Bent Creek -- Little Hickory Top Loop (5-3-19)
Bent Creek Experimental Forest encompasses a 6,000-acre tract of land within Pisgah National Forest just to the southwest of the city of Asheville. Established in 1925, it is the oldest experimental forest in the Eastern United States. The purpose of the forest is that of a providing a living laboratory to better understand and implement management, conservation, restoration, and sustainability practices. Thankfully, while important to scientific research, Bent Creek is still openly available to the public for recreation purposes. On the downside of this is its proximity to the Asheville metro area. The miles of multi-use trails and forest roads see some of the heaviest foot and bike traffic in the entire National Forest. It’s a beautiful area, to be sure, just don’t head to Bent Creek expecting solitude. What you will find is a fantastic landscape of heavily forested hills, trees in places of impressively large size, all crisscrossed by pristine mountain streams. This particular hike would be my first foray onto the network of trails and roads which access the northern side of the valley occupied by Bent Creek Experimental Forest. The route loops up from Forest Road 479 to the major trail hub of Ingles Field Gap which lies along the crest of the ridge which forms the northern boundary of the Forest. I’ve dubbed this the Little Hickory Top Loop in reference to the small peak which the hike spends most of its time in the vicinity of and for one of the major trails along the route. Not too hard or to long I found this a great introductory hike for this portion of Bent Creek.
I began the hike from the small pull-off on Forest Road 479, located directly across from the lower end of gated Forest Road 479F. The first portion of the loop involves a gradual ascent through the woods, for about ¾-miles, along 479F to its junction with the Little Hickory Top Trail. Making a left onto the Little Hickory Top Trail (which follows the route of F.R. 479F1 initially) the climb soon gets a bit more serious. Though only a half-mile from Ingles Field Gap by straight-line distance, the Little Hickory Top Trail embarks on a meandering 2.5-mile journey up to that same point on the ridge. The nice part about the trail taking its time is that the grade never gets overly strenuous…also, spending a bit of extra time wandering the forests of Bent Creek is never a bad thing. About halfway up the Little Hickory Top Trail you’ll start passing a series of openings created by recent logging operations. Most are small enough that they don’t offer up any scenery but a couple provide some limited views of the surrounding ridges. Just over three miles into the hike the climbing ends at the busy Ingles Field Gap. I wasn’t prepared for the crowd I encountered here but was quickly clued into just how major a trail junction this was. If you’re like me you probably won’t want to linger here but, before you continue on I would recommend searching out the faint unsigned path leading north from the junction. It’s a bit overgrown but leads to a nice, albeit thorny, viewpoint off the north side of the ridge.
Descend from Ingles Field Gap by the trail of the same name, which drops off the south side of the ridge from the east end of the gap. You’ll notice the descent is a bit steeper than the climb up the ridge earlier was. Thus, the reason for hiking the loop in the direction I did. After 2/3-mile you’ll reach another junction, this time with the Ingles Field Connector Trail which cuts sharply back to the right (south). The moderately steep descent continues along the Connector before, a quarter-mile later, you’ll emerge once again at Forest Road 479F (yes, the same road from earlier just farther up the mountain). Turning right on 479F you’ll begin a half-mile gradual descent to a point not far above where you left the road earlier. Here are located a couple of picnic tables with the Boyd Branch Trail entering the woods on the left. The Boyd Branch Trail is almost flat when compared to what precedes it, descending only gradually down the broad drainage through which its namesake stream flows. There are few glimpses to be had of tiny Boyd Branch itself but the forest here is once again particularly beautiful. After an easy 2/3-mile you’ll emerge once again from the trees back onto Forest Road 479 which you drove in on. Making a right here takes you a quick quarter-mile back where you started.
As I wrote earlier I consider this a great introductory hike to Bent Creek Experimental Forest. You get a taste of pretty much every type of environment you’ll encounter on any one of its many trails. Traffic can admittedly be a bit heavy and, if you’re on foot, you’ll probably be in the minority as two wheeled visitors are much more frequently encountered. If the busyness doesn’t bother you, however, and you need a quick, moderate workout in the woods then this hike might be for you. Enough said though, let’s get to walking…here you go, a quick tour of the Little Hickory Top Loop in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest. As always…I hope you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.481711, -82.635359
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: MODERATE
Hike Length: 5.8 miles Hike Duration: 2:15
Trailhead Temp: 65'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,180' Max. Elevation: 2,950'
Total Vertical Gain: 900' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 155'
Trails Used (blaze color): Boyd Branch (blue), Ingles Fields Gap (blue), Ingles Fields Connector (orange), Little Hickory Top (yellow)