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Pisgah Mountain Biking: North Carolina’s Old-School Gnar

Explore Pisgah mountain biking with this guide to the best trails & routes in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. Adventure awaits!

Photo out over front of mountain bike handlebars onto flowy singletrack trail in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

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Pisgah mountain biking is… rough, raw, steep, rugged, old school and… sometimes a little bit fun. That’s a joke, but I do think the ‘Pisgah Gnar’ is the appeal for riders who call Western North Carolina home. But for those visiting for the first time, Pisgah can be a rude awakening, to say the least.

I spent almost three months riding around the Brevard and Asheville area and while I can’t say I came to fully embrace Pisgah’s trails and terrain, I did come to appreciate them for what they are and their stunning rugged beauty.

In this post, I share everything you need to know about mountain biking in Pisgah National Forest including what to expect (read that section carefully), best trails, route recommendations, and more.

Let’s dive in!

Why Mountain bike Pisgah?

That’s a great question. Not everyone will enjoy mountain biking in Pisgah. It’s rough and raw and any climb you do is going to be a big one and it will probably be at least 5 miles on a gravel road.

The climbing that is on singletrack will not be nicely switchbacked and the trails are wildly hit or miss. Some are awesome, while others will have you cursing and scratching your head and wondering what just happened. Am I selling it?

To be fair, there IS good riding in the Pisgah area, which includes the adjoining Bracken Preserve, North Mills River, and Bent Creek.

But I think a lot of people don’t realize what they’re getting into, so here are a few reasons to ride (or not ride) Pisgah National Forest:

  • Incredible natural beauty: Pisgah is stunning. From waterfalls to magical swimming holes to mountain laurels and rhododendron tunnels to epic views, the scenery in Pisgah is definitely a highlight.
  • Rough, raw, old-school trails: Like rocks and roots? You’ll love Pisgah.
  • Improve your riding skills: No matter your riding level, Pisgah will boost your skills up a notch or two if you really embrace it.
  • Increase your fitness: No doubt that Pisgah will whip you into shape if you spend more than a few days here.
Mountain bike trail in Pisgah National Forest lined with lush vegetation and flowering trees
Pisgah is beautiful, I will give it that!

Important Things to Know

There are definitely some things you should know before heading off into Pisgah for your first ride.

  • e-bikes are NOT allowed: electric mountain bikes are not allowed in Pisgah. Please respect this.
  • Get ready for some gravel grinding: Most of the long climbs in Pisgah are on gravel roads or fire roads. Of course, you can pedal up singletrack, but be prepared for some hard work and hike-a-biking!
  • It’s going to be harder than you think: I was a bit taken aback at first (and still kind of am) at how hard Pisgah mountain biking is. As I mentioned above, Pisgah is steep, raw, and chunky. Be prepared with your mountain bike pack essentials, water, snacks, etc…
  • Don’t overcommit to mileage: Until you get a sense of how hard Pisgah is going to be for you, don’t overcommit on miles. I’d say stick to 8-12 miles (or less) for your first ride or two.
  • Watch out for hikers and equestrians: The trails in Pisgah are shared with hikers, trail runners, and equestrians. Stay in control and say hi when you pass!
  • Don’t rely on cell service: Cell service in Pisgah is pretty much non-existent. Make sure you have your routes downloaded before setting off on your ride and always tell someone where you’re going.
  • River crossings: Be prepared to get your feet wet! There are a lot of river crossings in Pisgah, some deeper and tricker to cross than others.
  • A navigational device is mandatory: You’ll need TrailForks downloaded to your phone or a bike computer loaded with your routes. MTB Project is ok but doesn’t have as many trails listed as TrailForks.
Photo out over front of mountain bike handlebars onto trail in Pisgah National Forest with creek crossing

Pisgah mountain bike trail networks

Pisgah National Forest is actually really big – over 500,000 acres. If you say you’re going to ride in Pisgah, that could mean any handful of places.

In this post, I focus on the Pisgah riding networks around Brevard and Asheville, but there are other Pisgah networks even beyond these.

  1. Bracken Preserve
  2. Pisgah Ranger District
  3. North Mills River
  4. Bent Creek

Pisgah Area Mountain Biking Map

1. Bracken Mountain

Bracken Mountain is a small network of trails on the south side of Pisgah closest to Brevard.

There is one main 6-mile loop, but don’t let the short mileage fool you. It’s a climb to get to the top!

When I rode Bracken Mountain I hadn’t been in Brevard for very long and I was cursing my way to the top. But… I do think the descent is one of the best and flowiest in Pisgah.

If you’re looking to ease your way into Pisgah mountain biking, this is a good place to start. It only gets harder from here!

Bracken Mountain Route recommendation

>> Bracken Mountain Loop

This route is only 6 miles, but there are nearly 1,300 ft of climbing in 3 miles (that’s a lot).

As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy sufferfest climbing, I do think the downhill is worth it.

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate
  • Mileage: 6.3 miles
  • Route type: Loop
  • E-bikes? No
  • Elevation gain/loss: 1,304 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Bracken Preserve Parking > Bracken Mountain Trail > Pinnacle > Bushy Creek Trail > Bracken Mountain Trail

Route notes: There is limited parking at the trailhead. Pedal from town if you can.

Bracken Mountain Trail Sign in Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, NC
The climb up Bracken is tough, but the downhill is worth it

2. Pisgah Ranger District

The Pisgah Ranger District is what most people refer to as “Pisgah”. It’s the largest network of trails with the most iconic descents like Black Mountain, Bennett Gap, and Avery Creek.

Accessing these trails, though, requires a hefty climb up a gravel road. In all honesty, the first time I rode ‘Pisgah’ the words “WTF” escaped my mouth more than a few times.

Not only are the gravel road climbs a grind, but Pisgah is old-school. Don’t expect a ton of flow (although there are flowy sections) and make sure your brake pads are nice and fresh.

#1: Pisgah Ranger District Route recommendation

>> Thrift to Black + Sycamore Cove

If it’s your first time to Pisgah, this is a great route to start with to give you an idea of what this place will throw at you.

The climb is up an old fire road and then you get one of the best descents in Pisgah: Lower Black Mountain (it’s more of a blue than a black after some major trail work).

Finish the ride with a bit more climbing up Grassy Road Trail to Sycamore Cove.

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate
  • Mileage: 7.4 miles
  • Route type: Loop
  • E-bikes? No
  • Elevation gain/loss: 1,312 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Thrift Cove Trailhead Parking > Thrift Cove > Lower Black Mountain > Grassy Road Trail > Sycamore Cove

Route notes: You can take Sycamore Cove in either direction after climbing Grassy Road Trail. Following the route (staying left) will be more climbing while taking a right onto Sycamore Cove will be pretty much all downhill.

Do more: If you’re ready to jump into a bigger ride, the classic for Black Mountain is to pedal up Clawhammer Road to Middle Black, which is a great extension to Lower Black. You can see the route here. This will add about 5 miles and 1,000 ft of climbing.

Flowy Pisgah mountain biking trail though the woods in North Carolina
Black Mountain is THE trail to do in the Pisgah Ranger District. The Lower and Middle sections are the most popular
#2: Pisgah Ranger District Route recommendation

>> Cantrell to Squirrel Gap

Turkey Pen is a bit farther north toward North Mills River. I really liked this area because it’s a bit less popular and there are some cool suspension bridges.

This route has the typical gravel/doubletrack climb before dropping into a steep, rocky, rooty descent.

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate
  • Mileage: 13.4 miles
  • Route type: Loop
  • E-bikes? No
  • Elevation gain/loss: 2,333 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Turkey Pen Parking > Thrift Cove > Lower Black Mountain > Grassy Road Trail > Sycamore Cove

Route notes: There’s an awesome little swimming hole at the bottom.

Two other routes/trails worth doing in the Pisgah Ranger District are:

  • Avery Creek – a good mix of fast flow and tech. A step up from Black Mountain.
  • Bennett Gap – the most ‘downhill’ of downhill trails in Pisgah Ranger District. Advanced riders only on this one.
Pisgah Mountain Biking trail through lush North Carolina forest

3. North Mills River

North Mills River is my favorite network of mountain bike trails within Pisgah. This area is a bit less busy than the Pisgah Ranger District and definitely less busy than Bent Creek.

But I love it for the trails.

I found the trails in North Mills River to be the perfect mix of Pisgah gnar and DuPont flow.

The climbs also don’t seem quite as bad and there’s an awesome little swimming hole down at the parking area.

#1: North Mills River Route recommendation

>> Spencer Gap to Fletcher Creek

This was one of my favorite routes during my whole three months in the Brevard area.

There is a substantial gravel road climb, but I found it to be more ‘enjoyable’ than the climbs in Pisgah Ranger District.

Spencer Branch, Fletcher Creek, and Lower Trace Ridge are all super fun and even have a bit of flow, which is hard to find in Pisgah.

Bring your bathing suit to jump in the river after your ride!

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate
  • Mileage: 13.3 miles
  • Route type: Loop
  • E-bikes? No
  • Elevation gain/loss: 1,714 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Yellow Gap Road Parking > Wash Creek Road > Spencer Gap > Fletcher Creek Road > Fletcher Creek > Henderson Reservoir Road > Lower Trace Ridge

Do more: If you’re up for a much bigger day, climb back up Wash Creek Road after finishing Fletcher Creek and come down Trace Ridge. This will add about 7 miles and 1,000 ft of climbing.

Photo out over front of handlebars onto singletrack trail in Pisgah National Forest. Trail sign with trail user icons and Trace Ridge on right
#2: North Mills River Route recommendation

>> Laurel to Pilot Rock

So… I didn’t love this one. But I think that was more due to my mood than the actual route. I named it on Strava “The Ride That Would Not End”.

This is a classic ride for experienced Brevard/Asheville locals. The pedal up Laurel Mountain is a good challenge, but mostly rideable (if dry) until the very end, which is definitely a hike-a-bike.

Pilot Rock is also a local’s favorite. I thought it was ok… Typical steep Pisgah terrain with lots of loose rocks, not much flow, and some frustrating switchbacks. But awesome views and a unique trail!

  • Route difficulty: Advanced
  • Mileage: 13.6
  • Route type: Loop
  • E-bikes? No
  • Elevation gain/loss: 2,326 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Laurel/Pilot Parking > Laurel Mountain > Pilot Rock > Yellow Gap Road

Route notes: This is a backcountry trail that feels very remote. Be sure you have your mountain bike pack essentials, plenty of snacks, and water or a water bottle filter.

Do more: If you have more in you, you can add on the Pilot Cove – Slate Rock loop. I haven’t done this trail, but I have heard that it’s more like a hiking trail than a biking trail, so…. It does add about 1,000 ft of climbing in 4 miles.

Chunky and rocky mountain bike trail in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina
Pilot Rock has some chunky, tricky corners

4. Bent Creek

Bent Creek is by far the ‘tamest’ of Pisgah mountain biking. It’s the closest network to Asheville, so it’s also the busiest and the trails are more developed while still maintaining a bit of Pisgah’s old-schoolness.

The black-rated trails are more like blues when compared to the other Pisgah trail networks.

If you tried North Mills River and Pisgah Ranger District and they weren’t for you, you’ll probably like Bent Creek (or you should head over to DuPont).

The trail to do in Bent Creek is Green’s Lick. It’s a bit of a climb to get up there, but it is a great descent.

Bent Creek Route recommendation

>> Bent Creek North

This is the classic route to do in Bent Creek. It hits the two most popular descents in the network – Green’s Lick and Ingles Field Gap. Both these trails are rated black on TrailForks, but compared to other Pisgah blacks, they’re definitely blues.

The climb is a bit of a grind… it’s mostly on gravel road with the final push on singletrack.

  • Route difficulty: Intermediate
  • Mileage: 13.7 miles
  • Route type: Loop
  • E-bikes? No
  • Elevation gain/loss: 1,892 ft
  • Map/GPS: TrailForks

Route directions: Wesley Branch Parking (or Rice Pinnacle Parking if you want to get an annoying climb out of the way at the beginning) > Ledford Branch Road > Northern Boundary Road > Green’s Lick > Sidehill > Little Hickory Top > Ingles Field Gap > Wolf Branch > Deer Lake Lodge

Do less: Skip the climb up to Green’s Lick and cut the loop short at Ingles Field Gap.

Mountain biker standing over her bike at start of trail in Bent Creek Area near Asheville, NC

Planning Your Pisgah Mountain Biking Trip

Pisgah can be its own mountain biking destination in and of itself or it can be a stop along a bigger road trip.

Either way, here are a few tips and resources to help you plan your visit:

Getting there

Pisgah National Forest stretches between Asheville, North Carolina, and Brevard.

It takes about 50 minutes to drive the length (on the main roads) so if you want to hit all of the trail networks, it’s worth planning your rides either north to south starting with Bent Creek or south to north starting with Bracken Preserve.

Getting around

You definitely need a car to explore Pisgah. The trailheads are outside of town and all the trail systems are far apart.

Best time to visit

Technically, Pisgah can be ridden year-round since the area doesn’t get a lot of snow. However, spring and fall are the best times to visit.

Spring brings amazing wildflowers and blooming mountain laurels and rhododendrons. These usually pop between May and June. I LOVED riding through the rhodie and mountain laurel tunnels when they were blooming!

Fall would also be a great time to visit if you want to catch cooler temps and changing fall foliage. I haven’t experienced Pisgah in the fall, but I’ve seen photos and it looks stunning. Temps typically start to drop around mid-September.

Summer is the most popular time to visit Pisgah and surprisingly, I found to to be not too hot. The temps might be in the 80s and humidity high, but the forest stays relatively cool thanks to the tree cover and Pisgah’s many rivers.

Rhododendron tunnel over trail in Pisgah National Forest
This was a bit early for these Rhododendron tunnels to be flowering. Spring is an awesome time to visit for beautiful wildflowers and flowering trees

Bike shops

The Brevard/Asheville area has no shortage of bike shops. There are probably over a dozen between the two.

My favorite bike shop, though, is The HUB and Pisgah Tavern in Brevard. It’s got a service department, retail shop, mountain bike rentals, and a little bar to grab post-ride drinks plus a nice patio to enjoy them. There is also a daily food truck and a coffee truck.

Squatch Bikes in Brevard is another one to check out.

Where to eat & drink

There are a ton of great restaurants in the Brevard/Asheville area. Too many to list! Western North Carolina is also craft-beer central, so there are a ton of breweries.

Here are a few places that I loved:

  • Bracken Mountain Bakery: A must in Brevard for delicious baked goods.
  • Love Eat Thai: A great Thai place in Brevard.
  • Quixote Fine Cuisine: I didn’t get to eat here, but it gets great reviews and it’s right on the main street.
  • Cup & Saucer: A cute coffee shop in Brevard that serves good coffee.
  • West-First Wood Fired: A great pizza place in Hendersonville. It’s kind of out of the way, but the downtown Hendersonville area is worth a visit.
  • Oskar Blues Brewery: Kind of a must for anyone visiting Brevard. They have live music on the weekends.

Where to stay

Between Asheville and Brevard, there are tons of places to stay around the Pisgah area. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Free Camping

There are free dispersed camping sites in Pisgah National Forest. These sites do not have any facilities, so you need to bring everything with you and pack everything out.

They’re also first-come, first-serve and they get snagged quickly, especially on weekends.

Here is a map of the free dispersed campsites in Pisgah.

Avery Creek (AC) and Wash Creek (WC) are the best locations for mountain bikers.

Most of these sites also have no cell service unless you’re up on Yellow Gap Road.

Paid Camping

There are several paid campgrounds in Pisgah with showers, toilets, dump stations, etc…

Like the dispersed camping, though, these campgrounds have no cell service.

  • Davidson River Campground: Nice campground on the banks of the Davidson River with good access to the Pisgah Ranger District Trails. Pricey, though, in my opinion.
  • North Mills River Campground: Smaller campground in the North Mills River trail network. Great location, though, with a nice river that runs through it.
  • Lake Powhatan Campground: Located in the Bent Creek area, this campground has access to the small Lake Powhatan and the Bent Creek Trails.

Hotels & Rentals

Brevard has a few hotels, but I prefer vacation rentals when I’m doing mountain bike trips because they come with laundry (very important in a hot, humid climate), kitchens, and bike storage.

If you’re looking for a unique setting, check out Pilot Cove Forest Lodging, which is conveniently located next to the HUB.

Other things to do around Pisgah

There are SO MANY awesome things to do in and around Pisgah. It truly is an outdoor playground. If you’ve had enough of the outdoors, Asheville offers some great cultural and dining opportunities as well.

Here are a few non-biking highlights from my 3-month stay in WNC:

  • Visit the Biltmore Estate – Tickets are expensive, but 100% worth it. The gardens are incredible and there are even some bike trails if you want to bring your bike.
  • Catch a MOTH Storyslam at the Grey Eagle – I listen to the MOTH podcast, so I was excited to learn that they do monthly Story Slams at the Grey Eagle in Asheville.
  • Go chasing waterfalls – there are so many beautiful waterfalls around WNC. Pearson Falls was a favorite ($5 per person entrance fee), but there are so many.
  • Go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway – The Blue Ridge Parkway is stunning and definitely deserves a day to be explored. Hike up Mt. Pisgah for awesome views or head to Craggy Gardens in the spring for amazing spring flowers.
  • Search for the white squirrels – Brevard is home to white squirrels (really!) and they can be seen running around downtown.
  • Explore Asheville – Asheville has a really cute downtown area that is nice to spend a day exploring. There are lots of great restaurants, cafes, shops, and art.
Walkway leading down to Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina
Looking Glass Falls is

Final Thoughts

To be honest, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the mountain biking in Pisgah National Forest.

It’s weird.

I’ve ridden a lot of places and I can’t quite decide if I like Pisgah or I hate it. On one day I’ll go for an awesome ride and then the next day I swear to never ride Pisgah again. Maybe that’s the appeal.

There are great trails, but there are also monotonous gravel road climbs, more rocks and roots than you’ve probably ever encountered on one trail, steep climbs and even steeper descents, and very little mountain bike ‘flow’.

It’s old-school to the max. But people love it for that. It’s just important to know what to expect before setting off on the trails (or planning a trip) because not everyone is going to love Pisgah.

If you’re looking for something a little less intense, check out DuPont State Forest or the Tsali Loops.

Mountain biker riding bike over suspension bridge in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Be sure to head to Turkey Pen to ride the suspension bridges!

Have you done any Pisgah mountain biking? What have you heard about the riding here? Is it a place you’d like to visit? Leave a comment below!

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