Funneltop-Wolf Ford Loop Hike Route Map

Funneltop-Wolf Ford Loop

I’ll be up front ahead of time about this one. I didn’t have high hopes for it. In pursuit of the Pisgah 400 (hiking all the trails in the Pisgah Ranger District) there were inevitably numerous little pieces of trail I had either missed or, more commonly, simply didn’t fit neatly into any of my previous hikes. Such was the 3-ish miles of the Horse Cove Gap and Squirrel Gap Trails between Funneltop Mountain Road and Wolf Ford. These sections of trail are some of the more remote in the district as well, meaning that to bag them would require a long day hike from any access point. The shortest I could plot out was this hike which typically would run in the 12-mile range but, due to the recent indefinite closure of Forest Service Road 476, would push it to over nearly fourteen. That, and due to my familiarity with the terrain surrounding the Wolf Ford area, I expected nary a view or a waterfall along the entire way to spruce things up. Pleasantly I was slightly wrong on the view, and the South Fork Mills River is always pretty…but overall this still didn’t check many boxes which will make me want to repeat it. Such is the life of challenge completionists, however…like it or not, some hikes have to be done.

This particular August morning dawned clear and humid, with valley fog quickly burning away with the rising sun. Due to the aforementioned indefinite closure of Forest Service Road 476 (call the Ranger Station for current updates) I parked the car across from the Wolf Ford Horse Camp at the intersection with Yellow Gap Road and headed south. I’m never a fan of road walks but at least this one was flat. After a quick ¾-miles I then veered left onto Forest Service Road 5018 (also called Funneltop Mountain Road). Though I’d still be technically walking a road, 5018 is much more trail-like and enjoyable than 476 as it is both infrequently hiked/biked and permanently gated. The next four miles would be steadily uphill, though at a steady pace that is rarely all that taxing. About two miles above the junction with 476, however, I came across my biggest surprise of the day…an open viewpoint which I had neither heard about nor expected. It wasn’t exactly an expansive panorama, tall shrubs limit the lower portion of the view considerably, but on a hike in which I expected to see nothing but trees the sight of Clawhammer Mountain and the Soapstone Ridge across the valley, and the towering Shining Rock Ridge beyond, was incredible. Unexpected highlights, no matter how small sometimes, can make all the difference in keeping morale up on a lengthy and potentially monotonous day such as this. Funneltop Mountain Road continued its gradual, unremarkable, uphill climb for about two miles past the viewpoint where it abruptly ends at a large grassy opening atop the crest of the ridge. Here, a simple carsonite stake marked the upper end of the Horse Cove Gap Trail descending into the woods to the south…my first true footpath of the day.

The 2/3-mile of trail down to Horse Cove Gap drops nearly 400 vertical feet, the first serious such descent of the day. The path looked to be lightly traveled and was surprisingly scenic as it dropped alongside the steep, thickly wooded ridge. In no time I arrived at Horse Cove Gap itself, a wide dusty intersection where the Horse Cove Gap and Squirrel Gap Trails cross. The Horse Cove Gap Trail cuts sharply downhill to the east here but, for this hike, I’d be headed west off the opposite side of the ridge via the latter footpath. At first the Squirrel Gap Trail kept up the steep descent but soon, about a half-mile below the gap I was treated to a breather as the path crosses the broad upper drainage of tiny Laurel Brook. Beyond Laurel Brook I once again found myself climbing, but only for a short time, as the trail seeks to cross the ridge separating Laurel Brook from the South Fork Mills River at its namesake, Squirrel Gap. The gap itself was hardly remarkable, despite the fact the 7+ mile trail I was on takes its name from it, and soon thereafter I was making the final descent to the South Fork Mills River at Wolf Ford…which was reached after another 400-foot descent just over two miles from Horse Cove Gap. A large wooden suspension footbridge spans the river here, which allowed for a beautiful and dry crossing of the South Fork. The south end of the bridge at Wolf Ford marks the western extremity of the Squirrel Gap Trail, as it intersects the South Mills River Trail at a T-junction. A large log nearby made for the perfect spot to have a snack before continuing on.

I now turned north on the South Mills River Trail, which I’d be following for the next 4.5-miles. Just after departing Wolf Ford the trail makes a steep, but brief, climb up the side of the ridge getting itself well away from the river. The next couple of miles involved the type of monotony I was expecting at some point on this hike. Winding north along the ridge it curves in and out of numerous wooded coves and around broad shoulders in the hillside via deep rock cuts dating back to when this footpath was actually a road. After 2.5-miles of walking from Wolf Ford I found myself on another moderately steep ascent where the trail crosses another high shoulder of the ridge at the point where it passes the Buckhorn Gap Trail. Beyond this point I was headed downhill again, steeply at times to another crossing of the South Fork though this time via a very out-of-place concrete bridge…complete with guardrails! Only about a mile of fairly level path was left ahead of me on the South Mills River Trail where it reaches its northern endpoint at Forest Service Road 476. I probably would have appreciated this stretch more than I did…passing by the pretty swimming spot known as the Otter Hole and enjoying numerous views of the river…but pushing past the 12-mile mark on a humid day with thunder rumbling nearby I kept a quick pace. The final walk back on Forest Service Road 476 went fast, thankfully, and I even managed to beat the impending downpour by about two minutes. Though this particular loop had a couple unexpectedly beautiful spots I still can’t in my right mind recommend it to the average dayhiker. The mileage is long, and the scenery you DO find hardly justifies the effort to reach it. However if you just want a good long walk in the woods…into a section of Pisgah National Forest that relatively few people visit…then by all means have at it. You’ll certainly be one of the few! That said it’s now my pleasure to take you along with me as I make the long circuit of what I’m calling the Funneltop-Wolf Ford Loop. Pack extra water for this one, on a humid summer day such as this one you’ll need it…other than that, as always, I hope you ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.374301, -82.736136

Alternate Trailhead (if F.R. 476 is gated):  35.381373, -82.742394

Route Type:  Lollipop                                                                   Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  14.80 )

Hike Length:  12.0 miles;  13.5 miles (if F.R. 476 gated)               Hike Duration:  4:45

Trailhead Temp:  65'F                                                                   Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation:  2,920'                                                                   Max. Elevation:  3,860'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,400'                                                            Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  104'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Forest Road 5018 (unblazed), Horse Cove Gap (orange), South Mills River (white), Squirrel Gap (blue)


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