Bent Creek - Sleepy Gap/Chestnut Cove Loop
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 would be my sixth and final hike in a series designed to complete all the trails within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest. Unlike the previous five, however, this one doesn’t actually start within the boundaries of Bent Creek but rather up along the Blue Ridge Parkway running along the forests southeastern boundary. Beginning at the Sleepy Gap parking area/overlook at Milepost 397.3 this four mile loop drops into Bent Creek via the Sleepy Gap Trail, turns to follow the popular Explorer Loop Trail, ascends back to the ridge via the maintained Chestnut Cove and an un-maintained unofficial footpath, and then returns to the start via the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. As with most hikes within Bent Creek the forest is the star of the show here. With the exception of a couple overlooks on the Parkway there are no views to be had. The forest is enough, though, in my opinion and this loop explores a somewhat quieter corner of Bent Creek making the woodlands seem all the more wild and magnificent.
As stated, the hike would begin from the Sleepy Gap Overlook at Milepost 397.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs along the edge of the parking area with trailhead heading north and south. For this hike begin at the southern trailhead. At the MST marker post go straight ahead, dropping down a short flight of stairs and immediately make a left turn to begin the Sleepy Gap Trail. The Sleepy Gap Trail provides your entrance into Bent Creek On this hike. Though less than a mile long, the Sleepy Gap Trail is a good starting workout for the legs as it descends over 500 vertical feet along its length. Passing through thick stands of mountain laurel and along fern carpeted forested hillsides this trail also provides a nice overview of the type of scenery to be had the rest of the loop. The Sleepy Gap Trail ends at its junction with the Explorer Loop Trail, where to continue the route you’ll need to make a left turn on the latter trail. The Explorer Loop Trail, like its name implies, is a popular path which loops through the southeastern portion of Bent Creek. For the next 2/3-mile the route remains fairly level as the Explorer Loop winds its way along the north-facing hillside. At the point where the Explorer Loop makes a sharp turn back to the left this loop continues ahead on the Explorer Loop Connector Trail, which cuts across the southern mile of the Explorer Loop. The Connector Trail is only a couple hundred yards long, ending at its junction with gated Forest Road 479H where you’ll once again make a left back onto the Explorer Loop.
This is the point where you begin your climb back up to the ridge and the Parkway. The first stretch along 479H is easy but the grade steepens significantly once it leaves the roadway. The ascent up to the junction with the Chestnut Cove Trail is some of the steepest of the hike. The Chestnut Cove Trail breaks uphill to the right off the Explorer Loop about a half-mile walk south of the Connector Trail junction. Another short path, the Chestnut Cove basically connects the Explorer Loop with Forest Road 479M which runs along the ridge about a 1/3-mile away by foot. Arriving at F.R. 479M you’ve reached the most potentially confusing part of the hike. You want to turn right here along 479M. About 100-yards down the road, on the outside of a right-hand curve, you should be able to spot an obvious trail ascending the steep hillside above. This is the unofficial trail which ascends the rest of the way up Chestnut Cove, back to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at a point just north of Chestnut Cove Gap. Despite being an unofficial/unmaintained trail the path I’ve dubbed the ‘Chestnut Cove Connector’ looks to be well-used and is thus easy to follow. The initial climb the path makes from 479M is the steepest of the day, but this stretch is short and soon the climb becomes more moderate. The connector path is less than a half-mile long so, before you know it, you’ll be back atop the ridge at the MST.
The final leg of the loop follows the Mountains-to-Sea Trail northeast for just under a mile back to Sleepy Gap. A short distance after making the left on the MST from the connector path watch for a blue-blazed path on the right. This spur leads over to the nearby Chestnut Cove Overlook along the Parkway. It’s well worth the few hundred yards extra walking required to see it. Between Chestnut Cove Overlook and Sleepy Gap is the final obstacle you’ll need to overcome…namely the 300+ foot vertical climb and then steep descent of Truckwheel Mountain. Unfortunately there are no views to be had as a reward from the summit but the climb does keep things interesting from a work-out standpoint right up until the end of the loop. After the hop over Truckwheel you’ll reappear where you started at the Sleepy Gap parking area. This is a nice, moderate hike. The mileage isn’t overwhelming and the vertical gain is just enough to make you feel like you accomplished something without being overwhelming. Definitely study or take along a good map before heading out as there are a number of crucial turns you need to make along the way. Otherwise, this is simply another pleasant day hike in Bent Creek and one I thoroughly enjoyed being the one which completed my tour of the Experimental Forest. So, without further ado, I present to you what I’ve dubbed the Sleepy Gap/Chestnut Cove Loop at Bent Creek. As always I hope you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.465811, -82.629303
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 4.0 miles Hike Duration: 1:30
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 2,350' Max. Elevation: 3,240'
Total Vertical Gain: 900' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 225'
Trails Used (blaze color): Chestnut Cove (yellow), Chestnut Cove Connector (unofficial, unblazed), Explorer Loop (yellow), Explorer Loop Alternate (yellow), Mountains-to-Sea (white), Sleepy Gap (red)