Art Loeb-Butter Gap-Long Branch Loop
The Art Loeb-Butter Gap-Long Branch Loop offers a pleasant and not-all-that-strenuous 10-mile dayhike through the relatively quiet east-central portion of the Pisgah Ranger District. Along this route one has the opportunity to walk high ridges, wander through rhododendron and laurel choked river valleys, and even stop by two waterfalls. It’s a wonderfully varied hike to say the least. The loop is located roughly between Cedar Rock and Pilot Mountain, just to the south of Forest Road 475 which provides access for the hike. Though this area does see a moderate amount of foot traffic (especially in the proximity of Cedar Rock and the two waterfalls highlighted) it is certainly quieter than other nearby trails. The only potential trouble you might run into is on the drive in. Forest Road 475 is a fairly busy dirt road so, after heavy rains or by the end of the summer season, it can be prone to deep ruts and extreme wash boarding (especially the portion to the west of Gloucester Gap). The road is technically passable to cars year-round but its changeable conditions are just something to keep in mind. Other than that this is a pretty easy loop to follow. A good map is always wise to have but the trails for the most part are well-traveled, well-blazed, and junctions are well-marked. This is a good one, as you’re about to see.
The best place to start this loop is from the Art Loeb Trailhead at Gloucester Gap. Gloucester Gap is located along Forest Road 475 about six miles west of U.S. 276 or 3.3-miles east from NC-215. There is no real parking area here so you just have to find a spot to pull off to the side of the road safely where you aren’t blocking traffic. The loop begins by heading south on the Art Loeb Trail from the gap. For the first 0.4-miles the trail ascends at a steady, moderate rate as it climbs the north slopes of Rich Mountain. It’s an easy climb and offers a great warm-up for the rest of the hike. Beyond Rich Mountain the trail drops to cross Cathey’s Creek Road (at 0.6-miles) and then begins a rolling journey along the crest of the wide ridge heading east towards Chestnut Mountain. There’s not much to see along this stretch but it is a pleasant walk through a beautiful hardwood forest underlain with the occasional laurel grove. Just beyond the 1.5-mile mark the Art Loeb swings around to climb Chestnut Mountain from the north. The climb is moderately steep but brief to the tree covered summit. There are still no views but, at least in the winter, good glimpses of neighboring Cedar Rock can be had. The descent off Chestnut is by far the steepest part of the hike, I personally was very relieved to be descending this stretch rather than the other way around. Over a 2/10-mile stretch the trail drops nearly 300 feet. Beyond that the descent moderates and then the trail begins a short easy climb to the Art Loeb’s west junction with the Butter Gap Trail, at just over 3-miles. Here you have two pretty much equal options. The Butter Gap and Art Loeb both continue east from this point but rejoin once again at Butter Gap itself a quarter-mile later. I followed the Butter Gap Trail on this hike but it honestly doesn’t matter as you end up in the same place over the same distance.
Butter Gap is a major trail junction where the Art Loeb, Butter Gap, and a well-used but unmarked trail to climbing areas on Cedar Rock all converge. There’s good signage so it shouldn’t be too confusing. To continue the hike I’d now leave the Art Loeb for good by turning north, downhill, and staying on the Butter Gap Trail. The first third of a mile involves a moderately steep descent before, as valley widens, the descent becomes much more gradual. This is a pleasantly easy part of the hike as the trail surroundings alternate between streamside rhododendron groves and open mixed pine-hardwood forest. At 1.6-miles from Butter Gap, Grogan Creek Falls appears through the foliage to the right of the trail and a short but steep scramble path leads to its base. Grogan Creek Falls isn’t huge by any standard, perhaps 15-feet high, but what it lacks for in size it makes up for in form as the stream spreads out in a thin veil as it cascades down a steep rippled ledge. As the rough halfway point in the hike the falls are a perfect place to stop and relax before continuing on with the final half of the loop. After Grogan Creek Falls the trail resumes its downhill grade for another 4/10-mile where it reaches the well-marked junction with the eastern end of the Long Branch Trail.
The Long Branch Trail begins by heading up and over the low ridge separating the drainages of Grogan and Searcy Creeks, which it crosses via a collapsing footbridge about a quarter-mile from the Butter Gap Trail. Beyond Searcy Creek the trail at first remains fairly flat but soon begins a gradual winding climb of the pine-covered ridge to the north. One mile from the Butter Gap Trail, the Long Branch Trail breaks out into an open clearing and crosses Forest Road 5095. Here, you have a choice. On my hike I decided to include a side trip down 5095, to the north, to see nearby Long Branch Falls. This is completely optional and, if you decide not to, will save a mile of extra walking. If the falls is something you want to see, reaching it is easy. Simply walk the half-mile down F.R. 5095 (which is gated at its lower end so don’t worry about vehicles) to the point where it crosses Long Branch and the falls can be seen high above back through the trees. Just beyond the crossing an obvious spur trail leads a very steep 0.1-mile up to the most impressive and uppermost portion of the cascade. I can’t say that Long Branch is as pretty as Grogan Creek but it is certainly worth the little bit of extra effort required to see it. After Long Branch Falls simply walk the half-mile back up F.R. 5095 to the Long Branch Trail and make a right to continue following it west. The next 4/10-mile is the worst of the hike (in my opinion) as the trail embarks on a moderate climb through dense rhododendron via what amounts to an eroded trench. At the top of the climb you might get a quick glimpse of Looking Glass Rock to the northeast through the trees before dropping back down the far side of the ridge into the broad valley of Long Branch itself. Just under 2-miles from the Butter Gap Trail Long Branch is crossed via yet another bridge which likely isn’t long for this world. Just beyond the crossing a T-junction is reached where Cemetery Loop Trail breaks right and the Long Branch Trail continues left. From this point it’s a three-quarter mile, mostly flat, walk to the end of the trail back at Forest Road 475. To close the loop make a left uphill for the final 6/10-mile road walk along 475 back to Gloucester Gap.
As stated in the intro I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. Despite its length it never felt all that strenuous and it sports just enough variety to keep things interesting along the way. A couple nice waterfalls along the way helps immensely as well. Overall I’d say this hike is suitable for pretty much anyone who deems a 10-mile walk to be within their realm of possibility. So, without further ado, I present a hike of the Art Loeb-Butter Gap-Long Branch Loop. As always, I hope you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.265924, -82.846794
Route Type: Loop + spur Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 9.8 miles Hike Duration: 4:15
Trailhead Temp: 30'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,640' Max. Elevation: 3,688'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,500' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 153'
Trails Used (blaze color): Art Loeb (white), Butter Gap (blue), Forest Road 5095 (unblazed), Long Branch (orange), Long Branch Falls Spur (unblazed)