In our five-part Winter Wild monthly adventure series, we go off trail to explore some of the wildest places in the region. Our January hike will be to the Butner Game Lands, more than 40,000 acres of wetlands and bottomland woods on the north side of Falls Lake.
It’s a common challenge over the holidays: you have family and friends visiting from afar — now, what are you going to do with them?
Take them on an adventure! Or, rather, let us help you take them on an adventure!
We’ve got several outdoor adventures this holiday season that are ideal for getting everyone out of the house and showing off the region’s great outdoor attributes!
Ah, Fourth of July Weekend! The fireworks displays, the Festival for the Eno, the cookout gatherings … .
OK, so maybe we can’t celebrate our nation’s independence the way we usually do. But we can certainly celebrate our independence by getting out and exploring. And this year in particular by doing so in the true American spirit of being a maverick, a lone wolf. Someone who likes to get out and take an adventure of their own. Alone. Or at least six feet from anyone else.
That could be particularly tricky this holiday weekend, when getting out is what’s on just about everyone’s mind. That said, we’re going to build on our advice from back in May, tweaked to reflect the realities of July, about how to enjoy the trail in solitude:
- Avoid peak hours. Don’t go when everyone else is. Umstead State Park, for instance, recommends avoiding the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. That said, most N.C. State Parks open at 8 a.m., a good time to go because the temperature is still relatively cool and, apparently, not that many people are there. At the state parks that have been closing when they reach capacity, most begin blocking the entrance around 10 a.m. Or, go late; again, with N.C. State Parks, most are now open until 9 p.m., some as late as 10. Take advantage of these later hours to get out. Remember to take a headlamp or flashlight.
- Avoid the main trailheads. Find the more remote trail access points to where you’re headed. In particular, look for trailheads that don’t have paved parking, are on gravel roads, don’t begin from a visitor center, don’t have restrooms. Study the map; you can find them.
- Avoid the main trails. Start from a more remote trailhead and you’ll be on a trail that likely doesn’t get much foot traffic — initially, at least. A lot of these trails will hook up with more popular trails eventually.
- Avoid parks near urban areas. Twelve state parks kept their trails open while the other 29 had to close at the beginning of the pandemic. Why? Because they were in more remote locals. You might want to focus on trails in those outlying parks, which you can find here. Besides, you’ve got the time for a little drive, and there’s some good exploring to be done in these lesser-visited parks.
- Avoid water. If your primary goal is to hike, then avoid trailheads with access to popular watering holes: they will be overrun on what is traditionally the hottest weekend of summer. (The forecast calls for highs in the low to mid 90s.)
Plan it right and you can have a great adventure and
I was marginally surprised, only because so many of the trails that had been closed in the Pisgah National Forest in April have since reopened. But not, according to the U.S. Forest Service, the Black Mountain Crest Trail from Cattail Peak north to the trail’s northern terminus, at Bolens Creek. The specific reason for the closure wasn’t given, simply for “public health and safety.”
I mention the latter because trails do close for reasons other than a virus run amuck. The Crest Trail has, in the past, been closed at Deep Gap due to bear activity. I’m guessing the rugged nature of the Black Mountain Crest trail, which runs 12 miles, from Mount Mitchell to Bolens Creek, and the difficulty of extracting injured hikers at a time when emergency medical services are already taxed, is likely the reason.
Now more than ever it’s important to check ahead, before heading out. The result could be avoiding a disappointing closed sign after driving two hours to the trailhead. It could also yield some surprising new opportunities.Two examples.
=&0=&, Durham. Two of five access areas in Eno River State Park remain closed, Cabelands and Pleasant Green. The reason: both have trails that serve the Eno Quarry, a popular swimming hole — and thus, gathering spot — in summer. The park website makes clear that even parking near this access points isn’t allowed: “You may not park on the road shoulder, block gates, or impede traffic and walk into the park from these accesses. Your vehicle will be subject to citation and or towing.” It’s also clear that swimming in the quarry is prohibited. But the trails, apparently, remain open. So if you’re looking for a long hike in solitude, you can park at the Pump Station Access and hike upstream along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, all the way to Pleasant Green, a distance of more than 6 miles (12 out-and-back).
=&1=&, Albemarle. Amid the various what’s open/what’s not notices on the park website, we found this buried midway through: “The road to the scenic overlook will remain CLOSED to all motor vehicle traffic.” The “scenic overlook” is the top of 936-foot Morrow Mountain, where the mountain-top parking area is typically jammed with folks who drove to the top for a peak peek. You can now earn that summit, a quiet summit, by taking a portion of the Sugarloaf Mountain Trail and the Morrow Mountain Trail, about a 7-mile or so roundtrip.
Checking the individual State Park website beforehand can enlighten you in other helpful ways:
- No vacancy. If a park’s had problems with overcrowding, there will likely be a note indicating that it will close if capacity is reached. Some even offer tips on when to best avoid the crowds: Hanging Rock advises visitors to avoid the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.
- Trails close for other reasons. Trails can close for reasons besides overcrowding. At Eno River, the Pea Creek Trail is closed because “recent storms” have “undercut steps, put deep holes into the trail, and significantly damaged the trail,” while at Pilot Mountain, “Portions of Ledge Spring Trail and top rope climbing adjacent to the summit parking lot will be closed at times through early July due to construction at the overlook.”
- Other restrictions may apply. At Crowders Mountain, “Rock climbing and bouldering will open by registration only.” And at Jordan Lake, campers used to slack check in and check out times are advised: “Due to changes to our operating procedures, strict implementation of the 3pm check out and 4pm check in times associated with campsites will begin on June 19, 2020.”
The adventure-lover in us loves spontaneity. But even with the most basic of adventures, some planning is required. And right now, that planning starts with simply making sure the place you want to explore is open.
Here are the websites for some of the biggest land managers in the region, where you can find out the latest on trails in their jurisdiction.
Virginia National Forests
Eno River State Park is appreciated year-round, but appreciated to death on weekends, especially the areas with good access to the Eno. Now, with the temporary closing of the Eno Quarry downstream, perhaps no area has more immediate access to recreational water than the Fews Ford Access. There you’ll find pools and riffles, especially popular with families with young kids, as well as Class II rapids, where the more comfortable swimmers hang out.
The easiest way to get there is from the Piper Cox parking area, which sits less than a hundred yards away. Trouble is, the same lot feeds some of the park’s most popular trails. Show up to the small lot feeding both and you’re likely to think that the jammed lot means the trails will be crawling with hikers.
In summer especially, though, at least three-quarters of those cars are ferrying folks to the ford. Sunday morning, it was the site of a GetHiking! Triangle Small Batch hike, hikes open to a limited number of hikers (first come, first served), usually 8 to 10, depending upon the nature of the hike. Outside of the Buckquarter Creek Trail, we saw only occasional hikers on the 7-mile route we stitched together consisting of the Buckquarter Creek, Ridge, Shakori, Fieldstone and Holden Mill trails.
We saw some hikers on the Buckquarter Creek portion of this hike, but as we hiked farther from the river we had this gorgeous terrain largely to ourselves: the Shakori Trail with its passage through bottomland woods; the Ridge Trail, where we caught a nice breeze thanks to a marginal understory; the Holden Mill Trail, where some stout climbs and rock scrambling keep the casual hikers away. Best of all, this five-trail loop teams to give you seven miles of scenic, and mostly solitary, hiking to enjoy.
Solitude along the Eno on a pandemic Sunday. Who would have guessed?
Hike it yourself
We’ve put together a guide for this 7-mile escape that includes Key details, including trailhead location, blaze colors, kid- and dog-friendliness, difficulty, whether there are facilities at the trailhead and more; a map of the route, route description to help keep you on course, a 206-second video virtual tour. The 3-page pdf guide is normally 99 cents, but if you order before Thursday and enter code ZHNESAPF, it’s free. Get your guide here.
Small batch it with us
Our next Small Batch hike, posted moments ago, is to Horton Grove Nature Preserve in northern Durham County on Sunday, July 12 at 10 a.m. Distance is about 5 miles, difficulty is moderate. Learn more and sign up to join us here, on our GetHiking! Triangle Meetup page. If the hike is full, join the waitlist: we may add another hike.
First, the weather: Nice, darn nice, especially for this time of year.
In the Piedmont, temperatures will be in the upper 80s during the day, slipping below 70 at night. The best news, though, is that the Saharan dust cloud will keep humidity low (in addition to providing for some spectacular sunrises and sunsets).
The news is even better in the mountains.
In West Jefferson, at the base of Mount Jefferson State Natural Area and near Elk Knob State Park, it will only get into the low 70s this weekend, with overnight lows in the mid-60s. A chance of thunderstorms Sunday afternoon. In Waynesville, it will be a tad warmer, the upper 70s, again with the chance of thunderstorms Sunday afternoon.
Consider, too, that the temperature drops, on average, about 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained, and some of our higher peaks could require fleece: it was 48 this morning atop Mount Mitchell with temperatures expected to rise only into the mid-50s this weekend.
That said, our advice for the weekend: Go West, y’all. Some recommendations:
=&0=&. In this post from April 2019, we mentioned several high-altitude trails with more than just elevation to recommend them. We included three — Pond Mountain, Three-Top Mountain and China Creek-Thunderhole — that don’t get a lot of traffic. Find that post here.
=&1=&. In the high country, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail spends considerable time ghosting the Blue Ridge Parkway. The big advantage? Easy access to the trail. Plus, if you pull up to one trailhead and it’s packed with cars, drive a few miles until you hit one that isn’t. Find five of our MST faves in a post we wrote for our friends at Great Outdoor Provision Co. here.
=&2=&. Worried that you aren’t in shape for mountain hiking? Earlier this month we wrote a blog for our friends at Blue Cross NC on five mountain hikes that provide the esthetics of mountain hiking without the physical demands. Find it here.
=&3=&. Certain trails are best explored at certain times of the year. In this post, also for Great Outdoor Provision Co., we look at five we feel are best hiked in summer (and we tell you why).
No matter where you choose to explore this weekend, expect the weather to cooperate: no excuses.
We won’t be heading to the mountains, but we will be heading to Eno River State Park Sunday morning for a 7-mile hike pieced together from 5 trails. Here’s a peek at our hike. Learn more about Eno River State Park
Shortly, we set off and within a couple minutes were spared the worst of sun by the thick canopy above. That coverage, combined with our breeze-generating movement, suddenly made it feel 10 degrees cooler.
“Whew! That’s better,” one of the hikers said. And it would continue to get better over the next two hours as the temperature dropped into the 70s.
Summer hiking. To even some avid hikers, it doesn’t exist. Starting about mid-May, fair-weather hikers hang up the boots and begin counting the days until cooler weather returns in mid September. And it leaves us perplexed, frankly. Just because it’s a little (or a lot) warmer doesn’t mean you need to take a hiatus from hiking. Instead, you need to learn to manage the heat, to work with it. One of the best ways to do that is to hike at the two times of day when heat is less of an issue, sunrise and sunset.
It’s commonly assumed that as soon as the sun pierces the horizon, the temperature begins to rise. Not so. In fact, the temperature continues to drop, for a half hour to 45 minutes (or longer), depending upon the conditions. Mike Alger, Chief Meteorologist with KTVN TV in Reno, Nevada, explains.
“Because of radiational cooling, on clear nights the ground gets much colder than the air just a few feet above it. Since thermometers are placed about five feet above the ground, it will show a warmer temperature than the air touching the ground.
“Once the sun comes up, the sunlight excites the cold air in the first foot or so above the ground (which can be 10 or more degrees colder), which causes it to move around and mix into the next several feet of air. That “mixing upward” drops the temperature of the air at thermometer level.”
Alger goes on to say he sees the temperature drop as much as 5 degrees within 45 minutes of official sunrise. From there, it can take a while for heat from the rising sun to pick up steam. The forecast for this Thursday, for instance, shows a temperature in Raleigh of 67 degrees at 6 a.m. (official sunrise: 6:00:16 a.m.), with the temperature only rising to 74 by 9 a.m. Pretty decent temperatures for hiking, in most people’s books. Fall-like, even.
The effect of a setting sun on your hiker thermostat, while real, has more of an impact psychologically.
Let’s take the Wednesday hike mentioned above and pretend it’s happening today. The forecast temperature for today at 6 p.m.: 83 degrees. Already, that’s down two degrees from the forecast high of 85. By 7 p.m., the temperature is expected to drop another 2 degrees, and 2 more by 8 p.m., putting it at 79.
Now, 79 is still warm, but it’s already 6 degrees cooler than the day’s high, and 4 degrees down from the temperature when you started hiking. The day is cooling; coupled with the setting sun you’re likely to think it’s cooling more than it is. The fact that simply getting out of your car in the exposed parking lot and walking to the shaded trailhead trimmed about 10 degrees right there.
And, because you likely worked up a bit of a sweat at the start, that sweat is now helping to cool your skin. (One reason we apply a summer asterisk to the admonition “cotton kills” when it comes to outdoor attire; come summer, cotton cools.)
Returning to the trailhead after a two-hour evening hike can leave you feeling refreshed, rather than drained, in the heat of summer.
But the real reason to hike at dawn or dusk? The light. Be it the emerging light ushering in a new day, or the fading sunlight signaling day’s end, the light that shoulders daytime illuminates the reason we hit the trail, spotlighting the best of the outdoor world.
Sunrise? Sunset? The beauty: You don’t even need to choose.
=&0=&. Not crazy about hiking by yourself in the waxing or waning light of day? Join us for a series of eight “shoulder” hikes — two at dawn, six at dusk — on trails we find are especially well-suited for enjoying the best light of the day, Learn more and sign up here.
=&1=&. Hiking at dawn and dusk are two ways to beat the summer heat — and there are more. Learn more strategies for becoming a summer hiker in our Guide to Summer Hiking. Learn more and procure a guide, here.