Monday, September 28, 2015

Pisgah National Forest: John Rock (Blog Hike #549)

Trails: Cat Gap Loop, Cat Gap Bypass, and John Rock Trails
Hike Location: Pisgah National Forest
Geographic Location: northwest of Brevard, NC
Length: 5.4 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: September 2015
Overview: A mostly moderate but occasionally steep loop hike featuring views from John Rock.

Directions to the trailhead: From the US 276/US 64 split on the north side of Brevard, take US 276 west 5.3 miles to Fish Hatchery Road (FR 475).  Take a soft left on Fish Hatchery Rd.  Drive Fish Hatchery Rd. 1.5 miles to the combined fish hatchery and Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education on the left.  Park in the large blacktop lot in front of the center.

The hike: Often overlooked in favor of Looking Glass Rock, its larger and more famous neighbor, John Rock rises nearly 800 feet above the south side of the Davidson River valley.  During the Great Depression the parking lot at this hike’s trailhead was the site of Camp John Rock, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp that operated from 1933 until 1941.  The young men of Camp John Rock built many of the roads and trails in this part of the national forest.
            The area’s main attractions today are the more modern Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and its adjacent fish hatchery.  The center contains some interesting exhibits about the forest, and both the center and fish hatchery are worth a stop either before or after your hike.  Speaking of which, the large center parking area also serves as trailhead parking for this popular and excellent loop hike to John Rock.  While you likely will not have this trail to yourself, many of the people that come here visit only the center and fish hatchery, so it may not be as crowded as it appears.  When I came here on a Labor Day weekend, the parking area for nearby Looking Glass Rock was overflowing with dozens of cars parked in ditches on either side of the road, but I had no trouble finding a parking spot here.
Fish hatchery trailhead
            Begin by walking down the paved extension of the entrance road that runs between the parking lot and the fish hatchery.  Very quickly you come to a metal vehicle gate and a brown carsonite post that marks the fish hatchery trailhead.  Walk around the gate, cross John Rock Branch on an old vehicle bridge, then immediately arrive at an intersection with the Cat Gap Loop Trail.  Turn right to begin hiking the orange-blazed Cat Gap Loop counterclockwise.
            The trail climbs steeply for a brief time before leveling out in a grove of pine trees.  A metal chain link fence has been installed immediately to the right of the trail to prevent unauthorized access to the fish hatchery area.  At 0.3 miles, you cross a gravel road that leads to another fish spawning pool.
            Across the road, the trail curves left and begins climbing again on a moderate grade.  Some unmarked spur trails exit left and lead steeply downhill to some scenic cascades in Grogan Creek.  If you have a little extra time and energy, these side trips are worth taking for the aquatic scenery and audio they offer.
Cascade in Grogan Creek
            At 0.8 miles, you reach an area called Picklesimer Fields and an intersection with the blue-blazed Butter Gap Trail, which exits right.  Another brown carsonite post marks this intersection.  The Cat Gap Loop turns left to cross Grogan Creek on a bridge built out of three tree trunks.  Bridges like this one look suspect, but they are common on trails in this part of the national forest.  Large numbers of mountain laurel grow here and make this area especially scenic in June.
Crossing a tree-trunk bridge
            1 mile into the hike, you reach a dispersed campsite located in a pine planting.  Follow the orange paint blazes to stay on the trail.  The trail crosses a tributary of Grogan Creek twice, once via another tree trunk bridge and again via a rock hop.  The grade intensifies after this last creek crossing as the trail uses switchbacks to summit a finger ridge before curving right to climb along the ridge.
Climbing on Cat Gap Loop
            At 1.8 miles, the Cat Gap Loop turns right where the Cat Gap Bypass Trail continues straight.  Yet another brown carsonite post marks this intersection.  If you insist on visiting Cat Gap, you can turn right here to continue the Cat Gap Loop, but Cat Gap requires another 200 feet of climbing that earns you no views or other scenic rewards.  Thus, most hikers heading to John Rock continue straight to start the Cat Gap Bypass Trail, as does this trail description.
            After the long moderate climb you just endured, the yellow-blazed Cat Gap Bypass Trail is surprisingly flat and easy.  Indeed, the Cat Gap Bypass Trail gains only 100 feet over its 0.6 mile length.  The ravine containing John Rock Branch drops to your left, but no real views emerge.
            2.4 miles into the hike, you reach the east end of the Cat Gap Bypass Trail and a major trail intersection with trails going straight, left, and right.  The Cat Gap Loop goes straight and right with the downhill route going straight heading back to the fish hatchery and the uphill route going right leading to Cat Gap.  This hike turns left to begin the John Rock Trail and head for its namesake rock.
Climbing on John Rock Trail
            Now comes the steepest part of the hike, as the rough and eroded John Rock Trail gains more than 150 feet of elevation in less than 0.2 miles.  At 2.6 miles, you top a small knob that is the highest elevation of the hike (950 feet above the fish hatchery).  The narrow trail now descends more than it ascends as it heads north out a narrow finger ridge.  You pass a couple more established campsites as you head out the ridge.
            Just past 3 miles into the hike, the unsigned spur trail to the John Rock overlook exits left.  Turn left here and very quickly reach the highlight of this hike.  The bare granite outcrop known as John Rock offers excellent views to the north across the Davidson River valley.  Looking Glass Rock takes center stage, while the ridge that contains the Blue Ridge Parkway looms in the background.  The fish hatchery can be seen directly below, and you may be able to pick out your car depending on which part of the parking lot you parked in.  The overlook area is not particularly large, and no railings protect you from the vertical cliffs that lie ahead, so watch your footing and children at this overlook.
Looking Glass Rock, as seen from John Rock
            After taking in the view, retrace your steps back up the spur trail to the John Rock Trail and turn left to continue the John Rock Trail.  The somewhat narrow trail passes through a tunnel of mountain laurel as it descends at first gradually and then more steeply.  At 3.7 miles, you cross a small spring-fed stream before curving left to begin heading downhill through the stream’s ravine.  A couple more tree-trunk bridges are used to cross other streams.
            4.2 miles into the hike, the John Rock Trail ends at a junction with the Cat Gap Loop, which goes left and right.  Turn left to continue descending on the Cat Gap Loop.  You are now descending into a hollow known as Horse Cove, and the descent becomes more gradual the lower you get.  At 4.5 miles, you cross a gravel forest service road just before crossing wide but shallow Horse Cove Creek on stepping stones.
Davidson River
            The remainder of the hike passes through creekside and riverside habitats as it curves left to head west for the fish hatchery.  A couple of less rustic footbridges (as opposed to tree-trunk bridges) are crossed, and the Davidson River comes into sight downhill to the right.  Some more campsites are also located to the right, and at a double orange paint blaze you need to turn left to stay on the main trail rather than take the campsite spur that heads right.  At 5.3 miles, you cross John Rock Branch on a large trail bridge that has seen its better days.  Continue straight after crossing the bridge to return to the east end of the fish hatchery parking lot and complete the loop.


  1. Hello, just stumbled across your blog in search of info about a hike we're doing. I've got littles in tow, so we're not ready for a few of these just yet ;) Thanks for the inspiration, and I've signed on as a follower; I write a bit about Greenville and some of the (less) intense hikes we do, I hope you'll stop in for a visit!

    1. Thanks for the comment and the follow. I wouldn't want to take small kids up to John Rock either, especially if you have several of them. Wait until they are early teenagers or such. Nearby DuPont State Forest has some nice waterfall hikes for the entire family.

      See you on the trail,

      David, aka The Mathprofhiker