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Touring the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains

North Carolina Forest Heritage Scenic Drive Map
Touring Pisgah National Forest and Shining Rock Wilderness

North Carolina: Pisgah National Forest
North Carolina: Pisgah National Forest.gif
Courtesy weather.com

General description: A 65-mile paved road through the heart of the Pisgah Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest, past waterfalls, historic sites, mountain overlooks, and miles of lush, undeveloped forest.

Location: Southwestern North Carolina. The drive starts at the junction of US 276 and US 64 on the northeast edge of Brevard.

Drive route numbers: US 276, NC 215.

Travel season: Year-round; winter snow can make travel difficult at times.

Special attractions: Pisgah National Forest, Cradle of Forestry in America Visitor Center, Pink Beds, Looking Glass Falls, Looking Glass Rock, Slide Rock, Shining Rock Wilderness, Middle Prong Wilderness, rock climbing, hiking, fishing, swimming, fall colors, scenic views.

Camping: The Pisgah National Forest manages Davidson River and Sunburst Campgrounds along the route.

Services: All services are available in Brevard.

Nearby attractions: Nantahala National Forest, Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Biltmore Estate, Whitewater Falls, Cullasaja Gorge. (See North Carolina Map Homepage : Scenic Map Routes and Touring Maps.)

The drive: This is a big loop through the Pisgah Ranger District in 495,000-acre Pisgah National Forest, past enough sights to keep you occupied for days. The Pisgah is the second largest national forest in North Carolina. The Pisgah Ranger District is one of four districts within the forest; it's noteworthy since it is the place where modern American forestry practices were developed. Covering about 157,000 acres, the district ranges in elevation from 2,000 feet above sea level to a 6,140-foot peak at Richland Balsam Mountain.

The drive starts on the northeast end of Brevard at the big, commercial intersection of US 64 and US 276. Take US 276 north into the Pisgah National Forest. As you enter the forest, you will almost immediately leave behind the commercial bustle. Although US 276 is a relatively busy highway, it's still calm compared to what you've just come through.

You'll soon pass Sycamore Flats picnic area on the left, followed shortly by Davidson River Campground. The Davidson River was named for Benjamin Davidson, a Revolutionary War veteran who settled here. The Pisgah Visitor Center is just beyond the campground on the right. You may want to stop in for national forest maps and information. From the visitor center, the road follows the river upstream past Coontree Picnic Area.

FR 475 forks off to the left about 0.5 mile past Coontree, following the Davidson River upstream. The road is worth a side trip. In about 0.4 mile it leads to a trailhead for Looking Glass Rock. A fairly strenuous hiking trail leads about 3 miles to the top of the rocky peak, a great spot for dramatic views of the surrounding mountains. The peak's slopes are cliffs, some of which are not quite vertical. After a rain or a frosty night, water runs down the cliff faces, making the shiny rock reflect the sun like a mirror. Climbers are attracted to the rock faces here.

Farther up FR 475, a little past the Looking Glass Rock trailhead, you can visit a trout hatchery run by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Trout are raised here for stocking in area streams. For a cheap thrill, buy some fish food here and watch as the trout go into a feeding frenzy when you toss it into the water. For another hiking option, follow the trail that leads into the John Rock Scenic Area next to the hatchery.

Back road fans can continue up gravel FR 475B past the hatchery. The road climbs out of the river bottom in about a mile, leading to a very short trail to Slick Rock Falls. This modest waterfall drops over an overhanging ledge and is well named; don't go anywhere near its top. The trail continues above the falls toward Looking Glass Rock. FR 475B continues circling Looking Glass Rock, passing another Looking Glass Trailhead and eventually rejoining US 276. If you follow FR 475B all the way to US 276, be sure to turn right and go back down US 276 to the junction of FR 475, or you will miss Sliding Rock and impressive Looking Glass Falls.

From the US 276 and FR 475 junction, continue up US 276, 0.3 mile to the large pullout on the right at Looking Glass Falls. On weekends and in summer, this is a busy spot. The falls plunge over a dark rock ledge in a single 60-foot cascade. The clean drop, high water volume, and rocky setting make for a very attractive waterfall. A short trail leads from the road down to the base of the falls.

Farther up US 276, trees arch over the road as it climbs higher into the mountains alongside Looking Glass Creek. Small picnic spots dot the route. A parking area about a mile past Looking Glass Falls has a 0.7-mile trail that leads to Moore Cove Falls. This 50-foot cascade drops off an overhang, so you can walk behind it for a cool shower on a hot summer day. The next major attraction (and in summer it is major) along the route is Sliding Rock, about 1.2 miles above the Moore Cove Falls parking area. Sliding Rock is a long, smooth, slanting cascade that drops into a deep plunge pool. A bathhouse, large parking lot, and even a lifeguard in summer facilitate what kids have been doing here since the turn of the last century -- sliding down the rock into the pool, only to come up gasping from the cold mountain water.

Be sure to stop in at the Cradle of Forestry in America Visitor Center on the right about 2.4 miles up the road from Sliding Rock. The large visitor center here, with several historic buildings and attractions plus two trails, will keep you busy for some time as you learn about the birth of modern forestry.

Until late in the nineteenth century (and in some areas well into the twentieth century), logging was done by lumber companies that came into an area, cut all usable trees, then moved on to the next untouched forest. Little effort was made to make forestry a sustainable business by doing such things as replanting seedlings and controlling erosion on logged land. That all began to change in the late 1880s when George Vanderbilt began buying land for his immense Biltmore Estate. Eventually acquiring some 125,000 acres in North Carolina, Vanderbilt named his land the Pisgah Forest after the biblical mountain from which Moses got his first view of the Promised Land. To manage his forest, he hired Gifford Pinchot in 1892.

Pinchot was trained in European forestry practices. He knew the benefits that came from managing forests for sustained profitability, rather than cut-and-run logging. He was dismayed to see how Vanderbilt's land had been abused in earlier years and set about establishing better forestry practices. Pinchot recommended that Vanderbilt add to his holdings. Successful here, he later became the founding chief of the USDA Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1895, a German named Carl Schenck succeeded Pinchot in managing Vanderbilt's forest lands. Three years later Schenck opened the first forestry school in America at the Biltmore Estate. Winter classes were held at the estate proper near Asheville, and summer classes were held here in the forest in buildings once used by residents of the mountain community called Pink Beds. The buildings were restored and reconstructed as rangers' homes, school buildings, student dwellings, and other structures. Until Schenck and Vanderbilt parted ways in 1909, Schenck worked to teach his students modern forestry practice. He also educated owners of timberland about topics such as replanting and selective cutting, ensuring sustainable production in the future.

Federal legislation passed in 1911 and supported by North Carolina lawmakers authorized the purchase of land for national forests in the eastern United States. Vanderbilt died soon after the law was passed. The U.S. government purchased the Pisgah Forest from his widow in 1916, creating the nucleus for the national forest we see here today. The processes begun here led to the creation of all other eastern national forests.

Start your visit at Cradle of Forestry at the large visitor center by viewing a short film and exhibits about the site. Then follow either or both of two easy, paved 1-mile loop trails. The Biltmore Campus Trail winds through the old buildings of Schenck's school, including the schoolhouse, ranger homes, blacksmith shop, commissary, office, and the student quarters. Students were told to find themselves a place to stay, and they sometimes settled in abandoned mountaineer cabins and farm homes. They named their humble abodes Hell Hole, Little Hell Hole, The Palace, Little Bohemia, and Rest for the Wicked. Craftspeople often give demonstrations here of skills ranging from blacksmithing and woodcarving to weaving. The second loop trail, the Forest Festival Trail, relates some of Schenck's work in the Vanderbilt forests and features exhibits on tree nurseries, portable sawmills, conifer plantations, logging railroads, and other related subjects.

After touring the Cradle of Forestry center, continue your drive on US 276. Just past the center is Pink Beds Picnic Area on the right. The name probably comes from the colorful blooms of rhododendron and mountain laurel. Past the picnic site, the road climbs steadily up to a junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway, another beautiful and very worthwhile drive. The adjacent section of the parkway is covered in Drive 3. You can make Drive 10 shorter and return to Brevard by taking the parkway toward the Great Smoky Mountains and rejoining the drive at NC 215. You can get to Asheville by taking the parkway in the other direction. There are great views both east and west from the parkway junction atop the mountain crest.

On the other side of the parkway, US 276 descends steeply toward the East Fork of the Pigeon River. The traffic now gets a bit lighter. You will soon pass a marked parking area on the left, one of several trailheads for the Shining Rock Wilderness. Many high peaks dot this 19,000-acre wilderness area, along with rushing, wild creeks. Miles of trail wind through the area, including the lengthy Art Loeb Trail. With its high summits and spectacular views, the area attracts many hikers every year. One of the first designated wilderness areas in the east, Shining Rock was named for a peak capped with white quartz that rises from the center of the preserve.

Next the highway temporarily leaves the national forest and enters a moderately developed farming valley. Quite a few commercial campgrounds line the route here, as does a golf course and country club. You will hit the junction with NC 215 about 15 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn left onto NC 215. The quiet road heads south up the broad rural valley of the West Fork of the Pigeon River.

At a junction about 2.9 miles up the valley, stay left on NC 215. The valley soon narrows and the road climbs a bit to get around small Lake Logan. After you re-enter the Pisgah National Forest, about 9.3 miles from the US 276 junction, you leave development behind. Sunburst Campground lies on the right just inside the forest. The campground was built on the former site of one of Champion Paper Company's early logging camps.

Beyond the campground, the road continues to follow the West Fork upstream as the grade steadily steepens. The Middle Prong Wilderness, created in 1984, lies on the right; the Shining Rock Wilderness sits on the left. The road crosses an attractive stone bridge over a small gorge of tumbling cascades and waterfalls about 4.3 miles above the campground. Unfortunately, there are no good parking spots here since the road clings to a steep mountainside. Above the cascades the road climbs into a wooded upper valley and reaches the crest of the mountains at 5,340-foot Beech Gap. The Blue Ridge Parkway crosses NC 215 here.

Heading south now, the road descends a steep and rocky mountainside, allowing drivers open and dramatic views. Rhododendrons bloom profusely here in late May and early June. About 3.2 miles down the road, you pass a junction with SR 1756, a gravel road that leads down to Balsam Lake and other Nantahala National Forest destinations. After another 3.4 miles of steady descent, the road grade lessens at the North Fork of the French Broad River. The river was so named by early explorers because it flowed west toward lands claimed by France and because it had a broad river valley for much of its course.

If you haven't tired of waterfalls yet, turn left on FR 140 and follow it upstream along the river. Three modest falls can be reached after a short drive and some hiking. For more details on these pretty waterfalls, get the waterfall book by Kevin Adams, which is listed in "Suggested Reading" at the back of this guide. Alternatively, you can get directions from the national forest visitor center or from local residents.

Farther along the drive route, you begin to hit private inholdings with scattered development in the broadening river valley. Beyond the quiet village of Balsam Grove, the road begins a winding descent along the French Broad River through a small gorge. After a few more miles, the drive ends at the junction with US 64 on the edge of the small town of Rosman. Turn left if you wish to return to Brevard; turn right to go to Lake Toxaway, Cashiers, and Highlands.

Credit: weather.com (visit weather.com for all your weather and travel needs); Adapted from the FalconGuide Scenic Driving North Carolina by Laurence Parent.

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Recommended Reading: Scenic Driving North Carolina, 2nd, by Laurence Parent (Scenic Driving Series). Description: Pack up the car and enjoy thirty drives through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Tar Heel State. This indispensable highway companion maps out trips for exploring scenic byways and side roads, from the deep forests and breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the majestic lighthouses and historic villages of the Outer Banks, from the lush rolling country of the Piedmont to the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains. Continued below…

Inside you'll find: Itineraries ranging from 10 miles to more than 115 miles in length; Route maps for each drive; Where to find treasures such as windswept dunes, mountain streams, magnificent fall colors, roaring waterfalls, and local wildlife; Historical information and suggested side trips; Tips on camping, travel services, and best driving seasons. About the Author: Laurence Parent is a freelance photographer and writer specializing in landscape, travel, and nature subjects. He has written twenty-one books, including seven FalconGuides. He resides in Wimberley, Texas.

 

Recommended Reading: North Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer (North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer). Description: This is not your ordinary map! This Atlas is filled with comprehensive and detailed maps. It covers all three Regions of North Carolina: Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountains. It is the first choice for outdoor enthusiasts – sports, hiking, fishing, rock climbing, skiing, boating, bird watching, tubing, kayaking, hunting, etc. “Beautiful, detailed and large-format…” (1) Physical land features: topographic contours, water resources, vegetation, etc. (2) Off-road options: trails, abandoned railroads, ferries. (3) Recreation: Parks, outdoor sports, points of interest. It is perfect for home and office reference, the casual and business traveler, and every vehicle. Continued below...

Gazetteer information even includes: campgrounds, attractions, historic sites & museums, recreation areas, trails, freshwater fishing sites & boat launches, canoe trips or scenic drives. Reviews: “I am a full-time fishing guide in the mountains of North Carolina and I have found this book to be the absolute best reference material for finding trout streams in our mountains. If you do any type of outdoors activities you will benefit from this book.” “Instead of purchasing numerous cumbersome North Carolina maps and atlases, I bought the North Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer and I am very pleased – it is definitive, complete, and all-in-one.” “My wife and I recently retired and started traveling, as we always dreamed about doing, and the numerous detailed pages in this Atlas saved us time and money while traveling across the beautiful state of North Carolina…we were able to find those out of the way flea-markets, historic landmarks, and small town museums. I highly recommend it.”

 

Recommended Reading: Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads (Touring the Backroads). Editorial Review: This guidebook, unlike most, is so encyclopedic in scope that I give it as a gift to newcomers to the area. It is also an invaluable reference for the visitor who wants to see more than the fabulous Biltmore Estate. Even though I am a native of the area, I learned nearly everything I know about Western North Carolina from this book alone and it is my primary reference. I am still amazed at how much fact, history and folklore [just enough to bring alive the curve of the road, the odd landmark, the abandoned building] is packed in its 300 pages. The author, who must have collapsed from exhaustion when she finished it, takes you on a detailed tour, laid out by the tenth of the mile, of carefully drawn sections of backroads that you can follow leisurely without getting lost. Continued below...

The author is completely absent from the text. The lucid style will please readers who want the facts, not editorial comment. This book, as well as the others in this publisher's backroads series, makes an excellent gift for anyone, especially the many seniors who have relocated, or are considering relocating to this fascinating region. “It is also a valuable reference for natives…”

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