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Middle Prong Wilderness - Pisgah National Forest, NC

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Length Difficulty Streams Views Solitude Camping
18.8 mls
Hiking Time:
Elev. Gain:
14 hours spread out over 2 days of backpacking
4,181 ft
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Parking on NC215. 35.37357, -82.93617

By Trail Contributor: Zach Robbins (Contact Zach)

Although adjacent to the overpopulated Shining Rock Wilderness, the Middle Prong Wilderness is wild and desolate in comparison. Crowds are drawn to the larger eastern neighbor for a number of reasons including closer proximity to Asheville, numerous trailheads off U.S. 276 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the attraction of many 6,000+ foot peaks with expansive views. The Middle Prong Wilderness has many of the same features, without any of the crowds. This hike is the grand loop of the entire wilderness, following the long, rugged Fork Ridge to high elevations and big views before diving down into the remote headwaters of the Middle Prong of the West Fork Pigeon River. The western Great Balsam Mountains form a horseshoe around the Middle Prong watershed. Hidden within this watershed are many beautiful waterfalls that are difficult to reach.

The hike, at nearly 19 miles, is deal for a weekend backpacking trip. After a punishing climb up Fork Ridge there are a variety of campsites along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) below Mt. Hardy. Some offer grand views with little protection, most are beneath the tree canopy. The second day can be improvised. You can take day hikes east to Mt. Hardy or Mt. Hardy Falls before continuing west on the MST down into the Middle Prong watershed. Once by the river there are multiple campsites if you wish to stay a second night. This is an ideal option if you choose to bushwhack to one or more waterfalls that are located on many of the creeks that form Middle Prong. For backpackers the Middle Prong Wilderness is a fantastic weekend getaway to a place that is more wild and tough than most of the hike options in the region.

Waterfalls in the wilderness – Middle Prong Wilderness is full of hidden waterfalls that are mostly difficult and dangerous to reach. The waterfalls in this region are listed on the pdf map and turn off points are listed below for when you need to leave the trail and start bushwhacking. Even if you are experienced at off-trail navigation and canyoneering, many of these waterfalls are still tough to reach. The best resource for finding these waterfalls is Kevin Adams’ newest 3rd edition of North Carolina Waterfalls.

Day One

Day Two

  • Mile 7.4Optional Mt. Hardy ~2 mile summit hike – Follow the connector trail east to the T-junction with the Green Mountain Trail and continue south on the Green Mountain Trail (This optional hike is primarily for peakbaggers since it will count for the South Beyond 6000 Challenge. The views are not worth the trip.)

    (A second option for a slightly longer day hike would be to continue east past Mt. Hardy for ~1.5 miles to the overlook for Mt. Hardy Falls. This waterfall is nearly 100 feet high but is on a very small creek. You should consider this after a good rainfall.)

  • Mile 7.5 – The Green Mountain Trail ends at a T-junction with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail [440] (no blaze). Turn left/east on the MST. There are campsites on the right side of the trail junction where the MST continues west.
  • Mile 7.55 – Before a large fallen tree a side trail on the right leads to Mt. Hardy. At first this trail wanders through the spruce-fir forest then emerges briefly through weed-strewn meadows on the east side of Mt. Hardy. Towards the end of these meadows the trail makes a hard right heading southwest. Once you enter the forest the trail is much easier to follow as it switchbacks up the mountain.
  • Mile 8.1East view on the left side of the trail.
  • Mile 8.2 – Wooded summit of Mt. Hardy (6,120 feet). Turn around and head back down the summit trail to the MST.
  • Mile 9.0 – From the campsites head west on the connector trail to join the MST.
  • Mile 9.3Turn right at the MST T-junction heading west.
  • Mile 9.5Wishbone junction with the Buckeye Gap Trail [126] (no blaze) on the right. (You can turn right here on the Buckeye Gap Trail to shorten the hike by a few miles. The Buckeye Gap Trail follows the slopes south high above Buckeye Creek before plowing west down the ridge to meet the Haywood Gap Trail.) Continue left on MST and you’ll soon cross two branches of Buckeye Creek.
  • Mile 10.5 – T-junction with a Blue Ridge Parkway Access Trail at Buckeye Gap. Turn right through the campsite to continue following the MST west.
  • Mile 12.2 – Y-junction with the Haywood Gap Trail [142] (no blaze). The MST turns left towards Haywood Gap and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn right on the Haywood Gap Trail to begin a moderate descent through hardwood forest. The trail is surrounded by ferns and stinging nettles.
  • Mile 12.9 – Cross Possum Hollow Stream between small waterfalls as it flows into Haywood Gap Stream. The trail now closely follows Haywood Gap Stream.
  • Mile 13.5 – Rock hop or wet crossing of Middle Prong of West Fork Pigeon River. Shortly upstream the confluence of Buckeye Creek and Haywood Gap Stream creates Middle Prong. (If you are hiking to Buckeye Falls, you need to leave the trail here and creek-walk upstream to the confluence, turn left on Buckeye Creek, then continue to creek-walk upstream to the base of the falls.)
  • Mile 14.5 – Shortly after rock hopping Grassy Ridge Branch you’ll continue straight through a cross intersection with the Buckeye Gap Trail on your right. The trail on the left leads to a large, excellent campsite perched above Middle Prong.
  • Mile 15.2Rock hop or wet crossing Middle Prong below a 15-foot waterfall with an inviting swimming hole. This waterfall has no official name.
  • Mile 15.5 – Y-junction with overgrown forest road on the left. This forest road leads to campsites at Big Beartrap Branch and bushwhack access for the lowest drop of Big Beartrap Falls.
  • Mile 16.0 –At a slight turn left the right side of the trail has tall dirt banks. (This is the location to bushwhack down to Middle Prong Falls, which is audible from the trail but impossible to see. Refer to Kevin Adams' book if you are interested in seeing this waterfall. It is beautiful but very difficult and very dangerous to reach.)
  • Mile 16.6 – The trail passes over the top of a low-flow waterfall on Berry Branch then passes above the lowest drop of Little Beartrap Falls. (A tough bushwhack is required to see the upper drops of Little Beartrap Falls and is not encouraged. Scrambling down to the base of this bowl to see the lowest drops of the waterfall on Berry Branch and Little Beartrap Falls is not worth the effort.)
  • Mile 16.8 – Haywood Gap Trail ends at FSR 97. Turn right to follow FSR 97 back to NC 215.
  • Mile 17.2 – At a left turn an overgrown forest road on the right heads down towards Middle Prong. This is a possible creek-walk access for Middle Prong Falls, but would be unadvisable in above average water flow.
  • Mile 18.4 – Gate on FSR 97. On the other side of this gate are multiple parking areas and large campsites.
  • Mile 18.5 – Shallow concrete ford of Right Hand Prong of West Fork Pigeon River.
  • Mile 18.8 – FSR 97 ends at NC 215 and the parking areas for this hike.
Backpacking Middle Prong Wilderness
Middle Prong Falls
Mid June
Middle Prong Wilderness Hike Comments
Archived Comments

By: Dony Erwin Rating: Date of Hike: Friday, April 5, 2019
Just got home from hiking this loop! Yes , yes, yes the first four miles are pretty brutal...between the grade and slippery leaves itís a hard climb, and donít expect switchbacks, there are none. But, once you get to the top it gets pretty awesome and if you are seeking solitude, this loop is hard to beat. I ran into 2 people in 3 days. I did lose the trail a few times but I just backtracked and found my way just fine. Itís all pretty intuitive and may just stimulate that long lost natural orienteering skill that our ancestors possessed! I did somehow veer off onto the Buckeye Creek Trail, which was unintentional but still quite scenic and most enjoyable. Canít miss the first night campsite that Zach mentions up on the grassy bald off the connector trail to MST. Spectacular views and a million stars the night I was there. Cowboy camped there and hammocked night 2 along Haywood Gap trail. Bear bagged in spite of a ranger telling me I would need a bear canister (I think he was misinformed). Canít wait to go back. Great loop. Do it.

By: Kilian Korth Rating: Date of Hike: Monday, March 26, 2018
Awesome, wild hike. The first four miles are not exaggerated in the description they're tough. The trail can be confusing at times but the directions make it pretty easy to follow. Would recommend but not for a novice necessarily.

By: John Rating: Date of Hike: Friday, May 26, 2017
My friend and I hiked this loop on Memorial Day Weekend. This review isn't exaggerating - the first 4 (particularly the first 2) miles are brutal. We were nearly climbing on our knees and pulling ourselves up by trees at some points. The first 4-5 miles are in a tunnel of green through the rhododendron and can be pretty tight at points. However....all worth it once you get to the peak and the hike opens up. We camped at about 7 miles in on the grassy field overlooking the entire area. There was plentiful water less than .3 mile away from the MST/Green Mountain Trail intersection, plenty of shelter to camp, and plenty of views (about 300* of unobstructed views).

The next day, we began our hike back to the car. It was purely downhill - we might have climbed a few hundred feet at most. Over the course of 10-12 miles, we descended the entire climb we did in about 4 miles the day prior. Once you turn off the MST and onto the Haywood Gap trail, the trail snakes along the Middle Prong river with numerous falls and pools. Overall, we never had any issue staying on trail - although constricting at times, it's always visible. Don't let the steep beginning miles keep you away - this was a great hike!

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