Day #4: Hiking the Bent Creek Trails
There are 27 trails within the Bent Creek system in the Pisgah National Forest Southern Research Station.
I know this because when I checked into the park, I was handed a map. The reason for the organization: Bent Creek is a research forest, which means scientists are here conducting all manners of research around conservation. Much of what they do here (if I understand) is find out how nature bounces back from ecological disasters such as fires. As such, they have experiments happening across the forest. If you step outside the designated paths, you’re liable to mess up somebody’s experiment. I decided to bring some night vision optics with me in case I didn’t make it back before dark.
I’ve been around scientists for too much of my life to take that casually. When I set out to hike, I dutifully grabbed my map, my phone, water, trail food, and my camera. Unfortunately, I also grabbed my very old hiking shoes, but we’ll get to that later.
I set out to take a quick 4-mile loop, but as with much of my trip so far that quickly fell by the wayside. I should have gathered as my trail head: Hard Times. (Of note: I’m also staying in the Hard Times loop in my campground.)
The Hard Times connector loop is just .8 of a mile, but it connects to four different paths along the route. The cool thing about the trail: it’s a run, hike, and mountain bike with diamondback hook. As I’ve said in the past, most runners I know get up very early and head out. Mountain bikers seem to be on a different time, getting the best mtb grips can make biking a little more enjoyable. You can visit There were dozens at the site – arriving, leaving, hanging out – in the evenings.
Tonight was no different despite the nasty storm that blew through earlier. (As I arrived, a female mountain Hardtail bike rider and I both wondered to each other whether we should hit the trail because of the foreboding skies and storms. We had this discussion as we walked to the trail.)
About halfway down the Hard Times path, I noticed my very old hiking shoes were coming apart at the soles. Not just on one shoe, mind you, on both of them. Before long, the soles were nearly half off, sliding along the ground and flinging dirt in my face while simultaneously sounding like I was hiking in clown shoes.
I guess I could have turned back, but I’ve had the benefit of embarrassing myself as a drunk for 17 years before I got sober three years ago. Clown hiking shoes aren’t enough to get me turn back.
I pressed on the Wolf Branch junction, a turn north that took me towards Stradley Mountain. It was just a short trip, 1.2 miles up a relatively tame incline. Mountain bikers were heading the opposite way mostly, although my favorite moment happened as an older man passed me. We exchanged hellos, and then he dropped this on me:
“You’ll see a dog coming down in just a minute. He’s just a little tired.”
And sure enough, there he was panting as he ran by without a look towards me.
Eventually I reached a main hiking road, Ledford Branch, where I started to see some of my people: the runners.
All told there were about half dozen, including this gentlemen who said he’d be having a much better night whenever the hell this run ended.
I’m sure he was right.
The Ledford Branch wound around for about a mile before connecting with the Ledford trail, which took me south back towards the Wolf Branch junction. Along this route, I ran into a nice woman and her dog. Fortunately, I know enough about dogs (now) to stay calm when they are barking and running at you. The key, I was told, is in the tail. And this little guy was wagging his like he was trying to put out a fire.
I bent down, held out my hand, and made a friend. Two if you count my hiking mate as we crossed paths.
As I headed home, it finally dawned on me just how careful the scientists in this area are. (Maybe every trail series is like this. I don’t hike enough to really know.) On the map, each trail is given a color and long the route – particularly after weird junctions or potential confusion points – I passed a tree that had color-coded strips.
It took me a few before I realized what they marked, but once I pulled out the map and saw the designations (Wolf Branch is blue), the trails made more sense. I wasn’t worried about wandering off somewhere.
I spent about 2 hours wandering the trails, just enough time to return to base camp, make dinner, pack my gear for tomorrow’s run, and hit the sack. My last day in Asheville begins with a 16-mile run along Shut-In Trail, the second toughest run in this area I’m told.
I suspect I’ll have a much better day whenever the hell that run ends. (Here’s a preview: I feel a bunch better now that it’s done.)