October 2, 2017
On paper, the South Mills River Trail does not look difficult. It’s only 12 miles and follows a river. In actuality, it’s 14.6 miles, crosses the river countless times, and is quite hard. What I thought would be a waltz of a hike turned into a backcountry masterpiece of a trail.
The trail runs from its southern trailhead at Turkey Pen Gap to F.S. 476 (near Pink Beds). The first 4 miles are relatively easy, sandy and flat. The Forest Service has built several swinging bridges, but those end by the time you reach Cantrell Creek. That’s when the river crossings start. In the roughly 6 miles from Cantrell to Wolf Ford, and the trail crosses the river 9 times. Some of those crossing are ankle deep; some are waist deep. On a cold morning (41 degrees when starting) the first crossing really woke me up.
I could tell that the area sees very little day-to-day use. Soon the blazes disappeared and the overgrown dog hobble nearly obscured the path. If I had been in the middle of the woods, I would have thought I was lost. But, given the topographic landscape, it wasn’t hard to figure I was heading north and I needed to follow the river.
Soon the land began to contract, creating a ravine feeling with the towering mountains looming above my solitary path in the woods. After many miles, I spotted Copperas Rock, a large cliff formation and knew I was near Wolf Ford.
Wolf marks the confluence of the Squirrel Gap Trail and South Mills. From there, the trail rises above the river upon a really well maintained road for 4 miles. I made great time, and soon was at the gate entry at F.S. 476. From there it was another 4-mile walk though Pink Beds to the parking area, where my wife was waiting to drive me back to my car.
It’s hard not to be impressed with the South Mills River Trail. The words unexpected beauty come to mind, as if stumbling upon a gem one was not expecting. Given the number of pristine, untouched campsites, amount of fresh water and flat grade, it will be hard not to return.
Total mileage is 18.4 miles.