Sassafras Mountain -- 3,553'

Headwaters State Forest - Whiteoak/Sassafras Mountain Loop

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...which remained open as it is still all but undiscovered. 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 would be my most ambitious excursion to date, though still hardly as difficult as some other hikes I'd completed.  The plan would be to make a loop hike incorporating The Clearcuts Road, Whiteoak Mountain Road (see notes below concerning trail names), and the Foothills Trail Spur as well as an out-and-back along the way to the highpoint of South Carolina (as well as Headwaters State Forest for that matter)...Sassafras Mountain.  The jump-off point for the day would be at 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.  The right hand road is what I'm calling The Clearcuts Road.  This old forest road comprises the first 1.5-miles of the hike as it climbs from the trailhead to the Blue Ridge Escarpment and its junction with the Foothills Trail Spur.  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 where you're headed now.

If you're like me it will feel refreshing to now be stepping out onto a true footpath.  The Foothills Trail Spur is heading in a southward direction at this point, following the undulating crest of the ridge between here and Whiteoak Mountain.  You'll get a good feel for what your day will be like on this trail right off the bat.  Steep descents followed by steep ascents will be the rule rather than the exception between here and Sassafras Mountain.  As the trail runs right along the state line please don't wander off the trail to the left.  This is Greenville Watershed land and is strictly off-limits.  Also, you'll probably notice evidence of recent fire along this section.  In 2016 a devastating wildfire tore through this portion of the mountains.  The bases of most trees remain scarred and charred stumps are frequently seen as well.  A pleasant result of the fires though is how clean and open the forest floor now is.  Fresh new life can be seen covering the ground and, despite evidence of past destruction, nature is recovering in a beautiful way.  A bit over a mile after turning onto the Foothills Trail Spur, just before making the last short climb to the top of Whiteoak Mountain, keep a sharp eye out to your right.  If you do you should be able to make out a clear connector path leading a short distance to another forest road, the Whiteoak Mountain Road.  Make note of this spot as you'll need to turn here on the return.  This is where the out-and-back portion of the hike to Sassafras Mountain begins.  Take stock of your energy reserves.  If you're already wearing out it would probably be a good idea to skip Sassafras.  It's only three miles there and back but there's a good 1,000+ feet of vertical gain to overcome as well in that distance.  Without the side trip this is only a moderately difficult hike.  With Sassafras it is most definitely VERY hard.

If you've decided to continue as I did on to Sassafras a short climb past the connector path junction finds you at the top of the broad and thickly wooded summit of Whiteoak Mountain.  Prep yourself...this is where things are about to get a bit nutty.  It's only about a half-mile walk from the point where the trail drops off the top of Whiteoak to the bottom of Sassafras Gap, but you'll be losing around 500' of elevation along the way.  It may not seem terribly bad at first but, the closer you get to the gap, the steeper things get.  The final drop to the gap is almost just that...a drop.  Watch your step carefully...a slip could see you tumbling quite a ways.  Upon reaching Sassafras Gap (more like Sassafras Trench) you'll be staring up at an equally steep grade climbing out of it.  Again, the next stretch of the hike is a leg burner.  It's another 3/4-miles from here to the top of Sassafras but now you have over 800' of climbing to do.  A reminder have to hike all this in reverse on the way back!  The climb up Sassafras is thus incredibly steep and all but unrelenting.  There are precious few breaks and there are NO switchbacks to aid in the ascent.  It may almost seem like a mirage once the trail reaches the summit ridge and suddenly flattens out.  The trail passes a Headwaters State Forest kiosk and then immediately arrives at the summit parking lot.  A right turn takes you up the wheelchair accessible path to the summit tower, only a couple hundred yards away.  Up until only a few short years ago the summit of Sassafras wasn't all that impressive.  Views were restricted with the best actually coming from below the summit at a viewing deck off the end of the parking lot.  All that has changed now.  The summit has been cleared and a surprisingly tasteful tower has been built to get visitors above the trees.  The result is stunning.  The unobstructed views of the high peaks of North Carolina are incredible.  On a clear day you can even see all the way to the Black Mountains!  To the south the views are stunning as well.  The sweeping panorama overlooks the foothills to the forests and lakes of the South Carolina Piedmont beyond.  A visit to the crown of South Carolina (and Headwaters State Forest) is now one definitely not to miss! 

After taking in the summit scenery continue following the loop trail back down to the parking area and pick up the Foothills Trail Spur heading back to Whiteoak Mountain.  The return trip through Sassafras Gap is only marginally better, if only because the return climb to Whiteoak involves 200 vertical feet less of climbing.  Once back to the connector path to the north of Whiteoak's summit cross over to Whiteoak Mountain Road and make a left to continue the loop portion of the hike begun earlier.  The first half mile of the WMR is an undulating walk along the crest of a narrow ridge extending north from Whiteoak.  The grades are nothing like what has come before in this hike so the few climbs there are pass with little difficulty.  At the end of the ridge the trail veers left to then begin a moderately steep descent into the valley below.  The route is straightforward and without any excitement to speak of.  One-third mile after leaving the ridge the lower end of the connector trail/road with The Clearcuts Road is passed on the right.  Beyond that intersection the route gets ever more winding as the road makes its final descent to the valley.  You may notice a few other overgrown forest roads branching off here and there but the correct way forward is never in doubt.  You'll know you're near the end when you pass a large clearing on the right where the road cuts left and immediately descends to the South Prong Glady Fork.  On my visit, at normal water levels, I was able to make it across with one healthy leap.  Just keep it in the back of your mind, however, that you may have to ford if levels are up at all.  A short climb through a beautiful pine stand quickly thereafter brings you to an old shed, a red metal gate, and then to Glady Fork Road.  To finish the loop make a right and simply walk the 4/10-mile downhill along Glady Fork Road back to the start.

This is a spectacular hike, perhaps the best I've yet taken at Headwaters State Forest.  The solitude, the challenge, and the scenery on this hike are all things I much enjoyed.  If you go just MAKE SURE to take a map.  I've found the Pisgah Map Company's Blue Wall Map to be the best, especially in conjunction with the official NC Forest Service Map.  Other than that I think I'll just let the pictures do the rest of the talking.  I therefore now have the pleasure of presenting my hike of what I'm dubbing the Whiteoak/Sassafras Mountain always I hope you ENJOY!!                                           

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.088287, -82.765058

Route Type:  Loop + Spur           Difficulty:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  12.20 )

Hike Length:  8.4 miles                Hike Duration:  4:00

Trailhead Temp:  50'F                 Trail Traffic:  1-5 people

Min. Elevation:  2,700'                  Max. Elevation:  3,554'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,900'           Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  226'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Foothills Trail Spur (blue), Summit Loop, (unblazed), The Clearcuts Road (unblazed), Whiteoak Mountain 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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