We’d both been quiet for a while, too hot, sweatyand drained for chit chat. In two and a half days we’d hiked 25 miles, most in full pack, most in 90-degree heat. We were nearing the end — hopefully, of just the hike.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a rare downcast look on Alison’s face. “They aren’t gonna like this,” she said.
Alison, our lead GetBackpacking! guide, along with Bob and Henry — two of our more ardent backpackers — and I were scouting trail at South Mountains State Park for our pandemic-delayed resumption of guided backpacking trips. I was familiar with South Mountains, having lead at least 15 GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking trips there since 2014. But I wasn’t familiar with the trail on the south side of this nearly 19,000-acre state park south of Morganton, and I was curious to see how it might work for an intermediate backpack trip.
Not so well, as it turned out. More on that in a moment.
The skinny on scouting
On a backpack trip, there are good surprises and there are bad surprises. The good: Cresting a hill to find a stunning view, or dropping down a steep creek-lined trail on a hot day and coming upon a deep, cold pool. The bad: Hiking a trail that dead-ends (and looks like it hasn’t gone anywhere in years), or finding a campsite after hiking 15 miles that is a good three miles from water.
We scout to find the good surprises — and minimize the bad.
In general, we try to hike a trail within a reasonable period of time before we lead a trip. What’s “reasonable”? It varies. A trail in a State Park isn’t likely to be much different today than it was a few years ago (and if it is different that information will be conveyed on the park website). Forest Service trails are more subject to change over a short period, since maintenance, if done at all, is often by volunteers. And in a Wilderness Area? Well, it’s a wilderness: count on surprises no matter how recently you may have scouted.
Right now, during these days of social distancing, our scouting trips have emphasized a particular focus: the presence, or lack thereof, of hikers. Your goal with a backpacking trip is always to slip the surly bonds of civilization and avoid the masses. It’s even more important now. Which was part of the reason we were looking at South Mountains State Park.
Solitude at South Mountains
As you may have seen, since the pandemic several N.C. State Parks have established caps on the number of people allowed in at one time. When they reach capacity, a queue forms at the gate: when one car leaves the park, another is admitted. As I was leaving Saturday around noon, I counted 40 cars lining the road into the park, waiting to get in. But the thing is, 95 percent of the people who come to South Mountains come to see — and play in — High Shoals Falls. The 80-foot waterfall is about a mile’s walk from the main parking area. That leaves 39 miles of trail largely vacant (in two and a half days, we saw three mountain bikers, two hikers and two runners).
A word about South Mountains for those who haven’t been: there is no “easy” here. The highest point (Buzzard’s Roost) tops out at just 3,000 feet. But considering the base elevation is 1,200 feet, that means there’s a good 1,800 feet of elevation play. It’s either up or down at South Mountains, with precious little recovery terrain. At one point, Alison remarked that it ranked with Linville Gorge in terms of difficulty.
My thought going in was to do a 20-mile circumnavigation of the park, hiking counterclockwise along the rim trails from the Jacob’s Branch parking area. It was challenging from the git-go, starting up the Little River Trail, which gained 523 vertical feet in the first 1.3 miles. From there, the trail continued to climb, but with the occasional dip along the way to the Sawtooth campsites. Not bad.
Day 2 started with a climb out of camp, followed by a dozen more climbs, three of them significant. Hiking the opposite direction, we agreed, was a much more sane option. Day 3 trended downhill, with three notable climbs. Hiking the opposite direction, which seemed like a good idea the day before, now looked like a terrible idea, with a killer climb of 715 vertical feet in the first 1.3 miles out the gate, followed shortly by a another significant climb, and two more potentially heartbreaking climbs. Did I mention the mile or so of pavement?
We finished our 25-mile scout knowing exactly what we didn’t want to do, especially on what for many would be their first trip of the season in full pack.
With a now nearly complete knowledge of the South Mountains trail system, we were able to devise a good welcome-back-to-backpacking trip that is challenging but not overly so.
Wet and wild Wilson Creek
I was also interested in an “early season” trip to the Wilson Creek area of the Pisgah National Forest. Like South Mountains, Wilson Creek doesn’t have high hills, but it does have steep ones. It’s also relatively close, as mountain terrain goes, to Charlotte (two hours), the Triad (two hours) and the Triangle (3 hours). Plus, it has water.
That water, in the form of falls, steep creeks and pools, attracts people. Even in a normal summer, the main gorge is packed with water seekers. Where we go, the Little Lost Cove Creek and Gragg Prong area, gets far fewer visitors. But was that holding true during the pandemic, when everyone, it seems, is seeking escape outdoors?
Alas, my plans to find out after getting off the trail at South Mountains Saturday afternoon were quashed by a persistent thunderstorm that lasted a good two hours, long enough and intense enough to keep the masses away. I also wanted to check alternative entry points, since parking at the main trailheads is limited. I’ll need to make a return scouting trip to find out.
The good news is that we now have our first two backpack trips of the pandemic scheduled. Both trips should scratch the itch of backpackers eager to get out, but eager to do so in a safe and responsible way.
If felt great to get out and scout these trips, to recapture the magic of living in the backcountry, if only for a few days. We think you’ll feel the same.
* * *
Join us at South Mountains and Wilson Creek
Here’s the scoop on both trips, both scheduled for August. Note that we are taking a limited number of backpackers on these trips; if there’s sufficient interest, we will schedule additional trips. We will also announce within the next two weeks our trips for fall into winter.
GetBackpacking! A Summer Escape to Wilson Creek
When: Friday Aug. 14 to Sunday, Aug.16
Where: Wilson Creek area of the Pisgah National Forest near Linville
On this base camp hike we hike in less than a mile and and a half Friday afternoon and set up basecamp. Saturday, we take a 7-mile day hike that finds us, at mile 6, at the pools and falls of Gragg Prong, where we’ll have lunch and loll away the afternoon. Sunday, we break camp and hike out, with a 3.4-mile day hike to Big Lost Cove Cliffs and, time permitting, a 4-mile hike to South Harper Falls.
Learn more and sign up here.
GetBackpacking! Weekend trip to South Mountains State Park
When: Friday, Aug. 21 through Sunday, Aug. 23
Where: South Mountains State Park, south of Morganton
We hike in 3.7 miles Friday afternoon to the Sawtooth primitive camp, then take a 2-mile roundtrip day hike to catch sunset from Chestnut Knob. Saturday it’s a 6.9-mile hike to the Fox Trail campsite. Sunday, we hike 6 miles out, stopping at the 3.7-mile mark to wallow in the cool waters of Jacob Branch.
Learn more and sign up here.