fall hikes

Take a quick backpacking escape this fall

It was about 10:30 on a Friday night, mid November, when we pulled out of the light rain and into the covered bank drive-thru in Canton, N.C. After a quick surveillance, with particular attention for the local constable, we decided the coast was clear: the five of us scrambled out of the SUV and quickly slipped into our rain gear. We wanted to be as prepared as possible when we hit the trailhead in a half hour or so to finally get our two-day backpack trip underway.

It was the late 1990s, and while this type of trip was new to me, the Quick Weekend Escape was a staple for my new backpacking friends. They did a fair number of extended trips throughout the year, but, especially come fall, they weren’t about to let a little thing like work and a dearth of vacation time keep them from backpacking. So they’d load their gear Thursday night and toss it in the car. Friday morning they’d stash their hiking clothes in their briefcases and head to work. When the 5 o’clock whistle blew, they’d change with Clark Kent-like efficiency and be on the road by 5:05. Especially in fall, that almost always meant hiking in and setting up camp in the dark. But wasn’t that part of the adventure?

Fall: great weather, no time

We get excited at the prospect of fall. It can also bum us out.

We look forward to the season because, foremost, it means the return of cooler weather, drier air, fewer clouds and generally sweat-free days. It’s the perfect time to be outdoors, and that’s exciting. The bummer is that for many of us in the work-a-day work world, we’ve already burned through our vacation time for the year. We’ve still got the weekends, but that’s about it.

Doughton Park: wide-open November views

Turns out, as my friends 20 years ago showed me, that can be enough.

So this fall, we introduce a GetBackpacking! series called Weekend Quick Escapes (“Weekend Quickies” got a thumb’s down from our focus group). The premise is simple: 

  • Leave town at 5 p.m. Friday
  • Arrive at the trailhead between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Hike into camp by 8. 
  • Have all day Saturday to explore, in day packs
  • Hike out Sunday and be on the road by 2 p.m.

There’s the thrill of the road trip Friday evening, an entire day devoted to fall hiking Saturday, more hiking Sunday before hitting the road mid-afternoon and heading home. Our destinations are all within a two-and-a-half-hour drive of the Triangle, the hike in to camp ranges from a half mile to just under three. The vast majority of the weekend is enjoyed without a full pack on your back — less weight, more exploring. Here’s a quick look at where we’re headed:

December in the Birkhead Wilderness

Quick Escape Destinations

  • October 25-27, Rock Castle Gorge, Va. We arrive at the trailhead at 7:30 p.m., it’s a half mile hike into camp. Saturday, we do the 10.8-mile Rock Castle Gorge Loop, a mix of rugged climbing up the Blue Ridge Escarpment, passage through a ridge-top meadow, passage along the trout waters of Rock Castle Creek. On the way home, we stop at Fairy Stone State Park for a 5-mile hike before heading home.
  • November 17-19, Doughton Park. Again, we arrive at the trailhead around 7:30 p.m. and have a short (half mile or so) hike to camp. Saturday, we take one of North Carolina’s classic loop hikes, heading up an old roadbed to Grassy Gap where we catch the Bluff Mountain Trail (a k a the Mountains-to-Sea Trail) and pass through a string of meadows to preserved Brinegar Cabin before returning to camp via the Cedar Ridge Trail. Sunday, we take a 3.3-mile hike up Basin Creek to the old Caudill Cabin, return to camp, break camp, head home.
  • December 13-15, Birkhead Mountain Wilderness, Uwharrie National Forest. A closer trailhead (it’s a roughly hour-and-a-half drive from the Triangle) means we can hike slightly farther — 2.9 miles — to camp and still make it by 8 p.m. Saturday, we do the 10-mile Birkhead Wilderness Loop, a hike that’s especially suited for the barren days of winter. Sunday, we break camp and return to the cars, then take a short drive for a short day hike up Little Long Mountain, which offers the best mountaintop view of the Uwharries. 

A short adventure long remembered

After getting our rain gear on, we drove a half hour or so to the trailhead, at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp on the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness. It was only three miles to our camp for the evening, at Deep Gap, but there was also 3,000 feet of climbing to be done. The rain became intermittent as we climbed, but also grew colder, the temperature dropping from the mid-40s at the trailhead into the upper 30s as we neared camp. Our plan called for us to arrive between midnight and 12:30; when we finally arrived at Deep Gap I glanced at my Timex Ironman (digital!): it was 2:30 a.m. At least the rain had stopped.

Saturday dawned cold, with a thick frost that exploded into sheets of ice as we shook our rainflies. The cold front we’d hiked in with had scoured the sky: we walked the knife-edge ridge to Shining Rock under the most brilliant of blue skies. We set up camp early and explored Investor Gap to Black Balsam. Sunday, we hiked out, a hike that probably took twice as long as need be. No one was in a hurry to leave. I don’t recall a single cloud during daylight.

Our visit was short. But it didn’t appear to put much of a damper on the weekend: I still recall vivid details from that trip more than 20 years later. 

A quick escape, I discovered, beats no escape at all.

Join us!

For more information on these trips and to sign up, click the appropriate link:  

Rock Castle Gorge, Oct. 25-27

Doughton Park, Nov. 17-19

Birkhead Mountain Wilderness, Dec. 13-15

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