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Off the Beaten Path: the Forest Heritage National Byway

| Updated Jun 16, 2023

When you’re heading south next time, especially if your path takes you close to the Great Smoky Mountains, carve out some time to drive the Forest Heritage National Byway in the Pisgah National Forest.  More later on specific sights along the route, but first we’d like to share a taste of the fascinating story of this spectacular piece of the mountains.
If you have any exposure at all to the history of our national parks, you’re probably familiar with the name of Gifford Pinchot, and if you boondock in the national forests, you owe him a debt of gratitude.  Gifford’s father James made a fortune in lumber in the nineteenth century, but became increasingly distressed by the way forest management left the land barren and unproductive.  He convinced his son to attend the National Forestry School in France.  Upon his return, the two of them turned the family home, Gray Towers, into a forestry culture nursery and demonstration project.
Off the Beaten Path: the Forest Heritage National Byway 1Meanwhile, Fredrick Law Olmsted was completing the design for the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville.  Vanderbuilt had purchased thousands of acres of logged out grazing land adjoining the estate, and Olmsted was determined it should be returned to forest.  He hired young Gifford Pinchot to oversee the work.  The Biltmore Estate became home to the Biltmore Forest School and known as the “cradle of American Forestry” under Pinchot’s successor, Carl Schenk.  Pinchot and his father went on to endow the Yale School of Forestry in 1900.
Gifford Pinchot coined the term conservation ethic and, with the help of Teddy Roosevelt, established the value of publicly held forests as a resource for both commerce and recreation.  He served in congress and twice as governor of Pennsylvania.  So back to the Byway.  Get on US 276 south off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and you’ll soon come to the Cradle of Forestry Center.  Here you can dig a bit deeper into the history, and much more.
Ride a helicopter simulator as it fights a forest fire.  Look at the animals that live beneath the forest floor.  See the cabin where forestry students lived in the early days of the Biltmore Forest School.  This is the actual property Pinchot and Schenck restored.
Head on down the byway and you’ll soon come to Sliding Rock.  This is one of those places that might have disappeared in these liability conscious days, but not so.  A shaded forest stream runs over a huge slab of rock as it passes down the hillside, and you can climb on out and ride it down.  It’s fabulous fun, and holds a few surprises for first time visitors.  There’s a bathhouse onsite for changing, and it costs a couple of dollars to park.
Farther along the road is Looking Glass Falls, a spectacular cascade right beside the road.  Trailheads lead into an area that is full of water features—streams and little rills, and wildflowers in season.  Just before leaving the National Forest (formerly part of the Biltmore Estate), you’ll find the lovely Davidson River campground and a well-designed visitor center.  Many of our national forests include scenic byways, and this one is especially rich in things to see and do.  We’re Patti & Tom Burkett, and you may well find us here, off the beaten path.

Mike Wendland

Published on 2018-05-06

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

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