The first time I visited the mountains of northwest North Carolina was shortly after Elk Knob State Park opened two decades ago. Facilities were sparse, trail even more so. But there was an old roadbed that plowed straight up the south side of the mountain, to the 5,520-foot summit. The climb was ridiculously steep and a mile-long — the actual trail that soon replaced it takes twice as long to reach the top, from the same trailhead. But oh, the payoff. From the summit looking north is a 180-degree panorama that you could spend a day taking in.
The northern mountains of North Carolina have the least amount of public land in the high country, yet the few places that are open to exploring offer some of the best adventures in the state.
- Elk Knob State Park, for instance, located between Boone and West Jefferson, has one of the best mountaintop views in the state (see photo at top) from its 5,520-foot summit, a sweeping look east, north and west into Virginia and Tennessee. (And the 2-mile climb to get there is swell as well.)
- Mount Jefferson State Natural Area towers above the town of Jefferson, and if you’re not up for the 1,000-foot vertical climb to the top, you can drive to the top and hike around this 4,465-foot mountaintop.
- Pond Mountain. Love Mount Rogers in Virginia but aren’t crazy about the crowds? Pond Mountain, a joint venture by the Blue Ridge Conservancy and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, is a similarly open and exposed mountain that also has that wide-lonesome feel of the West.
- New River. One of the oldest rivers in the world and one of the most relaxing to paddle (you can even hike along its banks).
That’s just a taste of the adventure to be had at the Year of the Trail Weekend Festival in West Jefferson Aug. 4-6. The event is sponsored by the towns of West Jefferson, Lansing and Jefferson; Ashe County; the Blue Ridge Conservancy; the New River Conservancy; and, the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ Hometown Strong initiative.
On Saturday’s final hike of our 2018-2019 Winter Wild hike series, we decided to add an extra mile or so. It was a mile of trail I hadn’t hiked.
This past weekend I hiked 4.8 miles on three trails with a combined elevation gain of nearly 4,000 vertical feet. That’s an average grade of about 14 percent.