Beaver Dam Gap Overlook -- 3,570'

Trace Ridge-Spencer Branch-North Mills River Loop (3-17-19)

The Trace Ridge area is one of the major hubs for mountain biking in the Pisgah Ranger District. Located about 2.5-miles north of the busy North Mills River Recreation Area there are few weekends out of the year you won’t find a full or nearly-full parking lot at this trailhead. Due to its business and its reputation as a mountain biking destination, the Trace Ridge network of trails has never really registered on my radar as a prime place for a hike. Beginning with this trip, though, that’s about to change. Due to my self-imposed challenge to hike all of the Pisgah Ranger District trails I’ll be making a number of trips to Trace Ridge in the near future. This hike would be my introduction. The plan was to utilize the Trace Ridge, Spencer Branch, and North Mills River Trails to provide a comprehensive first-look at the area. Along the way I’d make a ridge-top climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a winding descent through beautiful mid-elevation cove forests, and even get my feet wet with nine fords of the North Mills River. Needless to say there was a lot of variety to be had on this trek and, despite not being on two wheels, I found it to be a thoroughly rewarding experience.

The hike would begin from the aforementioned Trace Ridge Trailhead. The Trace Ridge Trail here cuts across the parking area from north to south. To begin I’d be heading northbound. The first three miles of the hike would essentially be one long uphill walk. With a few exceptions the route is an almost continuous ascent along the trails namesake ridge. Relatively low elevations and the generally broad nature of the ridge means there aren’t any real views to speak of, unless you count the limited glimpses through the treetops the leafless season provides. After 2.5-miles of climbing the Trace Ridge Trail makes a minor descent to its junction with the Spencer Branch trail, arriving up from the valley to the east. The loop eventually continues down this trail but, on this particular hike, I would first be making the additional one mile round-trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to make sure I completed all of the Trace Ridge Trail. From the Spencer Branch Trail the route continues its moderate climb, passing the Spencer Gap Trail within the first couple hundred feet, and soon reaches the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of the Beaver Dam Gap Overlook. If you’re like me you’ll probably be itching for a view of some type by this point so I’d encourage making the short stroll over to the overlook to enjoy a beautiful panorama facing the valley of Wash Creek to the south. After the view retrace your steps back to the Trace Ridge Trail and take it the half-mile back to the Spencer Branch Trail, now on the right.

The Spencer Branch Trail is probably the nicest trail of this hike. It obviously was designed with bikers in mind as it descends the ridge in long sweeping turns which make things easy on the knees as well as giving you an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful forest which surrounds you here. After a bit over a mile the trail makes a dog-leg right to cross Forest Road 5097 and then continues down the valley at an easy grade soon pulling up alongside, and hopping across a few times, its namesake stream. A half-mile below 5097 the trail passes a large, flat wetland where Spencer Branch joins with Fletcher Creek. Two miles from the Trace Ridge Trail, and a mile below 5097 you reach the broad junction with the Fletcher Creek Trail which crosses the Spencer Branch Trail on an angle from north to south. There’s a choice to be made here. The loop as I hiked this day continues south on the Spencer Branch Trail. In the next mile there will be three fords (NOT rock-hops…fords) to contend with. If this doesn’t sound like fun you can make a left on the Fletcher Creek Trail here and follow it for a mile to where it rejoins my loop a short distance below the Hendersonville Reservoir Dam at Forest Road 142. If you’re following my route continue on the Spencer Branch Trail. In a short distance it makes its first ford across Fletcher Creek and then makes a confusing sharp left and then immediately keeps left where the Fletcher Creek trail breaks right. You’ll now immediately have to ford the Middle Fork of Fletcher Creek. After crossing the trail follows the creek downstream for a bit over a half-mile, fords the creek again and then climbs the steep ridge above the Hendersonville Reservoir which you’ll see below. One mile below the Fletcher Creek Trail junction you’ll emerge onto Forest Road 142.

The loop now turns northeast (left) but first take a couple minutes to enjoy the falling water at the nearby Hendersonville Reservoir Dam, visible just a short distance to the right. After the dam begin a three-quarter mile road walk along F.R. 142. Don’t worry about motorized traffic here, this road is closed to all but official vehicles. The road stays fairly level for its first bit, passing along a large wildlife opening, and then climbs slightly before descending again and reaching the lower end of the North Mills River Trail marked by a large grassy pull-off on the right. Here again there’s a decision to be made. I would be following the North Mills River Trail but that once again means fords…lots of them. Over its roughly two mile length this path crosses its namesake river no less than nine times. This is a substantial river too so most crossings are wide and at minimum knee deep. If this doesn’t sound like fun you can just keep following F.R. 142 from here for another three-quarter miles and you’ll arrive back at the Turkeypen Trailhead high and dry. If you’re like me though it’s time to get wet. For its first few hundred yards the North Mills River Trail stays away from the water, passing alongside some nice grassy riverfront campsites. After that the crossings come fast and furious. If you reach the first crossing and don’t like the looks of things, turn back…none of the crossings following are any easier. Beyond the first ford there are eight more such crossings in 0.3, 0.4, 0.5, 0.6, 0.8, 0.85, 1, and 1.1 miles. There is a tenth crossing but, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate by that point, it’s bridged. I can understand how this last bit of the hike might not sound all that fun but, if you’re like me, you’ll appreciate it as a bit of an adventure and enjoy the solitude that such a trail inevitably provides. Soon after the final bridged crossing the trail enters a large field where, beneath a large solitary tree, the Trace Ridge Trail breaks left to begin the last portion of the loop.

From the river the Trace Ridge Trail begins a gradual climb which might feel strange after such a long time walking the flat river bottoms. In a bit under a half-mile the junction with the Wash Creek Trail is reached at the base of a recently logged hillside. Making a hard left here there is a brief steep stretch before reaching the crest of the ridge which, thanks to the logging, offers some nice views of the hills to the east. After another half-mile of walking you’ll emerge from the trees back where you began at the Trace Ridge Trailhead. Overall, as stated before, this hikes appeal to me lies in its variety. Ridgetop views don’t often combine with river-walks. As expected I did encounter a good deal of bike traffic but as long as you pay attention to noises coming from above you should have no trouble. These trails are here for all of us so it’s good to remember to be aware and share nicely. That said come along with me as I make the walk around the Trace Ridge-Spencer Branch-North Mills River Loop…and as always, ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.420416, -82.656746


Route Type:  Loop + spur           Difficulty:  EXTREME  (Petzoldt Rating:  13.80 )

Hike Length:  10.9 miles              Hike Duration:  1:45

Trailhead Temp:  35'F                  Trail Traffic:  25-50 people (mostly bikers)

Min. Elevation:  2,260'                  Max. Elevation:  3,600'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,450'           Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  133'


Trails Used (blaze color):  North Mills River (blue), Spencer Branch (yellow), Trace Ridge (orange)


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