Nantahala National Forest: Bearpen Gap Trail to Albert Mountain and Long Branch Trail, Franklin, North Carolina
The Standing Indian Backcountry Area and the Southern Nantahala Wilderness comprise one unbroken tract of mountains and deep river valleys near the town of Franklin. The headquarters of Nantahala River, one of North Carolina's best-known rivers, are located here. Dozens of miles of hiking trails weave through the area. Two mountains are the key destinations in the region: Albert Mountain and Standing Indian Mountain. On this hike, you'll have the opportunity to use seldom-traveled trails in a loop or shuttle hike that visits the summit of Albert Mountain. This hike occurred on December 5th, 2015. My plan was to hike the Bearpen Gap Trail from the lower end near the Nantahala River to the upper end at the Appalachian Trail. From there, I would follow the Appalachian Trail up and over Albert Mountain to the Long Branch Trail. Using the Long Branch Trail, I would return to FS 67 and the Nantahala River area. I would finish by walking FS 67 back to the Bearpen Trail.
R/T Length of Trail: 12.1 Miles
Duration of Hike: 6:35
Type of Hike: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 6 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 2153 feet
Pros: All of the trails on this hike, despite receiving little use, are well-marked and maintained.
Cons: The platform at the top of the Albert Mountain fire tower is off-limits to the public.
Points of Interest: Views from Albert Mountain/Albert Mountain Fire Tower - 9 stars
Trail Blaze Color(s): Bearpen Gap Trail - Blue; Appalachian Trail - White; Long Branch Trail - Blue
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter
Beginning Point: Lower Bearpen Gap Trailhead
Directions: From Franklin, NC: Follow US Route 441 South for 8.5 miles. Then, turn right onto Coweeta Lab Road. Follow Coweeta Lab Road for 3.1 miles, and then, continue straight onto Forest Service Road 83 that is now gravel. Continue for 6.7 miles. Then, turn left onto Forest Service Road 67 (if you turn right at the same intersection, you will end up at a parking lot near the summit of Albert Mountain - you'll be able to access the summit by a short trail from there). Continue on FS 67 for 4.3 miles. There will be a sign "Bearpen Trail" at the trailhead. The parking is a pullout with space for 4-5 cars on the left side of the road. Please note that the gravel roads leading to the trailhead are generally in good condition and passable by most passenger vehicles.
A map and some other information regarding this hike can be viewed here.
Most people who see Albert Mountain will come the easy way from either one of the two trailheads at the upper end of Forest Service Road 67. However, the route detailed in this trail report is a more remote and harder way to see Albert Mountain.
The hike starts on the Bearpen Gap Trail that is also simply known as Bearpen Trail. The trail begins by ascending up an obscure path from the road. At 0.15 miles, the trail reaches an old road. Turn left onto the old roadbed and ascend gradually. At 0.2 miles, a horse trail comes in from the left, and turns left onto another old road immediately afterwards. Meanwhile, the Bearpen Gap Trail bears right on the old road. As the road gradually rounds a corner, Bearpen Creek becomes audible and soon swings into view. At 0.5 miles, don't miss the double blaze as the trail turns right off the old road onto a single-track footpath. This valley is pretty wide and open - in winter, the bare trees will open far-reaching views. Bearpen Creek Trail is often close to the trail to your right. After periods of rain, the creek will come alive with numerous cascades and rapids. The trail will cross numerous small tributaries of Bearpen Creek, but most of the time, these small crossings should not present any challenge. The ascent is generally easy with a few moderate sections. At about 1.5 miles, the valley steepens and narrows, and so does the trail. The next 0.2 miles are steep uphill with only a few switchbacks at the end. After this uphill ends, you cross a side ridge - where the winter views are excellent down the valley - and descend slightly, approaching Bearpen Creek again. The trail stays easy for a while, but not forever. At 2.3 miles, the next steep ascent begins. The trail climbs out of the upper end of the Bearpen Creek drainage at a steep pace with no switchbacks. At 2.8 miles, cross an old road and continue ascending steeply.
At 2.9 miles, reach the eastern terminus of the Bearpen Gap Trail at FS 67. This is a location on FS 67 much higher than where your trailhead is. The junction is located on in a gap on the narrow ridge - winter views are splendid both east and west from this ridge, and the views continue increasing all the way as you hike to the summit of Albert Mountain.
Turn left on the Appalachian Trail. This is the steepest section of the ascent to Albert Mountain, but it is not as difficult as advertised. The ascent is steep, but not the steepest I've been on. White blazes are plentiful as you scramble over some rock formations and ascend between large boulders. From the upper end of the Bearpen Trail to the summit of Albert Mountain, you gain about 350 feet of elevation in a matter of 0.4 miles. At 3.1 miles, the ascent begins to moderate and the winter views keep widening. At 3.2 miles, reach a rock outcrop with a splendid view eastward toward the Cullasaja River Gorge, Cowee Mountains, and beyond. The Albert Mountain fire tower is visible. At 3.3 miles, reach the summit of Albert Mountain and the fire tower. There is another eastward view from a rock outcrop. However, to gain the full 360-degree panorama, climb the steps of the fire tower to the last platform before the cabin and upper platform. The cabin and upper platform are locked by a trapdoor and are off-limits to the public. The view from the fire tower is excellent in all directions - the entire expanse of the Standing Indian Backcountry Area is visible. The Albert Mountain fire tower was built in the 1950s as a replacement to an older wooden fire tower on Standing Indian Mountain. The fire tower on Standing Indian Mountain has since been dismantled.
Once you have enjoyed the summit view, continue on the Appalachian Trail northward. The descent is not as steep as the ascent - it is also longer. At 3.5 miles, in a small gap, a blue-blazed side trail leaves the AT to the left. This side trail reaches the parking area at the upper end of FS 67 in a quarter-mile. This is the easy way that most people use to access Albert Mountain. My hike continued on the AT. The AT bears left off the ridge to avoid ascending a small knob, before reaching Big Spring Gap at 4 miles. This is the old location of Big Spring Shelter. The shelter has been dismantled to allow restoration of the location. Water is still available at a spring to the trail's left at the headwaters of Hurricane Creek. In place of the Big Spring Shelter, a new shelter is now located near Long Branch. From Big Spring Gap, the trail ascends slightly to regain the ridge. After this short ascent, the descent continues and winter views are extensive to the west. At 4.4 miles, the trail leaves the ridge for good and begins descending in earnest into the Long Branch valley. At 6 miles, two miles north of Big Spring Gap, reach the spur trail to the new Long Branch Shelter. The spur trail continues straight while the AT turns right and switchbacks several times. Between 6.1 and 6.3 miles, cross several small streams that form Long Branch further down. At 6.8 miles, reach Glassmine Gap. The Appalachian Trail continues north towards Rock Gap, Wallace Gap, and eventually Winding Stairs Gap. This hike turns left onto the Long Branch Trail, a blue-blazed side trail.
The Long Branch Trail starts off with a moderate descent on a narrow trail into the Long Branch valley. Long Branch soon becomes audible. At 7 miles, enter a large flat that can be used as a camping area. Long Branch is clearly visible to the left of the trail. The trail proceeds down along Long Branch before crossing it at 7.1 miles. During normal water flow, this can be rock-hopped. During times of higher flow, you can use some well-placed logs and branches to cross dry, although I'm not sure exactly how much water is needed to have the logs underwater too. The trail stays parallel to Long Branch for a short time and then crosses an old road before gradually drawing away from Long Branch. At 7.3 miles, cross the Blackwell Gap Horse Trail. The Long Branch Trail stays level for some time and then continues descending down the Long Branch valley. Although Long Branch is audible much of the time, the trail doesn't approach it. Between 8.4 miles and 8.8 miles, the trail has several steeper descent sections. Finally, at 8.8 miles, the Long Branch Trail ends at FS 67. Across the road is the Backcountry Information Center, as well as a trail that leads to Standing Indian Campground. This is a good place to have a second car for your hike. If you do not have a second car, turn left and walk FS 67 for 3.3 miles. Most of the roadwalk is level or slightly uphill, but there are a few brief downhill sections. Also, be aware that the road fords Hurricane Creek at 11 miles via a concrete slab - there is no bridge at this location. I was unaware of this ford and had to get my feet wet on a frigid December evening! You will finish the hike at 12.1 miles upon returning to the Bearpen Gap Trailhead.
Hike to Albert Mountain out and back from the upper end of the Bearpen Gap Trail -
Hike to Albert Mountain out and back from the trailhead at the upper end of FS 67 -
Hike to Albert Mountain out and back via Bearpen Gap Trail - 6.6 Miles
Complete this hike as a shuttle hike with a second car at the Long Branch Trailhead - 8.8 Miles
Mooney Falls near FS 67 is but a short (and steep) walk from the road and can work as a bonus stop for this hike.
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