South Mills River Trail -- 2,500'

Turkeypen Area - Sharpy Mountain Loop (12-8-18)

This hike would mark my first foray into the portion of the Pisgah Ranger District accessed by the Turkeypen Trailhead, located just east of Brevard. Despite being within minutes of my home this area never really registered on my radar. The main reason for this is that there aren’t really any stand-out natural attractions to speak of in the area serviced by its trails. There are a number of loop hikes to be made from the trailhead but all consist of, for the most part, long walks in the woods. No mountain top vistas and no major waterfalls. That and the area is very popular with horseback riders…and while I’m very much in favor of all forms of recreation in the forest I tend to avoid trails where I’m likely to step on a horse grenade along the way. Now that the completionist bug has hit me to hike all the trails in the District, however, it was time to do my first exploratory trek into the area. To my surprise, and with a little help from an approaching snow storm, this turned out to be a very memorable and enjoyable hike. If the hikes which follow, in the Turkeypen Area, are anything like it then I have a number of very fun days ahead of me.

The hike would begin and end from the large parking area at the Turkeypen Trailhead, located at the end of Turkeypen Road, about 1.2-miles from NC-280 just east of Brevard. Three main trails leave from this parking area. The South Mills River Trail, which I’d utilize on the back half of the hike, leaves from the north end of the lot. Departing east and west from the center of the parking area are, in turn, the Vineyard Gap Trail and the Turkeypen Gap Trail. To start the hike I’d depart westward via the Turkeypen Gap Trail. If you go on a cold day, like I did, this trail will warm you up quickly. Climbing at a moderately steep grade the trail first seeks out the top of the nearby ridge, eases a short while, then attacks the even steeper north slope of Sharpy Mountain. There’s not much to see along this stretch, much of which cuts through thick groves of rhododendron. It’s possible that on clearer winter days there may be fleeting glimpses of the surrounding hills as you climb but, on my visit, clouds and a rain/snow mix shrouded all but the closest trees. After cresting the forested, viewless summit of Sharpy Mountain the trail descends the equally steep western slopes of the mountain to the crest of the ridge which continues west towards Wagon Road Gap. This ridge top portion of the hike is much easier than what comes before as the trail bounces up and down over numerous minor knobs. The surroundings continue to be unremarkable as the path cuts in and out of still more rhododendron groves (notice a pattern forming?) and through short stretches of open woodlands. About 2.4-miles from the trailhead the Turkeypen Gap Trail arrives at Wagon Road Gap where the Wagon Road Gap Trail breaks right to head off the north side of the ridge. The first half of its ¾-mile length is moderately steep as it departs the ridge but the Wagon Road Gap Trail soon levels out some as it approaches an area simply known as ‘Big Cove’. Big Cove is beautiful but at the same time depressing. Huge hemlocks stand here but most are now just skeletons, killed in recent years by the hemlock woolly adelgid epidemic plaguing much of the Southern Appalachians. It’s heartbreaking to realize what standing beneath this grove must have been like during healthier years when huge green branches would shelter hikers from falling snow in winter or provide cooling shade in the heat of summer. The Wagon Road Gap Trail only extends a few hundred feet beyond the grove where it meets the South Mills River Trail where, by making a right turn, the second half of this loop hike begins.

The South Mills River Trail is immediately different than the trails that precede it on this hike. First off it’s wide, thanks to its former life as a major roadway along the shore of the South Fork Mills River. Secondly, it’s almost completely flat which offers a welcome respite from the steep terrain that comes before it. Heading east from the Wagon Road Gap Trail the path quickly makes a crossing of the South Fork Mills River via a cool-looking suspension-style bridge. It looks like a sturdy crossing but take care. On my visit one of the cables at mid span had broken loose causing a distressing lean to the right as I passed. Hopefully it’s fixed in the near future but I thought it appropriate to give a heads up. Beyond the bridge the trail follows the wide, flat floodplain which runs alongside the north side of the river. There’s not a lot to see though there are a couple glimpses of the South Fork to spice things up. On the downside, the hemlock devastation continues. Absolutely massive hemlocks, mostly now dead, either stand hauntingly or lean precariously all around. It is a truly heartbreaking sight. A bit over a mile the South Mills River Trail reaches the junction with the Poundingmil Trail before starting a gradual climb up out of the floodplain it has traveled thus far. This second half of the South Mills River Trail is thus hillier but, to me, that just helped keep things interesting. In a couple spots the trail does return to the edge of the river…one particularly nice spot is located where a long sloping ledge reaches out to almost mid-stream. Other than that though this stretch offers more of the same general scenery which has come before it.  A bit over a mile past the Poundingmill Trail the Mullinax Trail is passed after which the path begins a descent back towards the river.  Keep an eye out on the right about a quarter mile past this junction.  Here the trail splits with what sems to be the main trail continuing straight ahead and another, smaller, footpath cutting back to the right.  The trail straight ahead is intended for horses and leads to a deep ford of the South Fork Mills River.  The path on the right leads to a footbridge which offers a drier option for crossing if you're on foot. Once across the bridge take a right to climb the remaining half-mile finish the hike.

Overall this isn't the most spectacular of hikes.  It does offer good variety, however.  Half ridge top hike, half riverside walk it offers up just enough change in scenery to keep things interesting.  This was only my first foray onto the trail system surrounding the Turkeypen Trailhead so its far to early to say which loop I prefer in the area but, if the rest are like this one, it will be an interesting time of exploring in the near future.  That all said I now present you with my hike around the Sharpy Mountain Loop from the Turkeypen Trailhead.  As always...ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.342883, -82.659210


Route Type:  Loop                      Difficulty:  HARD  (Petzoldt Rating:  8.90 )

Hike Length:  6.7 miles                Hike Duration:  3:00

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

Min. Elevation:  2,400'                  Max. Elevation:  3,320'

Total Vertical Gain:  1,100'            Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  164'


Trails Used (blaze color):  South Mills River (white), Turkeypen Gap (blue), Wagon Road Gap (orange)


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