Two years ago we published a list of our Top 10 Secret Summer Adventures. But you know what? Once you publish a secret, it’s no longer a secret.
Well, occasionally a secret stays kept. But for the most part, once you make a great secret adventure know, it ceases being a secret. So today we revise that list, updating three of our original 10 that we think still continue to fly under the radar and adding seven new ones (that we’re sure we’ll need to swap out in another couple years).
So again, here are 10 of our favorite off-the-beaten path adventures that you should take this summer.
- Pond Mountain, Ashe County. Hiking, views. There’s not much publicly accessible land in the northern mountains of North Carolina, but when you find some, whoa boy! This 2,900-acre tract atop Ashe County comes as a big surprise after navigating back road after backroad — and then some dirt roads. Atop a high plateau this vast, exposed area has views of three states (North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia), including some of the region’s most prominent peaks. It’s a bit like exploring the Southwest, where the views go on and on. Foot travel is via old roadbeds, that add to the Old West, hitch-your-wagon feel. Thank the Blue Ridge Conservancy and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for this adventure. Your best bet to get there: plug these GPS coordinates into your phone: 36.550324, -81.641862
- Appalachian Trail: Hump Mountain, Elk Park. Hiking, views. You need to work for this one, but it’s work well worth the effort, and not without it’s own rewards. Start on the AT from the pullout parking area (or stop a half mile up the road at Station 19E and see if Dave will run you down) and start a gentle climb through mature Southern Appalachian hardwoods that steepens below Doll Flats. More hiking (it’s 5 miles total), a rocky stretch, then one last push up this massive bald to the summit of 5,587-foot Hump. A 360-degree view, including a western perspective of Grandfather Mountain that underscores the massif’s awe. Learn more here.
- South Mountains State Park, Connelly Springs. Hiking, waterfalls. A holdover from our previous list. Still, when we mention South Mountains we get a deer-in-the-headlights look. Hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, waterfalls. How the largest state park in North Carolina (at 18,400 acres) remains a secret is hard to figure. Some Charlotte explorers are tuned in, but unless you live nearby, odds are you’ve never heard of South Mountains and its 40 miles of trail, its six backcountry camping areas, its 80-foot waterfall and its trout fishing. If you’re looking to get away, it’s a natural. More info here.
- South Harper Creek Falls, Wilson Creek area of the Pisgah National Forest, Mortimer. Hiking, waterfalls. Wilson Creek proper, every flyfisher, tuber, whitewater kayaker and local picnicker knows. A few more are familiar with Gragg Prong, Hunt-fish Falls, the Lost Cove area of Wilson Creek. But few venture down the deadens NC 58 to explore the dizzying drop of South Harper Falls, a two-stage drop that plunges maybe 30 feet into a small depression, then disappears over an edge you don’t dare crawl to explore (rather, continue hiking the Harper Creek Trail (the trail you came in on), which rises above the falls). About a 3.5-mile out-and-back. Learn more here.
- Mountains-to-Sea Trail: Boone Fork Parking Area to Price Lake. Linville. Hiking, paddling. Another holdover, this stretch is part of the 91-mile run of the MST from Grandfather Mountain to Devil’s Garden Overlook and is best known for its rugged beauty. Yet one of the most beautiful stretches begins at the Boone Fork Parking area (Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 299.9) and quietly meanders through an old growth forest and wanders through small meadows before reaching Price Lake. It’s a 5-mile ramble with an easy shuttle, not to mention canoe rentals on the lake. More info here.
- Johns River Gorge, Blowing Rock. Hiking. If you’re familiar with the Blowing Rock area, you might be scratching your head over the prospect of a trail on the east edge of town that drops about 1,200 feet in just 2 miles. And yet, this switchback trail descends, descends, descends through mature hardwoods until it reaches China Creek and Thunderhole Falls. The crazy thing? You can keep hiking down, down, down into the land that paved roads forgot. Learn more here.
- Weed Patch Mountain, Lake Lure. Hiking, backpacking. The Hickory Nut Gorge area encompassing Lake Lure, Chimney Rock State Park and a passel of other playgrounds is growing like topsy, with plans to build trail around the entire length of the horse-shoe-shaped gorge. Anchoring the gorge’s north rim: the 10-mile Weed Patch Mountain Trail, extending from Buffalo Creek Park outside Lake Lure west to Eagle Rock. At 20 miles roundtrip, it has good backpack potential. Learn more here.
- Upper French Broad River, Rosman. Hiking, fly-fishing. Most of us are familiar with the French Broad River starting around Asheville, where it’s already become a wide, roiling mass of water. But upstream a ways, quite a ways, near Rosman it’s a feisty sprite of a river that’s a fun paddle even for beginners. The first 10 miles are also designated trout waters. In short, it’s a waterway not to be overlooked. Learn more here.
- John Rock Trail Loop, Pisgah National Forest, Davidson River area. Hiking. With so many miles of trail in the Pisgah, it’s easy for even the best to be overlooked. Speaking of overlooks, it’s the perch atop John Rock, about midway through this 5-mile lollipop loop, that makes this hike a winner. Just about the right length on most people’s books for a day hike, with a perfect lunch spot in the middle. And, you start from a fish hatchery, which is pretty interesting on its own. Learn more here.
- Elk Knob State Park, Todd. Hiking. Our last holdover, again, based on the number of blank stares when we suggest a visit. From the 5,520-foot summit of Elk Knob you can practically throw a rock into Tennessee. You can also see a who’s who of Southeastern mountains, from Whitetop and Mount Rogers in Virginia, to Grandfather, Hawksbill and Mount Mitchell in North Carolina. And the hike up through a northern hardwood forest is testament to how accessible well-designed trails can make a peak. More info here.