Our 6 Favorite Backpacking Destinations

This recent spate of bitter cold, snow and ice can’t last forever. This is the South: It just can’t.

Before you know it, maybe within a week or so, you’ll be out on the trail and you’ll see a bright yellow daffodil poking through the turf beneath a stately oak, near a loosely arranged pile of rocks. A non-native ornamental favored by early homesteaders to get them through the last half of winter, a harbinger of spring and warmer weather. They will be followed shortly by trout lilies, spring beauties and the rush of spring abundance. You may not be thinking about sleeping in a tent now, but it won’t be long. And you’ll want to be prepared.

Today, we offer 6 of our favorite backpacking destinations in the region. They’re our favorites, for different reasons. One we find to be the perfect weekend trip. Another we like because it avoids people. Another — well, let’s just get to it, shall we?

Best Weekend Trip

Face it, most of us only have time to do a weekend getaway, so that trip really needs to count. When we need to get the most value for our trail time, we head to the …

Appalachian Trail: Carver’s Gap to US 19E

Near Hump Mountain
  • 19 miles along the North Carolina/Tennessee line
  • Difficulty: moderate

You start with Jane and Round balds and views you don’t think could get better. Then you hit Little Hump and Hump mountains. Gorgeous Southern Appalachian hardwood forest surrounds the trail in between. Though the cavernous Overmountain Victory Shelter has closed, the meadow nearby isn’t and offers one of the best sunsets in the state (the “state” being North Carolina at this point) on Night 1; Night 2 is spent in the cozy and sheltered Doll Flats camping area. While you start high and end low, the climbs up Little Hump and Hump mountains do get your attention. 

# for this hike: vastviews.

More info here.

Best Winter Trip

We like the idea of a winter backpack trip and how it looks on our backcountry vitae, but the reality is something altogether different? Cold and the potential for ice and snow can have a sobering effect. But not necessarily on the … 

Appalachian Trail: Max Patch to Hot Springs

Atop Max Patch on the AT
  • 20 miles
  • Difficulty: moderate

You start with the best view of the hike, atop the massive bald that is Max Patch. From there, you’re largely hiking through hardwoods that serve as protection from the weather, one of the reasons it’s a great winter trip. Another: the lower elevation, topping out at 4,686 feet on Bluff Mountain, bottoming out in Hot Springs, at 1,332 feet. Another highlight: the last few miles are downhill, and you finish in downtown Hot Springs, either in a bar or brewpub.

# for this hike: winterbraggingrights

More info here.

Best Basecamp Trip

Face it, would you rather carry a 5-pound daypack on your back or a 35-pound backpack? After all, aren’t you out in the wild to see as much as you can? You can’t do much better than a mile-and-a-half pack trip giving way to 30 miles of daypack hiking, which is the case at …

Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Bluff Mountain Trail, Doughton Park
  • 1.5-mile hike to camp, 30 miles of day hiking
  • Difficulty: easy backpack in, moderate/strenuous day hiking when you start climbing the Blue Ridge Escarpment, even in a daypack.

It doesn’t get much easier than the flat 1.5-mile hike in to the primitive campsite along Grassy Gap Trail, which is both big and intimate. After pitching camp along Basin Creek, you have four options for hiking up to the meadow Doughton Park is known for: the 2.8-mile Bluff Ridge Trail is the shortest and hardest route, the 4.4-mile Cedar Ridge Trail is steep at first, but settles in after a half mile. A good second-day option: the 3.3-mile (one way) Basin Creek Trail to the Caudill Cabin.

# for this hike: meadowmeander

More info here.

Best Wilderness Trip

We love exploring a wilderness, and the Southeast is blessed with many. What we like most is the truer sense of adventure, the feeling that you really are on your own. A feeling especially pervasive in the …

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock/Citico Creek Wilderness

Stratton Bald
  • 1-mile hike to basecamp, 123 miles of trail
  • Difficulty: Strenuous. The hike to camp is mellow, everything else involves either creek crossings, steep terrain and/or trails covered in blowdown.

If you’ve hiked the adjoining Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and are thinking, “Ha! Piece of cake,” realize that the memorial forest and the wilderness are Jekyll & Hyde counterparts. While you’ll find old growth forest in both, what you won’t find in the wilderness are groomed trails catering to the Dorset Picnic Basket set. Sometimes you can tell where the trail goes on your own, but for the most part you’ll need GPS assistant. Blowdowns are common, tight passages the norm, tricky stream crossings always a concern.

# for this trip: whereami

More info here.

Best Avoid-the-Masses Trip

Ideally, you don’t want to see anyone on a backpack trip, save perhaps for the folks in your group (and even then … ). That’s what tends to keep us away from some of the more popular areas. Unless you happen to know where the back door is, such as this one to …

Shining Rock Wilderness, via Big East Fork

Tennent Mountain in the Shining Rock area
  • 19-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous, though about three quarters of the climbing is on Day 1.

There are days when the Black Balsam parking lot at the mouth of Shining Rock is more jammed than a Walmart lot on Black Friday. Everyone wants a piece of the Shining Rock/ Art Loeb/Tennent Mountain/Black Balsam action. But head in from the Big East Fork trailhead off U.S. 276 and you’ll think it was Christmas Day. Sure, there’s a challenging 4.5-mile climb to Shining Rock Gap, but the carrot — sunset from atop the white quartz outcrop — is so worth it. You’ll mix it up briefly with the BBM (Black Balsam Masses) on Day 2 as you cross the Art Loeb Trail, but lose them when you slip behind Graveyard Fields and head down Big East Fork. 

# for this trip: wildernesstomyself

More info here.

Best Trip, period

In our backpacking lives there comes a trip where you stop repeatedly and marvel, “This hike’s got it all.” “This hike,” in our case is the …

Virginia Triple Crown

Overhang hangout at Tinker Cliffs
  • 35-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous

On this trip you start (after 4 miles) with McAfee Knob — and it gets better from there. Mainly, that’s because you drop the hordes who hike this iconic outcrop for a trademark selfie. On Day 2 you hit Tinker Cliffs, with many of the same attributes, minus the crowds. An awesome and seemingly endless ridgeline hike marks Day 3, which is capped with a day-hike scramble up Dragon’s Tooth. The hike out includes passage through a blissful meadow.

# for this trip: illbeback

More info here.

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Join us

Our GetBackpacking! program will lead three of this trips between now and summer. Click the link for more information and to sign up.

Not a backpacker, but want to be?

Our Spring GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking classes are starting soon Each includes, among other elements:

  • 1-hour Zoom Intro to Gear Session
  • 5-hour in-field training session, covering all aspects of backpacking
  • Weekend graduation trip

Learn more by clicking on the appropriate session:

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