Racing the clock on Forever Hikes

It wasn’t just another hike. It was a hike that showed I could still go long.

For the past few years, since turning 60, whenever I’ve finished a favorite challenging hike, I’ve wondered: Will I hike this trail again?

In part, that’s because there’s a limited amount of time in life and a growing number of trails. We like hiking our favorites, we like hiking new trails. And since the pandemic, more trails coming on line. Decisions, decisions.

But there’s another factor. I’ve come to the slow-dawning realization that I while I’ll mylikely be able to hike another 20 years, I may not always be able to hike 15 miles in a day. Or 10. Or 7 or 8. 

That’s why when I had a day off recently and a forecast favorable for a long day on the trail — high temperature of 50, cloudless skies — I knew what I had to do. And I knew where I wanted to do it.

View from atop Standing Indian

When I started GetHiking! more than a decade ago, the first long mountain hike we did was at Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Doughton offers the best hiking along Parkway: 30 miles of trail consisting of the most challenge hiking near Charlotte, the Triad, the Triangle. Four trails — Cedar Ridge, Bluff Ridge, Grassy Gap Fire Road and Flat Rock Ridge — climb the Blue Ridge escarpment, where they all connect with the 7.5-mile Bluff Mountain Trail (also the Mountains-to-Sea Trail). You can put together three long loops, ranging up to 17 miles. That first year we did the longest (up Cedar Ridge, across Bluff Mountain, down Flat Rock); a couple weeks back, because of time and available sunlight (not an area you want to hike after dark), I chose the Cedar Ridge/Bluff Mountain/Bluff Ridge route, about 15 miles. 

This hike is best done starting from the little-used Longbottom Road Access at the base of the escarpment. The reason: you get 80 percent of the climbing out of the way on the hike up. This is good for the obvious reason: who doesn’t like finishing a long day hiking downhill? It’s good, too, because if you overestimate your fitness and the climb is winning, you simply reverse course and head back down. I’d know within an hour if I had a 15-mile mountain hike in me.


Cedar Ridge Trail

Because the first mile and a quarter of Cedar Ridge is the worst; it’s not until the 2.2-mile mark that you encounter level ground, even a short descent. You still trend uphill for another two miles, but it’s not nearly as taxing. By the time you hit the Bluff Mountain Trail at mile 4.3, the bulk of your climb is over. For the day.

As I walked, I recalled my previous hikes on the trail. On that first GetHiking! hike, when I would have been 55, I don’t recall being overly tired after our 17-mile day. That’s in large part because when you’re leading a group you can’t feel overly tired: your charges get wind that you’re flagging and suddenly they’re really tired, too. I remember being especially invigorated on the long, mellow downhill on Flat Rock Ridge back to the trailhead. Same with a corporate group I took that returned down Grassy Gap Trail (we encountered a dusting of snow on that winter hike). I remember the first time taking the shorter, steeper Ridge Mountain Primitive Trail and seeing a momma bear and her two cubs, I remember scouting the trail for book projects  twice. The last time, in 2021, we base camped at the Basin Cove primitive camp, then spent a very cold and windy November Saturday on the trail, returning at dusk. Brief flashes of previous adventures suggested at least three other times doing a Doughton loop.

Bluff Mountain at Doughton Park

They were all good memories, and I’m sure that contributed to the fact it wasn’t until mile 13.5, coming off the Bluff Ridge Trail, that it occurred to me I was on the verge of being tired. Before hiking the last mile and a half on gently trending downhill, I took off my hiking shoes and stuck my feet in a very nippy Basin Creek. 

As my feet slowly went numb I realized I was as happy on the trail as I’ve been in a while. I recounted particularly memorable parts of the hike — drawing water from the Brinegar spring, the views from the open meadows near Bluff Mountain, the sun, the fact I only saw one other hiker — and smiled. 

I can’t wait to do this hike again, I thought.

And I’m pretty sure I will.

* * *

Forever hikes

Here’s the skinny on my top 5 Forever Hikes.

Doughton Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, Sparta

30 miles of trail, 3 long loops

The trail in today’s tale. 

Learn more here.

Weetock Trail

Standing Indian Recreation Area, Nantahala National Forest, Franklin

40 miles of trail, various loops involving the Appalachian Trail

As the AT enters Standing Indian, it traces a horseshoe-shaped ridge; about a dozen trails snaking up from the Standing Indian Recreation Area over a variety of loop options. Note: Three weeks after doing Doughton Park, I lead a two-day, one-night backpack trip on a favorite loop, starting from the backcountry trailhead: Long Branch Trail to the AT to Lower Trail Ridge Way, for 24 miles. 

Learn more here.

Appalachian Trail: Carver’s Gap to US 19E, Roan Mountain, Tenn.

13.7 miles

I’ve only done this as a day hike twice — largely because it’s such a stunningly gorgeous hike that you don’t want to rush it. We usually do it as a two-nighter, staying Night 1 at the Overmountain Victory Trail crossing and Night 2 at Doll Flats.

Learn more here.

Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Falls Lake, Durham/Raleigh

Penny’s Bend

16.4 miles: Penny’s Bend to Cheek Road (Day-Hike sections P,Q,R,S,T)

The MST spends 60 of its 1,175 miles along Falls Lake’s south shore, and all it makes for good hiking. We like this leg-stretcher because it’s among the more remote stretches of MST through the Triangle — and it’s probably the latest stretch!

Learn more here.

Weetock Trail, Croatan National Forest, Cape Carteret

11 miles

I love off-trail hiking, which is why I love this trail. The first 7 or so miles are fairly easy, over mostly flat coastal forest terrain with the occasional gully dip. The last 5 miles or so is an exercise in wayfinding, thanks to a hurricane a few years back that turned the trail into an obstacle course, an especially fun one.

Learn more here. 

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