Summer is ideal for hiking the Southern Appalachians. Sunny skies, temperatures 15 to 20 degrees cooler than in the flatlands, bracing mountain streams, pools and waterfalls for your frolicking pleasure. Even those afternoon thunderstorms: they add a sense of adventure that makes you feel even more alive than usual on the trail.
As summer gets underway — unofficially with Memorial Day weekend, officially with the summer solstice on June 20 — we suggest 5 mountain hikes that you simply shouldn’t pass up this summer. Some we recommend for their views, some for their wetness factor, some for their cool breezes, all for their stellar scenery.
1. Black Mountain Crest Trail
Mount Mitchell State Park
Highlight: cool cold, views
Last June, after a run of 100-degree days in the Triangle, our GetHiking! group took a hike on the Black Mountain Crest Trail: temperature at the start — 44 degrees and it barely got into the 60s. Not surprising since much of this trail is above 6,000 feet, making it perhaps the coolest spot in the South. Temperatures in the 70s are unusual and the smart hiker will pack a fleece, hat and even gloves for a summer visit. From the main parking lot below the Mount Mitchell summit, head north over rugged terrain more reflective of the Canadian woods than the Southern Apps. Though the trail runs 13 miles, an ambitious hike will take you 3.5 miles, over six 6,000-foot peaks, to Cattail Peak. That’s a 7-mile roundtrip, a challenging 7-mile roundtrip.
More info here
2. Shining Rock Wilderness
Pisgah National Forest west of Mount Pisgah
From the Black Balsam Access of the Blue Ridge Parkway (Milepost 420.2), a vast trail network fans out exposing you to some of the most exposed hiking in the Southeast. Take a short, but grueling spur up to the Art Loeb Trail and enjoy 360-degree views from Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam, pick up the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and head either west to the Middle Prong Wilderness (isolated and peaceful) or east to Graveyard Fields (waterfalls), or take the Ivestor Gap Trail about 4 miles into the 18,500-acre Shining Rock Wilderness, where you can scramble atop white quartzite outcrops, then continue on to the famous Cold Mountain. Big advantage: because you start at 5,840 feet, there’s not a lot of climbing.
More info here
3. Carvers Gap: Three Balds Hike
Appalachian Trail, North Carolina/Tennessee line
The 14-mile stretch of Appalachian Trail from Carvers Gap north to US 19E may be the most heavily backpacked stretch of the AT in the state. Deservedly so: the trail is known for its abundant views, but even it’s occasional retreats into cozy runs of mountain ash and rhododendron are likewise enchanting. You needn’t hike the entire 14 miles to appreciate this stretch. Rather, from Carvers Gap head north on the AT and in less than 2 miles top Jane and Round balds, then head out on the equally exposed Grassy Ridge. It is one ongoing view on this stretch; on a sunny summer’s day there is no better place to hike.
More info here
4. Mountains-to-Sea Trail: Boone Fork Parking area to Trout Lake
Blue Ridge Parkway, Blowing Rock area
Highlight: mellow trail, subtle beauty
Every once in a while you find yourself midway through a hike when a sudden realization occurs: Man, is this gorgeous! It comes out of the blue, in part because it’s not a trail touted for its stunning beauty. We find the entire 88-mile run of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along the Blue Ridge Parkway from Grandfather Mountain north to the Devil’s Garden Overlook falls into this category, particularly, the 12-mile stretch from the Boone Fork Parking Area north to Trout Lake. Start in a majestic old growth forest, emerge into rolling pastures, walk along (and in) Bee Creek, cross Boone Fork and enjoy the falls, enter more old growth. A little long for your liking? Cut it short at Holloway Mountain Road for a hike just under 4 miles.
More info at the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website here and here.
5. Panthertown Valley
Highlight: waterfalls, views
The trick in exploring this 10,000-acre oasis of woods and water, called by some (mostly tourism types, but still … ) the Yosemite of the East, is making sense of the 30 miles of trail. So much to see, so many opportunities to get discombobulated. That’s why we like this 5-mile loop suggested by RomanticAsheville.com. Start at the Cold Mountain Gap parking area and start with a gradual descent into the valley on an old logging road. Shortly, you’re at the 30-foot Schoolhouse Falls, which empties into a generous swimming hole. Follow that with a climb up 4,040-foot Little Green Mountain, a sloping rock slab with long views of the valley and great napping potential. Hike on and you’ll come across the 60-foot Greenland Creek Falls. Lots of scenic bang for a 5-mile hike.
More info here