North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures
Help Protect the Vulnerable Wildlands of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

South Mills River

17,127 acres NCMT; 12,294 acres PWA; 8,585 acres IRA            

Recommendation: This entire Mountain Treasure Area should be placed in Special Biological Area management, and should be placed within a larger Pisgah National Recreation Area

Naturalness: The South Mills River Mountain Treasure is a remarkable transect of mountain scenery including ridgeline views, deep valleys with clear water trout streams and one of the biggest mountain bogs in the Southeast. It encompasses an area of roughly 17,120 acres, from the congressionally-designated Cradle of Forestry and the Pink Beds near US 276 on the west; the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pisgah Inn on the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the north; then it falls southward through the long ridges of the Laurel Mountain Roadless Area to the drainage basin of the South Mills River Roadless Area. Only the Yellow Gap Road, a dirt connector between US 276 and the North Mills River Recreation Area, separates the South Mills River and the Pink Beds from the Laurel Mountain Roadless Area to the north.

Opportunities for Solitude/Backcountry Recreation: The area includes an extensive trail system, including the Black Mountain trail, with its incredible views of Looking Glass Rock, Turkeypen Gap, which is considered by many to be Pisgah’s toughest trail, Squirrel Gap, a favorite with mountain bikers, and many others. This network is used heavily but sustainably by hikers, campers, mountain bikers, horse riders, and hunters. Much loved for a broad range of outdoor experiences, the South Mills River Area should be recognized for its recreational use.

Ecological and other values: The State of North Carolina gave the South Mills River an Outstanding Resource Waters classification in 1988. The Congress designated the South Mills River a National Wild and Scenic Study River in 1990. Asheville and Hendersonville are planning to draw municipal water supplies from this watershed.

The Forest Service concluded in 1996 that several river segments are all eligible for National Wild and Scenic status: 20.1 miles of the South Fork Mills River within the Pisgah National Forest (beginning in the Cradle of Forestry and going to the junction with the North Fork); 5.3 miles outside the forest boundaries, plus 5.9 miles of the North Fork (from the Hendersonville Reservoir); and, 2.2 miles of the Mills River below their junction. If Congress were to designate all these qualifying sections, they would become the longest wild river in North Carolina.

There is a wealth of biodiversity in this area, including rare aquatic species like the hellbender and the endangered mussel, the Appalachian elktoe. The following State Natural Heritage Areas have been identified:South Fork Mills River Riparian Area (NCNHP proposed for new priority SIA) Clawhammer Mountain/Black Mountain (NCNHP proposed for new priority SIA)

Historically this area is of interest because it was once part of the Biltmore Forest, owned by George Vanderbilt in 1900 and where Gifford Pinchot established the nation’s first forestry school. The remnants of Pinchot’s first management experiments can still be seen along Big Creek in the Laurel Mountain Area.

Manageability:. The South Mills River is noted as one of the top trout fishing, turkey hunting, horseback riding and mountain biking areas in the Pisgah National Forest. This area’s size, beauty, popularity and diversity suggest that it, along with other similarly unspoiled and popular nearby areas (Cedar Rock and Daniel Ridge, plus Sliding Rock, the Cradle of Forestry Visitor Center, the Trout Hatchery and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Education Center, and the Davidson River, Kuykendahl, North Mills River and Cove Creek campgrounds) would logically qualify the entire Pisgah Ranger District for designation as a national recreation area, prioritizing management for the area to focus on these outstanding recreational assets and the natural qualities that provide the experiences that visitors desire.

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