Davidson River Trail Loop
Don’t let the cover photo for this album fool you, the Davidson River Trail is flat out the worst trail (to date) that I’ve hiked in Pisgah National Forest. Though you may notice that I managed to turn this hike into a loop the ‘official’ Davidson River Trail is a point-to-point hike that is, in a word, awful. Along its 1.3-mile length you will be treated to infrequent and distant views of its namesake river while instead following beneath power lines, passing alongside highway rip-rap, and looking up at drainage culverts. The western third of the trail has a bit more natural a façade, to be honest, but that stretch in no way makes up for the ugliness of the remainder of the route. The only upside lies in that it’s a relatively easy walk, on a wide path which rises at an easy grade from east to west along its length. Thankfully though, if you feel a bit adventurous, there’s another option you might consider. That option involves a disused and all-but forgotten former footpath which runs right along the rivers edge and offers some up-close views of the wild Davidson River that are completely missed from the official trail. It was this old trail which I would follow on the return portion of my hike allowing this short trek to be made into a loop. By combining both trail I managed to salvage what would have been my lowest-rated hikes ever into something quite a bit more worthwhile and, dare I say it considering what I’ve described thus far, enjoyable. The only caveat is that if you decide to attempt this loop you need to be honest about your abilities. The old trail along the river is faint, frequently overgrown (in the summer especially I’m sure), and passes exposed ledges which could be dangerous if not treated with care. In short, it’s not a path for beginner hikers or those with small children. Just be aware before you head out.
The hike would begin from the eastern trailhead for the Davidson River Trail along Forest Road 475, one-half mile west of the Pisgah Fish Hatchery entrance. You could also start at the western trailhead, located 1.3-miles farther west on 475 but by hiking it the way I did you’ll be headed downhill on the way back which, I think, is always preferable for a return walk. Setting out then from the eastern trailhead you are almost immediately introduced to the “scenery” you’ll enjoy along most of its length. Power lines arc overhead and the river you might be hoping to see is conspicuously absent from view. Culverts and rocks lining the highway above are also seen along the way. Beautiful no? The trail also soon begins the long, gradual climb that will continue to its western terminus. A bit past the halfway mark the route eventually curves away from the power lines and the road and becomes more wooded in nature. Along this stretch there are also some distant, limited views of the river rushing through the forest far below. You’ll probably find yourself wishing, as I did, that there was a way to get down closer to all that tantalizing whitewater. A short distance later, without fanfare, the path emerges once again at Forest Road 475 at the western trailhead. For most, that’s it for the Davidson River Trail. Finishing the hike simply requires retracing ones steps the disappointing and ugly 1.3-miles back to the car. I needed more, however, and I was determined to find a way down along the river by way of the path described earlier which I wasn’t sure, at the time, actually existed.
Luckily it didn’t take a great deal of searching to locate the old path. Turning back into the woods form the western trailhead there is a small electrical box on the first left curve. Peering through the pines to its right I noticed a faint trail which, upon descending a short ways, deposited me at a large campsite right alongside the river. Here a short scramble path led down to a pretty cascade at the confluence of the Davidson and Cove Creek while a faint but discernible trail also seemed to lead farther downstream to the left. The aforementioned cascade is well worth a stop, just be careful scrambling out onto the sloping ledges alongside it. If it’s wet or icy, don’t even risk it. The old path leading downstream from the campsite is, at least on this visit, quite obvious. Within the first few minutes of walking it passes a number of other short scramble paths which lead down to more small cascades. Again, take care as many of these short scrambles could be dangerous if not done with care. As the old trail moves farther down the river it becomes a bit fainter and fallen branches and trees become more frequent obstacles. About halfway along the old trails length it crosses an area cleared by an old landslide. If this was indeed an official trail at one point this huge slide might have been what caused it to be abandoned. The slope the path crosses here is extremely steep so watch your feet. Also, in summer particularly, I imagine this open area is all but overgrown with briers so be warned. Downstream from the slide there are numerous other places to stop along the rushing river, inviting you to stop for a spell and enjoy its wild beauty. As the old path nears its lower (eastern) end it flattens out a bit and the official trail can be seen descending the slope above. Soon after, the old path ends alongside a steep bluff on the left which a quick scramble to the top of returns one to the main trail. At this point a right turn will lead the remaining quarter-mile back along the Davidson River Trail to its eastern trailhead.
In short, this hike is both the worst and the best of what Pisgah National Forest has to offer. If all you think you’d be interested in is the main trail I’d encourage you to just skip it all together. There are plenty of other short, easy trails nearby which offer much prettier scenery than what is found here. If the old lower trail sounds like something you can safely handle, however, this hike is most certainly worthwhile…for no other reason than you get to experience a beautiful stretch of the Davidson River which few others ever get to experience. That and, if you start from the western trailhead, you can skip the Davidson River Trail altogether by just doing an out-and-back on the old trail. As I stated earlier, though, just be certain your ability matches what is required to explore this option. So, with all that said, I now present to you a loop hike combining the Davidson River Trail and the old unofficial trail along the river itself. There’s good and bad to be found here but please, as always…ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.284971, -82.800325
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: EASY (upper trail only); HARD (full loop)
Hike Length: 2.8 miles Hike Duration: 1:30
Trailhead Temp: 40'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,380' Max. Elevation: 2,580'
Total Vertical Gain: 210' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 75'
Trails Used (blaze color): Davidson River (blue), Old Davidson River (unblazed, unmaintained)