Haywood Gap and Buckeye Gap Loop

EASY 1 reviews

Haywood Gap and Buckeye Gap Loop is a 7.9 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Big East Fork, North Carolina that features beautiful wild flowers and is good for all skill levels. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from April until September.

DISTANCE
7.9 miles
ELEVATION GAIN
1620 feet
ROUTE TYPE
Loop

backpacking

birding

camping

hiking

nature trips

walking

forest

views

wild flowers

hiking
4 months ago

This is a tough yet rewarding day hike. The 1600+ ft elevation drop/gain leads you through a couple of different ecological zones and back again, and the multiple water ways all flowing into the Middle Prong River support a large variety of vegetation and some nice cascades and river views. This is a wilderness area, so trail maintenance is minimal and there are no markers or blazes outside of the Mountains to Sea Trail, but if solitude and a serious workout are what you are looking for this is the place.

Park your car at the Rough Butt Bald Overlook and find the Buckeye Gap Spur trailhead across the parkway on the west end of the Overlook. The going is easy the first 2.5 miles, with conifers dropping needles leaving a spongy path, though rooty and overgrown at times. This is Spruce/Fir forest at its best, with moss covering everything and red squirrels chattering away. It's cool, damp, and shady with a curious amount of grass and blackberries that I assume are remnants of a clear cut from logging. This is a secluded area, and if you start early in the morning be prepared for a lot of spider webs. A lot. After about a quarter mile you will leave the spur trail and turn right on the Mountains to Sea Trail (marked intersection). At about a mile the MST leaves right and you stay left on the Buckeye Gap Trail (no markings). At around 2.5 miles the trail passes through a thick bramble over growing the trail and begins to descend. I don't recommend continuing through the bramble without long pants. As you drop the forest changes with towering poplar and beach dominating. The gradual descent abruptly turns to a vicious winding slick as you continue into the valley, near the point where the river becomes audible. At this point you have dropped close to 500ft, with 1000ft more still ahead. If you aren't in good shape, if you have kids or anyone with you that doesn't have a sure foot and the ability to navigate difficult terrain, or if you aren't properly equipped (good boots, trekking poles, navigation) you should turn back here.

This downhill section is brutal. The steep grade is bad enough, but it's also strait down with no switchbacks. This coupled with the damp atmosphere leads to erosion. It's a slippery muddy mess broken up by roots that often have divots underneath causing you to step or hop down with unsure ground above and below. It's a great recipe for rolled ankles and sprained knees, and I ended up on my butt several times even with good boots and trekking poles.

When you reach the valley floor you come immediately to an unmarked intersection. If you are a masochist you can turn left here onto the Haywood Gap Trail and immediately begin the climb back up. I recommend following the path forward where you will come to a large open camp site by the river, a perfect place to recharge, rehydrate, and rest your weary joints while watching the gorgeous Middle Prong River crash through moss covered boulders. After your break retrace your steps and turn right on the Haywood Gap Trail.

You will climb close to 1700ft over the next 2.5 miles. It starts out gradually, with the first mile pretty easy hiking with great views of the river to your right. Then, a sheer rock face about 20 ft tall appears on your left, and land on the right gives way to a 5 ft drop to the rocky river's edge. You walk the narrow path between the two for about 30 yards then come to a place where you have to jump down to the rocks by the river, a drop of about 3 feet. Timid hikers won't be pleased to do this under normal circumstances. When I hiked through the lack of trail maintenance came into play as well. A fallen tree lay right across the rock ledge where you could sit to hop down. There was no way around, and climbing over would have made the drop closer to 7 ft. I tossed down my pack and trekking poles, sat down behind the tree, then swung forward under the tree, laying almost flat on my back and going over the ledge blind. Though 3 ft isn't much of a drop, it was still uncomfortable and slightly nerve wracking.

From here, the climb gets steeper and the path harder to follow. 200 yards or so up trail you cross the river. You can rock hop in the summer on a clear day, but even then the rocks aren't well placed and are slippery. Side trails run off to campsites along the way, so be careful to stay on the main trail by the river. The trail becomes progressively steeper and more rocky and rooty, making it impossible to find a rhythm. Still, the river is beautiful and there are countless places to stop off for a break. A mile or so of this wicked scramble brings you to another Crossing, this time of a side creek, crossing left. You pass back in to Spruce/Fir forest as the river dwindles to its headwaters. The trail becomes regular, though steep, as you begin to hear cars on the parkway. When you reach Haywood Gap turn left on the MST. The last 1.5 miles are pleasant, with a gradual slight elevation gain and several small streams t