5 backpacking trips for 2021 (we hope)

Last year around this time, I was licking my chops over a great lineup of backpack trips I intended to take, including four short thru-hikes in the state. I even managed to get in two trips (including one of the thru-hikes) before I was forced to scrap my plans for the pandemic. 

The year after that wasn’t a total wash — I did manage to get in three more trips. But it wasn’t the epic year I had planned and it made me a bit gun-shy for being too ambitious in setting goals for 2021. While speculation suggests it might be possible to safely take a longer trip requiring a shuttle beginning in mid- to late-summer, I’m making no assumptions. Rather, I’ve come up with a plan, a tentative plan, that I hope is realistic in the healing world that awaits.

There are five trips I hope to take this year — lead, actually, because I love having company. The trips are in chronological order, though with no specific dates in mind; flexibility is key when planning in uncertain times. The trips are a mix of quick overnighters (good to have on hand when a spontaneous getaway is in order) and longer trips that likely will have to wait until late summer or fall. All are trips I’ve done before, but it’s been a while for most and I’m eager to experience these hiked in different seasons and under different circumstances. More information on each trip is available in the “Going?” section at the end of the post.

Birkhead Mountain Wilderness
Camp 3 in the Birkhead Mountain Wilderness

Uwharrie National Forest

Location: west of Asheboro

Length: 11.4-mile loop

Duration: One night (possibly two, with a basecamp hike option)

I can be to the trailhead in just over an hour from home, which makes this a perfect get-out-of-town-no getaway. From that trailhead, off Tot Hill Road on the north side of the Wilderness off NC 49, there are two camp options within about three miles, making a late-day departure reasonable. With lots of hardwoods, it’s a great winter escape, offering rare ridgeline views and peeks deep into the woods. For a one-nighter I would likely hike to camp late in the afternoon or at night, set up camp, day-hike a 7.2-mile loop made up of the Hannah’s Creek, Robbins Branch and Birkhead Mountain trails, return to my tent, break camp, hike out.  

Middle Prong Wilderness

Pisgah National Forest

Middle Prong Wilderness.

Location: At the northwest corner of NC 215 and the Blue Ridge Parkway

Length: 13 miles

Duration: 2 nights

As wilderness areas go, Middle Prong lives in the shadow of its more brash, better-known neighbor, Shining Rock. It’s less than half the size of Shining Rock (at just under 7,500 acres) and it doesn’t have the spectacular views. What it does have are spectacular bragging rights. From the Sunburst Recreation Area off NC 215, climb the Green Mountain Trail (if you can find it: walk north from the campground along the west side of 215 and when you see a faint trail going straight up, that’s it) for 5.1 miles up to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Go west (right) and climb into boreal woods and through Buckeye Gap before returning down the Heywood Gap Trail. You may look at the 13 miles and wonder Two nights? but these are 13 rugged wilderness miles that you’ll want to enjoy.

Panthertown Valley

Pisgah National Forest

Little Green Mountain, Panthertown Valley

Location: Cashiers

Length: 1.5-mile hike to camp; 30 miles of trail.

Duration: 1-2 nights

Panthertown was made for basecamp hiking: from the Salt Rock Gap trailhead it’s a short hike to an ample camping area (including a large shelter) that’s in the heart of this 6,700-acre collection of outdoor greatness. There are 8 major waterfalls, including Granny Burrell Falls near the camping area, there’s trout fishing, there are several peaks, including Little Green Mountain with a west-facing slick-rock exposure great for capturing sunsets, and there are places with adventurous names — Bonas Defeat, Devil’s Elbow. It’s rugged, but it’s contained, making for challenging adventure without the threat of losing your way. That said, to make sure you make this most of your visit, invest in the trail map; the trails here can be tricky to follow.

Deep Creek Loop 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Bryson City

Length: 13.5 miles

Duration: 2 night

The Smokies can be a bit intimidating, what with 800 miles of trail to choose from, the campsite reservation set-up, the lack of roads within the park. When we included this loop in our guidebook, “Backpacking North Carolina,” we were thinking it would make a great introduction to the Smokies for the novice backpacker. Now, I realize this loop can double as a great jumping off point for some great Smokies day hikes. For instance, hiking in 6 miles to base camp at Martins Gap, then day hiking up to Clingman’s Dome via Pole Road Creek and Noland’s Divide trails, or heading up to Mount Collins on Fork Ridge Trail, or trekking over to Newton Bald, or Little Creek Falls, or … well, you get the idea: lots of options.

North Carolina Bartram Trail

Nantahala National Forest

off trail
Bartram Trail above Wallace Branch

Location: Franklin, Wesser

Length 50 miles

Duration: 4 to 5 nights

Quick clarification: only 42 miles of this trip is on the Bartram Trail; also, this stretch is not connected to the southern end of the trail, which begins in Georgia. That said, this stretch does cover what was believed to possibly maybe be part of the route naturalist William Bartram took on his 4-year sojourn through the region to catalog the flora of “The New World.” Though the region has changed since Bartram’s day (the mid-1770s), it remains an ecological wonderland, and this 50-mile trip captures a good cross-section of it. It’s also a hike with some hearty challenges; for starters, from the Wallace Branch trailhead there’s no water for the first 11 miles. Then there’s the wild climb up Ledbetter Creek, topping out on Cheoah Bald, the Bartram’s northern terminus. The last 8 miles is a long descent down the Appalachian Trail to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where a burger and beer await.

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Here’s where to find more information on each trip mentioned.

North Carolina Bartram Trail

  • North Carolina Bartram Trail Society website

Middle Prong Wilderness Area

Deep Creek Loop / Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Backpacking North Carolina,” trip No. 20, page 22

Panthertown Valley

Birkhead Mountain Wilderness

GetHiking! Southeast Podcast

This week on the GetHiking! Southeast Podcast we discuss the trips mentioned above plus three more backpack trips we hope to do in 2021. We also look at two recent land acquisitions that boost the total holdings of North Carolina State Parks past a quarter million acres. Give a listen here.

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