Turkeypen Area -- Riverside Trail Loop
Of all the loop hikes one can create from the Turkeypen Trailhead, this is one that you’ll probably want to save for the warm season. The main reason being is that this one requires a lot of time spent in the water. It’s not an overly difficult hike…there’s relatively little elevation change to deal with over its 7.4-mile length. In place of this there are NINE required fords…four of Bradley Creek and five of the larger South Fork Mills River. All are guaranteed fords as well. It won’t matter how dry the weather has been, none will be shallow enough to rock hop at any time. During regular flows most are around knee-deep or less. During periods of high water don’t even attempt it. All this might sound like too much trouble to deal with but, let me say, if you catch conditions just right this can be a very enjoyable hike. During the hot days of summer the repeated dips in the cool mountain waters of these streams is welcome and refreshing. You’ll also find this section of the Turkeypen trail system substantially less visited, so you’ll likely have these sections of river all to yourself. Let’s go play in the water a bit, shall we?
The hike would begin from the aforementioned Turkeypen Trailhead, which is located at the end of Turkeypen Road, off N.C. Highway 280, just to the east of Brevard. Three trails break out in different directions from the parking lot at the trailhead. The one I was interested in to start this hike would be the South Mills River Trail which departs alongside the large kiosk at the upper end of the lot. The trail begins with a moderate descent for about a half-mile where it turns to cross the South Fork Mills River via an impressive suspension-type footbridge. Instead of crossing the bridge, go straight ahead at this junction onto the Bradley Creek Trail. The next mile is all but flat as the trail follows along the east/south shore of the South Fork. At the 1.5-mile mark you’ll come to your first ford of the day. If the South Fork Mills River looks sketchy to cross just turn back and save this hike for another day. If you do make the crossing the Bradley Creek Trail continues along the river’s edge another half-mile to its southern junction with the Riverside Trail. This is where the loop portion of the hike begins. There’s really no advantage from a difficulty standpoint in going one way or the other around the loop. I chose to hike it in a clockwise direction simply to get the one serious climb out of the way early and to save the river crossings for the back half of the trek. Staying left on the Bradley Creek Trail you now begin the most serious climb of the day as the trail climbs around 200 vertical feet over the next 1/3 mile on the way to Pea Gap. It’s not a grueling climb by any measure, but it will warm up the leg muscles. Once at Pea Gap the trail now makes a brief descent to cross tiny Pea Branch then makes a sharp right turn, to continue down the valley, at its junction with the Squirrel Gap Trail. The hike down the narrow valley is moderately steep but it’s over in a relatively short time and soon the Bradley Creek Trail emerges right along the shore of its namesake stream. Two-thirds of a mile beyond the Squirrel Gap Trail you’ll reach the northern junction of the Bradley Creek and Riverside Trails. This is the point where the hike takes a decidedly wetter turn, and it does so immediately.
Turning onto the Riverside Trail you immediately have to ford Bradley Creek. This is probably the shallowest ford of the day but it’s still deep enough that it is guaranteed to always be a wet crossing. Beyond the first ford the trail now follows the route of an abandoned forest road as it winds along Bradley Creek. There are three more crossings of the creek to be made…located at approximately 6/10-mile, 8/10-mile, and finally 1-mile beyond the first crossing. Pay close attention as you near the fourth crossing. The Riverside Trail makes a hard right through some thick brush to cross the creek while a more inviting fisherman’s trail heads straight. It’s an easy intersection to walk right by if you’re not paying attention. After making the lower crossing of Bradley Creek the route of the Riverside Trail is a bit hard to follow as, suddenly, blazes disappear. To stay on track head towards the hillside straight ahead and then bear left. In a short distance you should pick up the path and pass the signed junction with the Vineyard Gap Trail, arriving from the south. Now, for the next 2.5-miles, the Riverside Trail will be following the South Fork Mills River. Another four crossings are made along this stretch…at approximately the 1/3-mile, 1.5-mile, 2-mile, and 2.3-mile marks past the Vineyard Gap junction. The route in between the fords remains flat though, particularly along the eastern portion, it can be quite overgrown in places. Take care, also, at each of these crossings. The South Fork is a swifter and deeper stream than Bradley Creek was so keeping sure footing is more important here. After the fourth crossing the trail climbs the bank and soon arrives back at the junction with the Bradley Creek Trail where the loop began.
Upon rejoining the Bradley Creek Trail all there is left to do is retrace your steps the 1.5-miles back to the trailhead…crossing the South Fork one last time and then making the final moderate climb back to the parking lot at the end. Overall this an adventurous little loop. I think I’ve spelled out the potential difficulties you’ll encounter well enough that you can decide on your own if this hike sounds like something you’d like to tackle. Effort-wise it’s not out of reach for most people who have ability to walk the 7+ miles. It all boils down to how much you enjoy spending time in the water on your hikes. Hopefully a glance through this album will give you a good taste of what to expect. That said, I now invite you on a loop hike combining the Riverside Trail and the southern portion of the Bradley Creek Trail from the Turkeypen Trailhead. As always…I hope you ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.342883, -82.659210
Route Type: Lollipop Difficulty: HARD (due to multiple river fords)
Hike Length: 7.4 miles Hike Duration: 3:15
Trailhead Temp: 75'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,270' Max. Elevation: 2,620'
Total Vertical Gain: 550' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 74'
Trails Used (blaze color): Bradley Creek (orange), Riverside (yellow), South Mills River (white)