Judging from the weekend forecast, a blanket of wet and cool will cover much of North Carolina this weekend. Not what you hope for on the first full weekend of spring.
But lots of great weather is ahead, which should help soften the damp blow. And what better way to spend a rainy weekend day than planning for your next sun-drenched outing — and indulging in a vicarious escape in the process.
I’ve put together a list — and a short slide show — of 10 hiking trips that should be on your agenda for spring and summer. Most involve water: understandable, considering part of what makes for a great hot weather hike is being able to cool off with a bracing dip. Some are at high altitude, which makes them often inaccessible in cold, snowy weather. Some may seem obvious — but may be missing from your explorer’s resume all the same. All are definitely worth experiencing.
Let the planning begin.
- Grandfather Mountain. This may be the wildest 2,456 acres in the N.C. State Parks system, to which this previously privately owned mountain was recently added. Take the Profile Trail up Grandfather’s massive west shoulder to the wild, rocky Grandfather Trail across the mountain’s crest. (Less experienced hikers may want to access Grandfather Trail from the much higher and still privately held gift-shop portion of the park.)
- Mountains-to-Sea Trail. About half of this work-in-progress 1,000-mile trail running the width of the state is finished; of that 500 miles are oh-so-many sections worthy of your attention. In the mountains, the MST traces the Blue Ridge Parkway, offering surprising escape from the parkway’s four-wheeled explorers. In the Piedmont, the rapidly expanding trail already runs 60 miles (nearly) non-stop through Durham and Wake counties. At the coast, the MST runs through the Croatan National Forest and up the Outer Banks.
- Mount Mitchell. Boasting that you’ve stood atop the eastern seaboard is as easy as driving to the concession parking lot atop Mount Mitchell State Park and walking the 50-yard paved trail to the top. But to truly claim bragging rights, take the Black Mountain Crest Trail north from the park to claim bagging rights to six 6,000-foot peaks. Warning: This trail isn’t paved. In fact, at least one passage requires anchored rope hand-holds for safe passage.
- Bear Island. Before heading out to Bear Island, part of Hammocks Beach State Park, first check the ferry schedule — then plan to go when the boat isn’t running. There’s nothing quite like having an entire 892-acre barrier island virtually to yourself. The two-mile canoe trail over will require a boat, but it’s an easy trip and the exploring — both along the beach and through the island’s interior — is great. And quiet.
- Appalachian Trail (Carvers Gap to US 19E). Nothing conveys hiking prestige like saying you’ve spent some time on the Appalachian Trail. And perhaps no section in North Carolina (and Tennessee; this 14-mile stretch straddles the border) is more AT than this one. Starting from Carvers Gap opposite Roan Mountain, you immediately hit three balds offering stellar views. From there, it’s a mild roller coaster of intimate alpine passages and more panoramic views.
- Panthertown Valley This 6,300-acre sylvan island off U.S. 64 near Cashiers has more bang for the buck than any parcel twice its size. Waterfalls, mountain bogs, trout stream, exposed rock faces, old-growth trees — and a network of trails taking you to all of it. Beware, though, that you’ll need a map because the trails are scarcely marked; pack a copy of “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown, Bonas Defeat, and Big Pisgah.”
- Shining Rock Wilderness It’s location not far off the Blue Ridge Parkway (west of Mt. Pisgah) offers easy access to some of the state’s most spectacular hiking. Ravaged by a pair of forest fires a century ago, the Shining Rock area offers large stretches of exposed hiking and non-stop views. Above 6,000 feet you’ll hit balsam stands more common to northern forests. A good place to avoid excessive climbs.
- Wilson Creek The Wilson Creek area consists of the drainage below Grandfather Mountain along the Blue Ridge escarpment. It’s a wild area — and a wet one. Nearly every trail plays footsie with a creek, and the area’s creeks are chock full of falls and swimming holes, the latter encased in granite. Hard to beat on a hot, sunny, summer’s day. Personal favorite: Huntfish Falls, a quick 0.7-mile hike exposes you to sizable pool and an expanse of rock ideal for sunning.
- Davidson River The Davidson River spills down the Blue Ridge escarpment north of Brevard, it’s name synonymous with play. Mountain bikers, fly fishermen/women, tubers and sliders (a screaming trip down Sliding Rock ends in a deep, cold pool) and especially hikers can find a week’s worth of entertainment from basecamp at the Davidson River Campground, arguably the best car-camping campground in the state. Reservations recommended during peak season.
- Eno River. I’ve steered clear of Piedmont destinations because they tend to be a bit steamy in warm weather. Yet there’s something about the Eno, which begins above Hillsborough in Orange County and runs across Durham County before emptying into Falls Lake. Maybe it’s the fact its rockiness more resembles a mountain stream, maybe it’s because mature hardwoods shade much of the extensive trail system along its banks. All I know is that I end up seeking refuge along the Eno at least once a summer.
That’s where I recommend you head as the weather warms. As for me, my main goal is to visit five areas I’ve yet to explore, rugged and remote areas such as the Snowbird Mountains, sections of more popular venues such as the Bartram Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains that have somehow eluded me over the years. I’ll share my progress as I progress.