Mountains-to-Sea/Shut-In Trail -- 3,100'

MST - Bent Creek Gap to French Broad River

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is North Carolina’s premier long-distance hiking trail. Stretching 1,175 miles from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks. Lovingly known by its abbreviated name, the MST, the footpath crosses the Pisgah Ranger District along roughly the same route as the Blue Ridge Parkway. It enters the District from the west at Haywood Gap on the Parkway and departs it, around 50 trail-miles later, at NC-191 by the French Broad River south of Asheville. This hike would be the grand finale of the five section hikes I was making, exploring the MST through the Pisgah Ranger District. Starting where I left off on my last hike, the trail crossing at Bent Creek Gap, this 9-mile stretch is much different in character than the previous four sections I'd been on. For one the elevations along this stretch barely top out above 3,000-feet, meaning the environment along this stretch lies firmly within the zone of the low to mid-elevation forests which dominate much of the region. These dense forests tend to limit views so long distance overlooks are, unfortunately, far and few between here as well. Additionally this is perhaps the busiest section of the MST through the District, with the possible exception of the Black Balsam area. This is mostly due to the close proximity the trail has to the popular destinations of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Bent Creek trail system, and the North Carolina Arboretum. All this may seem to suggest that this portion of the MST is one I wouldn't really recommend but, honestly, I really would. While it certainly lacks the scenic pizzazz or solitude of the other four section hikes, this is relatively easy terrain to travel and the forests are some of the most lush you'll see on any of these hikes. If for any other reason than that this is certainly yet another enjoyable section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to explore.

This hike begins from the MST crossing of Forest Service Road 479 where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway at Bent Creek Gap. The first 2.5-miles of the hike offer a pleasant warm-up for the rest of the day. This stretch, between Bent Creek Gap and Chestnut Cove Gap, sees the trail make a broad meandering arc around the north slopes of Cold Knob and Pine Mountain. The elevation change along this portion of trail is very enjoyable as there is only around 600-feet of gain and around 900-feet of loss. The type of scenery experienced in this first bit of the hike is pretty typical of what you'll see on the rest of it as well as the trail alternates between thick groves of laurel and rhododendron and tall, lush hardwood forests filled with vines and covered in a thick understory of mixed shrubs. At Chestnut Cove Gap the trail once again bumps up against the Parkway, parallels it for another quarter-mile, and then meets the blue-blazed access path leading to the MST from the nearby Chestnut Cove Overlook. As vistas are in short supply on this hike I highly recommend walking the few hundred extra yards over to the viewpoint. The relatively low elevation means the panorama here isn't quite as expansive but the view overlooking the valley of Avery Creek is still one sure to be enjoyable. Backtracking to the MST the route now undertakes its first major climb of the day as it seeks to cross the summit ridge of the uniquely named Truckwheel Mountain. It's not a real punishing climb, however, and soon the forested crest is passed by and a much steeper descent is made towards Sleepy Gap off the eastern ridge of Truckwheel. In fact the final 2/10-mile down to Sleepy gap sees the trail lose over 200-feet of elevation...a steep stretch by any measure, but at least it's brief. Sleepy Gap offers yet another overlook to be enjoyed as the trail passes alongside another Parkway pull-off. Here again the valley of Avery Creek can be seen stretching away to the south. Enjoy the vista, as it's the last really good one of the day.

Continuing eastbound from Sleepy Gap the Mountains-to-Sea Trail now makes a broad curve around the north side of Grassy Knob, maintaining an all but level grade for the one mile before it returns back alongside the Parkway. Another brief climb is made from this point, as the trail crests the broad unnamed knob between Grassy Knob and Lance Mountain. There is then perhaps the steepest descent of the day as the trail drops from this knob into Reynolds Gap. Just before reaching Reynolds Gap, on the outside of a tight switchback you can get a decent, though not expansive, view from above the Walnut Cove Overlook on the Parkway. Passing through Reynolds Gap you'll once again be right alongside the Parkway for a brief time before making the very easy ascent of Lance Mountain. With a sub-3,000 foot summit elevation the top of Lance is unsurprisingly wooded. Another significant descent then brings you to the south junction of the MST and Forest Service Road 480, at a point about 1.3-miles past Reynolds Gap. Once again, as the trail follows along 480 for a short distance, you're right up against the Blue Ridge Parkway. In fact, on my visit, this was the busiest stretch of trail. At the north junction of 480 and the MST the latter breaks right on its own once again to pass Glenn Bald to the east and then for the final climb of the day up Shut-In Ridge. The trail tops out along the ridge about a mile after departing 480 wherein it begins its final mile-long drop to the French Broad River. Along this final mile there are a few glimpses of said river through the trees but, unfortunately, no open viewpoints. As the trail turns to drop off the west side of the ridge you'll eventually come to a narrow gate in a chain link fence. This gate marks the beginning of the trails brief passage through the property of the North Carolina Arboretum. Dropping alongside Bent Creek now the MST soon passes through another gate to exit the property and, in another few minutes breaks free of the forest along the access road connecting nearby Highway 191 to the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you want to end the hike in a bit more scenic spot you can continue a short distance up to the Parkway and walk out onto the long bridge spanning the French Broad River.

All in all this isn't the most spectacular section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to hike in the District, I'll admit that. It is, however, the most accessible and easily the tamest from a ruggedness standpoint. This means people of nearly all abilities can likely find a doable portion of the MST to walk somewhere along this section. It's also a great place to see how you handle logging a nearly 10-mile walk without the worry of being far out in the wilderness or tackling any huge natural obstacles. This is therefore, in its own unique way, as enjoyable a section as any other I had hiked on the MST up to this point. Personally, it marked the completion of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail through the Pisgah Ranger District for me. So that only added to the special place this hike will have in my memory. With that said, I now invite you along with me for my final section hike of the MST in the Pisgah Ranger District...from Bent Creek Gap to the French Broad River. As always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Bent Creek Gap Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.452738, -82.659465

French Broad River Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.499665, -82.593406


Route Type:  Point-to-Point        Difficulty:  VERY HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  10.40 )

Hike Length:  9.1 miles                 Hike Duration:  3:30

Trailhead Temp:  60'F                 Trail Traffic:  25-50 people

Min. Elevation:  2,030'                  Max. Elevation:  3,260'

Total Vertical Gain:  650'             Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  71'


Trails Used (blaze color):  Mountains-to-Sea/Shut-In Trail (white)


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