Since I answer the question differently every time it’s asked, the notion of a classic hike, obviously, is difficult to pin down. In essence, I define it as a hike that you could do 100 times, and every time will yield a unique experience. Some of that has to do with the trail itself. A lot has to do with the season. A lot, too, with the weather.
When I first hiked the Mt. Sterling/Cataloochee Valley area in 2005 — Trips 17 and 18 if you’re following along in “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press) — it was on a late November day. There were light, indifferent clouds overhead, the landscape had turned from predominantly green to predominantly brown and gray. The landscape was stark, the air cold. The sky, while not threatening, suggested I not overstay my visit atop 5,843-foot Mt. Sterling. A decade later, I still have vivid memories of that trip, though not of the reality TV variety.
This weekend, I made my first return visit, with GetHiking! North Carolina’s Classic Hikes. This time it was early spring in the high country. Wildflowers were prolific. The hardwoods had budded in the valley but not at elevation. It was cloudy with a light rain falling most of the day, with late day reports of sleet and fat snowflakes from the summit. The world was a shiny, wet green, with flashes of color — blinding white dogwood blooms in the understory, the forest floor peppered with white, yellow and purple blooms — popping in contrast.
Memorable in a different way than my first visit. Not necessarily better, different. And, I’m sure, it will be different the next time I visit.
Despite the fact I use the word “classic” liberally despite an imprecise definition, it’s not a word I use lightly. Maybe I can’t define a classic hike, but I know one when I hike it.
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