Big Creek/Laurel Mountain Upper Loop Hike Route Map

Big Creek/Laurel Mountain Upper Loop

The Laurel Mountain and Big Creek Trails don’t lend themselves well to dayhikes. Without the aid of two vehicles their length, difficulty, and lack of connector trails mean that to complete them in their entirety multiple trips will most likely be required. Two of my previous trips…one a loop including the Laurel Mountain Trail and an out-and-back of the lower portion of the Big Creek Trail left me all but the upper portions of the these trails to complete. This hike would remedy that. It would be a tough one, with lots of elevation change and plenty of steep, rough trail but upon completing it I would have fit one of the major troublesome pieces in my near complete Pisgah 400 puzzle.

The hike would begin (and end) at the Buck Springs Overlook, off the Blue Ridge Parkway near the trailhead for Mount Pisgah. Here the Mountains-to-Sea Trail can be picked up heading west for the first short portion of the loop. The going starts easy as the MST winds along the edge of the ridge, passing by the nice viewpoint at the site of the old Buck Spring Lodge, and quickly arriving at its junction with the upper end of the Laurel Mountain Trail on the left at about the 1/3-mile mark. A weathered sign denotes the start of the Laurel Mountain Trail as it begins a steady descent along the steep eastern slopes of Little Bald Mountain. The next mile of hiking passes through a harsh environment of high elevation hardwoods and rhododendron. Along the way the trail passes through a few moss-covered rock slides from long ago before emerging at a non-descript point atop the ridge known as Turkey Spring Gap. Here, at an unmarked junction, the Laurel Mountain Connector Trail arrives after its short descent from the nearby Pilot Rock Trail. Beyond Turkey Spring Gap the Laurel Mountain Trail continues its descent…at first easy and then quite steep as it arrives at the amusingly-named Good Enough Gap in another 8/10-mile. Here another unmarked junction is reached. While the Laurel Mountain Trail continues straight ahead another footpath is easily spotted heading into the woods off the north side of the ridge. This is the unofficial/unmaintained footpath connecting the Laurel Mountain Trail and the Big Creek Trail that the route now turns onto.

The connector path is surprisingly easy to follow. Though many maps don’t even show it, it’s definitely not an ‘unknown’ trail by any means. In fact, in researching this hike, I discovered that in recent years the USFS has begun studies to eventually turn the connector into an officially maintained trail at some point. Key words there are ‘at some point’ so don’t expect it to happen in the near term at least. It doesn’t take long for the path to find the edge of the ridge at which point it tips-off on a crazy steep descent to the valley below. Over the next ¾-mile the connector loses over 1,000-feet of elevation…an incline equaled by only a few other trails in the District. Luckily the terrain isn’t overly rugged so, by watching your steps, the descent shouldn’t be all that dangerous. The grade finally eases some as the path turns to follow the floor of the valley eastward. The cove forest you pass through along this stretch is incredibly beautiful and really impresses upon you the remoteness of your location. The connector path hops across Big Creek itself before reaching its lower end at the Big Creek Trail, a short distance later. At normal to low flow the crossing is easy, after a good rain however it could be problematic if not dangerous. Upon reaching the Big Creek Trail I highly advise taking a good long break down by the nearby creek where some pretty cascades can be enjoyed. You’ll need the rest for the next part of the hike.

The connector path joins the Big Creek Trail right at the point where it transforms from a pleasant creek-side walk into a grinding ridge climb. Immediately heading west from the junction you’ll begin to enjoy the type of uphill grade which will continue for the next two miles. There’s over 1,800 feet of vertical to regain between here and the trails upper end at the Blue Ridge Parkway. To make things worse there’s nary a cascade, nor a stream, nor an overlook the entire climb to distract you from the job at hand. It’s a straight-up grind, I won’t sugar-coat it. The first half of the climb stays below the south side of the ridge while the upper half generally follows along the crest. Enjoy the few brief points where there’s flat ground to regain your breath and rejoice when the final bit of flat trail at last spits you out along the asphalt of the Blue Ridge Parkway, right alongside the south end of the Little Pisgah Ridge Tunnel. After another good long rest you’ll now turn left to follow the Parkway for a quarter-mile south. As road-walks go this stretch is about as good as it gets, with expansive views looking back down into the valley from which you just climbed much of the way. At the end of the road walk is yet another tunnel, this one the Buck Spring, where an overgrown scramble path leads up above the tunnel opening on the left. You’ll want to stop at the top of the tunnel as well as there are even more spectacular views to be enjoyed of the Big Creek Valley far below with the Blue Ridge Parkway snaking away into the trees high above it. Departing the top of the tunnel is the wide, flat path which will close the days loop in another ¼-mile back at Buck Springs Overlook.

Overall, I can’t really recommend this hike to anyone other than hardcore hikers looking for quieter corners of the forest or to folks like me pursuing the Pisgah 400 Challenge. Aside from the short stretches at the beginning and end of the hike atop the ridge there are no views to be had and much of the route is incredibly steep, be it ascending or descending. If you do decide to go, however, I can promise you solitude…particularly on the portion of the loop down into and along the valley floor. Just prepare to earn that solitude…that’s all I can say. With that I now present you with my loop hike connecting the upper portions of the Big Creek and Laurel Mountain Trails…as always, ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.415190, -82.748556

Route Type:  Loop                      Difficulty:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  10.50 )

Hike Length:  6.3 miles                Hike Duration:  3:00

Trailhead Temp:  60'F                 Trail Traffic:  1-5 people

Min. Elevation:  2,950'                  Max. Elevation:  5,000'

Total Vertical Gain:  2,100'           Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  333'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Big Creek (yellow), Big Creek/Laurel Mountain Connector (unblazed), Buck Spring Tunnel Bypass (unblazed), Laurel Mountain (blue), Mountains-to-Sea (white)


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