Middle Prong Wilderness Loop Route Map

Middle Prong Wilderness Loop

The Pisgah Ranger District is home to two Federally Designated Wilderness Areas, named the Shining Rock and Middle Prong. Both are located in the northern portion of the district, neighboring each other on opposite sides of the West Fork Pigeon River…Shining Rock being to the northeast and the Middle Prong to the southwest. Aside from their geographic proximity, however, the two wildernesses share very little in common. The Shining Rock Wilderness is by far the larger of the two. Centered on the 6,000+ foot Shining Rock Ridge, it boasts miles of open grassy balds and huge outcrops of stunning white quartz (from which it gets its name). The Middle Prong, in contrast, is centered on the deep forested valley of the Middle Prong West Fork Pigeon River. Long-range views in the Middle Prong are the exception, not the rule, as the true highlights of the area are its deep, seemingly impenetrable woodlands and its wild rivers. Perhaps the most striking difference between the two concerns visitation. Though immediately adjacent to one another, the open balds and easy access of the Shining Rock Wilderness make it a much busier area…some might argue to a point where the wilderness designation exists in name only. The Middle Prong Wilderness, by contrast, remains all but relatively hidden. Its character remains very much wild…its interior only visited by your more hardcore hikers and outdoorspeople. With tourism in the southern mountains at all-time highs, the Middle Prong is one of the few remaining places one can visit to experience this region as it existed long ago. As Henry David Thoreau so succinctly stated: "In wildness is the preservation of the world."  Within the Middle Prong wildness abounds, and the world it preserves will no doubt leave its mark should you choose to experience it.

This particular loop hike penetrates into the wild heart of the Middle Prong Wilderness. There are no stunning vistas to be had on this trek, just mile upon mile of silent forest inter-cut with the sight and sounds of lively mountain streams. All of which you’ll likely have to yourself for much of the journey. The trailhead for the hike is the Rough Butt Bald Overlook at Milepost 425.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (the Parkway forming the rough southern boundary of the wilderness area). Picking up the short, blue-blazed access path across the road you’ll spend a few minutes cutting through a beautiful high-elevation spruce-fir forest before arriving at the Mountains-to Sea Trail. This is the start of the loop, thus you can choose to go right or left from here. On this hike I’d be making a right, to circle the loop in a counter-clockwise direction and saving the scenic stream-side section of the hike for the long climb back out. Heading east, therefore, on the MST the beginning of the hike is a fairly easy walk considering the rugged terrain you’ll be crossing. The trail winds along the side of the steep ridge with very little elevation change to speak of for the first mile. At that point, just beyond the point where the headwaters of Buckeye Creek are crossed you’ll arrive at an unmarked Y-split. This is the junction of the MST, which continues right uphill, and the Buckeye Gap Trail which the route now continues onto. The Buckeye Gap Trail continues much as the MST left off. Though obviously not as well traveled as the latter, the trail is still easy to follow. You’ll note there are no blazes along this trail either, as it lies firmly within the Wilderness where such markings and signs are prohibited. Alternating between dark spruce groves and brighter hardwood stands the surrounding on this stretch retain a high-elevation feel. That all changes about 1.5-miles from the MST, as the Buckeye Gap Trail makes a hard left to make its plunge down to the Middle Fork. In the next mile-and-a-quarter over 1,200-feet of elevation is lost providing your legs with their first serious work-out of the day. The fast descent allows you to witness an abrupt change in the forest surrounding you…with spruce-fir groves giving way to maple, ash and hickory trees. The closer to the bottom of the valley you get thick stands of rhododendron begin to fill in the understory as well. Just under three miles after leaving the MST, the Buckeye Gap Trail bottoms out at its unmarked junction with the Haywood Gap Trail.

You now have a choice to make. You can, at this point, choose to simply make a left to continue the loop and begin the long climb back up the Haywood Gap Trail to the ridge. Or, you can make a right and follow the Haywood Gap Trail for a ¾-mile side trip to the trails northern crossing of the Middle Prong just below a collection of small but beautiful cascades. On this visit I’d be making the side trip. Turning north the Haywood Gap Trail follows high above the east side of the river as it makes its way down the valley at a mostly gentle grade. There are a number of nice spots overlooking the Middle Prong though there are no easy ways to actually get down by it. The trail makes one short, steep downward pitch immediately before reaching the crossing. This is a beautiful spot. Middle Prong is wide and relatively shallow here but just upstream a collection of ledges and boulders create a much wilder scene as the stream tumbles down from above via a series of small but energetic cascades. Steep forested hillsides rise above while the Middle Prong tumbles by at your feet. This is the Middle Prong Wilderness at its best. Enjoy the peace while you can, as now the work begins. The return hike back up to the Buckeye Gap junction is fairly easy as the grade isn’t terrible and, up to this point, there has yet to be much climbing on the hike. That changes in a hurry as you move farther south, however. About a half-mile south of the junction, as the trail rounds the ridge separating the Grassy Ridge Branch and Buckeye Creek drainages, the terrain gets noticeably rockier and steep. In one spot the trail has all but slid down into the Middle Prong making for a steep bank scramble and a slick walk up a sloping rock ledge. At the one-mile mark south of the Buckeye Gap Trail the upper crossing of the Middle Prong is reached. I managed to rock-hop across on my visit but we were in the midst of drought conditions at the time. To be safe, plan on this being a short wade as it is at most times of the year.

The real climb begins on the far side of the crossing. After a brief flat stretch the trail now turns up the valley of Haywood Gap Stream and the grinding ascent begins. There’s over 900-feet of elevation to be gained in the next 1.2-miles. Luckily, as a distraction from the climb, there are frequent views of Haywood Gap Stream to enjoy. It’s not particularly large but it makes up for it in pristine, energetic beauty. If you’re inclined, there are a number of inviting spots where you enjoy a wade to cool off. About halfway up the valley the trail crosses the tiny unnamed tributary draining down from Possum Hollow. There’s a particularly pretty spot to rest where the path comes alongside the point where it and Haywood Gap Stream join. As you gain elevation the floor of the forest transitions from a thick jungle of rhododendron to more open one carpeted in low, leafy plants. A weathered boundary sign for the Middle Prong Wilderness heralds the end of the climb, which mercifully concludes at the junction of the Haywood Gap Trail and the MST. To complete the loop make the left turn on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. It is 1.5-miles from this point back to the access path from the trailhead. It’s a relatively tame ending to the loop, with very little elevation gain to overcome for the remainder of the hike. Returning above 5,000-feet spruce-fir stands again become common surroundings. This is the least wilderness-like portion of the hike, and likely the portion where most of the people you encounter on the hike will be passed. Even so, the beauty and inherent wildness of your surroundings continues. Before you know it you’ll arrive back at the access path to the Rough Butt Bald Overlook and your day within the Middle Prong Wilderness will be complete.

I can’t say enough good things about this hike. There are simply too few places left in the southern mountains where solitude and true wilderness can be experienced as they can within the Middle Prong. That said, it’s not a place for the uninitiated hiker. The lack of trail markings means you need to be able to read a map and/or your surroundings. The trails themselves can also be steep and rugged with no bridges to safely take you across streams that can quickly rise after heavy rains. There is a certain amount of self-reliance expected when hiking in a wilderness, and the Middle Prong is no exception. Know your limits and prepare…that’s the best formula for an enjoyable visit. That said, it’s now my great pleasure to invite you along with me on a dayhike into the wild interior of the magnificent Middle Prong Wilderness. This one is a classic…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.304441, -82.942493

Route Type:  Inverted Lollipop   Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  13.30 )

Hike Length:  9.7 miles                Hike Duration:  4:45

Trailhead Temp:  70'F                 Trail Traffic:  10-25 people

Min. Elevation:  3,750'                  Max. Elevation:  5,520'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,800'           Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  186'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Buckeye Gap (unblazed), Haywood Gap (unblazed), Mountains-to-Sea (white), MST Access (blue)


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