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.
Mile 0.0 – The Green Mountain Trail  (no blaze) begins on the east side of the NC 215 bridge over Middle Prong opposite of the parking pull outs beside West Fork Pigeon River. There is no trail sign nor obvious cleared pathway. It is hidden amongst trees approximately 15 feet before the bridge. When you see a dip through a slight opening walk through the branches and you should see a small, eroded trail climbing to the left. Once you walk away from the road the trail should become more obvious as it is the only clear path through tunnels of rhododendron. The Green Mountain Trail is considered one of the most difficult hikes in the region. You’ll climb relentlessly for 4 miles from 3,000 feet to 5,900 feet along Fork Ridge to the summit of Green Knob. There is no water on this trail and the campsites located in the first few miles are far from ideal and should be considered a last resort. Allocate 4+ hours for this section with a full backpack. There are no blazes and the trail itself is narrow and overgrown, but it follows the ridge crest and is easy to follow.
Mile 6.6 – T-junction with an obvious unofficial trail. Remember this trail junction. The MST turns right heading west and the trail on the left turns north following the headwaters of Buckeye Creek before eventually making a U-turn east to meet the MST below Mt. Hardy. You can take either trail to access water, in this case the GPS track heads left on the unofficial trail.
Mile 6.8 – Water access via Buckeye Creek on the right side of the trail. Fill up and turn around heading back to the campsites.
Mile 7.3 – Night one at the campsites near the MST/Green Mountain Trail junction.
Mile 7.4 – Optional Mt. Hardy ~2 mile summit hike – Follow the MST east passing the T-junction with the Green Mountain Trail. (This optional hike is primarily for peakbaggers since it will count on the South Beyond 6,000 list. 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 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 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 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 18.8 – FSR 97 ends at NC 215 and the parking areas for this hike.
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Topo Hike Map (PDF)
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Reviews For The Middle Prong Wilderness Hike (5 Most Recent)
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!