Bent Creek - Rice Pinnacle Double Loop (5-6-19)
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 foray would be into the northeastern corner of Bent Creek. Originally this was intended to be two separate hikes…one up to the ridge and a much shorter one below…but, feeling motivated this day I decided why not throw them together for a one-shot double loop. So that’s what I did. I began with the short lower loop which utilizes the Hardtimes Connector Trail as well as a portion of the Deer Lake Lodge Trail. After that 2+ mile warmup I’d then head up towards the ridge, adding another 8-miles as I used all or portions of the Wolf Branch, Ledford, and Ingles Field Gap Trails as well as the North Boundary Road atop the ridge itself. It’s an ambitious dayhike, but it’s a pretty one…bringing you to parts of Bent Creek that, from what I saw, are slightly less visited than others nearby.
The hike begins from the Rice Pinnacle Trailhead, one of the main trailheads at Bent Creek and the easternmost. Starting west from the large parking area via the orange-blazed Deer Lake Lodge Trail the paved path descends gently for a bit over a tenth of a mile before crossing scenic Wolf Branch beyond which the Hardtimes Connector splits left. Turning onto the Hardtimes Connector Trail you’ll soon cross busy Forest Road 481 and then embark on a rolling journey, through a forest of mixed pine and hardwood, for 2/3-mile to the west end of the Connector at the Hardtimes Road. Turning right on the Hardtimes Road you’ll soon arrive at the popular Hardtimes Trailhead where you’ll begin the only true (very short) road-walk of the hike. Turn left onto Forest Road 481, walk along it for just over 1/10-mile and bear right onto gravel Forest Road 479. In 2/10-mile the large Ledford Branch Trailhead will be on your right, at the lower end of which is a privy where the western end of the Deer Lake Lodge Trail is located. At this point you’ll head back east for just under a mile, climbing for a short time and then descending again, to a spot where the Deer Lake Lodge Trail makes a hard right south and the Wolf Branch Trail heads north. Turning north on Wolf Branch the route remains level for a short distance to a point where the trail turns left off the old road bed just prior to said roads crossing of Wolf Creek. At this point the path becomes a traditional footpath gaining elevation steadily but easily first through thick groves of rhododendron and then a pristine cove forest. At the ¾-mile mark of the Wolf Branch Trail a wide T-junction is reached where the Ledford Branch Trail breaks right.
Turning onto the Ledford Branch Trail you get a sense that you’re now in an area that, by Bent Creek standards, is somewhat less visited. You’ll shortly reach an unsigned split. The Ledford Branch Trail is the path on the left going uphill. After another half-mile of easy climbing through beautiful woodlands you’ll emerge at Forest Road 479E. The next portion of the hike is again on roads, but these roads are gated at their lower end so the only traffic you’ll encounter will be non-motorized. Turn right on 479E, go a couple hundred yards, turn left on Forest Road 491, go another couple hundred yards, then arrive at a split where Forest Road 485 breaks uphill left. This is the east end of what is known as the North Boundary Road, which runs west along the crest of the ridge defining Bent Creek’s northern boundary, for 6.5-miles to Yellow Gap. The first mile along the North Boundary Road, from 491 to Mease Gap, involves the steepest hiking of the day. Once you complete the winding climb to Mease the trail/road turns more westerly to follow along the north slope of the ridge. Pushing towards the 3,000-foot mark you now might be hoping for some views to enjoy. Unfortunately, the tall forest surrounding you only offers brief tantalizing glimpses of what might be seen from up here could one get above the canopy. Two-thirds of a mile from Mease Gap the trail/road passes through another low point in the ridge crest known as Sheep Gap, and then in another half-mile you’ll reach the highest elevation of the day just west of Wolf Mountain. The North Boundary Road now starts descending for the first time, heading towards Ingles Field Gap which is only another third of a mile away. Just before reaching the gap keep an eye out through the trees to your right. At a certain point you’ll get a sense there might be a view a short distance through the woods in that direction. In fact, there’s a large clear-cut area along these northern slopes just north and west of Ingles Field Gap. By making a short hundred yard bushwhack to the north from the trail before reaching the gap you’ll get to enjoy the only long-distance views of the entire hike. It’s a great place to pause for a break before beginning the walk back down from the ridge.
Ingles Field Gap is a major junction. Unless it’s a rainy day like when I visited there will probably be quite a few people passing through with you or just relaxing around the edges. On the left, cutting sharply back downhill as you arrive at the gap, is the Ingles Field Gap Trail which forms the next portion of the hike. Descending moderately, this is a busy trail so watch for bike traffic as you enjoy your beautiful woodland surroundings. Two-thirds of a mile down the grade eases up as the Ingles Field Connector Trail is passed on the right. The next mile is fairly uneventful as the trail gradually descends as it winds its way along the side of the ridge. There are some impressive stands of trees along this section, however, which helps the scenery stay a bit more enjoyable. The Ingles Field Gap Trail reaches it lower (western) end at Forest Road 479E a bit west of where you walked it earlier. Turn right (downhill) on the road and in 2/10-mile you’ll spot the Wolf Branch Trail splitting off to the left. Veering onto the Wolf Branch you’ll enjoy another half-mile of gentle, forested downhill walking back to the junction with the Ledford Branch Trail where this upper loop began six miles ago. To complete the hike turn right to retrace your steps down the lower part of the Wolf Branch Trail from earlier and back to the Deer Lake Lodge Trail junction. At this junction head straight and soon you’ll pass a now-dry pond and the old dam which once held its waters back. A short time after that you’ll reach the Hardtimes Connector junction again, bearing left to re-cross Wolf Creek, and quickly arrive back at the Rice Pinnacle Trailhead. Hike complete.
This hike might not be for everyone, I admit. It’s fairly long, at over 10-miles, and doesn’t really boast any eye-popping scenery to possibly justify the effort. What it does offer, though, is an extended visit deep into the beautiful forests of Bent Creek. Maybe you have to be a bit of an ecological nut like me to appreciate it as much but I have a feeling that, if you visit, you won’t leave unappreciative of the subtle beauty this piece of woodland offers. That said, I now invite you to join me as I embark on a lengthy double-loop hike from the Rice Pinnacle Trailhead in the northeastern section of Bent Creek Experimental Forest. Despite it essentially being one long walk in the woods I still hope that, as always, you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.496437, -82.615737
Route Type: Loop + Lollipop Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 10.4 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 65'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,120' Max. Elevation: 3,050'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,100' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 106'
Trails Used (blaze color): Deer Lake Lodge (orange), Hardtimes Connector (orange), Hardtimes Road (unblazed), Ingles Field Gap (blue), Ledford Branch (blue), North Boundary Road (unblazed), Wolf Branch (yellow)