Barnett Branch Trail -- 3,880'

Soapstone Ridge Loop

The Pink Beds is a high-elevation wetland valley which surrounds the headwaters of the South Fork Mills River. Ringing the valley in every direction are the high ramparts of steep, forested ridgelines. One of them, the Soapstone Ridge, forms much of the valleys southeastern wall. Thickly covered in a typical mid-elevation hardwood forest, the Soapstone is rather unremarkable when compared to its surroundings…just another big green wrinkle in the mountain landscape. Even so, the Soapstone Ridge gets more than its fair share of visitors…though most probably don’t even realize it. With the popular Pink Beds to the north, the highly travelled Wolf Ford area of the South Fork Mills River to the east, and the busy mountain bike trails surrounding Avery Creek to the south the Soapstone Ridge sits at a crossroads of sorts. On this 10-mile loop I’d be able to enjoy small portions of all three of these areas, all the while making a meandering circumnavigation of Soapstone Ridge itself. I can’t say this is the most visually stunning 10-miles of trail but what it lacks in that department it certainly makes up for in diversity with hardwood forests, narrow ridgetops, rhododendron thickets, marshlands, creeks, and waterfalls all being represented. Essentially this hike gives you a tiny taste of all the things that make Pisgah National Forest so wonderful. The plan was to make my journey around Soapstone Ridge via the well-established network of trails which surrounds it. I’d start by utilizing the Gauging Station and Pink Beds Loop Trails before turning to crest and cross the south end of the ridge via the Barnett Branch and Black Mountain Trails. The back side of the hike would see me drop into the valley of the South Fork Mills River via the northern portion of the Buckhorn Gap Trail and the South Mills River Trail, which would return me back where I started. It promised to be an interesting day of hiking, to be sure.

There was one hitch in my plan I discovered upon arriving, however. Forest Service Road 476, which should have taken me the final 1.4-miles to the trailhead from Yellow Gap Road, was gated. I later discovered that flooding the previous winter had washed out small portions of the road and, according the Ranger Office, it will be closed for the foreseeable future. I’d recommend calling ahead to double check the status of the road as adding the 2.8-mile round-trip walk along it pushes this hike from 9.9-miles up to nearly thirteen…which stretches the limits of a dayhike for most. The album, and the following description, begins from the trailhead at the south end of F.R. 476.  Just be prepared for that extra mileage if you’re forced to park up along Yellow Gap Road. Arbitrarily I chose to do the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, which would start me out in the Pink Beds and finish the day along the South Fork Mills River. The hike began by picking up the Gauging Station (Pink Beds Connector) Trail from the upper end of the campsite area located at the end of 476. This trail is fairly flat but can be wet and overgrown at times. The path stays close to the South Fork with frequent views of the river to be enjoyed along its length. In just under a mile you’ll reach the Pink Beds Loop Trail which heads to the right and straight ahead at the junction. Keep straight, staying close alongside the river. After walking through an impressive rhododendron tunnel you’ll soon cross the South Fork on a sturdy wooden bridge. After crossing the bridge the terrain now begins to get a bit hillier as the trail stays just up off the floor of the valley, along the pine-covered western base of Soapstone Ridge. After a mile of walking on the Pink Beds Loop you’ll arrive at a tight right hand bend where the Barnett Branch Trail breaks uphill to the left. Now the climbing begins.

It’s two miles, via the Barnett Branch Trail, from this point to the top of the ridge. That, and a vertical climb of around 900-feet. It’s not a killer grade but it’s enough that you’ll definitely feel it. There’s not much to see along this stretch, just thick surrounding woodlands. In the winter there are some glimpses of the Pisgah Ridge to the north through the treetops but that’s about it. After two miles of continuous climbing the top of the ridge is reached where the Black Mountain Trail is joined. This is the southern end of Soapstone Ridge, at the point where it connects to Rich Mountain which rises to the west. A left (east) turn onto the Black Mountain Trail begins with a continuation of the climb but soon, as the trail rounds the high point of Soapstone, it begins a moderate descent for the next ¾-mile to Buckhorn Gap. Along the way the Buckhorn Gap Shelter is passed. This Adirondack-style shelter is a rarity in the Pisgah Ranger District so it will definitely grab your attention. If anything, it’s a great place to pause for a snack. Buckhorn Gap, where the Soapstone and Black Mountain Ridges connect, is also the crossing point of the Black Mountain and Buckhorn Gap Trails. To keep on the loop, make the sharp left turn north onto the Buckhorn Gap Trail. The 1.8-miles of this footpath between Buckhorn Gap and the South Mills River Trail is a meandering downhill journey along the steep eastern slopes of Soapstone Ridge. Again, there’s not a lot aside from trees to see here, but the ease of the walking and the remoteness of the area make this an enjoyable piece of the hike nonetheless. Atop a broad eastward-reaching arm of the ridge the Buckhorn Gap Trail meets the South Mills River Trail at a large junction. Keep straight ahead here to begin the final leg of the loop.

After a very brief climb over the crest of the aforementioned arm of the ridge the downhill walk resumes. Over the next ¾-mile the South Fork Mills River grows louder and louder below until, just as the trail pulls alongside it, at last you’ll arrive at a large concrete bridge crossing the wide stream.  The fact that the bridge was most definitely built with heavier traffic than hikers or bikers in mind is obvious. The view of the South Fork from the bridge is very pretty as it tumbles by in countless little patches of whitewater. Upon crossing the bridge keep an eye out on the right, where you should be able to easily spot an unmarked path entering the woods. This path offers a bonus stop at a pleasant little waterfall, Billy Branch Falls, if you don’t mind walking an extra ¼ mile. If you decide to make the side trip (and you should!) a few feet of walking down the unmarked path takes you to a split where straight ahead the path drops to cross Billy Branch while a left fork continues upstream. Take the left. The path should remain obvious and, after perhaps 1/10-mile you’ll see Billy Branch Falls ahead just before the path concludes at its base. Billy Branch isn't the biggest waterfall, at about 15', but its form and setting make it very pleasing to the eye. Catch it surrounded by some blooming rhododendron, as I did, and the scene is even more beautiful. After getting your waterfall fix simply retrace your steps back to the main trail and make a right to continue north. The South Mills River Trail remains wide and well-travelled as it follows its namesake river. A bit over a quarter-mile north of the bridge you’ll pass by the short side path to a huge natural pool known as the Otter Hole. It’s a worthwhile place to stop that takes little to no extra effort. Beyond the Otter Hole the trail continues to stay close to the South Fork and also remains nearly flat for the remaining 2/3-mile back to F.R. 476 and the trailhead.

So there you have it, a walk around Soapstone Ridge. At 10-miles this isn’t going to be a hike for everyone but, if that kind of mileage is in your wheelhouse, then I don’t think you’ll find it an exceedingly difficult trek. As mentioned before there’s a good deal of variety in the woodlands you’ll pass through, despite there not being any views to speak of. I found this kept things plenty fresh and enjoyable (and an added waterfall helped too!) for this to be a hike that I wholeheartedly recommend. That said, let’s set out into the woods again…this time for a loop around the unassuming but beautiful Soapstone Ridge. As always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.367448, -82.740396

Alternate Trailhead (if F.R. 476 is gated):  35.381373, -82.742394


Route Type:  Lollipop + spur                                                           

Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  14.60 )

Hike Length:  9.9 miles;   12.5 miles (if F.R. 476 is gated)               Hike Duration:  3:45

Trailhead Temp:  75'F                                                                      Trail Traffic:  1-5 people

Min. Elevation:  3,100'                                                                       Max. Elevation:  4,000'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,050'                                                               Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  106'


Trails Used (blaze color):  Barnett Branch (blue), Black Mountain (white), Buckhorn Gap (orange), Gauging Station (orange), Pink Beds Loop (orange), South Mills River (white)


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