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.
Too early to start planning for 2023?
Not when you love the outdoors and 2023 happens to be Year of the Trail in North Carolina.
As I’ve mentioned over the last couple of months, next year has been deemed Year of the Trail in North Carolina and there’s going to be a lot going on. For starters, the State Legislature in 2022 allocated $29.15 million in funding for the Complete the Trails Fund. That money will fund State Trail projects as well as projects deemed :shovel-ready” — that is, the land has been purchased and the trail designed; all that’s needed now is the money to build it. Expect a lot of “Excuse our Mess” signs out in the woods next year.