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.