I couldn’t get up the southern/eastern side of the jacked up gravel road to Springer Mountain. Instead, I went from the western/northern end of the gravel road maze, drove 5 miles in to Blue Ridge WMA, parked at Three Forks Parking Area, and hiked in 10 mi round trip to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail the hard way.
Well, it wasn’t actually all that hard…the terrain is moderately easy, and there is plenty to see in the area. Attractions include Long Creek Falls, the Benton MacKaye Memorial, the southern terminus of the Benton MacKaye trail, two amazing trail shelters, and lots of water to hike along during part of the hike. Plus the end point of the hike at the southern terminus of the Appalachain trail!
Is it goat approved: No. This section is placarded as “no pack stock”. So goat on a leash – maybe. Goat with a pack, forget about it!
How you get there: Google Three Forks Trailhead or go to gps (34.663550, -84.183102). There isn’t real parking, just a wide spot in the road where people (in season LOTS of people) pull off. I recommend coming from the back side from Doublehead Gap Rd – not from the Nimberwill side – you will drive rough gravel roads for forever if you come from Nimberwill. If you come in from the north side it is a relatively good road that even a low ground clearance car can handle. You also only drive about 5 mi, down what is an absolutely beautiful stretch of road along a river. If you come after a major storm bring a chainsaw – these forestry service roads are cleared, but not always in a hurry and the hemlocks dying from wooly agelid fall on the road a lot. The drive itself is gorgeous, despite the dying hemlocks. There are nice free camping spots along the river, but camping in designated spots only is strictly enforced and spots are usually all taken on weekends. If you do camp – be kind – don’t damage the remaining hemlocks.
Time for hike: Total hike, from Long Creek Falls to the Southern Terminus and back to parking at Three Forks trail head is 11.25 mi round trip out and back. From Three Forks parking area it is 1 mi out to Long Creek Falls (2 mi round trip). From Three Forks parking area it is about 1.2 mi to the Stover Creek Trail Shelter, 3.2 miles to Springer Mountain Parking Lot, and from Springer Mountain Parking lot it is about 1 to Benton MacKaye Memorial, Springer Mountain trail shelter, and the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Best season to hike: As always I highly recommend winter for the best views and lowest traffic, but if you are okay with high traffic any time of the year is fine. Rhododendron will bloom in the spring, and the yearly exodus of Appalachian trail hikers hits hard around April 1st or so. If you want to sleep in a trail shelter come in winter – the shelters stay packed in warmer weather.
Trails to Take
Starting off at Three Forks trail head, you want to go away from Long Creek Falls, and across the river on the other side of the road via a wooden foot bridge. The trail continues following water through thickets of rhododendron under overhanging dying hemlocks and pines. The trail is obvious, extremely well maintained, and beautiful. The Benton MacKaye Trail goes off to your left as you climb. This trail is built on one of the proposed routes for the AT in honor of Benton MacKaye, one of the original proposers of building the Appalachian Trail in the 1930s. Not surprisingly with this history, it often parallels, intersects, and sometimes runs on the same route as the AT. Benton MacKaye is marked with DIAMOND white blazes. The AT is marked with RECTANGULAR white blazes. So be careful about which one you are following!
You continue to climb along the Elysian Fields worthy river valley over several more bridges, then the trail sharply swings to the left. Google will tell you to go straight here on the wide old road bed, but that’s not the correct course. Follow the while rectangular blazes and go down to the creek, cross it, and climb up the other side. Shortly thereafter you will pass a side trail marked with a blue blaze and a “shelter” sign as is typical on the AT. This is Stover Creek Shelter, which is massive and has a bear box for food in the form of a Northern Tool and Equipment tool box. I have no idea how they got that thing out there, but it’s there for the spoiled AT thru hikers.
Past the shelter the trail leaves the river, climbing up on dry ridges and frankly, uninteresting forest land. The Benton MacKaye crosses the AT again, but the correct way is well marked. At no point does the climb become ardous, but it does meander for a while before finally reaching Springer Mountain Parking/Trailhead. This parking area is large, but doubtfully not large enough for everyone during the season. Cross the parking area and head up the AT on the other side.
From this point the trail becomes beautiful once more, climbing over rocks and under stunted oak trees as it traces the ridge line of the mountains. Views abound through the de-leaved trees. The Benton MacKaye comes back in to the AT, forming it’s personal southern terminus, and about half a football field down Benton MacKaye from the intersection is the Benton MacKaye memorial plaque, well marked and stuck on the side of a boulder.
Past Benton MacKaye is another blue marked shelter trail to Springer Mountain Trail shelter, a beast of a double decker shelter with it’s own itinerant caretaker, surrounded by heavily used camping meadows. Recent signage indicates, however, that camping here would be ill advised – there have been serious bear issues in the area. The park service recommends not sleeping at Springer Mountain trail shelter at this time due to bears. There is another bear box/big metal tool box here, but do you really want to sleep somewhere with a 5 am wake up call from a black bear?
Not far past the trail shelter is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, set among a grove of stunted oaks overlooking the mountains. There are two plaques – one set in the rock face, and another set in a boulder amid the oak trees. Welcome, at last, to the start of the journey!
When you get back down to the Three Forks trail head, cross the road and finish the day with an easy 2 mi out and back hike to Long Creek Falls, which is well worth the visit.
- Don’t camp at Springer Mountain trail shelter if you don’t have to as of 1/19/19. The forest service has posted signage warning of bear issues at the trail shelter. Press on for Stover Mountain Shelter, which is about 3 miles away.
- Camping near the Three Forks Trail Head is at designated camping sites only – the park service does not have a sense of humor about this, and their stringent enforcement is why the area is still as pretty as it is.
- Watch out – Benton MacKaye is DIAMOND white blaze, the Appalachian Trail is RECTANGULAR white blaze. Don’t get confused!
- Trail shelters are marked by rectangular blue blaze trails – you may have to walk a ways down one of these to find the shelter, but the shelter does have privy’s and water sources for those who aren’t comfortable going to the bathroom in the great outdoors.
- Don’t expect to get a spot in the trail shelters on the weekend or on any day of the week in the summer. Always plan to be able to tent camp if needed – this area of the AT is extremely popular.
- The AT thru hikers generally start heading north about April 1st – if you want the serenity of a quiet forest, don’t hike this section during this time or during the rhododendron bloom.
- If you are visiting this area after a major storm, bring a chainsaw to clear the road of debris.
The Journey Begins! Sounds like a movie tag line doesn’t it?