Cat Gap Loop Trail -- 2,620'

Cat Gap Loop Trail

The Cat Gap Loop Trail is a moderately challenging footpath which provides access to the stunning cliffs of John Rock and a pair of incredibly scenic little waterfalls along its 4.4-mile length. Beginning and ending from the parking area adjacent to the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education (Pisgah Fish Hatchery), much of the loop sees extremely heavy visitor traffic…especially in the summer. With John Rock sitting at its center, the Cat Gap Loop circumnavigates the famous pluton by way of a series of valleys and low ridges and passing through its namesake, Cat Gap, at roughly its halfway point. Aside from the pair of waterfalls, there’s admittedly not a whole lot to see along its length as it remains firmly beneath the leafy canopy of the National Forest the entire way. It does, however, pass through an impressive variety of woodland environments. River bottoms, cove forests, pure pine stands, marshes, laurel thickets, and more are all represented here. If you’re in need of a moderately strenuous walk in the woods, you could certainly do much worse than the Cat Gap Loop Trail.

As this footpath is a true loop, you have a choice of hiking it in either direction. From the standpoint of difficulty there really isn’t much of a difference between your options. My preference has always been to do it clockwise, however, primarily because this leaves the two waterfalls on Cedar Rock Creek for the back half. This is the direction I’d be headed in for this hike. The Cat Gap Loop departs the large parking lot at the Fish Hatchery from its east end and its northwest corner via gated Forest Service Road 475C. The eastern trailhead is the starting point heading clockwise. Departing the parking area the first quarter-mile of the hike is almost perfectly flat as the trail wanders through the floodplains surrounding the adjacent Davidson River. After crossing a short footbridge over Cedar Rock Creek the trail gets a bit more uneven, but still doesn’t climb much, as it seeks out the lower entrance to Horse Cove. Just under a mile from the trailhead you’ll arrive at a potentially tricky crossing of Horse Cove Creek. At normal water levels this creek is a lengthy rock-hop. You shouldn’t have to get wet if you step carefully but the loose stones inevitably result in many-a wet foot. Beyond the creek the climbing begins in earnest. The trail quickly crosses Forest Service Road 475C and then continues up the east side of the valley at a moderately steep incline. At the 1.3-mile mark the lower end of the John Rock Trail is passed by on the right. Odds are any crowds you may have been experiencing will be left behind for the time being here. The cliffs of John Rock are stunning to visit…if you’re interested check out one of my three albums visiting them. Beyond the John Rock Trail the ascent continues, gaining another 500-feet of vertical in the next 6/10-mile, before you get your next breather at the unnamed gap just south of John Rock where the upper end of the John Rock Trail is met as well as the Cat Gap Bypass Trail. The Cat Gap Loop Trail heads uphill and south from this gap for another 1/3-mile of fairly steep climbing before, at around the halfway point of the loop, arriving at its namesake…Cat Gap.

At Cat Gap the Cat Gap Loop and Art Loeb Trail coincide for a short distance. Arriving as I did you’ll be at the east end of the gap and need to make a right through the thick rhododendron a short distance to an opening at the west end of the gap where the two trails once again part ways. Congratulations, the days climbing is all but over. Departing Cat Gap the trail now begins a descent as moderately steep as the climb up was. You are now descending the low ridge separating John Rock Branch and Cedar Rock Creek. At 2/3-mile from Cat Gap you’ll pass the lower end of the Cat Gap Bypass before, shortly thereafter, making a steep drop off the north end of the ridge. In another 2/3-mile you’ll reach another tricky water crossing at Cedar Rock Creek itself. Like the earlier crossing of Horse Cove Creek, at normal water levels this crossing is simply a wide rock-hop. I’m sure a good thunderstorm can quickly make this a shallow wade but, even if, I doubt it would be all that dangerous if you use caution. Over the next half-mile the trail crosses the creek twice more but, thankfully, both crossings are bridged. After the second bridge you immediately arrive at the junction with the Butter Gap Trail. Get ready…now its waterfall time. Barely 100-yards north of the Butter Gap Trail junction you should easily spot a steep scramble path leading to a campsite below. Head down to the campsite and look upstream, this is Upper Cedar Rock Creek Falls. Though only 10-feet in height it’s still a beauty as its short initial drops turns and spreads out in a large veil over the sloping rock below. Upon returning to the Cat Gap Loop keep heading north (downhill) for about 200 more yards and, at a wide junction, you should be able to spot another unmarked path leading down the hillside. Follow this spur path steeply down to the floor of the valley at which point it turns up alongside the creek, passing a large overhanging rock face, before arriving at Lower Cedar Rock Creek Falls. In my opinion this is the prettier of the two falls, being higher and more vertical. The numerous paths the water takes over the broken, mossy ledges make for a spectacular sight. Just don’t expect to be alone, unfortunately. These two falls have become wildly popular in recent years, primarily due to the ease of access to them directly from the Fish Hatchery.

Scrambling your way back up to the main trail the Cat Gap Loop now continues its downhill trajectory. This is also a busy section of trail, frequented by those climbing directly from the Fish Hatchery to see the waterfalls. A bit over 1/3-mile below the spur to the lower falls the trail once again makes a bridged crossing of Cedar Rock Creek. Beyond this point the terrain flattens out some and the trail becomes more rolling in nature…and a bit muddy in spots too at times. In another 1/3-mile the Cat Gap Loop finishes up with a left turn onto gated Forest Service Road 475C which quickly crosses the creek one last time before quickly emerging at the northwest corner of the parking lot where your trek began. Overall this is a pleasant and moderately challenging walk in the woods style hike. Some may not consider it visually stimulating enough to bother with, for which I can sympathize, but if you can bring yourself to enjoy the more subtle wonders involved in a forest walk it will reward you in many other ways. That said, how about we get to walking shall we? Join me now, as I make the hike around the Cat Gap Loop Trail of Pisgah National Forest…as always I hope you ENJOY!!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.284624, -82.791871


Route Type:  Loop + spurs         Difficulty:  CHALLENGING  (Petzoldt Rating:  5.50 )

Hike Length:  4.4 miles               Hike Duration:  2:15

Trailhead Temp:  65'F                 Trail Traffic:  25-50 people

Min. Elevation:  2,320'                 Max. Elevation:  3,350'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,050'          Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  202'


Trails Used (blaze color):  Cat Gap Loop Trail (orange)


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