Save Your Summer! Backpacking

Last week when we said, “Yikes, look at the calendar! It’s August 6 a’ready!” it was only August 6.
Today, it’s August 12!
Yikes! we say again, but with more urgency. Where has the summer gone?
The good news is that it’s not gone yet. In fact, you’ve got four weekends until the traditional end of summer — Labor Day — and six weekends until the technical end of summer with the autumnal equinox. There’s plenty of time left to get in an adventure or two, plenty of time to live a good tale to regale guests with at your Labor Day cookout.
Plenty of time to Save Your Summer.
As we mentioned last week, over the next few days we’ll offer suggestions for last-minute adventures that are easy to pull off yet yield a high AQ (Adventure Quotient). We’ll cover the four main adventure groups: Paddling, Backpacking, Camping and Hiking. Mix and match, or stick with your favorite. We’re confident you’ll find at least one adventure you can pull off before it really is too late.
Last week, we started with hiking. Today, backpacking. Here are five weekend trips, all guaranteed to be doable in two nights, all guaranteed to Save Your Summer.

Appalachian Trail, Round Bald

Appalachian Trail, Round Bald

1. Appalachian Trail: Carvers Gap to US 19E
Roan Mountain area / Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests
14 miles (one way; shuttle required)

This trip makes the top five list for most North Carolina backpackers. There’s more great scenery on this 14-mile stretch than you’ll find on any other 14 miles of trail, in North Carolina or the Southeast. Hiking south to north, you begin with three balds — Jane, Round and Grassy — in less than a mile. Views to the east as far as the Black Mountains, views to the west to the Cumberland Gap. For the next several miles you’re in and out of tunnels of mountain ash interspersed with ridgeline views. At about the nine-mile mark, just when you thought it couldn’t get much better, the AT climbs Little Hump and Hump mountains, more balds, more spectacular views (take a break atop Hump Mountain and see how many ridges you can count disappearing into the west). Camping options are many. There are two shelters — Stan Murray and the spacious Overmountain barn — and numerous places to pitch a tent. Creeks aren’t abundant — much of this section is above 5,500 feet — but it’s not an issue, either: there are at least six springs alone along the way. Check with Mountain Harbour B&B for a shuttle.
More info: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 23.

Shining Rock Gap

Shining Rock Gap

2. Shining Rock via Ivestor Gap
Shining Rock Wilderness Area / Pisgah National Forest
4-mile backpack in, various day-hike options

Like the idea of getting away from your fellow humans but not crazy about lugging 35 pounds on your back everywhere you go? From the Forest Service parking lot at the end of FS 816 off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 420, head north on the Ivestor Gap Trail. Four miles in, you’ll find yourself at the doorstep to the Shining Rock Wilderness, open high-country meadows and plenty of spots to pitch camp. Once base camp is established, grab your day pack for some of the best hiking in North Carolina. Shining Rock offers great scrambling and views, then continue north along the Shining Rock Ledge to Deep Gap and there’s a spur up to 6,030-foot Cold Mountain, of Charles Frazier fame. Hiking one of three trails east takes you down rocky terrain to the Pigeon River, head south on the Art Loeb Trail and hang a left at the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to explore the eerily beautiful Graveyard Fields, or go west into the Sam Knob area and beyond that, the Middle Prong Wilderness. This route stays high, so water can be an issue. Also: because of ongoing bear activity, canisters are currently required.
More info: Shining Rock Wilderness, HikeWNC.info, “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 15.

3. Panthertown Valley
Cashiers
1-mile backpack in, 30 miles of day-hike options beyond

Exposure in Panthertown Valley

Exposure in Panthertown Valley

You should always have a map when you go backpacking; if you don’t have a map in Panthertown Valley, you could be in for one of the longest trips of your life. Which is somewhat ironic considering that Panthertown is a relatively compact 6,700 acres (10,000 acres if you include adjoining forest). Even with 30 miles of trail, you’d think you’d have to work hard to get lost; however, very few of the trails are marked. If you’re good with a compass and orient yourself well with recognizable landmarks, you might be fine. Otherwise, invest the $12 in Burt Kornegay’s invaluable “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown, Bonas Defeat, and Big Pisgah,” and go forth with confidence. This, of course, after your speedy, mile-long descent into the valley where you’ll find campsites aplenty close to Panthertown Creek. The day-hike options are too numerous to mention, but will expose you to some great waterfalls (Schoolhouse is a favorite) and great views, especially from atop Big Green and Little Green mountains. Got a fly rod? Bring it; Panthertown Creek is known for its trout waters.
More info: Friends of Panthertown Valley, “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 42.

4. Appalachian Trail: James River to Punchbowl Mountain
Lynchburg, Va.
20 miles (round trip)

Appalachian Trail west of Lynchburg, Va.

Appalachian Trail west of Lynchburg, Va.

Everyone from the Triangle wants to hike the Appalachian Trail. But when they realize that in North Carolina the AT is about as far west as it gets, the prospect of a five- to six-hour drive gets them thinking of closer destinations. What they often don’t realize is that you can pick up the AT a whole lot closer to home — in about three hours — in Virginia. In fact, the AT just west of Lynchburg is the closest true Southern Appalachian experience to the Triangle, period. And it’s one good experience. From the trail access near the James River, the AT gains 1,625 feet in a little over two miles. It’s some serious dues paying, but once you reach Fullers Rocks, the heavy lifting (and breathing) is pretty much done. From there, its 3.5 miles of hiking along Big Rocky Row, through Saddle and Salt Log gaps, and around Silas Knob before a less severe climb up Bluff Mountain and stellar views east, north and west. A mellow descent takes you to the Punch Bowl Shelter, which makes for a nice overnight. Water is scarce from the mile-mark until Punch Bowl, so plan accordingly (and while there is a spring at Punch Bowl, it’s unprotected and needs treating). You can either return the whole way on the AT, or take alternate trails down the mountain at Salt Log and Saddle gaps.
More info: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

5. Deep Creek Loop | Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Bryson City
13.5 miles

Campsite on the Deep Creek loop in the Smokies

Campsite on the Deep Creek loop in the Smokies

Gotta get a Smokies trip in here. While it’s true that there are challenging backcountry escapes that penetrate deep into the rugged Smokies, it’s also true that there are multiple opportunities to stick to the fringes and get a taste of this national treasure. One such opportunity is the Deep Creek Loop. From the trailhead, head up the old roadbed along Deep Creek. If it’s summer, don’t be alarmed by the legions of tubers walking in step; they’re only going about a mile up. You, on the other hand, will continue in solitude along Deep Creek on this foot-friendly trail. You’ll find your first dedicated campsite a little over 2.5 miles in, three more between miles five and six, all along the water. (Note: backcountry campsites in the Smokies are by reservation; 865.436.1200 for details.) Six miles in, take the Martins Gap Trail for a somewhat challenging (though not long) climb, to the trail’s namesake geographic feature, then return on the Sunkota Ridge Trail. There’s plenty of water along the first six miles, along the last mile or so as well. To turn this trip into a base-camp hike, establish roots at one of the three sites between miles five and six and explore any of several trails taking you deeper into the Smokies.
More info: “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 42.

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Check out our other Save Your Summer adventures: