When George W. Vanderbilt purchased 125,000 acres for his Biltmore Estate much of the land was severely over-farmed and in drastic need of reforestation. Vanderbilt turned the task over to Gifford Pinchot, the first private forester hired in America. When his friend Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1900, Gifford Pinchot was named the first Chief Forester of the United States Forest Service. During his tenure, national forests would triple in size to 193 million acres. Back in Asheville, Vanderbilt hired Carl Schenck, a German versed in scientific forestry, to take command of the Biltmore forests. Schenck founded America’s first school of forestry, the Biltmore Forest School, which graduated nearly 400 students with expertise and practical experience in forest management until it closed in 1913. The Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site in the Pink Beds was established by Congress in 1968 to preserve the legacy of the old Biltmore Forest School. The 6,500-acre Pink Beds takes it name, naturally enough, from the profusion of pink wildflowers that bloom in this flat, hemmed-in valley every spring.
In the more than half-million acres of the Pisgah National Forest, the Pink Beds Loop is the easiest extended hiking you will find with your top trail companion. The loop winds lazily through mature oak-dominated hardwoods with a spattering of white pine stands in the cove forest but the dominant feature is the rare mountain bog. Sometimes the Pink Beds are too-well lubricated and impassable; even in dry times expect wet feet and paws. The Pink Beds Loop covers five miles but can be short-cutted across the wetlands on the Bennett Branch Trail.
Next door, the Cradle of Forestry sports two paved interpretive trails of about a mile in length - the Forest Festival Trail that focuses on forest products and includes an antique portable sawmill and a 1915 Climax locomotive. This 2-speed, geared steam engine was popular with loggers and more than a thousand were produced between 1888 and 1928. The Biltmore Campus Trail snakes through the rustic campus where many restored historic buildings still reside.
More than ninety percent of the Appalachian bogs have been drained for cropland and the Pink Beds is one of the largest intact wetland complexes in the Southern Appalachians with a nationally significant population of rare bog plants such as bog roses, northern green orchids and bog Jack-in-the-pulpit. Most important of these are the swamp pinks, a member of the lily family designated as threatened in 1988. It has a pink flower the shape and size of an average pine cone. In this nutrient-challenged land environment some plants turn to animals for sustenance. The insectivorous pitcher plants lure insects into a deadly trap for consumption by a cocktail of digestive fluids in the ewer-shaped pitcher. Tiny hairs pointing downward prevent the trapped insects from crawling out to freedom.
Take US 276 south from Milepost 412 of the Blue Ridge Parkway four miles to parking on the left (all paved).