Rich Mountain-Pink Beds Loop (11-26-18)
The Pink Beds are a high elevation mountain valley, located in northern Transylvania County, which contain the upper reaches of the South Fork of the Mills River. It is a fascinating area both ecologically and historically. Sitting in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, the valley contains large areas of 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. Lining the south side of the valley is a high ridge separating the Pink Beds from the adjacent Avery Creek watershed. The high point of this ridge is known as Rich Mountain. Covered in the thick deciduous forest which is common at these elevations a busy network of trails runs up to and along the length of this ridge. The route described here takes these two adjacent, but very different, areas and combines them into a very enjoyable loop hike.
The first thing to note, however, is that this doesn’t have to be a loop hike. If the one mile road walk described in this album doesn’t sound agreeable then cars can be parked at both the Cat Gap Trailhead and Pink Beds Picnic Area to create a point-to-point style hike. With only one vehicle available on this solo trek, however, I would be doing the full loop this day. Therefore, this hike begins and ends at the trailhead for the Cat Gap Trail which is located on a tight right-hand curve along Forest Road 477 about 0.4-mile up from its junction with U.S. 276. The first portion of the hike would follow the Cat Gap Trail up from the parking area for about ¾-mile to the crest of the ridge just south of Rich Mountain. For much of its length the Cat Gap Trail follows the route of an old mountain road as it switches back and forth up the ridge. The grade is moderately steep so it’s a decent workout. Upon reaching the ridge at Cat Gap trails leave in every direction. To continue the loop take a left turn to continue the climb of Rich Mountain, now via the crest of the ridge, along the Black Mountain Trail. The grade continues to be quite steep with another 300 feet of climbing to overcome over the next third of a mile. Eventually the trail crosses the summit of Rich Mountain, where there are no views except what can be glimpsed through the trees, and immediately begins to descend the much narrow ridgeline extending north. The descent off the summit is more gradual than the climb was. Here and there breaks in the trees give brief looks at the high Pisgah Ridge to the north or the peaks surrounding the valley of Avery Creek to the south. Before long, in a wide shallow gap, the Barnett Branch Trail breaks left off the north side of the ridge.
While the Black Mountain Trail is a very popular multi-use trail it is immediately obvious that the Barnett Branch Trail is anything but. Following yet another old logging grade the trail initially starts with a steep switch-backing descent but soon moderates some as it seeks out an easier way off the ridge. The scenery along this stretch alternates between open deciduous cove forest and thick laurel/rhododendron tunnels. In other words it’s a typical Pisgah National Forest trail. As the Barnett Branch Trail nears the Pink Beds area more and more pines mix in adding a bit more variety to the woodland surroundings. A bit over two miles after leaving the ridge the Barnett Branch Trail reaches its eastern junction with the Pink Beds Loop Trail at the valley floor. Turning left the two trails coincide for a few hundred yards before the Barnett Branch Trail once again breaks north via a long boardwalk. This boardwalk offers a worthwhile bonus stop for the hike. A minute or so walking out along it allows you a close up look at the extensive high elevation marshes which lie at the heart of the Pink Beds. It’s a great place to rest a spell and enjoy the incredibly unique surroundings. After you’re done back track to the south end of the boardwalk and continue west along the Pink beds Loop. This next stretch of trail, to me, is truly the highlight of this hike. Along this 1.5- mile portion of the loop the path follows rushing streams, crosses numerous tiny tributaries, passes open marsh lands, and wanders through tall pine groves. The diversity of this landscape is remarkable. As is the work it has obviously taken to build a footpath across it. There are a number of bridges, of all shapes and sizes, as well as extensive boardwalks to assist in crossing the wet landscape. It’s very flat also, which is a welcome change from the steep terrain crossed early in the hike. Eventually the trail reaches the west end of the Pink Beds Loop and a short and very wide spur trail leads up to the nearby picnic area.
In the summer the Pink Beds Picnic Area is one of the more popular stops along the U.S. 276 corridor in Pisgah National Forest. If you’re doing a point-to-point hike this is where your hike would end. As it was for me, however, I still had a mile of walking to do along 276 and F.R. 477 to get back to my car. I’m not a huge fan of road walks but, as far as they go, this one isn’t all that bad. The walk along 276 is pretty much flat and, along the way, a couple of the historic buildings contained within the Cradle of Forestry Historic Site can be seen. Just south of the Historic Site Forest Road 477 breaks left uphill into the woods and, a bit over a third-of-a-mile later the loop is complete back at the Cat Gap Trailhead. Overall this is a very enjoyable day hike. The Rich Mountain portion is a decent workout but in my opinion the less interesting half of the hike. The Pink-Beds/Barnett Branch portion offers the best this trek has to offer. The Barnett Branch Trail for its solitude and the Pink Beds area for its amazing diversity and character. It’s an interesting and varied hike and one I’d highly recommend if in the area…especially if you’re planning on visiting the Pink Beds anyway and desire a walk that’s a bit more strenuous. With that I present the Rich Mountain-Pink Beds Loop hike in the Pisgah Ranger District. As always…ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates (F.R. 477): 35.343206, -82.780764
Trailhead GPS Coordinates (Pink Beds): 35.353290, -82.778853
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length (full loop): 6.9 miles Hike Duration: 3:00
Trailhead Temp: 45'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 3,180' Max. Elevation: 4,091'
Total Vertical Gain: 950' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 138'
Trails Used (blaze color): Club Gap (blue), Black Mountain (white), Barnett Branch (blue), Pink Beds Loop (orange)