Goat on a Rope: Mastering the Suspension Bridge at Turkey Pen

Does your goat balk at bridges? Developed a strange habit of suddenly becoming deaf when politely asked to cross water? This hike is pretty, and it’s got lots of great terrain, but the real fun is using it as a training hike for the less experienced goats in the pack string. There are several great water crossings, most of which will require smaller goats to swim. Don’t let them fool you – like the cat, most goats are actually decent swimmers when they must. Though the best time to teach them to tolerate water is in kidhood, before they smarten up and realize you’ll probably relent if they waste 20 minutes of your life refusing to put a hoof in the water. However, even older goats can be taught to swim and wade rivers, especially if the alternative is being left by themselves on the same side of the river as an approaching group of horses at this trail head!

The river. A goat's natural enemy.
The river. A goat’s natural enemy.

The other difficult trick with goats is always suspension bridges. They swing. They have gaps between the steps for an unwary hoof. They have minimal railings or side supports to keep a suddenly unstable caprine upright and out of the river. Usually the first experience a goat gets with these is when they blithely run onto one and then end up quivering on their belly and refusing to move till all the shaking stops, (or at least that’s what most of my newbies do). The suspension bridges near this trail head are unique in that they have pretty significant side supports and they swing and bounce, but not as much as a really serious suspension bridge does. Which makes them great for teaching goats to respect the ropes!

Location: Turkey Pen Trail Head in Pisgah National Forest

Is it goat approved? Yep. This trail head is a major horse riding location, including small commercial trail riding outfits, (think 2 or 3 horses). Pretty much if a horse can go on it, they don’t really mind the smaller four legged minions in the least. It’s also a great location if you are teaching kids or adult goats to swim/cross water due to the numerous large, solid bottomed, but not super deep water crossings on some trails. There are also some of those tricky suspension bridges…which is the whole point of this article!

How you get there:

Surgeon General’s Warning: Attempts to find the turn for this trail head may cause migraines, uncontrollable cursing, and temporary insanity.

Google can get you in the right place, but once you are on Asheville Highway (Hwy 280) and are looking for Turkey Pen Road (Forest Service Road #297) you may find the situation most dire. What you are looking for is a skinny little gravel road running up into the mountains. There are about five thousand such roads in the southern Appalachians. Good luck.

To help narrow it down, as you drive down Hwy 280 look for a large, ugly gravel pull off surrounded by houses. There is a forlorn street sign in the middle of this gravel pull off. That is the sign for Turkey Pen Road, which leadeth to the promised land of Turkey Pen Gap Trail Head. Turkey Pen Road itself is a poorly maintained road leading out of this gravel lot and up the mountain. If you miss the gravel pull off and are headed south you’ll hit Brevard and you’ve gone to far. Headed North? You’ll hit Mill’s River if you missed it.

Once you’ve found the road enjoy this wonderfully unmaintained two track running off through the woods to your heart’s content. Turn up the music of your choice that will complement the wrenching agonized screaming your vehicle will make crossing potholes and rocks as you ascend, along with the sound of your goats bouncing up and hitting the roof of the goat box.  When the road becomes better kept you are on park service land and are close to the parking area. Watch where you park and obey whatever rules they’ve got posted. Rangers often visit this trail head.

Time for hike: The distance is approximately 11.2 miles.This is a loop hike.

Best season to do this hike: All seasons but the dead of winter. When snow or ice are forecast stay away from this trail head because the road to it is not passable in bad weather. This trail head is popular during the summer.

Trails to Take

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You’ll head out of the parking area on the trail head at the end of the parking lot (not the trail head going up the stairs). This is South Mills River Trail (trail #133 on the map). This will take you down hill to the river. Once you reach the river, if you’re more here for the water crossings, don’t go cross the river on the inviting suspension bridge, but continue to your right along the river’s edge on Bradley Creek Trail. This trail crosses back and forth across the river at various horse water crossings, so good water training opportunities. It can be combined with Mullinax and Squirrel Gap Trails to  make a loop.

However, the trail for this posting is focused on the suspension bridges. It is fairly easy to find good water crossings for training, but a series of well built suspension bridges interspersed with a scenic walk by the river and a good climb? Difficult to pass up. To do the suspension bridges, cross the first bridge, then go to your right along the bank and up around a turn to continue on South Mills River.

Sign post for
Sign post for “Foot Bridge” at turn on South Mills River

You’ll see a sign post at this bend that says “foot bridge”.Do not go left after you cross the bridge – this leads down an unofficial trail to camping spots on the river and can be really confusing.

Once you make that bend, its smooth sailing on an obvious trail along the river. Camping is allowed in this area, and there is forage in places sufficient for a goat or two. However, the further you go down this trail the more signs you may see warning of the presence of bears. Since goats are quite tasty, travel at your own risk. You’ll pass Mullinax trail on your right first, then Poundingmill Trail.

Browse for goats is available around campsites, though most of the forest under story here is dog hobble and mountain laurel, both of which are poor goat food!
Browse for goats is available around campsites, though most of the forest under story here is dog hobble and mountain laurel, both of which are poor goat food!

You’ll cross your second suspension bridge after Poudingmill, and as soon as you do start looking to your left for Wagon Road Gap Trail (#134 on the map) going up the mountain. If you reach another suspension bridge you’ve gone too far and it’s time to backtrack, (also, this second suspension bridge sometimes has a yellow jacket nest under it, more in the “Beware!” section).

Wagon Road Gap Trail has a distressing tendency to disappear on you for the first part of this trail. If you don’t see a blaze stop and look around. The trail cuts through several areas that have been camped in, further confusing the situation. You want to go UP the mountain, so keep trying for trail-like areas that go that way. This is quite a climb up this little 0.7 mi trail. Once you reach the ridge and the trail dead ends into Turkey Pen Gap, (#322 on the map), go left to return to the parking area. This trail goes up and down along the ridge line, and is the best location to see wildflowers on the loop, including miniature irises and lady slippers if you’re into that sort of thing. The trail returns down the stairs seen earlier into the parking area.

Lady slipper found in the higher elevations of the hike.
Lady slipper found in the higher elevations of the hike.
Miniature irises found on Turkey Gap Trail
Miniature irises found on Turkey Gap Trail

BE WARNED!

Snakes on a plane? Nope. Just snakes on a river bank.
Snakes on a plane? Nope. Just snakes on a river bank.
  1. Snakes. Did I mention the snakes? This river area is pretty popular with the scaly slithery beasties.
  2. Yellow jackets can and do nest under some of the suspension bridges during the warmer months. Watch the goats. When a goat hits yellow jackets it dances like an idiot, snorts, wipes it’s face on the ground and bolts away from you. A goat in motion out ranks a stupid human who does not know what the hell is going on. To cross through a yellow jacket infested bridge, start from a ways back and then run as fast as you can the length of the bridge. If you are unluckily pursued, the good news is you’re on a river! Yellow jackets cannot swim, and if its warm enough for yellow jackets, yes, it is in fact warm enough to take a little impromptu terrorized leap into the river.
  3. The parking area is very small and the road to it extremely rough. If you are driving something without ground clearance, that has a large turning radius, or if you want to bring a trailer, think very hard about how much patience and vehicle insurance you have before attempting this trail head.
  4. If you are teaching a kid to swim on this hike, make sure you’ve got them on a harness or some type of leash as the current goes at a decent clip.
  5. If you are uncomfortable with guesswork,  take a map with you for this area. There are numerous unofficial trails and it is easy to get lost even on some of the official ones.

In sum: If you have a bag of grain, a goat, and a fox to get across the river how do you transport each safely across without any of the 3 being eaten? Simple. You teach the goat to swim or cross a suspension bridge, so everyone can walk across at once, then you don’t need to bother with logic or boats to solve the problem!

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