Bradley Creek-Squirrel Gap-Laurel Creek Loop
The main statement that I can make up front regarding this hike is that you better like getting wet. Over the course of this lollipop-style loop you’ll be required to make twenty-four crossings of Bradley Creek, none of which are bridged and all of which are guaranteed wades. While this makes for a bit more difficult hike it does, however, result in a great deal of solitude along much of the route. The hike gets its name from the three main trails which comprise it...the Bradley Creek, Squirrel Gap, and Laurel Creek Trails. The Bradley Creek Trail, though, is the one the majority of the mileage is spent on and, predictably, the one where most of the fords need to be made. Despite the difficulties inherent in this hike I found it to be extremely enjoyable…if for no other reason than exploring a lesser-visited corner of Pisgah National Forest during early spring with warm-season greens just starting to fill the forest. From an elevation-gain standpoint it is also not all that difficult a loop. With the majority of the time spent along the valley floor following Bradley Creek the only major climb of the day will be the one up along the ridge to the Laurel Creek Trail near the midpoint of the hike. If you decide to tackle this one a final word of warning is to study and take along a good map. The northern two miles of the Bradley Creek Trail is poorly blazed, can be overgrown, and is where the majority of the fords are made. I found the route to be pretty straight forward but these three issues could conceivably cause difficulties that simply having a map would avoid. That said, let’s get on with this one shall we?
The most difficult part of this hike, from a route-finding standpoint, comes right at the start…namely, finding exactly where the start point is as there is no post (as of this writing) marking the trailhead. The trail departs south from Yellow Gap Road (F.R. 1206) just east of where it makes a tight bend over a small unnamed tributary of Bradley Creek, about 4/10-mile east of where it does the same across Slate Rock Creek. Park in one of the small pull-offs just up from the tributary then start walking uphill keeping a close eye out for the trail dropping steeply off the side of the hill just above where a metal culvert protrudes from beneath the road. If you found the right path you’ll immediately make a short but steep descent to a couple of large campsites alongside the creek. The trail heads downstream from here. Blazes are infrequent and/or faded but the route is easily followed. The first half-mile of the hike is a dry one as the Bradley Creek Trail bounces up and down along the side of the steep hill rising to the east of the creek. At 0.6-miles, however, the dryness ends at the first ford of Bradley Creek. Gauge how you feel about the water level here as this is about the easiest ford you’ll come to on the hike. If the water is high enough to make you nervous, turn back and save this hike for another day. If you cross, this is the first of ten such fords that will be made over the intervening 1.2-miles. Luckily the terrain along this stretch is pretty much flat so, aside from the numerous wades, the going is quite easy. The crossings are pretty straightforward…most are about knee-deep at normal levels and it’s usually easy to spot where the trail continues on the far side of the creek. In between crossings the trail is a bit overgrown, which testifies to the relative low-use the footpath sees. Another thing to remember about these first ten crossings is that all ten will have to be repeated on the hike out…just something to keep in mind.
Beyond the tenth ford of Bradley Creek the trail soon passes gated Forest Road 5015 and then crosses two large wildlife clearings. Near the south end of the first clearing keep a close eye on the treeline to your right and you should spot a post marking the lower end of the Yellow Creek Trail. I didn’t pay attention on my first pass and missed it. It was only on completing the loop later on, via Laurel Creek, that I discovered where the intersection was located. Beyond the second clearing the Bradley Creek trail makes another three fords of its namesake before reaching the intersection with the Riverside Trail on the left (east) at just over the three mile mark. Now you’ll get to dry off again for a bit. The trail now remains alongside the creek a short distance before turning to begin the first (and really, only) significant climb of the day up the valley of Pea Branch. For a little over a half-mile the trail climbs steadily and moderately to a point where the Bradley Creek Trail suddenly makes a hard left turn to the south. To continue the loop keep heading straight ahead, now onto the blue-blazed Squirrel Gap Trail. The climb resumes unabated for another 9/10-mile to the crest of the ridge at Mullinax Gap, a short distance past the intersection with the like-named Mullinax Trail. At Mullinax Gap the grade continues to ascend but at a much more gradual rate. In the winter there are some nice, though limited, views through the treetops of the ridges to the north on this stretch. In spring through autumn, however, it’s just a pretty, forested ridge-top walk. After 1.3-miles walking the Squirrel Gap Trail you’ll arrive at the high-point, elevation-wise, of the hike where the Laurel Creek Trail splits right to drop off the ridge to the north. Congratulations, your climbing is pretty much over for the day.
Veering now onto the Laurel Creek Trail you’ll waste no time descending off the ridge. The path is fairly steep in spots, initially, as it hurries downward towards its namesake stream. A half-mile from the ridge it does, and below that the descent moderates some as the path closely follows alongside the energetic creek. It’s really too bad that Laurel Creek is so heavily choked with shrubs as I could hear and partially see numerous scenic cascades as I passed. There would be plenty of opportunity to get some falling water shots along this stretch were the creek no so obscured. You’ll know you’re nearing Bradley Creek once again as the terrain flattens out. The Yellow Creek Trail arrives at Bradley quite suddenly, at a very wide crossing where the exit point of the path on the far side of the stream takes a bit of work to spot. Refer to my pic of the crossing to help you out. After wading Bradley Creek (for the fourteenth time, if you’re keeping track) the trail makes its way a short distance through the trees to the wildlife opening mentioned earlier and the end of the loop portion of the hike back at the Bradley Creek Trail. Making a left turn here all there is left to do is retrace your steps two miles back north along the Bradley Creek Trail…oh yeah, and re-do those first ten fords you did earlier as well. Again, thankfully the terrain is mostly flat allowing you to (hopefully) still enjoy what a unique and unspoiled area it is that you’re experiencing. Before you know it you’ll be stepping back out onto Yellow Gap Road with the satisfaction of knowing you’ve completed what just might be the wettest hike in the Pisgah Ranger District. Congrats!
I have to say that overall I loved this hike. Making twenty-four river crossings at first sounded like a lot of work to me but, by the end of the hike, I found myself almost looking forward to each and every one. You develop a very close camaraderie with Bradley Creek on this hike. One that only grows more intimate with each successive ford. By the time I finished I felt I knew this wild little stream quite well and appreciated the wonderful memories it had impressed upon me this day. Understandably, this hike won’t be for everyone. A good sense of adventure I think is needed to truly enjoy it. Those that do make the effort will, I can with fair certainty say, assuredly not be disappointed in the experience. With that, it’s my pleasure to share with you a hike around the Bradley Creek-Squirrel Gap-Laurel Creek Loop…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.384350, -82.685947
Route Type: Lollipop Difficulty: EXTREME (due to 24 required fords)
Hike Length: 10.4 miles Hike Duration: 4:30
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 2,350' Max. Elevation: 3,050'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,100' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 106'
Trails Used (blaze color): Bradley Creek (red), Laurel Creek (yellow), Squirrel Gap (blue)