falls alone but I can almost guarantee you won't see a soul on the far side of Gordon Mountain.  That's a rare treat indeed in a region where easy-to-reach-yet-quiet tracts of forest are harder and harder to come by.  That said I'll let you see for yourself.  It's now my pleasure to present my hike of the Gordon Mountain/Graveley Falls Lollipop at Headwaters State Forest.  As always, I hope you ENJOY!!   


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.088287, -82.765058


Route Type:  Lollipop + spur      Difficulty:  MODERATE (Petzoldt Rating:  4.30 )

Hike Length:  3.4 miles                Hike Duration:  1:45

Trailhead Temp:  60'F                 Trail Traffic:  NONE!!

Min. Elevation:  2,550'                  Max. Elevation:  2,990'

Total Vertical Gain:  450'             Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  132'


Trails Used (blaze color)***:  Gordon Mountain Road (unblazed), Gordon Mountain Spur (unblazed), Graveley Mill Shoals Connector (unblazed), Graveley Mill Shoals Road (unblazed)


***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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