On Monday evening, our GetHiking! Triangle group celebrated the start of Daylight Saving Time with an after-work hike at Eno River State Park. We had some new people on the hike, and it was clear that they were a bit tentative.
But, a mile down the trail, I noticed the steady buzz of happy hiker chatter. Our more experienced hikers had adopted the newcomers and were making them feel at home. When we finished our four miles and returned to the trailhead, it was near dark and the temperature was rapidly dropping, yet no one was in a hurry to leave. The conversation continued another 10 minutes or so until we had trouble seeing one another. I knew the newcomers would be back.read more
In October, we suggested that winter was a good time for taking long hikes at the coast. Fewer biting things flitting through the air, fewer slithering things making their way across the ground. Today, as we’re in the throes of a sustained cold weather hiking season, we return to the coast with suggestions for shorter walks.
Bay Trail, 4 miles
Hiking clockwise from the Visitor Center: On a particularly cold but sunny day you’ll love the first part of this loop around the lake as it passes through an exposed pine savannah, where lots of warming sunlight bounces off the forest’s sandy floor. By the time the trail reaches the midpoint and loops back, you’ll be warm enough not to mind that the sun has been blocked by a dense sea of bay trees and pond cypress.
This 420-acre preserve was spared in 1992 by The Nature Conservancy and the Town of Nags Head, thus saving one of the largest remaining maritime forests along the East Coast. A favorite way to explore the preserve and get a sense of its more than 550 plant species (including oaks more than 500 years old) and 50 known species of butterflies, is on the 3.75-mile Blueberry Ridge Trail.
How much eco-diversity can a person take on one 3-mile hike? Carolina Beach puts that question to the test, starting you off from the marina trailhead with a hike along the tidal marsh banks of the Cape Fear River, then through a coastal evergreen forest, a coastal fringe sandhills forest, a longleaf pine savannah and to the top of 60-foot-high Sugarloaf Dune, which is forested now but once proved an excellent spy tower for spotting Union ships sneaking into Wilmington.
It’s 2.2 miles roundtrip and it features an abandoned WW II bunker. Of course it’s abandoned, you say — the war ended more than 70 years ago. In fact, it’s only been abandoned since the early 1970s; before that, it was occupied for several years by the Fort Fisher Hermit, a recluse who took up residence in the bunker for more than a decade. And that’s just one reason to hike this trail. The other is at trail’s end: a sweeping view of where the Cape Fear River blends into the Atlantic Ocean amid the Zeke’s Island reserve.
Six miles, you fret, that might be a little long. Or it might not, for two reasons. One, this meandering trail navigates a swamp (the wetter sections are elevated by boardwalk), and nothing makes a hike zip by like the prospect of running into the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Truly, there’s something enchanting and weird about hiking along ponds carpeted in duckweed and harboring bald cypress and tupelo gum dripping with Spanish moss, and through a bevy of other aquatic plants Seussian in nature. So much to see, even in winter.
Hard to believe a popular trail in a popular state park can offer seclusion, but this one does, as it encompasses stretches of dense forest, marsh and swamp. And, because the trail is wide and generally smooth, you can pay attention to these great features along the way rather than having to watch where you step. Good for either a peppy aerobic jaunt or an easy saunter to take in nature.
You might think that an estuary where salt and fresh water combine to create a habitat rich in marine and plant life would be a paddler’s paradise, and it is. But with 30 miles of trail, it’s also a great place to explore on foot, to learn about the rich natural and cultural history (the park houses fossil beds and Colonial and Native American artifacts) and to experience the quiet of a coastal winter. The Taskinas Trail offers a good introduction.
The fan of short hikes will like this trail for the same reason the long hiker likes it: how far you go is up to you. Hike 30 minutes out from the refuge office, or from Jericho Lane, or Big Entry Ditch, then turn and hike back. This is hiking for the mind: long passages of quiet, flat trail with minimal distraction.
Since I answer the question differently every time it’s asked, the notion of a classic hike, obviously, is difficult to pin down. In essence, I define it as a hike that you could do 100 times, and every time will yield a unique experience. Some of that has to do with the trail itself. A lot has to do with the season. A lot, too, with the weather.
When I first hiked the Mt. Sterling/Cataloochee Valley area in 2005 — Trips 17 and 18 if you’re following along in “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press) — it was on a late November day. There were light, indifferent clouds overhead, the landscape had turned from predominantly green to predominantly brown and gray. The landscape was stark, the air cold. The sky, while not threatening, suggested I not overstay my visit atop 5,843-foot Mt. Sterling. A decade later, I still have vivid memories of that trip, though not of the reality TV variety.
This weekend, I made my first return visit, with GetHiking! North Carolina’s Classic Hikes. This time it was early spring in the high country. Wildflowers were prolific. The hardwoods had budded in the valley but not at elevation. It was cloudy with a light rain falling most of the day, with late day reports of sleet and fat snowflakes from the summit. The world was a shiny, wet green, with flashes of color — blinding white dogwood blooms in the understory, the forest floor peppered with white, yellow and purple blooms — popping in contrast.
Memorable in a different way than my first visit. Not necessarily better, different. And, I’m sure, it will be different the next time I visit.
Despite the fact I use the word “classic” liberally despite an imprecise definition, it’s not a word I use lightly. Maybe I can’t define a classic hike, but I know one when I hike it.
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Translation: Sunday will bring us our first true fall hiking of the season. So get done what you need to get done on Saturday and reserve Sunday for a day in the woods.
Where? you ask. Here’s a quick list of our favorite resources for finding a good hike.
North Carolina State Parks. North Carolina has 41 state parks, natural areas and recreation areas crawling with good hiking trail, and you’ll find them pretty evenly distributed from the coast (Jockey’s Ridge) to the highest spot in the high country (6,684-foot Mount Mitchell). The state park Web site has helpful information for planning a trip, including downloadable versions of the maps you’ll find at the parks. Investigate here.
Carolina Mountain Club. The venerable (est. 1923) hiking group maintains by far the most extensive database of hikes in North Carolina’s mountains. Not only do they have a lot of hikes but they have all the details you’ll need to plan, find and execute your hike. Investigate here.
NCHikes.com. Our sister site includes a trove of hiking information, including longer hikes and tips on executing your hikes. Investigate here.
Judging from the weekend forecast, a blanket of wet and cool will cover much of North Carolina this weekend. Not what you hope for on the first full weekend of spring.
But lots of great weather is ahead, which should help soften the damp blow. And what better way to spend a rainy weekend day than planning for your next sun-drenched outing — and indulging in a vicarious escape in the process.
I’ve put together a list — and a short slide show — of 10 hiking trips that should be on your agenda for spring and summer. Most involve water: understandable, considering part of what makes for a great hot weather hike is being able to cool off with a bracing dip. Some are at high altitude, which makes them often inaccessible in cold, snowy weather. Some may seem obvious — but may be missing from your explorer’s resume all the same. All are definitely worth experiencing.
Grandfather Mountain. This may be the wildest 2,456 acres in the N.C. State Parks system, to which this previously privately owned mountain was recently added. Take the Profile Trail up Grandfather’s massive west shoulder to the wild, rocky Grandfather Trail across the mountain’s crest. (Less experienced hikers may want to access Grandfather Trail from the much higher and still privately held gift-shop portion of the park.)
Mountains-to-Sea Trail. About half of this work-in-progress 1,000-mile trail running the width of the state is finished; of that 500 miles are oh-so-many sections worthy of your attention. In the mountains, the MST traces the Blue Ridge Parkway, offering surprising escape from the parkway’s four-wheeled explorers. In the Piedmont, the rapidly expanding trail already runs 60 miles (nearly) non-stop through Durham and Wake counties. At the coast, the MST runs through the Croatan National Forest and up the Outer Banks.
Mount Mitchell. Boasting that you’ve stood atop the eastern seaboard is as easy as driving to the concession parking lot atop Mount Mitchell State Park and walking the 50-yard paved trail to the top. But to truly claim bragging rights, take the Black Mountain Crest Trail north from the park to claim bagging rights to six 6,000-foot peaks. Warning: This trail isn’t paved. In fact, at least one passage requires anchored rope hand-holds for safe passage.
Bear Island. Before heading out to Bear Island, part of Hammocks Beach State Park, first check the ferry schedule — then plan to go when the boat isn’t running. There’s nothing quite like having an entire 892-acre barrier island virtually to yourself. The two-mile canoe trail over will require a boat, but it’s an easy trip and the exploring — both along the beach and through the island’s interior — is great. And quiet.
Appalachian Trail (Carvers Gap to US 19E). Nothing conveys hiking prestige like saying you’ve spent some time on the Appalachian Trail. And perhaps no section in North Carolina (and Tennessee; this 14-mile stretch straddles the border) is more AT than this one. Starting from Carvers Gap opposite Roan Mountain, you immediately hit three balds offering stellar views. From there, it’s a mild roller coaster of intimate alpine passages and more panoramic views.
Panthertown Valley This 6,300-acre sylvan island off U.S. 64 near Cashiers has more bang for the buck than any parcel twice its size. Waterfalls, mountain bogs, trout stream, exposed rock faces, old-growth trees — and a network of trails taking you to all of it. Beware, though, that you’ll need a map because the trails are scarcely marked; pack a copy of “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown, Bonas Defeat, and Big Pisgah.”
Shining Rock Wilderness It’s location not far off the Blue Ridge Parkway (west of Mt. Pisgah) offers easy access to some of the state’s most spectacular hiking. Ravaged by a pair of forest fires a century ago, the Shining Rock area offers large stretches of exposed hiking and non-stop views. Above 6,000 feet you’ll hit balsam stands more common to northern forests. A good place to avoid excessive climbs.
Wilson Creek The Wilson Creek area consists of the drainage below Grandfather Mountain along the Blue Ridge escarpment. It’s a wild area — and a wet one. Nearly every trail plays footsie with a creek, and the area’s creeks are chock full of falls and swimming holes, the latter encased in granite. Hard to beat on a hot, sunny, summer’s day. Personal favorite: Huntfish Falls, a quick 0.7-mile hike exposes you to sizable pool and an expanse of rock ideal for sunning.
Davidson River The Davidson River spills down the Blue Ridge escarpment north of Brevard, it’s name synonymous with play. Mountain bikers, fly fishermen/women, tubers and sliders (a screaming trip down Sliding Rock ends in a deep, cold pool) and especially hikers can find a week’s worth of entertainment from basecamp at the Davidson River Campground, arguably the best car-camping campground in the state. Reservations recommended during peak season.
Eno River. I’ve steered clear of Piedmont destinations because they tend to be a bit steamy in warm weather. Yet there’s something about the Eno, which begins above Hillsborough in Orange County and runs across Durham County before emptying into Falls Lake. Maybe it’s the fact its rockiness more resembles a mountain stream, maybe it’s because mature hardwoods shade much of the extensive trail system along its banks. All I know is that I end up seeking refuge along the Eno at least once a summer.
That’s where I recommend you head as the weather warms. As for me, my main goal is to visit five areas I’ve yet to explore, rugged and remote areas such as the Snowbird Mountains, sections of more popular venues such as the Bartram Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains that have somehow eluded me over the years. I’ll share my progress as I progress.