Ten hikes for the End of Days (for 2012, that is)

The views atop Shortoff Mountain on the east rim of Linville Gorge are crisp on a winter's day.
Throughout much of North Carolina, the forecast through New Year’s Day couldn’t be much better for one thing.

Taking a hike.

In the Triangle, for instance, we’re looking at daytime highs in the mid- to upper 40s and sunny to partly sunny skies through New Year’s Day. Good timing since most of you likely have some time off over this same time period. Since the weather today is universally ugly and thus ideal for planning, we offer 10 hikes especially well-suited for this time of year. Look ‘em over, consult the listed sources for additional information. If nothing tickles your hiking fancy, head over to our sister site, NCHikes.com, for more options.

Enjoy!

Coast

1. Boiling Springs Nature Preserve, 1.5 miles, Wilmington. (For details, go here.) Just a mile and a half? you may protest. After a few minutes on the trail at this The Nature Conservancy 6,925-acre property 25 minutes from downtown Wilmington you’ll be glad it isn’t longer considering how much there is to stop and see. Says The Nature Conservancy, “In an average natural area, there are 8 to 10 species of plants growing in one square meter, but in the wetlands of Boiling Spring Lakes there are several times that number.” Various carnivorous plants unique to the region, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the rough-leaf loosestrife are among the more unique sights you’ll see here.

2. Neusiok Trail, Croatan National Forest, Havelock. 20.1 miles, with shorter options (Trip No. 42, “Backpacking North Carolina,” Hike No. 5, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). The Neusiok, much of which runs through a swamp, has a limited hiking window, and if you don’t hit this classic by mid-March, you’ll be sorry (and also plagued by flying, stinging bugs). Wintertime temperatures in the 50s and overnight lows near freezing make this the perfect coastal escape, regardless of whether you like going long (the whole 20.1 miles) or simply chewing off a section or two. An especially rewarding hike on a cool, sunny winter’s day.


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Piedmont

3. Uwharrie National Forest, Birkhead Wilderness, Asheboro, 7.4 miles (Hike No. 36, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina,” Trip No. 35, “Backpacking North Carolina,” or go here.) There’s a starkness to the Birkhead Wilderness, a 5,160-acre notch on the northern tip of the Uwharrie National Forest southeast of Asheboro, that makes it ideal for winter hiking. Although not a particularly mature forest, there’s a dearth of understory that makes for good, long sightlines in this portion of the ancient Uwharrie mountain range that’s a bit mellower elevationwise than to the south. A good, long hike for people who may not think they’re up for a good, long hike.

4. Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Orange County, 2.9 miles (Hike No. 20, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina or go here). Normally, you’d expect to spend a good hour in the car to find a spot as remote as the Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. But thanks to the 1999 efforts of the Triangle Land Conservancy, this 295-acre preserve remains intact amid the encroaching sprawl of Durham and Chapel Hill. Your escape from the city happens quickly: From the main trailhead off Mount Sinai Road, you descend through dogwood, red cedar, sweetgums and loblollies into a floodplain forest rich with the rare: four-toed salamanders, Thorey’s grayback dragonfly, green violet, bloodroot, stemmed yellow violet and columbine. Walk along New Hope Creek to the Beech Loop, a bluff trail that gets its name from the sizable Fagus grandifolia that dominate the hillside. Later, check out remains of the Johnston Mill and homestead dating to the early 18th century. An especially foot-friendly tread (trail surface) makes this a particularly good venue for less able hikers.

5. Ledge Spring and Jomeokee trails, Pilot Mountain State Park, Pilot Mountain, 2.8 miles, with longer options (Hike No. 47, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). One of the joys of winter hiking in North Carolina is the opportunity for great views. Colder, generally drier air eliminates the haze the plagues summer skies; on a clear day you may not be able to see forever, but you can see a long, long way. From the top of Pilot Mountain, which towers 800 feet above the surrounding landscape, you can see west to the Blue Ridge mountains, north into Virginia and south to Winston-Salem and beyond. The mountaintop Ledge Spring and Jomeokee trails offer the best views. Throw in the Grindstone and/or Mountain trails to add some distance.

6. Latta Plantation, Charlotte, 4.2 miles (Hike No. 28, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). So much hiking, so close to town. Sixteen miles of trail explore this 1,343-acre preserve on the north side of town; we recommend a loop that includes the Hill, Cove and Split Rock trails, a loop that features a rare Piedmont prairie, a type of grassland common in the region prior to the European invasion but rarely found today. This being winter, you’ll miss out on the wildflowers common to a Piedmont prairie (such as the smooth coneflower), but you will get a sense of the vast open spaces that today we typically associate with the West. Some good shoreline and cove hiking on this loop as well.

Mountains

7. Mount Sterling, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 18.1 miles (Trip No. 17, “Backpacking North Carolina”). Of course, part of the thrill of winter hiking is the chance to experience some winter. You’ll have a good shot of that on this loop in the Great Smokies, which starts below 3,000 feet and tops out in a balsam forest atop 5,823-foot Mount Sterling. Super Storm Sandy dumped more than a foot of snow in the Smokies’ higher reaches and her wind created drifts of four to five feet. If you’re looking for a good winter adventure in November, this would be the hike. The summit happens early on, after a little more than six miles of hiking (the last 2.2 miles of which gains 1,700 vertical feet). After that it’s a lovely, mostly downhill ramble down Mountain Sterling Ridge Trail and Pretty Hollow Creek, with a return through Little Cataloochee. Lots of natural beauty interspersed with signs of the park’s cultural past. A most worthy 18-mile day.

8. Doughton Park: Basin Cove Loop, Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, up to 20+ miles (Trip No. 11, “Backpacking North Carolina,” Hike No. 54, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). Another backpack/day hike option, where you should, at least through mid-month, find some color on a trip that starts at the base of the Blue Ridge escarpment. Hike in the easy 1.5 miles to the campground (establish base camp, if you’re backpacking), then behold numerous options, including: 3.4 miles up Basin Creek to the old Caudill Cabin (16 people living in one room) or head up the 2.8-mile Bluff Ridge Primitive Trail to Bluff Mountain, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and additional exploring along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Especially nice, again, with the seasonal BRP crowds diminished.

9. Schoolhouse Ridge Loop, Wilson Creek, Mortimer. 5.6 miles (Trip No. 10, “Backpacking North Carolina,” Hike No. 68, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). January can be a dicey time of year for backcountry exploring in the mountains. The higher you get, the greater the chance for snow and ice — more a problem for driving than hiking. Good reason to say low (between 1,500 and 2,400 feet), yet still reap the benefits of a mountainlike trip. Good reason to visit the Wilson Creek area. One thing about Wilson Creek is the number of creeks that penetrate this rugged section of the Blue Ridge escarpment below Grandfather Mountain, creeks that often present challenging crossings. Not so much the case on the Schoolhouse Ridge Loop. Though it does have multiple crossings of Thorps Creek early on, none are challenging. After that, it’s carefree mountain hiking.

10. Linville Gorge: East Rim
, 14.1 miles, with shorter options (Trip No. 7, “Backpacking North Carolina”). Out-of-town visitors are always looking to do “name” adventures — something the folks back home probably have heard of and would likely be impressed by. Linville Gorge is one of those places in North Carolina, an area known for its rugged beauty, falls and 2,000-foot deep (in spots) canyon. A great way to explore this wilderness is from along its East Rim. More adventurous types can start at the south end of the gorge and within two steep miles be atop Shortoff Mountain (from there, the hiking levels considerably as you head north). Or, take Forest Service roads up to the Table Mountain access where you can quickly climb 3,680-foot Tablerock Mountains (great 360 views), check out The Chimneys (popular with climbers) or take the Spence Ridge Trail, down into the gorge (it’s the easiest trail down). Great photos that come with bragging rights.

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