In our five-part Winter Wild monthly adventure series, we go off trail to explore some of the wildest places in the region. Our January hike will be to the Butner Game Lands, more than 40,000 acres of wetlands and bottomland woods on the north side of Falls Lake.
It’s a common challenge over the holidays: you have family and friends visiting from afar — now, what are you going to do with them?
Take them on an adventure! Or, rather, let us help you take them on an adventure!
We’ve got several outdoor adventures this holiday season that are ideal for getting everyone out of the house and showing off the region’s great outdoor attributes!
One a year we feel compelled to reiterate the rules of proper trail etiquette. This year, we both reiterate and update the rules to reflect the brave new world of pandemic hiking.
A few basic civilities to keep in mind on the trail:
- Yielding. Until this year, the simple rule of yielding when encountering other hikers on the trail, especially a narrow trail, was that the downhill hiker yields to the uphill hiker. That is, the person hiking downhill should step aside and let the uphill hiker have the trail. To that, we add these coronavirus addendums: 1. The downhill hiker should not just step to the side of the trail, but should step at least 10 feet off the trail (when possible); and, 2. Both hikers should also cover their faces (a bandana or a Buff can serve double duty here.
- Yielding on multiuse trails. On trails open to horses and mountain bikers as well as hikers, horses always have the right-of-way. When mountain bikers and hikers meet, mountain bikers yield to hikers.
- Passing. Several years agoI was last in our group of eight when I heard footsteps rapidly approach from behind. I waited for an acknowledgement — a request to pass or at the very least, a throat clearing — as the footsteps neared. None came, so I stepped off the trail to my right; a young runner passed, not breaking stride, not acknowledging my action. When she caught up to the next hiker in our group, she simply stopped and walked tight on our hiker’s heels. Our hiker, sensing someone behind her, turned, stepped aside and said, “You’re welcome to pass.” The runner did, with barely a grunt of thanks. It’s not impolite to pass a slower party on the trail; just announce your intentions, ideally with a brief and robust, “On your left,” issued 15 to 20 feet before the passing zone.
- Thanks! Oh yes, and when someone does yield, please acknowledge their gesture with a “Thanks!”, a cheerful one.
- Stopping? Step to the side of the trail. If you stop to take a drink, check the map, or eat some gorp, step off the trail.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Good trail etiquette comes down to being aware of your surroundings and remembering that the quiet, the fresh air and the freedom that the trail offers you is why others are here as well. That said, two specifics that, alas, do need to be said:
- Do not smoke on the trail. On a group hike a while back, a member of our party stuck her nose in the air, sniffed and said, “Is that cigar smoke?” Surely not, I said. It was more likely the rotting carcass of a woodland creature who had met its demise. Yet 10 minutes up the trail, off to the side, sat a 20s-ish fellow with a stogie. True, most trailhead kiosks don’t specifically address smoking — perhaps because common sense would dictate that the trail is not a suitable venue.
- No portable speakers. On the same hike that we encountered the smoker, we were shortly after treated to a tinny, scratchy, cacophony of quiet-shattering chaos, emanating from a portable speaker clipped to the water bottle belt of a young runner. If you want to listen to adrenalin-pumping music rather than soothing woodland noises, wear earbuds.
=&9=&. We love dogs, and we welcome them on our hikes (when permitted by the land manager). That said, a few key elements of dog-related trail etiquette:
=&10=&. Most places where we hike — state parks, municipal parks, national parks, nature preserves — require that your dog be leashed, and many require that they be on a six-foot leash, not a 16-foot retractable tether that can wreak havoc for unsuspecting hikers, cyclists, equestrians. The reasons for leashing are many. At the top of the list is that some hikers aren’t comfortable with dogs, especially ones that come bounding up to them in the wild, friendly though they may be. There’s also the matter of protecting the dog from—squirrel! Fido’s primal olfactory instincts kick in and he may never be seen again.
=&11=&. Everywhere you hike, this is the rule. But more than being a rule, it’s just common courtesy to your fellow hikers. Hopefully, we don’t need to elaborate.
=&12=&. Actually, we do need to elaborate: After you have bagged said poop, take it with you, do not leave it packaged by the side of the trail. We’ve heard more than one hiker say, “I’ll pick it up on my way out.” If this is the explanation behind every trailside receptacle of refuse we spot, then somewhere deep in the woods are hundreds of hikers and their dogs wandering in search of the “way out.”
Even with the temperature living in the 90s this summer, it’s been hard to find solitude on the trail. Everyone, now, is a hiker.
But not everyone knows to look for the more subtle stretches of trail. Trail, for instance, that doesn’t start from a visitor center, that doesn’t have a privy, that doesn’t even have paved parking — official parking, period. Finding these gems is tricky. But they’re out there.
One such stretch is the 3.2 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake from the Hickory Hill Boat Ramp west to Red Mill Road. The stretch offers great nature: from rich bottomland forest to an old farm pond. It offers amusement, from passage along a grass airfield, to a selfie opportunity beneath a billboard, to tunneling under I-85. The usual and unusual, all in one hike.
So why does hardly anyone hike it? Beats us — it’s even got paved parking!
We can’t guarantee that you’ll have the trail to yourself when you hike it. It is, though, a good bet that you won’t be constantly stepping into the brush to let others safely pass. An especially good hike for the times.
Intrigued? You can get a copy of our GetHiking! Guide to Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Falls Lake, Day-Hike Sections Q & R, by going here. Enter code D5QCPJN2 before Thursday, Aug. 6 and you can download the guide for free.
We’ll end the suspense on the weekend weather forecast by simply saying it calls for more of the same: temperatures in the low- to mid-90s, chance of afternoon thunderstorms.
The good news?
Tropical Storm Isaias isn’t expect to visit until Monday. Woo hoo!
So, as we face our umpteenth days in a row of 90-degree weather, if you want to beat the heat, you have two options:
- Go wet
- Go up
A good idea — in theory. Just two drawbacks:
One, as hot as it’s been, you’ll need to dive deep to find cool waters. This hot weather is heating up our Piedmont lakes and rivers to the point that unless you dive well below the surface, you’ll be swimming in tepid water (water that can give rise to harmful bacteria).
Two, you won’t be the only one thinking of cooling off in a lake or stream, and the last thing you need right now is a crowd.
If you are intent on finding a wet escape, your nearest viable options are in the foothills, along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. I won’t get more specific than that, other than to suggest you use the Blue Ridge Parkway as a general guide to the escarpment, then drill down on Google Maps to see what’s along the way — and what appears to be more remote. Keep in mind that you may need to do a little bushwhacking to avoid the masses. But that only enhances the adventure, right?
The higher the elevation the cooler the temperature: for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained you lose roughly 3 degrees, goes the formula. Again, we won’t get into specifics here, but start with this elevation map to isolate your highest locations, then match it with Google Maps to see what’s there. Hint: Make sure you’re dealing with public land.
Another option? Check out this piece we wrote for Blue Cross of NC’s Point of Blue blog,
“5 Cool Hikes for One Hot North Carolina Summer.”
Hiking has long been lauded for it’s health benefits. Hiking regularly can lower your blood pressure and reduce your chance of heart disease. It can lower your risk of certain cancers and of getting diabetes. It improves muscle fitness and can help stave off osteoporosis. When you hike during the day, you sleep better at night.
Of course, once you become a hiker you tend to forget about these benefits, because simply being on the trail is reward enough. (Did we mention that the endorphins released during a hike help relieve anxiety, reduce stress and simply make you happier overall?)
Hiking already had a lot going for it. Now, during the pandemic, it can play an even more vital role in protecting your health. Research suggests it’s perhaps the safest exercise you can do right now: it’s outdoors, it’s easy to physically distance yourself from others, it’s accessible — probably more than you know.
You’ve tried it, you like it
Odds are that even if you weren’t a hiker before the pandemic hit in March, you’ve probably dabbled in it since. With recreational and entertainment options limited, especially in the beginning, record numbers turned to the trail, to the point that some North Carolina state parks have had to close their gates on weekends — as early as 9 a.m. (or an hour after opening) —once they reach capacity. And judging from the fact this phenomenon has continued from the glorious days of spring, when it’s impossible not to love the outdoors, into the steamy days of summer, this is more than just a passing infatuation.
Intrigued … and intimidated
So, you’re intrigued by hiking. And a little intimidated.
For starters, you’ve felt well equipped for your 1- or 2-mile forays into the woods: shorts, a t-shirt, sneakers — they seem to do the trick. But say you want to go longer. Your feet already hurt a bit at hike’s end, making you wonder about those sneakers. Your cotton clothes get sweaty-wet — and you stay drenched until you get home and shower. You’re also a little parched and hungry at hike’s end: you’d need more in the tank to soldier on, but what? The trail you’ve been returning to is nice, but certainly there must be other places to hike. And places with fewer people, too.
Hiking needn’t be complicated — that’s part of the stress-relieving joy. But with a little bit of direction, with a gentle push in the right direction, you can greatly lessen your learning curve. Which is why we’ve launched our Let’s GetHiking! Introduction to the Trail for the Aspiring Hiker program.
Our goal since we launched GetHiking! in 2013 has been to empower new hikers. Along the way we’ve learned a lot about how to make that happen. This class reflects what we’ve learned in these seven years, about what beginning hikers need, about what they respond to, about what they like, and about their limits.
Here’s how our Let’s GetHiking! Intro program works:
- Let’s GetHiking! Intro to Hiking Zoom meeting. We cover the basics of hiking, of how to find trails suitable for beginners, how to dress, what to take, what to expect, how to start.
- Five hikes geared toward beginners. We lead 5 hikes ranging from about 2.5 to 4 miles at a leisurely pace. We provide custom maps and route directions for each hike, to help you get a better sense of the terrain you’re hiking and your pace.
In addition, you get:
=&3=& This 110-page guidebook goes over all the essentials for becoming a confident hiker. The expanded Second Edition includes sections on next-level hiking, including hiking at night, hiking in the rain, and hiking in summer’s heat.
=&4=& For those times when you haven’t the time to drive to a trail, this guide shows you how outdoor adventure can be had right out your front door.
So it’s raining, and may rain over the weekend. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get outside. Consider: