Finding a hike during the coronavirus shutdowns of public lands in WNC was no small feat.
On a quest for a simple afternoon hike a couple of weeks ago, I pulled out my stack of hiking maps and guidebooks, splayed them across the kitchen table, and queued up the webpage listing Pisgah trail closures.
Anyone who attempted this exercise knows how it went from here. The only way to skin this cat was to comb all the squiggly trail lines on your maps and cross-reference them against the closure list. It was like finding a needle in a haystack, and only doable by those of us old-school enough to have things called maps.
It would’ve been far simpler if the national forest service put out a list of the trails that were open, as opposed to those that weren’t.
So I was elated when the Pisgah National Forest announced trails would be reopening last weekend, but once again, they didn’t make it easy. They put out a list of trails that had reopened — but it wasn’t a complete list of what was open, nor an updated list of what was closed.
This now meant cross-referencing trails against not just one but two lists. If you saw your trail on the “reopened” list, you were good to go. But if not, you had to revert to the now-defunct closure list to see if had been closed in the first place or had been open all along.
I finally bit the bullet and called a forest service office to explain just how complicated this was. It turns out, the mystery shrouding trail closures was partly by design.
A ranger told me that publishing a list of trails that were still open would have served as magnets for the masses — telling the crowds in search of outdoor pursuits exactly where to go. And that’s exactly what they didn’t want, as overrun trails were the reason for the shutdown in the first place.
In other words, if you wanted to hike bad enough, you had to work for it.
Since my call, but not necessary because of it, a couple more lists have now gone up on the forest service website making things easier.
There’s a new master list of exactly what’s closed now — instead of the two-layer approach of what used to be closed and what’s reopened. And even better, they broke the closure list down by county.
As for that afternoon hike in early May? After nearly an hour of going down various rabbit holes, I found one that fit the bill: Robert Gap Trail in the Harmon Den area, one of only three trails in Harmon Den that you could hike at the time.
I’d driven past the trailhead many times on the way to Max Patch, but never bothered exploring it. And now I know why.
The 2.5 mile trail is nothing special. There are no creeks or waterfalls, no striking views other than glimpses through the not-yet-leafed out trees. It’s a younger forest, having been logged sometime in the past few decades, so the woods themselves aren’t particularly exceptional.
Suffice to say, the nondescript trail had no danger of being overrun. It was clear the forest service picked the ho-hum trails when deciding what to leave open.
At first, I was skeptical of the pay-off for making the long, dusty drive up the windy, gravel Max Patch Road.
But as I struck off down the trail and the silence of the mountains enveloped us, I could feel my step lightening. The pressing burden of the times we’re living in melted away, and the monotony of life during a pandemic was forgotten, if only for a couple of hours.
The upside of Robert Gap Trail is that it’s nearly flat — winding along the sidehill of a high-elevation cove. It’s also easy to follow, with no danger of being led astray by side trails. Portions of the trail follow old logging road cuts, making side-by-side hiking possible. It’s shared with horses, however, so be prepared to navigate a few mucky, muddy spots along the way.
Be aware that Cold Springs Road at exit 7 off I-40 is closed due to a rockslide that happened in April, so follow the directions listed here instead that take exit 15.
About the hikeRobert Gap Trail is a 2.5-mile relatively flat trail in the Harmon Den area of the Pisgah National Forest. It has two trailheads along Max Patch Road. You can start from either end and hike however far you want before turning around. If you only intend to hike a portion of the trail, start from the second trailhead to take in the better segment.
• Take I-40 west to exit 15, the Fines Creek exit. Turn right at the bottom of the exit ramp.
• Go 3.5 miles and turn left onto Max Patch Road. Start your odometer here.
• At 3.6 miles, take the left fork at Belmont Baptist Church. The road turns to gravel.
• At 7 miles, you come to an entering Pisgah National Forest sign. On the left, there’s an old chimney and remains of a homeplace.
• At 8.6 miles, the first Robert Gap trailhead is on the left.
• At 10 miles, the second Robert Gap trailhead is on the left.