Tag Archives: off-trail

GetOut! Your Nudge for Weekend Adventure

After a dang cold week we’re heading into a darn nice weekend, with mostly sunny skies and temperatures, brace yourself, reaching 60.

So if you’ve been hibernating so far this winter, now’s your chance to emerge from your den for an adventure. An adventure such as: read more

A Winter Wild time Hiking off-trail at Hanging Rock

I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in Jim Plant when, during my interrogation of his intimate knowledge of Hanging Rock State Park, he said, “But then, I prefer to go off-trail.” Jim and fellow Friends of the Sauratown Mountains members Regina Rollins and Sarah Werner were standing on a rock outcrop with GetHiking!’s Alison Watta and me, surveying a vast stretch of undeveloped land in the 7,000-acre state park north of the Triad. read more

Scouting an elusive trail

Today is a scouting day. Of my many tasks as a hiking guide, scouting the trail in advance is among my favorite. If I’m leading on a trail I haven’t hiked in a year or longer, I go out beforehand and hike it. I like to make sure the trail is passable, that a hurricane hasn’t laid a stand of trees across the trail, that recent rain hasn’t turned a key crossing into a Class III rapid, that—in the case of a National Forest—the trail hasn’t been closed for logging or another form of resource development. As a guide, I don’t like surprises when trying to get hikers from Point A to Point B safely.

For hikes we do in state parks, nature conservancies, municipal parks, the element of surprise is low, even before a scouting trip. Most land managers post trail disruptions on their websites. Even the USDA Forest Service posts advisories on its more heavily traveled trails. Additional pre-hike insight comes from websites such as alltrails.com and hikingupward,com, where hikers sometimes leave comments on recent trail conditions. 

It’s a different story, though, when you’re hiking the trails less traveled, and the trails that don’t exist at all.

Scouting off trail

Trails that aren’t officially trail are what we’re focusing on in a series of Winter Wild hikes. They may start on established trails, but they won’t stay there for long. For the most part, we’ll stick to game trails and long-abandoned wagon tracks to explore the hidden human history and natural gems of the state parks and national forests. Scouting these trails is especially critical to a safe and successful hike. 

The scouting trip I’m on today is at the coast. I first became aware of the Weetock Trail in early 2006 while researching “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” (2007, Mountaineers). Coastal trails being at a premium, I was eager to include what, at 11 miles in length, was the second longest trail at the coast. However, I was unable to find the trailhead, which was somewhere off N.C. 58 between Maysville and Cedar Point. If I couldn’t even find the trailhead, it wasn’t a good candidate for a trail guide aimed at a general hiking audience.

A few years later, armed with directions, I did find the trailhead (which now had a marker) and had little trouble finding and keeping the trail for the first six miles or so. I passed the gravel road to Haywood Landing after about three and a half miles, as promised. A little while later, I bumped up against the White Oak River, which my map suggested would happen. And I’m pretty sure I had passed the unmarked road leading to Long Point Landing, about six and a half miles in. 

There was trail, then there wasn’t

Then, I emerged from the edge of a pine forest into a long-abandoned farm field, now a sea of unfettered wild grass standing three feet high that gave no clue as to where the Weetock continued. On the far side of the field, where the forest resumed, were several promising openings where the trail might resume. Eventually, I discovered a trail: unmarked, I could only guess that it was the Weetock and not a game trail, not a hunter’s trail. Whether it was or not is hard to say. The forest/field/forest scenario repeated, and this time the existence of a trail was less certain. But I continued, assured by my compass that I was at least headed in the right direction. 

I hoped that I would stumble across an obvious trail. I never did. Sunlight was becoming an issue, and I was relieved, with dusk settling in, when the woods spit me out on a gravel forest access road. I checked its direction with my compass — northeast — and based on the fact this was only the third access road I had passed, I was pretty sure this road would take me straight back to NC 58 not far from the trailhead.

The next day, I went to find the southern trailhead, with the idea of hiking in the opposite direction and discovering familiar terrain to discover where I had strayed. Alas, I couldn’t find the southern trailhead, or anything resembling a trailhead. No roadside pullout, much less a “Welcome to the Weetock” trail sign.

So today, I try again. I’ve got two paper maps (including the alltrails.com map pictured above). I’ve got updated software on my Garmin GPS and I’ve got Google maps on my iPhone (which has more than once aided my escape from a backwoods wander gone awry). 

Curious as to how this story turns out? Find out on Dec. 15 when I’ll lead a hike on the 11-mile Weetock Trail. See details below

Happy trails,


Explore with us off trail 

GetOriented! Finding Your Way on the Weetock Trail

The Weetock Trail hike will include tips on way finding and following a trail that isn’t always there. Learn more and sign up here.

GetHiking! Winter Wild: Exploring Off Trail the Places You Most Love to Hike

This series of five monthly hikes takes you off trail at the places you only thought you knew: Umstead State Park, Hanging Rock State Park, Eno River State Park, Uwharrie National Forest, Raven Rock State Park. Learn more and sign up here. 

GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods read more

Winter: a great time to stray off trail

Winter is the honest season. Stripped bare of busy ground cover and a blurring canopy, winter is incapable of keeping a secret. Stone foundations from homesteads long abandoned lie exposed. Distant mountain peaks are revealed. Critters have nowhere to hide. It’s the perfect time to be in the woods.

Especially if you head off the beaten path. 

Now, there are good reasons why that path is beaten. Not everyone is interested in a more raw form of adventure, fewer still are equipped. Whatever innate navigational skills our species may have had have since been relegated to the recesses of our brains in favor of more modern survival skills. Touch typing with our thumbs, for instance.

Relegated, maybe, but not deleted. 

Every year around this time, because the woods become more open and welcoming, we rev up our GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods program. We start with a basic introduction to map and compass and how to use the two in tandem. Then we head down the trail, and off, to match the imagery of wavy topo lines with the reality of a rolling landscape. At some point, those dormant navigational skills are retrieved from deep storage and our students experience an “Aha!” moment. Nothing makes sense, then — well, maybe not everything makes sense, but you can hear the tumblers fall into line. 

Why is this skill important? 

Think about a trail you hike on a regular. Your hike may vary by season, it may vary by time of day and by the weather. But you’re still walking along the same stream, climbing the same long hill, passing the same dilapidated tobacco barn and seeing the same view of the lake. Nothing wrong with this familiarity. But haven’t you ever wondered what lies beyond?

At Eno River State Park in Durham, for instance, the Cox Mountain Trail is a popular hike. It involves crossing a swinging bridge, it follows a rocky stretch of the Eno, and it has some good elevation through a maturing hardwood forest. It all makes for a good hike. Yet when you reach the summit of Cox Mountain, you notice that, to the south, the mountain plateaus for a third of a mile or so before dropping off on three sides. From your park-issued trail map you notice what lies beyond — about 600 acres — is in the park. Since it’s parkland, you figure it’s probably pretty wild (in fact, the tract is known as the Eno Wilderness). The unknown beckons: What’s over there? 

At Umstead State Park in Raleigh you stand on the bridge spanning Crabtree Creek and look downstream. According to the park map there’s a sizable area that, again, isn’t served by trail but must harbor some hidden treasure, right? (Right: a stand of ancient beech trees, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a short-lived Boy Scout camp.)

At Hanging Rock State Park you hear tale of a Cessna that crashed on the mountain more than a half century ago. Where? you wonder. And, Would anything be left after more than 50 years?

Sometimes you need these basic navigation skills just to find the trail. At the coast, in the Croatan National Forest near Maysville you’ll find the Weetock Trail. Well, you’ll find the northern and southern trailheads, both off NC 58, but sometimes finding the 11 miles in between can be a challenge. When blazes abandon you, a map, a compass and a basic understanding of topography can be the difference between a fund day of navigating the woods or an unplanned overnight.

Most people who take our Finding Your Way in the Woods class do so because they simply don’t like the feeling of getting discombobulated in the outdoors. Almost all leave the class with this goal accomplished. But they also leave intrigued by what lies beyond the confines of the blazed trail, by the treasures, natural and cultural, waiting to be found. They may not be inclined to abandon the trail entirely, but they know that if something does beckon from beyond that they can venture a little ways off the trail and find their way back. Navigational skills come in especially handy in this part of the country, where our state parks and our national forests in particular are criss-crossed with long-abandoned wagon roads and cart paths. Crossing one such path in the woods it’s impossible not to wonder where it leads — and where it once led. 

Winter’s the ideal time to find out.

Happy Trails


GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods read more

Leave the trail behind


You love your trails. You can’t imagine what life would be like without them.
For starters, life might be a little more adventurous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my trails as well. The Sycamore Trail at Umstead (especially during a rain, when its namesake creek is roiling). The trail network at Horton Grove Nature Preserve, which seems perpetually bathed in ethereal light. The 14-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail north of Carvers Gap, which is one stunning 360-degree view after another.
But sometimes, the terrain beyond the confines of the well-maintained, blazed path beckons. The hollow where the distant sound of crashing water suggests a cataract. The distant rocky summit promising great views. The woods that call for no apparent reason other than you’ve never paid a visit.
The lure of the unknown.
Trails exist for good reason. To keep you from getting lost tops the list. They also help minimize our impact as visitors, keeping us from trampling sensitive ecosystems and basically letting the land, for the most part, be. Yet every once in a while … .
Yesterday, we shared a recent … wilderness wander at one of our favorite local haunts. We feel comfortable making an occasional trail departure, in large part because we follow a few simple rules that all but assure we will make our way back to civilization. The best testament to these rules: we’re here to talk about them (rather than still in the woods, wandering, looking for the way out).
Before we share those simple rules: exploring off trail is something you should ease into. It’s best to head out your first few times with someone experienced, someone such as Rod Broadbelt, who this Saturday leads his annual Ruins Hike at Umstead State Park. Nearly all of this 10-mile hike, which visits 20 historic sites in the park, is off-trail. Rod’s done this hike for more than 20 years and knows the park well; hang with him (if you can) and learn his approach to off-trail exploring.
That hike meets at 8 a.m. Saturday morning in the Umstead lot at the end Harrison Avenue in Cary, off I-40 (exit 287). Questions? Contact Rod at rbroadbelt@nc.rr.com.
Now, some tips for off-trail exploring on your own.

  • Before setting foot on the trail
    * Take a map. This is mandatory every time you strap on a pack, even if you’re hiking a trail you know well. (What if there’s a blowdown or a landslide and you need to take evasive action?) A good topo map is preferred; a park-issued map, which often lacks topo lines and isn’t to scale is better than nothing.
    * Take a compass. A map is of minimal help if you don’t know which way is up. Or north. Together, a map and compass are invaluable hiking companions.
    * Check sunset. Venturing off trail isn’t something you want to do if you’re running out of daylight. An especially important step this time of year.
  • On the trail
    * Know your blazes. Likely, you’ll start out on an established trail. Familiarize yourself with the blaze for that trail and for adjoining trails. Odds are you’ll eventually want to return to the trail you departed from.
    * Landmarks. When you reach the point where you plan to head off trail take careful note of what’s around you: an especially identifiable tree, a creek, a rock outcrop, whatever. Sighting a familiar object could be key for your return.
  • Leaving the trail
    * Take a bearing on where you’re headed. Get out your map, get out your compass. Get your orientation (where’s north?) set. Pick an object in the distance, in the direction you want to explore. Take a compass reading, follow that compass reading.
    * Confirm your bearing. Stop periodically, every 30 yards or so, to confirm your bearing. Are you still headed in the direction you set off in? If not, correct and continue.
    * Landmarks. Again, keep an eye out for familiar landmarks that can help you navigate upon your return.
  • Objective reached! Now what?

    * Reverse course. Once you reach what it was you wanted to check out, return to the point where you left the trail by simply following your compass in the opposite direction. For instance, if you reached your objective by heading due north, return by heading due south.
    * Shinny thing. Or maybe you see something else in the distance you want to investigate. Take specific note of where you are, get out your map, get your compass and set a new bearing to your new objective. Continue in the manner described above, stopping every 30 yards or so to make sure you remain on course.
    * Reverse course (again). To return after reaching your second objective, simply head in the opposite compass direction you followed to your second objective until you get back to your first objective. From there, continue in the direction opposite you used when you left the trail.

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