Trail: Pink Beds Loop Trail
, Pink Beds Picnic
Geographic Location: north of
NC (35.35342, -82.77872)
Length: 5.2 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2017
Overview: A fairly flat lollipop loop, half along the South Fork of the
and half through rolling foothills. Mills River
Area Information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recarea/?recid=48238
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=733769
Directions to the trailhead: From Brevard, take US 276 north 14.8 miles to the signed Pink Beds Picnic Area on the right. Park in the large and only parking lot.
The hike: Located only 4 miles off of the
Ridge Parkway southwest of Asheville,
the Cradle of Forestry in America
celebrates the site of the first forestry school in the United
Originally part of the vast Biltmore Estate, the school operated from
1898 until 1909. In 1916, was established,
and the school site and 87,000 acres of the Vanderbilt’s estate formed the
nucleus of the new national forest. The
site was declared a heritage site by Congress in 1968, and today reconstructed
buildings allow you to tour the school as it once was. Pisgah
While only a short system of paved trails runs through the heritage site, a more natural hiking experience can be had at the adjacent Pink Beds Picnic Area. The origin of the pink beds’ name is not clear, but some people think it refers to the large amount of pink rhododendron that used to grow in this valley. The 5 mile Pink Beds Loop Trail that starts at the picnic area is somewhat popular because it offers one of the area’s few fairly flat hikes of significant distance. Nevertheless, do not be dissuaded if the picnic area parking lot is rather full as it was on my visit: most visitors never leave the picnic area, and I passed only a few other hikers on the trail.
|Trailhead: Pink Beds Picnic Area|
Start at the northeast corner of the parking area where a gated two-track dirt road heads into the woods. A wooden sign with a rough drawing of the trail’s route stands here. After crossing a stream on a wooden footbridge, the trail splits to form its loop. The two halves of the loop have very different flavors. The east arm of the loop stays near the South Fork of the
and has a riverside/wetland
feel, while the west arm of the loop is more rolling with a foothills
feel. To get to the river more quickly,
I chose to turn right and use the left trail as my return route, thus hiking
the loop counterclockwise. Mills
The trail descends very gradually to reach the first of several boardwalks. Built in 2013, these wide, expensive-looking boardwalks carry you over some wetlands along the river. At some points the old boardwalk still sits beside the new, so you can clearly see the improvement. Although a few wet areas still need to be negotiated, this part of the hike used to be much muddier and wetter than it is now.
|New (left) and old (right) boardwalks|
The trail along the river alternates between sunny, grassy wetland and shady woodlands with a dense understory of rhododendron and ferns. Orange rectangular paint blazes mark the way, but the path is wide and easy to follow for the most part. The trail goes back and forth across the river, which at this elevation is more of a creek than a river.
|Odd bridge across river|
Just past 1 mile, you cross the river on a very unusual bridge. A huge log has fallen across the river here, and a man-made bridge carries you halfway across the river to the log, which in turn takes you the rest of the way. I was a little concerned about footing on the log, but I had no problems crossing. 0.1 miles later, where the trail appears to dead-end at the river bank, you need to turn right and cross a narrow footbridge. Watch for the orange blazes to stay on the trail.
At 1.5 miles, the Pink Beds Loop Trail crosses and briefly joins the blue-blazed Barnett Branch Trail. The Barnett Branch Trail cuts through the middle of our loop, so turning left and walking across the boardwalk would lead to the western half of our loop. Such a route would provide a shorter loop of only 3.3 miles. Heading east on the Barnett Branch Trail would climb 700 vertical feet to intersect the Black Mountain Trail. Follow the orange blazes to remain on the Pink Beds Loop Trail.
Next you climb gradually on a section of trail that was rerouted in the early 2010’s to avoid a riverside area flooded by beaver dams. While no real overlooks are obtained, the trail gets just high enough that partially obstructed views of the
Parkway’s ridge crest to the west can be had
through the trees. Just past 2 miles,
the trail drops steeply to return to the river and cross it for the final
time. A couple of established campsites
are located in this area.
|South Fork of the Mills River|
Near 2.5 miles, you reach a trail intersection. A spur trail to a river gauging station and an alternate trailhead continues straight along the river, but our loop turns left to leave the riverside area for good. Carsonite posts and orange blazes mark your options at this intersection.
In another 0.4 miles, the trail curves sharply left at a turn marked by double orange blazes. This point is where the hike changes character, as a gradual climb into the surrounding foothills now begins. The difference between maximum and minimum elevations is only a little more than 100 feet, so the grade remains mostly gradual. Lots of pine and oak trees live in this valley edge, and some short stretches on bare rock will need to be negotiated.
|Hiking through rolling foothills|
After reaching the highest point on the hike, the trail drops to cross a pair of small streams. The second of these stream crossings looks like a wet ford, but if you look to the right you will see a narrow but functional wooden footbridge. At 3.6 miles, the Barnett Branch Trail crosses our trail. Continue straight to remain on the Pink Beds Loop.
More up and down takes you beside a sequence of wildlife openings, or meadow areas that are mowed occasionally to prevent the surrounding woodlands from encroaching. While I saw no wildlife of note here on my mid-afternoon hike, these wildlife openings would be prime deer-viewing areas in the morning and evening. An old Bureau of Roads marker also sits beside the trail here.
Immediately after passing the last wildlife opening, you close the loop. Angle right to return to the picnic area parking lot and complete the hike. Be sure to stop by the adjacent Cradle of Forestry in
to see the recreated forestry school before you conclude your visit to the Pink