Little Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Maggie Valley
This beautiful 6-mile round-trip hike through large, open woods follows mostly gentle terrain and leads past several historic sites, including an old log cabin, two family cemeteries, and a charming white clapboard church dating to the 1880s that sits on a grassy knoll overlooking the surrounding forest. It makes a great picnic spot. Make sure to ring the church bell and have a look inside.
Little Cataloochee was once home to a community of early mountain settlers and farmers prior to the creation of the national park. The Cook Cabin is a short distance past the church. Turn around here and go back the way you came.
Directions: From Maggie Valley or Waynesville, take U.S. 276 north toward Interstate 40. Just before the Interstate, take a left of Cove Creek Road. It winds and climbs up the mountain and then crosses into the national park and starts back down the mountain. Upon reaching the valley floor, turn right (toward Big Creek/Cosby/Mt. Sterling). Drive the dirt road for 6 miles. The trail is on the left with a gate across it.
Pinnacle Park, Sylva
Whether you make it all the way to the Pinnacle, hiking this 1,100 acre preserve just outside Sylva is a great nearby hike.
The 7-mile roundtrip trail follows Fisher Creek up the side of the mountain, for a nearly constant uphill slog. But take it slow and steady, enjoying the cascading stream, and you’ll eventually reach the ridge and the rocky summit that gives the Pinnacle its name and affords stunning views. A small pond and dam near the bottom is evidence of the tract’s history as a drinking water source for the town of Sylva. It takes more than 2,500 feet of climbing to reach the Pinnacle, which itself sits above 5,000 feet. If headed for the top, turn left when the trail forks about 2/3 of the way to the top.
Directions: From downtown Sylva, take Skyland Drive east and turn left onto Fisher Creek Road. The parking area is at the end of Fisher Creek Road.
Oconaluftee River Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee
This flat, easy 3-mile roundtrip trail follows the wide, flowing Oconaluftee River. A series of well-done bulletin boards share Cherokee history, culture and mythology along the way, along with benches overlooking the river. The reward is even sweeter than most hikes: the trail emerges from the national park just a stone’s throw from ice cream, fudge and souvenir shops in Cherokee. Check out the Mountain Farm Museum and the Smokies visitor center exhibits before or after the hike.
Directions: From Cherokee, take U.S. 441 north. Just inside the entrance to the national park, turn into the visitor center parking lot. Trail begins to the left of the visitor center.
Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest, Cashiers
This 6,000 acre preserve is known as the Yosemite of the East for the granite domes that punctuate the intimate valley riddled with rushing streams. There are lot of trails, and lots of waterfalls, but Schoolhouse Falls and the large swimming hole at its base is one of the more biggest and most popular. You can walk behind the waterfall, or stand under it like a shower.
The roughly 4-mile roundtrip trail to get there is fairly gentle with lots of side trails. Be careful — it’s easy to get lost if you take too many detours.
From the trailhead, follow the gravel road that takes off on the other side of a gate. You’ll go about two miles on this trail, this first of which is a gradual descent to the floor of Panthertown Valley. You will pass a few trail junctions, but stay straight. It is fairly obvious that the trail you are on is the main one.
In a couple miles, take a right and walk down a short spur trail to reach the falls.
Directions: From Sylva, take N.C. 107 south toward Cashiers. When you reach Lake Glenville, make a left on Bee Tree. (If coming from the Cashiers direction, make a right on Bee Tree.) Make a right on Cedar Creek Road. It will soon turn to gravel. Make a left on Breedlove as it turns back to pavement. Breedlove dead-ends at the trailhead.
Horsepasture River Trail, Nantahala National Forest, Cashiers
This 5-mile roundtrip hike in Sapphire offers outstanding views of three large, stunning waterfalls: the 125-foot Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls and Drift Falls.
The trail starts inside Gorges State Park, but then crosses into the national forest. The first portion of the trail leads down to the river. Once you get to the river, turn right.
Never swim, wade or attempt to cross the rive above a waterfall. It’s easy to lose your footing. A few people die this way every year in WNC by falling over waterfalls.
Directions: The trailhead is located approximately 10 miles east of Cashiers. Go east on U.S. 64 and then south on N.C. 281 at Sapphire. Go 0.8 mile and turn left into Gorges State Park. Go 1.6 miles to a parking lot on the right side with a kiosk.
Sunset Rock Trail, Highlands‐Cashiers Land Trust preserve, Highlands
This 1.3-mile roundtrip trail leads from the Highlands Nature Center and follows a gravel road most of the way to the summit, where you pick up a short trail. Turn right to walk out to Sunset Rock for a view overlooking the town of Highlands and the surrounding mountains. Fork left for a view of the Highlands Plateau escarpment and Horse Cove Valley.
Directions: From Highlands, travel east on Main Street for half a mile. The street name will change to Horse Cove Road. Park across the street from the Highlands Nature Center.
Hazel Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City
This hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park leads from the shore of Fontana Lake through a remote, backcountry wilderness, pocked by historic sites such as family cemeteries left over from Appalachian settlements that existed here prior to the park’s creation.
Perhaps the best part about the hike is getting there by taking a boat shuttle across the lake, saving what would otherwise be an overnight backpacking trip.
The trail is also the site of a once-bustling logging town in the early 1900s. A few traces of its existence still linger as well, such as the site of one of the saw mills and the ruins of a drying kiln.
Hike in as far as you like — whether 2 miles or 8 miles — and then just turn back. The trail is gradual.
It is $50 for a roundtrip shuttle on a boat across Fontana Lake from Fontana Marina. 828.498.2129.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Nantahala National Forest, Robbinsville
The 2-mile “figure‐ eight” loop goes through a magnificent stand of giant, old-growth trees that soar like a forested cathedral. The 1.25‐mile lower loop passed the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque; the upper 0.75‐mile loop passes through Poplar cove, a stand of tulip poplar that are over 100 feet tall and up to 20 feet in circumference.
Directions: Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is approximately 15 miles west of Robbinsville. From Robbinsville, take US 129 North for 1.5 miles. Turn left on N.C. 143 and go approximately 5 miles. Turn right to continue on N.C. 143 for another 7.3 miles. Turn right on Joyce Kilmer Road and continue on go 2.5 miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.