Nine Hikes Made for Hiking’s Transition Month

February: such a great, yet under-appreciated, month to hike. 

It’s still winter, and some of the best days of the season — the bluest of skies with bracing cold air — remain ahead. Yet it’s also a period of transition in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Yeah, it can be cold. But it’s also the month when temperatures begin warming enough to launch the earliest signs of spring: the spring peepers singing away in their vernal ponds, the trout lilies pushing through the leaf litter to add the first delicate splash of color to the stark winterscape. 

February and it’s mercurial weather gets us to thinking about the higher elevation trails that winter has steered us clear of. It also makes us think of hiking for one last time the trails that, for various reasons, will soon become less inviting. 

With February’s various moods in mind, here are  of our favorite February hikes:


We love winter hiking at the coast, in part because it’s the only season to hike here. No bugs, no snakes, no searing heat, and miles of coastal scenery that you likely miss on your summer beach vacations.

Neusiok Trail / Croatan National Forest

Havelock, NC

Distance: 21 miles

Hike it now because: Once the temperature gets much above 60 the pesky, bitty flying things will emerge; much above 70 and you’ll start seeing snakes, including the forest’s four venomous varieties.

Part of our infatuation with the Neusiok is its forbidden-fruit status. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence threw a tantrum along the coast, dropping up to three feet of rain and blowing down swaths of trees. The Croatan National Forest around Havelock was especially hard hit, and the Neusiok Trail closed indefinitely. Well, about two thirds recently reopened and the last 6+ miles, from NC 306 to the northern trailhead at Pine Cliff Recreation Area, could open any day (or not). In any event, the Neusiok offers great cold weather hiking through pine savanah, pocosin and, curiously, a stretch oddly reminiscent of the Southern Appalachians. 

Learn more here.

Merchants Millpond, early February

Merchants Millpond State Park

Gatesville, NC

Distance: 9 miles

Hike it now because: If you visit in warmer weather you’ll be distract by the chance to rent a canoe and paddle the swamp-like millpond.

The 9 miles of trail at Merchants Millpond take you through a diverse ecosystem. One moment you’re walking the edge of swamp peppered with stately bald cypress and tupelo gum draped with Spanish moss, a true Southern gothic backcountry experience, and the next you’re in a coastal woodland of pine and hardwoods. These adjoining ecosystems support a wild array of wildlife, from a medley of frogs and turtles in the wetlands to more than 200 species of birdlife in the canopy. An especially good early spring hike as the vocal frog population comes to life.

Learn more here.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Suffolk, VA

Distance: 80 miles

Hike it now because: The heat-loving bugs and snakes will be making their debut soon, and the exposed trails will bake you under a bright sun.

There’s something about winter hiking that leads one to let the mind drift and think about, as Garrison Keillor used to say, “life’s eternal questions.” Actually, it’s more about freeing your mind to not think about anything, and nowhere is that better done than on a long stretch of wide, flat trail that takes you as from humanity as possible, even if that’s just a mile or two. The 80 miles of roadbed that parallel the ditches built years ago to drain the swamp do just that. The dense woods that line the trails insulate you from the world beyond. 

Learn more here.


February hikes in the Piedmont? Aren’t these trails most popular in spring and fall? Indeed, that’s why we advocate hiking now, before the fair-weather hordes descend on some of your favorite State Park trails.

Umstead’s Sycamore Trail on the cusp of spring

Umstead State Park

Raleigh, NC

Distance: 20 miles (plus 13 miles of multi-use trail)

Hike it now because: This is the go-to natural area for 1.2 million people in the Raleigh Metropolitan Statistical Area, nearly all of whom seem to want to take a hike on a 70-degree spring day.

Spring crowds are a problem at most of North Carolina’s urban state parks, but none get quite the visitation that Umstead does (only Jockey’s Ridge and Fort Macon draw more visitors annually) and besides, the others (Crowders Mountain, Pilot Mountain, Eno River among them) have a back-door entrance that’s usually not too crowded. At Umstead, the only relief to be had is on one of the longer trails that penetrate the heart of the park: Company Mill from the Reedy Creek entrance, Sycamore from the Glenwood Avenue side. Your best bet: combine the two. They come within a stone’s throw of one another in the center of the park, where not nearly as many folks tend to go, especially in the waning days of winter when the temperatures remain in the 40s.

Learn more here.

Dutchmans breeches

Raven Rock State Park

Lillington, NC

Distance: 11 miles

Hike it now because: It’s one of your best bets to catch the early spring wildflower display.

Is Raven Rock on the cusp of the coastal plain, or the frontier of the Piedmont? On a map, it may appear more coastal plain, but on the ground, it’s more Piedmont, with slopes of oak and hickory dropping down to the Cape Fear River. There’s even a touch of the mountains here, with the 150-foot bluff above the river and rocky Campbell Creek cascading down to the Cape Fear as well. But it’s those wildflowers that warrant a February visit. You’ll see the usual suspects, such as the spring beauty, but also Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, saxifrage, Solomon’s seal, and bellwort.  It’s also a good spot for early migratory bird spotting: according the Raven Rock web site, “it is possible to see as many as 20 species of warblers in a single day.”

Learn more here.

Fairy Stone State Park

Fairy Stone State Park

Stuart, VA

Distance: 10 miles

Hike it now because: The resort-like nature of the park makes it a popular destination once it’s warm enough for water activities to kick in.

Increased popularity once vacation season starts is an issue at most Virginia State Parks, where overnight stays are encouraged through cabins and camping. But if you hit the parks before the season kicks in, you’ll have a solitary experience. And late winter into spring is prime time for hikers looking to avoid peak season, especially at Fairy Stone, a 4,741-acre park at the base of the Blue Ridge escarpment. The trails can be tricky to follow in spots, but you’ll make it back. A personal favorite is the 3.3-mile Little Mountain Falls Trail, which offers mountain views to the west and what might be your first waterfall of the season.

Learn more here.


Maybe you’re not quite ready to tackle the higher elevations, where winter conditions can persist well into March. But there are plenty of opportunities that start low and get relatively high.  

Hiking the mountaintop meadow at Doughton Park

Doughton Park

Milepost 238, Blue Ridge Parkway (NC)

Distance: About 30 miles

Hike it now because: It’s one of your best opportunities for a mountain winter hike without the risk of ice and snow.

One of the things we love most about Doughton Park is that the main access is off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the parkway frequently closes in winter due to snow and ice. That makes sense because if the Parkway is closed, precious few people visit this 7,000-acre park; the few who do, enter through the Longbottom Road access at the base of the park. Hike up the Cedar Ridge Trail, gaining 2,000 vertical feet in 4.4 miles and you’re deposited in the rolling meadow wonderland that Doughton Park is known for. Pick up the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and head west to Bluff Mountain through some of the most wide-open meandering around. This time of year, you might see snow, you might see spring wildflowers.

Learn more here.

Rocky Knob Trail

Rocky Knob (a k a Rock Castle Gorge)

Milepost 167, Blue Ridge Parkway (VA)

Distance: 17 miles

Hike it now because: It, too, is one of your best opportunities for a mountain winter hike without the risk of ice and snow

Like Doughton Park, if the Parkway access is closed, you an enter Rocky Knob at the base, either via VA 605 or VA 758. There’s a similarity here with Doughton Park, too, in that the Parkway section is marked by rolling meadow, here with awesome mountain views to the north and west. But the hiking is a bit more challenging, especially going up and down the escarpment, which is steeper and rockier than at Doughton Park. There’s no harm in being content with the peaceful 4-mile ramble along Rock Castle Creek at the base. The trail up from the east end of the gorge is 3 miles a steady climb, with only a scramble or two at the midpoint. Expect more challenging hiking on the 1.5-mile climb up on the steeper, rockier west ascent. 

Learn more here.

Appalachian Trail: Punch Bowl to James River 

West of Lynchburg, VA

Distance: 9.8 miles

Hike it now because: It’s one of the most accessible spots on the AT in winter

Hike this trail southbound starting from VA 812. You’ll begin with a stout 700 vertical feet of climbing in the first 0.9 miles up to Punch Bowl Mountain; stop to gawk, then climb another 600 vertical feet in 0.9 miles to Bluff Mountain. Two good summits — and the vast majority of your climbing on this hike — to start, then 4 miles of undulating ridge hiking, with views of the Appalachians to the west, the Piedmont to the east, before a gradual 3.5-mile drop into Johns Hollow. This hike packs plenty of views, and is a great opportunity to see where winter continues to cling, where spring is beginning to move in.

To learn more about this hike, email us at and we will email you the guide, including maps and trail description, that we prepared for our GetHiking! visit in April 2016.

Join us 

We’ll be hiking the Neusiok Trail March 6-8 on a GetBackpacking! trip that will overnight Friday at Blackjack Shelter, Saturday at Dogwood Shelter. Learn more about that trip here.

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