Now’s typically the time we start thinking about goals for the year ahead. We all do it. By and large, it’s a good thing. By and large, because sometimes we get locked into a particular way of thinking, a way that doesn’t always reflect our true wishes and dreams.
For instance, when we think of goals we tend to think in terms of physical goals. New Year’s goals have come to be associated with physical health, specifically with weight loss. So while our stated goal may not be to lose 35 pounds by swimsuit season by hiking, that may well be our underlying motivator. “I’m going to hike twice a week,” or I’m going to hike 20 miles a week,” may not be overtly about weight loss, but that might well be the underlying factor. The problem? Having such a metric-driven goal may diminish the joy you get out of hiking. Rather than looking for a 5-mile hike with lots of scenic stops for a given Saturday, you may opt instead for a longer hike where you’ll burn more calories, but derive less enjoyment. Eventually, it becomes like going to the gym. And we all know how successful that New Year’s goal generally is.
You hike because you want to. So make your hiking goal for 2024 in synch with your passion. Some examples.
Complete a hiking challenge
When you think of a hiking challenge, you likely think of things such as thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or section hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. And what if you don’t have a half year to hike the AT, or a year or more to section hike the MST? You have reasonable and admirable options:
- South Beyond 6000 Challenge. There are 40 recognized peaks with elevations in excess of 6,000 feet in the Southeastern U.S.. Climb all 40 and you get not only bragging rights and a patch, you get to explore the 6 highest mountain ranges in the Southeast: Smokies, Plotts, Balsams, Craggies, Blacks and Roans. And if you think the challenge too widespread to complete in a year, consider: 39 of the 40 peaks are in North Carolina or on the N.C./Tennessee line (Mt. LeConte is entirely in Tennessee). Also consider that in one extremely vigorous day of climbing in the Black Mountains you could conceivably knock off nearly a quarter of them, from Mt. Hallback north to Celo Knob along the Black Mountain Crest.
- Pisgah 400. Maybe you’re more driven by the need to make sure you get to the mountains on a regular basis. The Pisgah 400 patch is awarded every hiker who completes every trail in the Pisgah Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest (Shining Rock, the Davidson River and North Mills River areas, Bent Creek, Lake Powhatan). Probably the best hiking in the Pisgah N.F.
You can find additional challenges at the Carolina Mountain Club website (see below).
Complete a long trail section
Again, recognizing that you have limited time — perhaps not enough to hike the 2,175-mile AT or the 1,200-mile MST — what about a section of a long trail. A popular goal in the Triangle, for instance, is to hike the 60-mile stretch of the MST along Falls Lake, or maybe the 120-mile run from the Pleasant Green Access at Eno River State Park to Clayton. Or perhaps the 90.3 miles of the MST along the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Devil’s Garden Overlook south to Beacon Heights.
As for the AT, maybe you want to hike the 95.7 miles in North Carolina. Or perhaps the 224.7 miles that straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee line. Or both.
Complete a shorter long trail
There are a number of shorter long trails that offer challenge cache in their own right.
Neusiok Trail, Croatan National Forest, Havelock. This 21-mile trail could be done in a day. It could also be done in a weekend — preferably a weekend in winter, before it warms ands activates the local buzzing and slithering population.
- Uwharrie National Recreation Trail that now runs 20 miles north to south through its namesake forest. An advantage to this goal: it’s challenging hiking close to Charlotte, the Triad, the Triangle.
- Art Loeb Trail, Pisgah National Forest, Brevard. The perfect challenge for a week-long mountain vacation, this 31-miler includes the Shining Rock Wilderness and the Davidson River area. A mix of exposed mountain meadows, balsam forest and classic Southern Appalachian hardwoods.
Master a trail
Acquaintance of many trails but master of none? Wouldn’t it be great to be the go-to person for a given trail or trail network? “You want insight into hiking Hanging Rock? Well, you’ve absolute got to talk to Jane Doaks!”
How to make this happen? You don’t need to hike an area exclusively, but you should hike it in all four seasons, and you should hike every trail in it in all four seasons. Again, using Hanging Rock as an example, there are 15 hiking trails covering roughly 25 miles (a little less, since about 7.4 miles of the MST, which is an official park trail, piggybacks on other trails). You should also plan to hike each trail in both directions (which you’ll likely do anyway, since most are out-and-backs). That commitment would definitely make you the go-to person for Hanging Rock.
Hike a different trail every time
Maybe that’s a bit extreme and a little counterproductive since most of us have a trail or two we love for various reasons (convenience, a certain scenic hook, etc.) But what if you vowed to hike a new trail a month, or every other week? A goal that would get you out of your been-there-hiked-that rut.
Figure out a schedule for getting new trails into your life.
Tackle a challenging, but realistic one-time goal
The one doable challenge that always comes to mind for me as a hiker: climb Mount Mitchell, the highest point on the Easy Coast, at 6,684 feet. And no asterisks here: summiting Mitchell from the mountaintop snack shop 50 yards from the summit does not count.
This challenge involves starting at the Black Mountain Campground at the base of Mitchell and hiking the 5.5-mile Mount Mitchell Trail to the summit. If that doesn’t sound like much, we forgot to mention that the hike gains more than 3,700 vertical feet on its way to the top. You don’t just pass through an assortment of ecozones, from Southern Appalachian hardwood forest into a black balsam forest more commonly associated with Canada, you feel like you pass through epochs.
There are other worthy climbs of note: for instance, in the Smokies, the 9.1-mile climb from Campsite 64 to the top of 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome gains more than 4,000 vertical feet. But the cache of summiting Mitchell, the highest peak east of South Dakota’s Black Hills, puts this one atop our list.
Plan a mountain outing in the West
There’s not better motivation to get your mountain legs under you than the prospect of summiting 14,000-foot peaks. Granted, dealing with the altitude is another issue. But if you’re planning a weeklong vacation, say, to Rocky Mountain National Park, and your goal is to hike every day, then you better be in the best shape of your life to make that happen. And your preparation starts here, with regular hikes locally and frequent visits to the Southern Appalachians. In fact, a trip out West could be just the thing to help you meet one of the other goals mentioned above. Two birds! Can’t beat that.
Note: If you do decide on a goal such as Rocky Mountain National Park, check with the appropriate land manager now to see if they require a permit. A growing number of National Park Service properties do now, and many go early in the year.
Your goal, your motivation
These are just some goal suggestions, some ideas you might not have thought of. The goal of today’s post? To encourage you not just to set a goal, but to set a goal that taps into your true passion for hiking. If that’s losing 35 pounds so you can squeeze into a Speedo by summer, great. If it’s mastering your local state park’s trail network — and you just happen to lose 35 pounds in the process — all the better.
Whatever your goal, just make sure it’s one that will keep your attention.
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For more information on the goals mentioned above, click the appropriate link below:
- South Beyond 6,000 Challenge
- Pisgah 400
- Carolina Mountain Club Challenges page
- Mountains-to-Sea Trail
- Uwharrie National Recreation Trail
- Neusiok Trail
- Art Loeb Trail
- Mount Mitchell Trail
- Appalachian Trail
Make a commitment
And to better insure that you get a jump on meeting your 2024 goals, consider committing yourself to our hike that start in GetHiking! Winter/Spring 2024 Hike Series. We do one guided hike the first Sunday of every month, January through June, and prescribe recommended hikes for the off weeks. Learn more about the series here.