Location:Brown Gap, Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area, Pisgah National Forest, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (49 miles – 1 hour and 5 min) Knoxville (76 miles – 1 hour and 24 min) Charlotte (163 miles – 2 hours and 59 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.77318, -82.9957Trail Access:Take exit 7 on I-40 and follow Cold Springs Creek Rd 3.2 miles. Turn left onto FR 148A and follow it 1.2 miles to Brown Gap. The road levels out around the gap and forks, you should be able to spot the white Appalachian Trail blazes.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:Appalachian Trail – Max Patch TrailHike Distance:~7.1 miles Hike Configuration: Out-and-back Elevation Gain: 2,061 feetHiking Time:3 hours and 15 minutesDate of Hike:02-19-17, Sunday at 1:15 PMTrail Condition: Good — The Appalachian Trail is in very good condition, the section around Max Patch has more erosion.Hike Difficulty:Moderate — Other than the steep hike out of Brown Gap this is pretty easy. Isolation:Low — The AT section doesn’t have much traffic but Max Patch is always crowded. Highlights:Incredible views from the summit of the tallest peaks in the region. Lowlights:Only lowlight is the road near the trailhead is rough.Google Photos album link
It had been an unseasonably warm February, and the weather on Sunday, Feb 19th looked perfect for a hike with big views. Surprisingly I’ve never been to Max Patch Mountain. Despite its fame, it is really out of the way for me unless I’m staying in the Asheville area. After two hikes earlier in the day to Chambers Mountain and Little Fall Branch Falls, I decided to cap the day off with a nice hike on the Appalachian Trail to Max Patch. Many people drive close to the summit on the long, gravel SR 1182. If you do this, the hike is around 2 miles total which is far shorter than I prefer. I chose to begin deep in the Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area of Pisgah National Forest, taking the Appalachian Trail north from Brown Gap. This is a pleasant hike through deciduous hardwood forests along ~4,000-foot ridges and at 7.1-miles round-trip is manageable for many types of hikers. The weather was in the mid-50s °F with bright sun and little wind. I’ve seen so many pictures of Max Patch but I was still blown away by the views from the summit. You are surrounded and dwarfed by some of the tallest peaks in the Appalachian Mountain. It is truly an awesome feeling. I highly recommend a trip to Max Patch, it is one of the best grassy balds in North Carolina.
Location:Sams Gap below I-26, NC/TN Distance from Hubs: Asheville (29 miles – 33 min) Charlotte (150 miles – 2 hours and 34 min) Knoxville (109 miles – 2 hours and 10 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.95238, -82.56080Trail Access:Follow I-26 north from Asheville and leave the interstate at exit 3. Head north on U.S. 23A for 3.1 miles and prior to passing under I-26 there is a parking area on the left. The Appalachian Trail is across the street on the right side of I-26.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:Appalachian TrailHike Configuration: Out and backHike Distance:~13.1 miles Elevation Gain: 3,270 feetHiking Time:6 hours and 15 minutesDate of Hike:01-16-16, Saturday at 11:15 AMTrail Condition: Very Good — This is a popular stretch of the Appalachian Trail and I found it in very good condition except for the section below Big Bald which was eroded.Hike Difficulty:Moderately Strenuous — For the mileage this is on the easy side of the scale. There are few stretches of strenuous elevation gain, the grades are mostly very forgiving. Isolation:Average — I doubt you’ll be in crowds of people because of the length of the hike, but I also doubt you’ll ever be alone considering its appeal and access. It’s hard for me to judge considering the weather, but I saw at least 10 people anyways. Highlights:Beautiful trail through hardwood forests, delightful mix of rime ice on trees and shrubs, icy wonderland at the summit Lowlights:Really the obvious lowlight was the constant cloud cover, I didn’t get the views I expectedGoogle Photos album link
My plan was to hike to Big Bald, supposedly one of the finest of all the grassy balds in the southern Appalachian Mountains. If you can get a sunny day in the winter, nothing beats crystal clear views from an open summit. There’s just too much haze in the summer to compare. The forecast started with clouds in the morning, clearing out for sun after noon in the low 40s °F with a light wind. As I drove north on Interstate 26 from Asheville I was beginning to doubt the veracity of the NOAA forecast. Usually they’re spot on, but as I approached Sams Gap on the North Carolina/Tennessee border all I could see was a low cloud ceiling covering every peak. Big Bald, at 5,516 feet, is the tallest summit of the Bald Mountains along the state border and the tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail for 148 miles. It requires a long hike from either direction. Sams Gap is the typical hike since it is located right off the interstate. I expected beautiful scenery every step of the way, but what I got was an icy wintry wonderland and an unforgettable experience.
Location:Big Creek Campground, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC Distance from Hubs: Asheville (55 miles – 1 hour and 2 min) Charlotte (169 miles – 2 hours and 49 min) Knoxville (67 miles – 1 hour and 4 min) Trailhead GPS Coordinates:35.75094, -83.11004Trail Access:Heading west on I-40 to the NC-TN border, take exit 451 after crossing into Tennessee and turn left. Continue under I-40 and turn left crossing the Pigeon River, then immediately turn left onto Waterville Rd. Follow Waterville Rd 2.0 miles to the park entrance. The road name becomes Big Creek Rd at the park border, follow the gravel road 0.9-mi to the parking area.Hiking Upward link to hikeHiking Trails:Chestnut Branch Trail – Appalachian Trail – Mount Cammerer Trail – Appalachian Trail – Low Gap Trail – Big Creek TrailHike Distance:~17.8 miles Hike Configuration: Big Loop Elevation Gain: 4,360 feetHiking Time:7 hours and 50 minutesDate of Hike:05-28-16, Saturday at 11:00 AMTrail Condition: Very Good — The trails are in mostly excellent condition with the exception of the Low Gap Trail which is rocky but still much better than your average trail. Hike Difficulty:Strenuous — The initially climb is tough on the Chestnut Branch Trail. The Appalachian Trail is a more gradual climb. The rest of the day is downhill on rocks. The length more than the gradient makes this a difficult hike. Isolation:Low — I was rarely alone on this hike but that was partially due to the day I picked. On other weekends you may get a little more solitude in sections but the mountain is a popular trek all year. Highlights:Beautiful forest along Appalachian Trail, panoramic vistas from Mt. Cammerer, cascades on Big Creek Lowlights:Virtually no solitude, very rocky Low Gap Trail, Midnight Hole was far too crowded to enjoyGoogle Photos album link
You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve never had an overwhelming desire to hike in the Smokies. Our treasured national park attracts the most visitors per year of any national park in the country. Hovering just under 11 million per year, that is a lot of people. That means a lot of car traffic, a lot of confused tourists, overcrowded parking areas, and a lot of crowded trails. In fact I see the national park as a perfect magnetic field pulling tourists away from my favorite hiking areas in Pisgah National Forest. However, I’ve been banging out hikes in a 4-hour radius for years and new spots are drying up. It was time to revisit Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time since I was 9 years old. I wanted something with waterfalls and views, and preferably a loop hike. I settled on the Big Creek region because it was close to I-40 and offered two big loops to Mt. Cammerer and Mt. Sterling, and would include at least one waterfall. Both mountains have lookout towers and thus are prized peaks by peakbaggers.
For some ridiculous reason I chose to do this the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, which meant the parking lots and trails were packed. I ended up choosing the Mt. Cammerer loop because I thought it would be easier and more scenic. My plan was to hike the Chestnut Branch Trail west to connect with the Appalachian Trail where I would head south to the Mount Cammerer Trail. After visiting the historic lookout tower I would continue south on the Appalachian Trail connecting with the Low Gap Trail. This trail descends towards Walnut Bottoms where it meets Big Creek where I could take the flat Big Creek Trail back to the parking lot passing by Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole. It was a long but fantastic hike and I am itching to get back to the park as soon as possible.
Location:Roan Highlands, Pisgah & Cherokee National Forest, NC-TN Distance from Hubs: Raleigh (232 miles – 4 hours and 4 min) Charlotte (137 miles – 2 hours and 33 min) Asheville (65 miles – 1 hour and 27 min) Trail Access:Drive west on U.S. 19E from Elk Park for 6.8 mi then turn south on TN-143 driving 12.6 mi to parking at Carver’s Gap. The Appalachian Trail crosses the parking area.HikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Appalachian Trail north and south – Grassy Ridge Bald Trail side trip on the returnHike Configuration: Out and back Elevation Gain: 4,760 feetHike Distance:~19.3 miles Hiking Time: 9 hours and 15 minutes Date of Hike: 04-05-15, Sunday at 10:00 AMTrail Condition: Above Average — The first section along Round Bald is in great shape, but the trail condition quickly devolves beyond that and is trenched on many of the inclines due to traffic and lack of maintenanceHike Difficulty:Very Strenuous — The difficulty is due to overall length and not steepness. There are tough climbs up Hump Mountain, south up Grassy Ridge Bald, and north out of Yellow Mountain Gap, but none are brutally steep or technical Isolation:Average — Ease of access and Appalachian Trail means this is not for solitude, but you will see surprisingly few people beyond Grassy Ridge Bald because of the distance Highlights:What aren’t the highlights? Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge Bald, Little Hump Mountain & Hump Mountain. This is one of the finest collections of balds and views I’ve seen in the Southeast Lowlights:Muddy trail down Grassy Ridge Bald, lots of trenching and erosionGoogle+ photo album link
There were less than 15 cars parked at Carver’s Gap which I took to be a great sign. Originally I thought there would be more people hiking today. It was beautiful outside and just past 11:00 AM. When I stepped out of my car, I felt a chilling gust and immediately questioned my clothing for the hike. A couple of days prior I had seen the weather should be mid-50s and sunny and failed to check the weather the night before. Even with clear skies it was definitely in the 40s and the wind was blowing steadily. All I had were shorts, T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, pullover fleece, and my hoody I wore in the car. I made the conscious decision to bring all of my layers even though the hoody added a lot of extra weight. This reminded me that even if Spring is here, the wind and elevation can still make a hike quite cold. It had been years since I last visited the Roan Highlands, arguably the crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast. (I would personally claim Mt. Rogers as a solid 2nd place). During my last trip I backpacked to the Overmountain Shelter, day hiked to Hump Mountain, and returned the same day to Carver’s Gap. This time I was essentially doing the same trip, in one day. Not one section of this hike is extremely strenuous or technical, but it still covers more than 19 miles and that is always a tough undertaking no matter what kind of topography you encounter. I think I planned this perfectly excluding my clothing choices. And the thing about the Roan Highlands is they are freakin’ beautiful. Once you are hiking atop these open grass summits you seem to forget how many miles and how much climbing you have done. With these kind of temperatures and the lengthening Spring days it is easy to cover many miles. If you live in the Southeast you have to put this hike on your list, even if you can’t cover everything I did here.
Location:George Washington National Forest, VA Distance from Hubs: Raleigh (190 miles – 3 hours and 19 min) Greensboro (155 miles – 2 hours and 35 min) Roanoke (81 miles – 1 hour and 27 min) Trail Access:From US-29 go left on VA-151 north for 10.5-mi. Go left on VA-56 heading west for 11.7-mi into the Tye River Gorge. Look for the Crabtree Falls parking access on the left side of the road. The trail head is on the left side of the upper parking lot. There is a nominal $3 fee for day access at Crabtree Falls.Click here for information on the George Washington National ForestHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Crabtree Falls Trail – Forest Road – Appalachian Trail – Spy Rock Spur Trail – Appalachian Trail – Forest Road – Crabtree Falls TrailHike Configuration: Out and back Elevation Gain: 3,610 feetHike Distance:~13.9 miles Hiking Time: 6 hours and 25 minutes Date of Hike: 12-21-14, Sunday at 11:00 AMTrail Condition: Above Average — Crabtree Falls section is heavily used and eroded in many spots but the rest of the hike is on very good roads and trailsHike Difficulty:Strenuous — There are no steep sections along this hike but the elevation change on the Crabtree Falls Trail and Appalachian Trail are steady climbs. Isolation:High — Usually you will get a lot of company on Crabtree Falls and Spy Rock, but the hike in between receives much less traffic. On this day I only saw a few hikers, primarily due to the cold weather. Highlights:All of the beautiful waterfalls along Crabtree Creek, Fantastic 360° panorama from Spy Rock Lowlights:Forest road eroded and steep to the Appalachian TrailGoogle+ photo album link
I don’t get to Virginia enough. From afar I look down on it but when I hike there I enjoy it just as much as North Carolina. After 3 hikes I’ve come to love the mountains around VA-56. The Tye River crashes through a narrow gorge which highway 56 follows through the Blue Ridge Mountains on its way to the foothills. Around this area the Appalachian Trail crosses dramatic peaks through The Priest Wilderness and Three Ridges Wilderness, and other trails follow steep water drainages to popular or secluded waterfalls. There’s a lot to see, and trail access is easy. Crabtree Falls is billed as the highest waterfall on the East Coast. This is decidedly untrue because Crabtree Falls is actually 3 or 5 waterfalls (depending on your source), and when combined would become the tallest waterfall in the East. However, it is still an incredible series of falls that in my opinion is unrivaled in the Southeast. Beyond the top of the waterfall you can continue up a rare hanging valley to meet the Appalachian Trail. During my previous visit to the area, I hiked north to The Priest. My plan on this day was to hike south on the Appalachian Trail to Spy Rock, an incredible rock dome with 360° views. You can easily be satisfied with a short hike to either Crabtree Falls or Spy Rock but I love combining trails for a long day. If you are looking for a hike in this area of Virginia, Crabtree Falls is the place you should start.
Location:Grayson Highlands State Park, Mouth of Wilson, VA Distance from Triangle: Chapel Hill/Durham (180 miles – 3 hr 13 min) Raleigh (205 miles – 3 hr 36 min) Fees: $4 weekday – $5 weekendTrail Access:From Mouth of Wilson, drive 11.7 miles west on U.S. 58 and take a right at the state park entrance on VA-362. Drive 3.3-mi and take a right towards the Hickory Ridge campground. In 1.3-mi you will come across two small parking areas on the right for the amphitheater and the restrooms, either works. The trail is across the street on the left side. Park information and trail map can be found hereWEBSITEHikingUpward link to hikeHiking Trails:Wilson Creek Trail – Seed Orchard Road – Scales Trail – Appalachian Trail – First Peak Trail – Kabel Trail – Big Wilson Creek Trail – Upchurch Road – Wilson Creek Trail Hike Configuration: Loop Elevation Gain: 2,568 feet (2,247 feet theoretical)Hike Distance:~14.4 miles (13.1-mi theoretical)Hiking Time: 7 hours Date of Hike: 9-28-14, Sunday at 11:30 AMTrail Condition: Below average — The horse trails in the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness section are either rocky or muddy, mostly in bad conditionHike Difficulty:Moderately Strenuous — This hike does not have any tough elevation gain but the trail condition puts a beating on your feet and legs Significant Stream Crossings:4 – the last one over Wilson Creek will usually be wetIsolation: Very high — The first half of the hike I saw a couple of groups on the AT but saw no one in the wilderness Highlights:Cascades and waterfalls on Wilson Creek, amazing vistas on Stone Mountain Lowlights:No views in the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness, terrible rock and mud slog on the horse trails, very confusing trail intersections along Big Wilson Creek Trail Google+ photo album link
The day did not end as expected. I spent a wonderful hour exploring cascades and waterfalls along Wilson Creek before meandering up Stone Mountain taking in the panoramic views. Despite being chased away from my lunch spot by an irritated wild pony, the fall colors and perfect temperatures made it a great hike so far. Per norm the sights in Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area exceeded expectations. That changed beyond Stone Mountain as I entered the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. What followed was a boring and sometimes painful 3.5 hours of hiking through the quagmire of horse trails in the wilderness. These trails were always extremely rocky, and at times very muddy. To end the day I slipped in Wilson Creek and ended up wading the creek and Wilburn Branch multiple times as I got lost trying to connect the Big Wilson Creek Trail to Upchurch Road. I eventually found my way out though after a few trial and errors and lots of exploratory running.
So, to summarize – the first half of this hike was awesome and the second half left a lot to be desired. My hiking plan was to take the Wilson Creek Trail from the Hickory Ridge campground/amphitheater parking in Grayson Highlands State Park then connect to the Appalachian Trail north towards Scales compound. From there I would loop around through the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness via First Peak, Kabel, Big Wilson Creek, and Upchurch Road trails. This loop is 13.1 miles without getting lost – I hiked 14.4 miles – but I would recommend turning around at the summit of Stone Mountain and taking an easier return trip. I also was trying out my new footwear combination of La Sportiva Ultra Raptor’s and Mont-Bell Stretch Short Spats (gaiters). They worked really well but I’ll need to try them a few more times before I write reviews.
Location:Grayson Highlands State Park, Mouth of Wilson, VA Distance from Triangle: Chapel Hill/Durham (180 miles – 3 hr 13 min) Raleigh (205 miles – 3 hr 36 min) Fees: $4 weekday – $5 weekendTrail Access:From Mouth of Wilson, drive 11.7 miles west on U.S. 58 and take a right at the state park entrance on VA-362. Drive 3.4-mi to the Massie Gap parking area. The trail head is at the overnight backpacker lot on the group campground road. You will have to pay a fee at the park entrance. Park information and trail map can be found hereWEBSITEHikingUpward link to hike Hiking Trails:Appalachian Spur Trail – Appalachian Trail north – Pine Mountain Trail – Appalachian Trail south to Thomas Knob Shelter then turn around and hike north – Wilburn Ridge Trail – Appalachian Trail north – Rhododendron Trail Trail Condition: Very good — AT maintained very well, Pine Mountain Trail close to Rhododendron Gap is overgrown and the Wilburn Ridge area is very rocky on the Wilburn Ridge Trail and AT Hike Configuration: Loop plus out-and-back Elevation Gain: 2,225 feetHike Distance:~14.2 miles Hiking Time: 6.75 hours Date of Hike: 7-6-14, Sunday at 11:40 AMHike Difficulty:Strenuous — There are not many difficult stretches but the hike is long, Wilburn Ridge is very rocky Isolation: Average — The first half of the hike is generally isolated but there are more people around Mt. Rogers and Wilburn Ridge Highlights:Open vistas on Stone Mountain, Pine Mountain Trail approach towards Lewis Fork Trail, Thomas Knob Shelter, Wilburn Ridge Lowlights:Extremely overgrown final stretch on Pine Mountain Trail, lack of interesting creeks, Wilburn Ridge Trail all rocks Google+ photo album link
It was the perfect day to visit a spot I hadn’t hiked in years. I have backpacked here twice in March 2010 and October 2010 but never a day hike. I drove out to Grayson Highlands State Park planning to do a big loop in the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. Most of the hike would be on trails I’ve never touched and I was excited because it was sunny and mid-70s. Once I got started though and started ascending Stone Mountain towards Scales, I could not resist doing a loop I did years ago backpacking. The views and weather were too good to pass up. I started at the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands State Park and took the Appalachian Trail north past Scales before using the Pine Mountain Trail to form a loop with the AT. After a quick out-and-back to the Thomas Knob Shelter I trekked over Wilburn Ridge and said hi to some ponies on my way to the car. This loop hike is one of the best hikes in the Southeast and everyone should try to experience at least a portion of this area.