One room school house made of wood - the door is open with stairs leading up stone marker out front with inscription facing away from the camera and tree to the marker's right
One room schoolhouse along the Biltmore Campus Trail. Students at the forestry school would spend their mornings in a school just like this before heading out into the field for the afternoon.

Cradle of Forestry – Field Report

Today I decided to head to the Pisgah Forest and explore the Cradle of Forestry. As the site of the first forestry school in North America, experiments and lessons taught here form the basis of all forestry and forest restoration right up to today.

I arrived just just after they opened at 10 AM. It’s worth noting that as I drove by Looking Glass and Moore Cove falls, both of the parking areas were full. If you’re thinking about visiting these falls, the earlier in the day you can show up the better.

paved trail running through the woods
The trail at the Cradle of Forestry are all paved, but some can become steep at times.

But the waterfalls weren’t what I was after today, so I drove on up Hwy 276 a few miles to the Cradle of Forestry in America entrance. Unlike other spots in Pisgah, it wasn’t too busy. There weren’t any cars ahead of me at the gate and the parking lot didn’t look full at all.

When I got into the visitor’s center, I saw a small group of people getting an introduction to the site by staff and few other staff members at the information desk. The entire day, they had knowledgeable people in the lobby ready to answer any questions people had. By the time I paid may admission and picked up a map, the tour group had started down one of the trails, so I headed down the other.

All the trials at the CoF are paved. There are a number of unpaved side trails, and what I learned is that if you take one of these trials, you’ll miss something on the paved path. Those are mostly shortcuts so the staff can quickly get from exhibit to exhibit.

Forest Festival Trail

Turning right at the back of the visitor center I found myself on the Forest Festival Trail. It’s a 1.3 mile interpretive trail based on a 1908 Biltmore Forest Fair. Interpretive signage tells about the process of reforestation and sustainable forestry with a number of exhibits, including the train.

Sycamore tree with an interpretive sign in front. The sign is pointing away from the camera and too far away to make out text, but it identifies the tree as a moon tree and gives the story.
Moon Tree – Sycamore grown from seeds that orbited the Moon during the Apollo 14 Mission.

Following the path, the first thing I saw was the Moon Tree. In 1971, Apollo 14 astronaut and former forest jumper Stuart Roosa took 500 tree seeds into space. Upon his return the seeds were germinated and the seedlings distributed around the country. They have become known as Moon Trees even though the seeds and Roosa only orbited the moon and never landed.

Further down, shortly after I made it to the tree line, I took a short side trio to the amphitheater. It’s a small stage with a roof over about a third of the concrete seating.

Back along the trail, I hit the first turn in the road. The paved trail forked off to the right along with a gravel trail that led back to the parking lot. A paper sign pointed toward the train, so that’s the path I took. This path goes past the trout farm and on to a road making exhibit where horse drawn road graders are displayed.

Paved path running in front of two red pieced of horse drawn machinery. Interpretive sign but cant make out its face.
Horse drawn road graders like were used to build roads through Biltmore Forest.

Further up the trail, I passed one of the kid’s adventure zone exhibits with a saddle on a log. But behind that I could barely see some type of brick structure. Turns out to be an old chimney and stone foundation. This is the only time I was rewarded for leaving the paved trail. A path behind this old structure leads back to the trail at the sawmill, but following it completely bypasses the train.

old stone foundation and stone chimney in the middle of the woods
The only time it paid off to leave the paved trail. Between the Mountain Homestead interpretive sign and the sawmill

Back to the main trail, and soon I see another gravel trail and a can make out a wooden building behind the trees. Turns out that it’s the shed the train is kept in. Backtracking on the paved trail, I found that it loops around under a railroad trestle and next to a steam powdered log loader.

locomotive seen head on in a shed number 3 on the front
Climax logging locomotive at the halfway point on the Forest Festival Trail

The train was in the shed, but a had a ladder where I could climb up into the cab. This is about the half way point of the trail and one of the spots where the Forest Discovery Trail connects. More on that later.

looking down a belt attached to a stem engine - belts run under shed to machinery
Stem Powered Portable Saw Mill

Leaving the train exhibit, I made my way to the portable sawmill with the steam powered engine, and then on down the trail to the pond. Also there’s a small exhibit on the process of growing seedlings until they’re large enough to be transplanted into the forest. From there I turned onto the Forest Discovery Trail.

The Festival trail has some up and downs, but wasn’t too strenuous. Any up hill sections were short and the pavement helped not worry about roots and rocks.

Forest Discovery Trail

This is a 1.3 mile nature trail that’s listed as moderate. I’d put it at the strenuous end of moderate. Half the trail is up hill at a fairly steep grade, but there are lots of benches. The other trails all have resting spots too, but on the Forest Discovery Trail they are all much closer together. It’s best described as a nature trail without any signage or exhibits.

paved walking trail curving up a hill
The Forest Discovery Trail is a 1.3 mile nature trail that runs uphill half way and then down hill the to finish.

Near the highest point on the trail, I found a bridge over a running over a small stream rippling over some rocks. Then continued down hill to reconnect with the Forest Festival Trail at the train.

Following the festival trail back down to the pond, I found myself back where the paved path forked off earlier. Knowing that the paved part led back to the visitor center, I went down the gravel road and found myself between the main entrance and the parking lot.

It was close to noon now and the parking lot was much fuller. I had only seen a few people on the other paths, but as I went on the third and final trail at the CofF, there would be a lot more people.

Biltmore Campus Trail

This is a 1 mile interpretive trail that focuses on the forestry school and life at the school. The trail is full of buildings, most are reconstructions but some are either original to the site or period buildings moved to the trail.

One room school house made of wood - the door is open with stairs leading up stone marker out front with inscription facing away from the camera and tree to the marker's right
One room schoolhouse along the Biltmore Campus Trail. Students at the forestry school would spend their mornings in a school just like this before heading out into the field for the afternoon.

Again, this trail starts at the rear of the visitor center. The first building is the old schoolhouse. It’s a simple one room building. Like most of the structures along this trail, I was able to walk inside and there was a button where I was able to play a recording for more information and a bit of the story of the forestry school. Some of the buttons along the trail were easy to miss and not all of them were at the entrances.

two old wooden houses grey with age and horse drawn wagon in front
Commissary and Ranger House along the Biltmore Campus Trail

From the schoolhouse, the path leads under 276 to a small complex with the commissary building and old rangers house. Both have recorded stories to tell. The trail runs from the front of the rangers house and out the backdoor. From there I followed the arrows, and could see where the trail looped back below.

interior like an old general store- wood stove checkerboard between two chairs and Cubby Holes along wall for mail.
Inside the Commissary. Students could relax and play a game of checkers while they waited for mail from home.

Further down was Dr. Schencks’s Office, but I didn’t find any recording here. Across the trail, I saw an opening into a field. Turns out, lots of people were walking down this was through the coral to the blacksmith’s shop exhibit. But by doing that, they completely missed the Black Forest Lodge, not to mention the restrooms.

old wooden cabin with front porch and stirs on left side
Students were left to their own devices to find places to live, Many chose to bunk down in abandoned cabins scattered around the forest.

At this point the trail is looping back to the start and passes one of the Student Accommodation buildings, a garden, and a wash place with a large iron pot for cleaning laundry. The trail goes back under the highway and past the school building at the start.

Visitor Center

After finishing with the trails, I revisited the visitor center. Along with the gift shop and helpful staff, there’s a movie running in a loop telling the story of the CoF. There is also an Exhibit Hall that not only tells the story of the CoF, but forestry in America before and after the original school was built right up to modern forestry techniques.

entrance - text above reads "Forest Discovery Center Exhibit Hall"

The exhibit hall not only has a number of artifacts on display and wax figures but a number of hands on exhibits aimed mainly at kids including a helicopter/forest fire exhibit.

Final Thoughts

The paved trails make for an easy walk, but the Forest Discovery Trail with its uphill grade would be really hard for folks with trouble walking. But there are plenty of benches along the trail. The Forest Festival trail isn’t as bad, but there are some steep bits, but again it has plenty of benches. The Biltmore Forest trail is the most level and the most popular. I saw one person on an electric scooter on this trail, so it can be done.

front half of a yellow forest service helicopter inside building
The Exhibit Hall has many interactive activities including the helicopter/forest fire exhibit.

The picnic area located behind the Cantrell Creek Lodge was closed off, but there were a couple tables directly behind the visitor center and on a deck outside the grill area. Most people were just having lunch at their cars or leaving the grounds for a picnic. There are lots of small pull offs along Hwy 276 with picnic tables. The grill was also closed when I visited.

The visitor center is large with lots of people to answer any questions you have. The discovery center is larger than I expected with lots of hands on activities. The back side of the center has a large glass wall looking out on the courtyard with rocking chairs looking out in the air conditioning.

All in all, it’s well worth the $6 admission. If you’re visiting because the waterfalls are too crowded or the sliding rock parking lot is closed because it’s full, it may not be the day you were expecting.

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