Turkeypen Area -- Cantrell Creek/Squirrel Gap Loop
This hike ended up being a tad more ambitious than I had originally planned. The focus of this trip was to complete the relatively remote Cantrell Creek Trail, a footpath most easily reached from the Turkeypen Trailhead just east of Brevard. At minimum this requires an eight mile round-trip hike, and that doesn't include the two-mile length of the Cantrell Creek Trail itself. Initially I planned on completing it by making a 12-mile loop incorporating the South Mills River, Mullinax, and Squirrel Gap Trails. Upon reaching the Cantrell Creek Trail, however, I was feeling pretty good about my energy levels and decided to include a small three mile side loop up to Horse Cove Gap. This meant doing the upper portion of Cantrell Creek (and its five fords) twice, and pushing my total mileage to nearly fifteen. Normally this would be pushing my limits for a day hike but, due to the relatively low amount of vertical gain accumulated over these fifteen miles, it turned out to be quite manageable. As a result I was able to enjoy an amazing morning and afternoon exploring one of the more remote corners of the Pisgah Ranger District. There was a good deal of variety to this hike as well. Though there are no sweeping overlooks or significant waterfalls to be seen on this trek one still gets to enjoy highlights that include forested ridgetops, wild mountain streams, and even a small historical site. Add in the fact that the spring bloom was just beginning as well made things all the more beautiful and enjoyable. In short, it was to be a very memorable day.
The hike begins from the Turkeypen Trailhead, via the South Mills River Trail which departs to the left of the kiosk at the upper end of the parking area. This well-traveled path descends for the next 4/10-mile to a bridged crossing of its namesake river. This suspension-style bridge is wobbly but sturdy and provides some nice first views of the scenic South Fork Mills River. It’s also the first of a few such bridges you’ll be crossing on this hike. A short distance beyond the bridge the trail makes a sharp left turn to begin a moderate climb up the hillside rising to the north of the river. At the ¾-mile mark the Mullinax Trail is reached, heading uphill to the right. Veering onto the Mullinax Trail the hike continues its moderate ascent. At first the trail ascends the side of the ridge before, at about its halfway point, turning to ascend a narrow valley at the head of which a couple steep switchbacks take you to the crest of the ridge. At this point you get a bit of a reprieve from the climbing as the Mullinax Trail descends now to its northern terminus at the Squirrel Gap Trail, two miles into the hike. Head straight ahead on the Squirrel Gap Trail. The climb is quickly resumed as the route seeks out another crest in the ridge, Mullinax Gap. Beyond Mullinax Gap the Squirrel Gap Trail continues to ascend but at a more gradual pace. For the next two miles the trail stays along the north side of the ridge. Heavily forested, there aren’t really any views to be had (unless you’re visiting in the winter which will allow broken views through the trees). Even so, it’s a pleasant and relatively easy trail to walk. The Laurel Creek Trail is passed on the right at the 2.6-mile mark, the Poundingmill Trail on the left at 2.8-miles, and the end of the climb is reached at Laurel Gap at about four miles in.
At Laurel Gap, the Squirrel Gap Trail now switches over to the south side of the ridge and begins a gradual descent which continues for the next 1.2-miles all the way to Cantrell Creek. This stretch of trail is a bit rockier in spots, the south face of the ridge being noticeably steeper than the north side was. As the trail nears Cantrell Creek, however, the terrain begins to flatten out a bit as the trail meanders through a couple of particularly pretty hardwood coves. At just over 5-miles the Squirrel Gap Trail arrives at Cantrell Creek. The creek itself is particularly scenic here as it spreads out to form numerous small cascades as it tumbles down the wide, rocky creek bed. This is a wonderful place to stop for a quick break. The hike now turns to head downstream along the Cantrell Creek Trail. Prepare to get wet on this stretch. Over the next mile the trail will make no less than five crossings of Cantrell Creek, all but one of which are almost guaranteed wades. The trail also frequently doubles as a stream bed for runoff after wet weather so, even when you’re not in the creek, things are likely to be quite wet at times underfoot. The first crossing is reached within a few hundred yards, the second (and only bridged crossing) at 0.3-miles, the third (where the trail actually enters the stream for a few hundred feet) at the half mile mark, the fourth at 0.8-miles, and the fifth at the mile mark just before the junction with the Horse Cove Gap Trail.
At this point you have a decision to make. You can either continue straight ahead on the Cantrell Creek Trail, shaving three miles off the length of this hike, or do as I did and make the turn up the Horse Cove Gap Trail. I made the turn as I simply needed to include said trail and the section of the Squirrel Gap Trail between it and the Cantrell Creek crossing back to the north in my pursuit of hiking all the trails in the Pisgah Ranger District. There’s little in the way of scenery added by going this way and, perhaps more importantly, it means re-hiking the upper portion of the Cantrell Creek Trail again and all five of its crossings. If you follow my route, turning onto the Horse Cove Gap Trail you’ll find yourself of the ascent again. The next ¾-mile is a continuous moderate climb to the trails namesake gap. Once reaching the gap, look back over your shoulder and you should be able to spot the Squirrel Gap Trail departing along the east side of the ridge towards the north. At this point the hike is barely half over but the good news is just about all the climbing you’ll do is over. For the next 1.4-miles the trail weaves along the east side of the ridge, gradually descending, before reaching the crossing of Cantrell Creek you arrived at three miles earlier. Once again make a turn downstream on the Cantrell Creek Trail, enjoy the five crossings you have to deal with again, and arrive back at the Horse Cove Gap Trail junction at the hikes 9-mile mark.
There is still another mile of the Cantrell Creek Trail to walk below the Horse Cove Gap Trail, with another four fords of the creek to deal with. Despite these difficulties, however, I found this to be an immensely scenic stretch of trail. The healthy open nature of the woodlands and the beautiful cascading nature of Cantrell Creek made for a thoroughly enjoyable walk through a corner of Pisgah National Forest which relatively few visitors ever experience. At the 10-mile point the Cantrell Creek Trail ends at its junction with the South Mills River Trail, which arrives from the right (west) and continues straight ahead. Within a minute of heading straight on the South Mills River Trail a large clearing appears on the left containing a huge old stone chimney. This is the former original site of the historic Cantrell Creek Lodge, a large cabin built in the 1890’s to house student rangers of the nearby Biltmore Forest School. The lodge was abandoned when the school closed in the 1910’s but, thankfully, it was saved from oblivion when it was moved to today’s Cradle of Forestry Site and restored in the 1970’s. The next 3.5-miles of the hike are the easiest yet, which is a good thing as you’ll quickly be passing the 10-mile mark at this point. Following along the meandering South Fork Mills River the trail makes a bridged crossing of the river at 0.3-miles from the Cantrell Lodge site, passes the Wagon Road Gap Trail and then makes another bridged crossing at about 1-mile, passes the Poundingmill Trail at 2-miles, and after an easy climb again arrives back at the Mullinax Trail at a bit over 3-miles. From the Mullinax Trail it’s just a matter of retracing your steps back to the Turkeypen Trailhead another ¾-miles away.
Like I stated earlier this is an ambitious dayhike and, as such, won’t be for everyone. If tackling 12-15 miles in a single outing seems a bit much for you then I’d think twice about attempting it. If, however, you think your legs can handle such a trek I think you’ll be surprised with just how enjoyable a hike this is. The scenery is wonderful (albeit in a subtle manner) and you get to explore a part of Pisgah which relatively few others ever will. So, with that, I now present a hike out around what I’ve dubbed the Cantrell Creek/Squirrel Gap Loop from the Turkeypen Trailhead. This is a long one but it’s a good one…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.342883, -82.659210
Route Type: Double Loop Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 14.9 miles Hike Duration: 6:45
Trailhead Temp: 45'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,400' Max. Elevation: 3,500'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,000' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 134'
Trails Used (blaze color): Cantrell Creek (red), Horse Cove Gap (orange), Mullinax (yellow), South Mills River (white), Squirrel Gap (blue)