This 4.2-mile loop circles the upper South Toe River as it flows beneath the shadow of Mount Mitchell. The walking is not too steep or long, and includes a side trip to 60-foot Setrock Creek Falls.
You will first climb away from the river then walk along wooded slopes and brushy bluffs before descending to span the South Toe River on a bridge. After that, circle back down the valley, coming directly alongside the waterway in places. Finally, pass through Briar Bottom Group Camp and Black Mountain Campground, in addition to visiting the aforementioned Setrock Creek Falls.
This hike starts at Black Mountain Recreation Area, a concentration of recreation opportunities in the Pisgah National Forest along the South Toe River at the base of Mount Mitchell. This area includes a large group campground as well as an additional campground for individual campers.
A fine network of trails laces South Toe River valley, including North Carolina’s master path — the Mountains-to-Sea Trail — and a track leading to the top of Mount Mitchell, as well as trails for casual bicyclists.
The South Toe River flows forms the aquatic centerpiece to Black Mountain Recreation Area. On this river, visitors can fish for trout, tube the shoals and swim the pools during the warm season. Additional watery features include Setrock Creek Falls, Camp Creek and other unnamed streams and cascades. Furthermore, the Blue Ridge Parkway and its attractions are just a few miles distant.
You will see much of the recreation area during this hike. Even though you are on a sizable river, the elevation is still up there. Your starting point is over 3,000 feet. The trek starts just across from Black Mountain Campground and rises away from sonorant South Toe River. After a pair of intersections, your climbing is mostly done (by the way, elevation changes are less than 300 feet between high and low points). You will then head upriver while crossing intermittent streambeds flowing down from Cove Ridge. The trail is mostly in forest, but it does pass above a field offering a view and also bounces along an evergreen-clad bluff overlooking the South Toe River. Eventually, the trail drops down to the Forest Road 472 bridge, your conduit to cross the river. The loop then turns downriver, crossing boulder-strewn Camp Creek. It then passes an unnamed branch flowing between Whiteside Ridge and Flynn Ridge. This stream has a very high, multi-tiered but hard to access waterfall for those who want to scramble to it.
Beyond this stream, the River Loop meanders to the banks of the South Toe where you can enjoy this surprisingly large waterway. Next, the River Loop enters Briar Bottom Group Camp, a large camping area with multiple shelters reservable by groups.
Then you reach the spur to Setrock Creek Falls. It is but a short distance from the River Loop to this hike highlight — a four-tiered cataract that spills a total of 60 or 70 feet, ending in a plunge pool before skittering downstream to feed the South Toe River.
Don’t try to climb along this waterfall. It is a dangerous proposition and people get hurt here every year. After Setrock Creek Falls, you walk parallel to the river beside some gravel bars to Black Mountain Campground. Its auto bridge takes you back over the South Toe River to complete the hike.
With so much to do in the vicinity in addition to this hike, consider incorporating other recreational activities into the River Loop. You could spend an entire summer day exploring here. Moreover, a night in Black Mountain Campground would cap it off. However, the campground is closed in November.
The area as a whole will be busy during the warm season, but think of it as like-minded recreationalists all enjoying this beautiful swath of the Pisgah National Forest north of Asheville.
To get there from Asheville, take the Blue Ridge Parkway north to milepost 351.9. Here, turn left on Forest Road 472, South Toe River Road, and follow it 4.4 miles to Black Mountain Campground, on your left. The trailhead is on the right just beyond the left turn into the campground.
For more information, contact the Pisgah National Forest, Appalachian Ranger District, 632 Manor Road, Mars Hill, NC 28754, 828-689-9694, www.fs.usda.gov.
Other Hikes at Black Mountain Recreation Area:
Black Mountain Recreation Area, where this hike starts, is an excellent trail hub for hikers who want a variety of trails and destinations. The Green Knob Trail leaves the same trailhead and takes walkers 2.8 miles up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and a fire tower. Though the tower viewing box is now closed, hikers can still gain worthy 360-degree views of the Black Mountains, Mount Mitchell and other adjacent ranges.
The Mount Mitchell Trail breaks off from the River Loop and fights 5.6 miles up a series of connecting ridges to the top of 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, gaining 3,600 feet in the process! And if that is a little too strenuous, try the .7 mile Devils Den Nature Trail. It starts in the rear of Black Mountain Campground and makes a much shorter loop through woods and a boulder garden.
And there are still more hike possibilities here at Black Mountain. Start with the River Loop and I bet you’ll be back here for more trekking.