I’ve been following the schizophrenic Christmas weather forecasts as closely as anyone. In part, because I love a white Christmas and haven’t seen one since the Denver blizzard of ’82. I’m also keeping a close watch to see whether I should dig out the cross-country skis (in the event of 6 inches or more), the sled (a minimum of 3 inches), or the hiking boots (a photogenic dusting).
At this point the boots are winning.
The latest from WRAL is up to two inches of snow is possible for the Triangle, a dusting is more likely. East of I-95, it could be sledding whether — if you can find a slope steep enough to sled down. Snowboarding and skiing will be the order of the day in the high country. More about that in a sec.
With hiking boots in the lead, here’s a quick look at especially good places to take them. I’ve mostly targeted places in urban centers that are easier to get to in the event of icy roads. The trails suggested are ones with features accentuated by winter weather — those with great views, with rocky sections or along water.
A caveat: Christmas Day is the one day of the year that North Carolina’s State Parks are closed. Rangers and other park personnel deserve one day of the year off, a day when they don’t have to worry about finding someone who’s missing or rescuing someone who’s twisted an ankle, two scenarios whose likelihood increases with snow-covered trails. So for the state parks trails listed, waited until Sunday (when it’s still supposed to be snowy) to go and get lost or twist your ankle. That said:
Umstead State Park, Raleigh. Company Mill Trail. The first mile of this hike is the park’s most popular in any weather; it’s even more so with snow blanketing the three gentle ridges that lead down to Crabtree Creek. Continue on the five-mile loop for a quieter commune. On the north side of the park, Sal’s Branch Trail offers a 3-mile walk through gently rolling forest.
Eno River State Park, Durham. Buckquarter Creek/Holden’s Mill figure-eight loop. I’m a sucker for this combo: It’s equal parts ridgeline and riverbank hiking and if you want you can cut this 4.1-mile hike short and just do the Buckquarter Creek loop.
Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Wake and Durham counties. Much of this trail, which now runs about 60 miles from the Falls Lake dam in Wake County north and west to Pennys Bend in Durham County, is on land managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and is officially open Christmas Day. Periodic road crossings make setting a shuttle easy for hiking the MST in 3- to 5-mile sections.
Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury (north of the Triad). Your closest shot for real elevation, and thus, views of the surrounding snowy countryside. Short option: the 1.3-mile Hanging Rock Trail, which takes you up to the park’s namesake attraction, a rocky knob (which could offer dubious footing in snowy weather, so beware). Longer, less-crowded option: The Moore’s Wall Trail, a 4.3-mile loop that takes you up to 2,579-foot Moore’s Knob, which offers especially good views south and west.
Pilot Mountain State Park, Pinnacle (north and west of the Triad). If you’re lucky and it’s snowy enough, the windy two-mile road to the top will be closed, meaning you’ll have to take the aptly named Grindstone Trail 3 miles up to the top, a prospect that will give you a rare day of quiet atop the otherwise bustling Pilot Mountain.
Neusiok Trail, Croatan National Forest, Havelock. Down East is forecast to get up to four inches of snow, making for an exceptionally rare chance to hike a coastal forest in the snow. If the opportunity arises, hike the northernmost five miles (described here), which has some surprisingly rolling stretches. National Forests, btw, are open Christmas Day.
Crowders Mountain State Park, Kings Mountain (west of Charlotte). Crowders Mountain has two good summit areas: Crowders Mountain and Kings Pinnacle. Kings Pinnacle gets the nod, for two reasons: a little less crowded, greater opportunities for non-urban views. A “strenuous” 1.7-mile hike from the Visitors Center.
Throw a dart — some of the best hiking in the East abounds. A good place to throw that dart: the Carolina Mountain Club, which has an extensive database of prime mountain hikes.
In addition to a forecast calling for as much as 16 inches of snow in the incoming weather system, in addition to snowfall totals thus far that already exceed the annual average, and in addition to continued cold making for ideal snowmaking conditions, resist the urge to go skiing or snowboarding through New Year’s Day. It’s the busiest time of year on the slopes and lift tickets are more expensive (holiday pricing!), meaning you’ll pay more and get less. If you’re dead set on going, however, you can find the current conditions and more at SkiSoutheast.com.
And if you’re of a mind, a reminder that there is one form of skiing that’s not subject to the commercial pressures of the holidays. Check it out here.
Merry Christmas, and happy hiking! (Or sledding, or skiing, or … )
Photo at top: Umstead’s Company Mill Trail after a light dusting early this year.