MST - Haywood Gap to NC-215
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 hikers 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 Blue Ridge Parkway and departs it, around 50 miles later, at NC-191 by the French Broad River south of Asheville. This hike explores the westernmost portion of the MST in the Pisgah Ranger District. It’s a seven mile section, hiked in a point-to-point fashion, beginning at the aforementioned Haywood Gap and ending where the MST crosses NC-215 just north of Beech Gap. The entirety of this route stays above 5,000-feet, traversing thick high elevation forests that offer few views. Short side hikes off this portion of the MST, however, offer up some spectacular scenery…particularly from the Rough Butt Bald Overlook on the Parkway and the stunning Fork Ridge Meadows near Mount Hardy. A good portion of this hike also lies within the Middle Prong Wilderness. A good map, therefore, is a wise item to carry with you as within the Wilderness trail blazes and signage are prohibited. Compared to the section of the MST just to the east, surrounding the Black Balsam area, this is also a very peaceful stretch of trail. It barely sees a fraction of the traffic that its busy neighbor does. This is wild Southern Appalachian high country in all its wonder and beauty.
As stated my hike would begin from Haywood Gap, located at Milepost 426.5 along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Again, this is a point-to-point hike so you’ll have to make shuttle arrangements or utilize two vehicles to complete this trek. There’s a grassy pull-off at Haywood Gap but no true parking area and the traditional MST post marking the start of the route is easily spotted at the edge of the forest. Heading into the woods the MST quickly reaches the upper end of the Haywood Gap Trail where it makes a hard right to head east. There’s good signage here to keep you on the right track. The first mile-and-a-half is quite easy going as the trail maintains a fairly level grade as it winds its way along the steep north face of the ridge. The forest here, a mix of deciduous and spruce/fir, is typical of what you’ll see for most of the hike. Though traffic is light on this section the path is easily followed with no confusing turns or intersections. At 1.5-miles the MST makes a hard left at Buckeye Gap and a blue-blazed access trail breaks off into the spruce forest ahead. This is a short, worth-while side trip to make as the access trail leads out to the beautiful Rough Butt Bald Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Returning to the MST after the overlook, the trail shortly enters the Middle Prong Wilderness. A weathered sign marks the boundary. The remainder of the hike is within the Middle Prong so don’t expect much in the way of markers or signs from this point on.
The next mile continues in much the same manner as what precedes it, remaining along the north side of the ridge and gaining less than 300-feet of elevation along the way. At the end of this mile stretch the trail crosses the damp upper drainage of Buckeye Creek and, immediately thereafter, reaches the unmarked Y-junction where the Buckeye Gap Trail breaks left to head north into the heart of the Middle Prong Wilderness. The MST veers right and uphill here and soon the first sustained climb of the day is begun. The trail is now seeking out the crest of Fork Ridge, passing initially beneath the base of the open mountainside which you’ll soon stand atop of at Fork Ridge Meadows. The grade becomes moderately steep the closer you get to the crest of the ridge, passing the unofficial spur path to the 6,110’ summit of Mount Hardy on the right just before reaching it. The crest of the ridge is denoted by a large flat area within a dark grove of mature red spruce. The Green Mountain Trail departs north from this spot but, again, there are no, markers to announce its location. If you keep a close lookout though you should spot it without trouble. This is where you’ll start the short side-trip to Fork Ridge Meadows. Make the turn north onto the Green Mountain Trail and follow it for 1/10-mile to where it makes a steep climb alongside a brushy meadow. About halfway up the climb you’ll see an obvious path on the left. This is the spur trail out to Fork Ridge Meadows. Following the spur trail for less than 1/10-mile you’ll soon emerge at one of the most stunning viewpoints in the Pisgah Ranger District. Facing west, the grassy, open meadow offers up sweeping views across the heart of the Middle Prong Wilderness and the towering peaks of the Great Balsam Range beyond. The hand of man is invisible from this spot. Not a road or building or tower can be seen anywhere between you and the horizon. No doubt you’ll want to take advantage of the grassy lawn, stretch out, and simply absorb the stunning scene surrounding you.
After tearing yourself away from the meadows, return to the MST at the crest of Fork Ridge and make a right to begin the final 2.5-miles of the hike. The section begins with a moderately steep descent through one of the largest pure spruce/fir stands encountered on the hike. This is also some of the most uneven terrain encountered on the hike so watch your step. Less than a mile after leaving the ridge the trail passes another large brush opening on the right offering some nice views of neighboring Herrin Knob and Mount Hardy. The route levels off briefly as the trail makes its turn northward along the broad ridge before once again resuming the descent into the narrow drainage east of Mount Hardy. Watch for protruding steel cables left long ago by logging equipment to avoid any stumbles. Keep an eye also, through the trees to the west, as the trail soon descends through a series of short switchbacks. Mount Hardy Falls can be seen pouring over a large rock face on the neighboring Fork Ridge. Just under a mile from the end of the hike the MST makes a stream crossing just below the point where two unnamed tributaries of Bubbling Spring Branch join. Except at times of extreme high water this crossing shouldn’t pose a problem…it’s fairly wide but shallow and there are a plethora of stones to aid in hopping across. Beyond the tributary the downhill grade becomes more gradual once again and soon the trail swings back to the south again through another open meadow. At this point there’s only a third-of-a-mile to go. Just before the finish the trail drops to cross Bubbling Spring Branch which, if you still have some extra energy, offers two pretty waterfalls a short distance upstream that are well worth a visit. After crossing Bubbling Spring Branch the trail climbs for barely a hundred feet to emerge at NC-215.
This is a fantastic stretch of trail. Any hike within the Middle Prong Wilderness is sure to offer solitude and a sense of wildness not found in many other places in the region. Adding the two vista side trips to it is the icing on the cake. Just make sure to be prepared before you head out. Take a map and/or study the route thoroughly before you go. There aren’t too many places to make a serious wrong turn but, if you do you’ll quickly find yourself even deeper in the wilderness and farther from help should you need it. Elevation gain is moderate but be prepared for rugged terrain and the potential environmental hazards you might expect above 5,000-feet…namely cooler temps and unpredictable weather changes. With the correct planning, though, this can be one of the more rewarding hikes in the Pisgah Ranger District. It’s certainly a trek which any lover of wild places will find rewarding. With that, I now invite you to come along with me on a section hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Haywood Gap to NC-215 through the Middle Prong Wilderness. This is a good one, as I’m sure you’ll see…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!
Haywood Gap Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.313385, -82.953939
NC-215 Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.303930, -82.909341
Route Type: Point-to-point + spurs
Hike Length: 7.0 miles Hike Duration: 3:15
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 5-10 people
Min. Elevation: 5,100' Max. Elevation: 5,820'
Total Vertical Gain: 650' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 93'
Trails Used (blaze color): Fork Ridge Overlook Spur (unblazed), Green Mountain (unblazed), Mountains-to-Sea (white, except unblazed in Middle Prong Wilderness), Rough Butt Bald/MST Access (blue)