European settlers moving into the area in the late 1700s named this creek for a horseshoe-shaped bend near the French Broad River. Over the next hundred years the entire area was logged and bustled with more than 100 homes and 20 businesses. After the Forest Service purchased this land it set aside 1,100 acres around Bent Creek for research by the Appalachian Forest Experiment Station, which Congress had established in 1921 as one of the oldest experimental forests in the East. In 1935, about 5,200 acres were added and the Experimental Forest now includes most of the Bent Creek Watershed. In 1942 the creek was dammed and the 13-acre Lake Powhatan formed to become the center for recreational activity in the forest.
There are no great destinations in Bent Creek Forest, no spectacular waterfalls, no awe-inspiring views. What there is, however, is great woods-walking with your dog on gated jeep roads and foot trails that ease you up the slopes on long, sinuous hikes. Bent Creek and its 44 miles of trails is not the place to come for a quick leg-stretcher. Your dog will find the easiest trotting around Lake Powhatan and down beside Bent Creek (and plenty of company on the trails as well.) These stream-bottom communities are thick with rhododendron and stands of white pine and hemlock which thin out the further you venture up the slopes. One of the best hiking loops with your dog without driving too deep into the forest is up the Ledyard and Wolf branches north of Lake Powhatan. In the course of almost five miles you pass through fern-encrusted clearcuts, regenerating hardwood forests and selected harvest plots.
Woodland Indians long used fire to maintain an open understory but the U.S. Forest Service has historically waged war on forest fires. Recent thinking has postulated that decades of suppression have made fires burn hotter and more destructive when they do occur. In recent years prescribed fires have become a critical tool in forest management but there are few long-term studies to confirm the benefits of fire to a healthy hardwood ecosystem. Prescribed fire is one of the multi-year research studies taking place in Bent Creek Experimental Forest so don’t be surprised if your dog sniffs fresh charred wood on one of your hikes here.
From I-26 take Exit 33 and go 1.8 miles south to Wesley Branch Road on the right. Turn and follow into the forest and the information board on the right (all paved).