South Mills River Trail via Pink Beds Hike Route Map

South Mills River Trail via Pink Beds (Pisgah 400 Completion Hike)

This was it. Ttwelve months time and over 650-miles of hiking had come down to this one final loooong walk in the woods. Upon completing this trek I’d be able to finally declare victory in my pursuit of the Pisgah 400 Challenge, meaning I would now have hiked all of the officially designated trails in the Pisgah Ranger District. It wouldn’t be an easy walk to the finish line though. The route I had before me was one that would push the boundaries (mileage-wise) of what I personally consider an achievable day hike. Point-to-point there would be the better part of 20-miles to cover this day, along with nearly a dozen deep river fords. All this was to finish one five-mile section of the South Mills River Trail, between Wolf Ford and Cantrell Creek. This short section of trail is one of the more remote bits of pathway in the district, not lending itself well to either a loop hike or an out-and-back (in that you really don’t want to have to do all 11 fords twice). Thus it was that I plotted a course that would start at the Pink Beds Picnic Area and finish up at the Turkey Pen Trailhead, 18-miles away. On the upside, and what made this lengthy trek seem more doable, was that there would be relatively little elevation change to deal with along the way. Therefore, all I’d need to do to make this hike a success was keep putting one foot in front of the other. The anticipation of completing the Pisgah 400 would help immensely in keeping me moving forward as well. Needless to say I knew this particular trip into the woods would end up being a memorable one, and I wasn’t disappointed.

This long day hike begins from the popular Pink Beds Picnic Area, where a short access trail departs alongside a wooden sign leading down to and across Pigeon Branch just across-which the Pink Beds Loop Trail begins. Either direction on the loop requires the same amount of walking to reach the far end of it. Making a left, however, along the north side of the loop involves a much easier and level walk. This first 2.5-miles of the hike rolls gently along the hillsides bordering the northern edge of the Pink Beds. There are no real views to speak of, even in the winter, but the going is easy and the mixture of plant life seen along the way keeps things interesting. At the 2.5-mile mark you’ll reach the far eastern end of the loop at a junction alongside the South Fork Mills River. Say hello, you two will be getting very close from this point on. The Gauging Station Trail departs east from here, winding for another, relatively easy, mile before emerging from the woods at the cluster of campsites located at the south end of Forest Road 476. Stepping up onto the road you should see a large metal gate at its end. This is the western terminus of the South Mills River Trail, which you’ll be following from here on out.

NOTE: As of this writing F.R. 476 has been closed due to flood damage with no estimate for re-opening. When open, you can start from this spot and save 3.5-miles of hiking. Call the Pisgah Ranger Station beforehand, however, to check road status.

The first mile of the South Mills River Trail is all but flat and stays right alongside its namesake. At 2/3-mile from F.R. 476 you’ll pass the spur path to the popular swimming area known as The Otter Hole. At the mile mark you’ll cross the South Fork via an old concrete bridge, which heralds back to a time when the trail you’re walking was utilized as a road. Beyond the bridge is the first major climb of the day as the trail snakes its way up and over what is known as Grassy Ridge. Near the crest of the ridge the lower end of the Buckhorn Gap Trail is passed on the right. This spot is just under a mile past the bridge. A short but steep downhill follows and then the trail sets about a winding, rather monotonous, journey through an area I’ve dubbed the ‘8 Coves’. This two mile stretch of trail preceding Wolf Ford seems an endless winding journey in and out of numerous wooded drainages. I numbered them, allowing myself to track my progress as I went. Personally I found it helpful, you may not care. Three-and-a-half miles past the concrete bridge the South Mills River Trail reaches its broad junction with the Squirrel Gap Trail at the south end of the suspension footbridge at Wolf Ford. A large fallen log makes for a great spot to take a load off and the bridge provides a pretty view up and down the river. Hope the water looks appealing, you’re about to spend a lot of time in it.

The five miles of trail between Wolf Ford and the Cantrell Creek Trail is probably some of the least traveled in the entire district. Partly because of its remoteness, but mostly because hiking it end-to-end requires no less than ELEVEN deep fords. You will get wet on this stretch. Even in drought conditions. Most crossings are knee to waist deep…but I’m six feet tall so adjust accordingly. Departing Wolf ford it only takes 1/10-mile to reach the first wet crossing. If it doesn’t look appealing, just turn around here…none of the next ten are ANY easier. In order, here are the mileage points (measured from Wolf Ford) for each of the crossings:

0.1 mile, 0.4 mile, 1.0 mile, 1.5 miles, 2.0 miles, 2.5 miles, 3.6 miles, 3.8 miles, 3.9 miles, 4.3 miles, and 4.7 miles

Between the second and ninth fords the trail is, at times, quite hard to follow. I went after the growing season ended and didn’t have too much trouble staying on the correct route but, in the summer, there are no doubt stretches that would be unrecognizable as a footpath. Otherwise, from an exertion standpoint, this is a fairly easy section of trail to walk as it is flat to gently rolling the entire way. There’s a few muddy stretches and a few rockier ones, but nothing that you shouldn’t expect this far into the Pisgah backcountry. Also of note…the South Fork is a fairly calm river along this stretch so a slip will, yes, likely result in a good full-body soak, but nowhere will it result in you careening down a ravine or over a waterfall. This IS some of the most remote trail in the District, however, so act wisely as help is at best many hours away. Regardless, like me, you’ll probably be more than a little jubilant after making that final ford and, 1/3-mile later, reaching the end of this incredibly wild stretch of footpath where the Cantrell Creek junction is reached. The junction of the South Mills River Trail and Cantrell Creek Trail is where my pursuit of the Pisgah 400 was completed. It may just be an unremarkable junction for most but, for me, it will be one that forever holds a special place in my heart and mind.

Beyond the junction with the Cantrell Creek Trail you’re getting back into civilization again, relatively speaking. The path is once again wide, you’ll probably begin to pass other hikers again, and (perhaps most importantly) all the river crossing from here on out are bridged. Barely a hundred yards below the Cantrell Creek Trail the trail passes a large stone chimney which marks the original site of the historic Cantrell Creek Lodge. Built in the 1890's as a residence for student rangers at Dr. Carl Schenck's nearby Biltmore School of Forestry, the cabin has since been relocated to the Cradle of Forestry Historic Site where it has been restored and is open to tour. The walk from the Cantrell Creek Trail to the parking area at the Turkey Pen Trailhead is a bit over four miles in length. It’s an easy four miles, for the most part, but as you’ll have 14-miles underfoot already it’ll probably drag a bit..but hey, at least you’ll be staying dry! The first bridge is a flat 1/3-mile from the lodge site, followed by the Wagon Road Gap Trail on the right at a mile, and then a second bridge 1/10-mile later. The route stays almost perfectly flat for the next mile at which point the Poundingmill Trail is passed on the left. A nice riverside rock is just east of the junction, offering a beautiful spot for a quick break. The next mile and a quarter sees more elevation change again as the trail follows the winding river closely at first, and then high up the bluffs alongside it. The Mullinax Trail is passed on the left at the crest of the final climb. A quarter-mile past the Mullinax junction watch for the trail to make a sharp hairpin turn to the right, after-which you’ll make your final bridged crossing of the South Fork. A right turn at the far end and a moderately steep half-mile of climbing later and you’ll reach the end of the day at the Turkey Pen Trailhead.

I think by now you can tell this is a hike that’s only going to appeal to a very specific (some might say crazy) group of hikers. If you do the hike in its entirety, as described here, you absolutely need to a) be in great shape, b)be a self-reliant backcountry traveler, c)be comfortable with deep swift-water crossings, and d)be smart enough to bring (and more importantly, read) a map. If you can’t check all of those boxes you have no business attempting this hike. Seriously, both you and the rangers which will inevitably have to pull you out will thank me. Those than can make the trip, however, will get to experience a slice of Pisgah National Forest that very very few ever see. The landscape isn’t as dramatic as some other parts of the forest, but the sense of remoteness is palpable the farther you get from the road. Beyond that there’s not much more I can say that won’t be better presented by scrolling through the following album. Lace up the boots tight and, if necessary, be sure to wear your arm duckies…this is a wild and wet adventure...and it’s awesome. It's my great pleasure to present you a hike along the South Fork Mills River, from the Pink Beds Picnic Area to the Turkey Pen Trailhead…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.353469, -82.778755  (Pink Beds Picnic Area Trailhead)

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.342837, -82.659439  (Turkey Pen Trailhead)

Route Type:  Point-to-point         Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  19.20 )

Hike Length:  17.8 miles                Hike Duration:  1:45

Trailhead Temp:  35'F                   Trail Traffic:  1-5 people

Min. Elevation:  2,400'                   Max. Elevation:  3,300'

Total Vertical Gain:  700'              Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  39'

Trail Used (blaze color):  Gauging Station (orange), Pink Beds Loop (orange), South Mills River (white)


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