Pink Beds - East Loop (4-17-19)
The Pink Beds are a high elevation mountain valley located in Transylvania County through which flows the upper reaches of the South Fork Mills River. It is a fascinating area both ecologically and historically. Sitting in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, the valley contains both large areas of rare high altitude bog as well as a fascinating mix of both high and low elevation forests. The ecological stars of this valley, the laurels, rhododendrons, and azaleas, burst forth every spring in waves of color which likely provided the valley with its present name. In modern times settlers came to the Pink Beds area in the early 1800's but it was a tough existence. In the late 1800's George Vanderbilt started buying up huge tracts of land to the south and west of his Biltmore Mansion. The Pink Beds eventually came into his possession and the first forestry school in America, the Biltmore School, was created. The school operated into the early 20th Century and eventually the Pink Beds became part of the Pisgah National Forest. Today, they make up the bulk of the 6,400 acre Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site.
A popular hiking destination, the Pink Beds are most commonly accessed from the picnic area and trailhead at their western end along US-276. This hike offers an alternate access route that allows for a bit quieter entrance to the valley. Starting from the end of Forest Road 476 about a mile-and-a-half south of Yellow Gap Road, the orange-blazed Gauging Station Trail heads west towards the Pink Beds alongside a number of scenic riverside campsites. The Gauging Station Trail is sometimes denoted as an extension of the Pink Beds Loop on certain maps but it is, in fact, marked as the former at the trailhead. The trail begins with an almost immediate crossing of Thompson Creek which, without waterproof boots, might involve getting your feet wet to cross. Beyond the crossing the trail stays close to the South Fork Mills River while alternating between surroundings of rhododendron and mixed wetland conifer and hardwoods. These are surroundings which will become common along the entirety of this hike. Just under a mile from the trailhead the Gauging Station reaches the eastern end of the Pink Beds Loop, which is also blazed orange. You can head either direction here as the loop is an easy walk in either direction. I chose to head first along the south side of the loop which meant continuing straight ahead at the junction. The terrain remains flat until just beyond the bridged crossing of the South Fork a quarter-mile later. The Pink Beds Loop then begins an easy ascent a short distance up the hillside bordering the valley to the south. Pines dominate your surroundings on this stretch as the path undulates up and down along the slope. A mile after starting out on the Pink Beds Loop the Barnett Branch Trail arrives form the left (south) and the two paths coincide for the next hundred yards or so.
The route leaves the south side of the Pink Beds Loop where the Barnett Branch Trail breaks north via a long boardwalk, which cuts across the heart of the valley. There are some nice views to be had along the boardwalk of the unique high elevation bog surrounding the South Fork. This is an exceedingly rare ecosystem of the Southern Mountains, containing many species of plant found few places elsewhere in the region. After the boardwalk the trail rises slightly to dryer ground and then descends once again to meet the north side of the Pink Beds Loop after a quarter-mile. To continue the loop take a right once again onto the Pink Beds Loop Trail, now heading back east. This next mile of the hike gently undulates up and down alternating between open forest where the terrain is slightly higher and thick rhododendron groves where it dips lower. Before long you’ll once again reach the Gauging Station Trial which you’ll make a left turn onto to make the short hike back to the trailhead. Overall this is an easy hike which offers some beautiful scenery, ecologically speaking. Hit this area during the rhododendron and laurel bloom and it’s even more so. Without further ado I thus present a short loop hike around the east side of the famous Pink Beds of Pisgah National Forest. As always I hope you ENJOY!!
***PLEASE NOTE THAT AT THE TIME OF THIS WRITING FOREST ROAD 476 HAS BEEN CLOSED INDEFINITELY DUE TO STORM DAMAGE. YOU CAN STILL MAKE THIS HIKE BY WALKING 476 FROM YELLOW GAP ROAD BUT THIS WILL ADD ABOUT 3-MILES ROUND TRIP TO THE TOTAL DISTANCE LISTED BELOW. PLEASE CONTACT THE PISGAH DISTRICT RANGER STATION @ 828-877-3265 FOR UP TO DATE ROAD INFORMATION AS THERE IS NO SET DATE FOR RE-OPENING 476 AS OF THE TIME OF THIS WRITING***
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.367408, -82.740399
Route Type: Lollipop Difficulty: MODERATE
Hike Length: 4.6 miles Hike Duration: 1:30
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: NONE!
Min. Elevation: 3,150' Max. Elevation: 3,300'
Total Vertical Gain: 200' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 44'
Trails Used (blaze color): Barnett Branch (blue), Gauging Station (orange), Pink Beds Loop (orange)