Avery Creek Valley Circuit
Late in 2018 I decided to pursue my next hiking goal of walking every trail in the Pisgah Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. Due to proximity and convenience the trails around the Avery Creek watershed were an obvious place to start working towards my self-imposed challenge. Thus it was, in November, I made my first foray onto the trail system of Avery Creek. Since that time I’d completed five enjoyable loop hikes…the Avery Creek-Buckwheat Knob Loop, the Coontree Loop, the Rich Mountain-Pink Beds Loop, the Perry Cove Loop, and the Twin Falls-Clawhammer Cove Loop. The only part of the Avery Creek trail system left to complete was a couple of paths leading up to and along the ridge forming the east flank of the valley…namely the Pressley Cove and Black Mountain Trails. Rather than making a long out-and-back hike to complete this section I decided a better and more enjoyable option would be to combine these trails with a couple others hiked previously and make a grand circuit of the entire ridge circling the Avery Creek Valley. It figured to be a fitting conclusion to my exploration of the trails in the area. The plan then was simple. I would ascend the east side of the valley via the Pressley Cove Trail and pick up the Black Mountain Trail heading north. I would follow the ridge crest north and then west passing over Black Mountain, Clawhammer Mountain, and Rich Mountain along the way. I’d then make my way south down the familiar western ridge of the valley, visiting scenic Overlook Rock for the fourth time in as many months, returning by way of the Buckwheat Knob and Bennett Gap Trails. In all it would be a bit over a 10-mile loop with a fairly considerable amount of elevation gain. Suitably strenuous, I thought, to make my final hike of my Avery Creek Tour feel like more of an accomplishment.
I began the days trek at a small pull-off along Forest Road 477 just across from the lower end of the Pressley Cove Trail. This is at a point about 1.3-miles up F.R. 477 from its southern junction with U.S. 276. I decided to do the loop in a counter-clockwise direction because completing the climb of Pressley Cove, and Black Mountain thereafter, would get almost three-quarters of the elevation gain required on this hike out of the way early, while my legs were fresh. Pressley Cove warmed me up quick. Almost from the get-go it poses a moderately steep and all-but-continuous climb as it ascends its namesake cove. Over 900-feet are gained in its one mile length. It’s a pretty climb though, especially the upper half, as the trail follows closely the pretty stream which drains this narrow valley. The Pressley Cove Trail reaches its upper terminus at Forest Road 5099, which is gated at its lower end so only sees hiker and biker traffic. At 5099 I’d make a right to ascend the rest of the way to Pressley Gap where I’d pick up my next path of the day, the Black Mountain Trail. Pressley Gap is a good spot to take a breather as another big climb lies just ahead…from here to the top of Black Mountain, a distance of about a mile, the route climbs another 900-feet. A downside of this stretch, other than the steepness, is that this is a much more popular stretch of trail and as such is much more eroded an unsightly than other parts of the hike. Watch out for bikers as well, you won’t have much time to jump out of the way if one comes careening around a corner without warning. At just over a mile from Pressley Gap the grueling climb ends as the trail reaches its high point (elevation-wise) as it curves around, and just below, the west side of Black Mountain’s summit. Now the route begins travelling the narrow ridge connecting Black with Clawhammer Mountain just to the north. This is an enjoyable stretch of trail, with minor elevation changes, and two overlooks to enjoy along the way. The second overlook, located just before the climb up Clawhammer, offers up a stunning panorama of just about the entire Avery Creek watershed along with the countless mountains farther to the north and west.
Continuing north from the overlook the route now climbs up over Clawhammer Mountain (a minor climb compared to what has come before) with no views to speak of from the thickly wooded summit. Heading north from Clawhammer the trail now embarks on a fairly steep descent of about 600-feet in ¾-mile to Buckhorn Gap. At Buckhorn Gap, its like-named footpath crosses the Black Mountain Trail. To continue on the loop I’d be headed straight ahead, staying on the Black Mountain Trail as it now begins its curve around the north side of the Avery Creek valley. About a quarter mile north of Buckhorn Gap the trail passes the Buckhorn Gap Shelter, an AT-style shelter which can sleep up to about six people. Beyond the shelter another moderate climb begins as the trail ascends the ridge to the north of the valley which is capped by Rich Mountain about a mile-and-a-half farther on. This is a fairly non-descript bit of trail, there are no real views to speak of and the forest changes little along the ridge. The route flattens out briefly atop the ridge where the Black Mountain and Barnett Branch Trails meet, the location marking the rough halfway point of this loop. After climbing up over wooded Rich Mountain the Black Mountain Trail descends once again, reaching its northern terminus at Club Gap.
Club Gap marks the meeting point of the Black Mountain, Avery Creek, Club Gap, and the Buckwheat Knob Trails. To keep on with the loop I’d be following the latter, which begins directly across from where the Black Mountain Trail arrives. The Buckwheat Knob Trail begins with an easy ascent up the north side of its namesake summit and marks the point where the loop now starts heading back in a southerly direction. I found this part of the hike to go quickly as, after topping out on wooded Buckwheat Knob, the trail begins a quick descent to Bennett Gap by a combination of a couple steep drops combined with easy ridge top walking. Bennett Gap marks the southern end of the Buckwheat Knob Trail, 1.5-miles from where it departed Club Gap. Here the route crosses F.R. 477 where it breaks the crest of the ridge to the east of Avery Creek. Across the road form where the Buckwheat Knob Trail arrives you’ll see a metal gate, alongside which the Bennett Gap Trail begins…the trail which will complete the days loop. The route climbs slightly from Bennett Gap, crosses an interesting and out-of-place ridge top field, then crosses the knife edge ridge containing Overlook Rock about 2/3-mile later. Overlook Rock (an unofficial name I borrowed from other trip reports) is made up of an upper and lower overlook. The upper one is the nicer, with views looking west over the heart of the Pisgah Ranger District and some of its more famous peaks…first and foremost being Looking Glass Rock. The lower overlook is more restricted but still nice and provides a more northerly view of the towering nearby Pisgah Ridge. Less than a quarter-mile past Overlook Rock the trail makes a steep, rocky descent to Saddle Gap, passing the Perry Cove Trail, and begins the final significant climb of the day up past Coontree Mountain.
After passing just to the east of the summit of Coontree the Bennett Gap Trail drops to a small saddle and begins a coinciding journey along the ridge, for a half-mile, with the Coontree Loop Trail. You’ll note the blazes along this stretch temporarily change from red to blue. After making a moderately steep descent down a severely eroded stretch of trail to Coontree Gap the two trails part ways again, where for this loop you’ll want to stay left with the Bennett Gap Trail. The remaining part of the journey is all downhill and an easy walk. It’s an enjoyable way to end the long day. Within a mile of leaving Coontree Gap Avery Creek soon begins to be heard and then comes alongside as the Bennett Gap Trail reaches its lower (southern) end at Forest Road 477, only about a hundred yards down from the pull-off where the loop began. Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable hike. It was just strenuous enough, with a couple nice overlooks thrown in, to make whole journey worthwhile and provide a sense of accomplishment. I found it a perfectly fitting way to complete my exploration of the Avery Creek area. So, all that said, I now invite you on a circuit hike of the Avery Creek valley…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.305140, -82.739907
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: EXTREME
Hike Length: 10.9 miles Hike Duration: 4:45
Trailhead Temp: 55'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 2,300' Max. Elevation: 4,220'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,800' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 257'
Trails Used (blaze color): Bennett Gap (red), Black Mountain (white), Buckwheat Knob (yellow), Coontree Loop (blue), Forest Road 5099 (unblazed), Pressley Cove (orange)