From an astronomical standpoint, fall doesn’t begin until the wee hours (3:50 a.m.) of September 23. That would be the autumnal equinox, that magical day when we have as many hours of daylight as dark.
In the psychic realm, however, fall begins with the passing of Labor Day, the traditional end of summer. Goodbye pool parties and cookouts, hello fleece and football. The trouble with the psychological version is that the heat tends to overstay its welcome, lounging about into mid-September, into late September, into October. Mentally, you’re ready for changing leaves and a chill heading out the front door. In reality, you’re still in flip-flops and shorts.
And so it goes, until that one day, usually in early to mid-October, when you head out the door one morning and — whoa! I need a coat. We may hit another day or two in the low 80s, but it’s pretty much 70s, then 60s, with the occasional “high” of 50 thrown into the mix. For the avid explorers among us, the cold air heats up our hiking genes. We want to get out and go long, to get our heart pumping, to savor the cool and quiet of fall. And there are so many great places in our part of the world to do just that.
In the Piedmont, for instance, the avid among us will ramp it up after Labor Day, the lingering 90-degree day or two be danged. By mid-October, we’re in mid-season form. Alas, that’s about when the promise of cool, colorful fall weather starts to come true, luring the the masses as well. When they’re headed through the front gate, we need to be hitting the trailheads off the roads less traveled. For instance:
- Pilot Mountain State Park, Pinnacle. The park’s website this time of year often warns of a 30-minute wait simply to park in the main, mountain-top lot. Not for us., when we can have the lot off Pinnacle Hotel Road to ourselves, and hike the Mountain Trail at the base of the mountain in quiet, or hit the Boyd Nelson Road Access and hike beneath stately hardwoods on the new Pilot Creek Trail (which connects with the Mountain Trail, as well as the Grindstone Trail, which will take you to the top.).
- Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury. More parking up may not result in a 30-minute wait to park, but it does means more people. But you’ll find nary a soul at the Flinchum Road Access, where the 3.6-mile Indian Creek Trail quietly escorts you to the park’s Visitor Center (where you can sneak past the throngs heading up to Hanging Rock and instead take the 4.2-mile loop to the quieter viewscape on Moore’s Knob.
- Umstead State Park, Raleigh. Umstead is the most visited state park in North Carolina, with 1.8 million hikers in 2018. About 1.6 of them seem to come in October. Cars park out the Harrison Avenue entrance back to the I-40 entrance ramp, and can be found helter-skelter on either side of the entrance off Glenwood Avenue. Psst! The Lake Crabtree neighborhood entrance is where the action ain’t. Hike in the bike & bridle trail to the less trod segments of the Company Mill and Sycamore trails in the middle of the park.
- Crowders Mountain State Park, Gastonia. Shuttle buses? Please. The Boulders Access has fewer visitors and you can pick up the Ridgeline Trail and hike into another state (South Caroilina). How’s that for escape?
They’re eager for fall hiking as well in Charlottesville, at the base of Shenandoah National Park. “It’s been miserably hot for most of July and August, but the past few days have teased us with some wonderful fall-like temps,” says GetHiking! Charlottesville Hike Organizer Pepper Ernst.
“The cooler mountain temperatures make for great hiking days, plus there’s no bugs,” adds Pepper. “Also, the changing leaves are beautiful and as they fall the trails take on a new look as views that didn’t exist in the summer open up: a ridgeline hike that was a green tunnel in the summer can evolve into 360-degree, long-range views in the fall.”
Expect to see GetHiking! Charlottesville do some of its favorite hikes this fall, including McAfee’s Knob, Stony Mann, Hawksbill Summit, Mary’s Rock, Cole Mountain, Humpback Rocks and Ole Rag. Shenandoah National Park alone has more than 500 miles of trail, notes Pepper.
Expect more visits this fall by GetHiking! Charlotte to two of its favorite destinations: South Mountains State Park and Panthertown Valley. South Mountains, less than an hour and a half from much of the Charlotte area, offers one of the closest mountain-like experience to the Queen City. It also offers a good opportunity for solitude: most visitors to South Mountains, at about 18,000 acres North Carolina’s largest state park, don’t make it past High Shoals Falls, about a mile in; with more than 40 miles of trail that leaves a lot of backcountry to your lonesome.
Panthertown Valley may offer the most scenic variety of any spot in the state: great mountaintop views, multiple waterfalls, mountain creeks and vast stands of pines, all in about 10,000 acres. No wonder there’s already a waiting list of 23 people for the Panthertown trip on Sept. 21.
Expect Virginia Beach to make a trip or two to the Shenandoah, as well as to Merchants Millpond State Park across the North Carolina state line, and to several local trail networks, and for GetExploring! Greenville to offer a nice mix of hiking and paddling adventures.
Remember, too, that you’re welcome to sign up for trips in GetHiking! Meetups outside your region. Our weekly enewsletter keeps you up on who’s hiking where. If you don’t already subscribe, you can do so by simply emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fall is almost here. Get ready to hike!
Here’s a rundown of our GetHiking! Meetups. Feel free to join one or all!