It was Labor Day weekend, and as amateur hikers she and her husband Lenny were ill prepared for the trek. There were odds and ends dangling out of their backpacks. She didn’t bring a pad to sleep on, and the pack didn’t fit well.
“We came home and we said, ‘We did this all wrong,’” she said.
Six months later, they found an advertisement for a hiking club and decided to improve their outdoor skills.
“That’s when we really got hooked,” she said.
Working as a computer science professor and software developer, Bernstein enjoyed the planning details of a hike, but the outdoors also gave her a chance to get out of the office and gaze beyond the computer screen.
In the early ‘70s, she and her husband started doing hiking challenges in New England, earning patches for climbing to the tops of mountains. One of the challenges was the New Hampshire 4,000-footers — and she hiked up to the top of all 48.
It wasn’t a race. She took her time climbing the peaks, learning to savor the journey and not just the destination.
“I’d like to think hiking is not a competitive sport,” Bernstein said. “You have your lifetime to do them.”
Now she’s turned decades of hiking experience into an easy-to-follow guide book called Hiking in the Carolinas (Milestone Press), a handy paperback full of tips, maps, and directions for going on 57 day hikes throughout Western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina. Bernstein has personally logged all of the hikes she recommends in her book and backs them up with fun facts, history, observations and a glossary of hiking terms and resources about joining hiking groups. There’s even an index on books and movies related to hiking.
The challenge with coming up with a book full of hikes, Bernstein explained, was to offer up a mix of popular destinations like Graveyard Fields and Clingmans Dome but also include places like the Panthertown Loop in Jackson County where there are little-known waterfalls off the tourist’s trail. The book features rugged day hikes like Cold Mountain which rises 3,500 feet in elevation as well as easier, shorter hikes like the old-growth woods of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest which includes a trail with a mere 400 feet in elevation. The hikes in the book range from Mt. Mitchell west to the Tennessee line and from Roan Mountain in the north to upstate South Carolina.
The project of putting all these hikes together in a 355-page reference guide was a seven-day-a-week job for a several months. Bernstein looked over about 100 hikes and pared them down with the criteria of scenic locations, rich history, and a smattering of long and short hikes with varying degrees of difficulty spread out through much of Western North Carolina.
About a third of the hikes are six miles or less and another third are six to nine miles. Armed with a global positioning system, maps, a camera and a tape recorder, Bernstein hiked the trails, commenting on what she saw and what would-be hikers would need to know. She then transcribed her notes and culled through what she thought were the best clearly marked and accessible hikes. The results include national park and national forest trails, some with waterfall views, others with majestic mountain ridge vistas, some with rare plants or cemeteries as their highlights, and eight hikes in upstate South Carolina. It’s a comprehensive collection that is sure to become a standard guide in the backpacks of new and experienced Western North Carolina hikers.
Every Hike Is Different
There are more than 2,000 miles of maintained trails in Western North Carolina, and Bernstein wants to make sure people take advantage of the natural beauty of these paths.
If people had a chance to climb to the top of mountains, surely we could solve the drug problem of people seeking thrills, Bernstein said. If you want thrills, seek the trails.
And every time you hike, it’s different, she adds. It’s the people you go with and what you bring with you.
Mountains are more than scenery, Bernstein will tell you. They are an integral part of who we are, part of the culture that has existed here for thousands of years, the diversity of life that continues to thrive around us.
When it comes to mountains, it’s not just getting to the top.
“You have to enjoy the small things that you see on the way to the top,” Bernstein said.
Her book not only gives people plenty of reasons to hike. It also supplies helpful advice for beginners — for example, knowing what kinds of clothes are appropriate to wear.
“When you’re a new hiker, you overdress,” Bernstein said.
The key is to wear layers, and she usually goes in shorts, knowing she’ll warm up along the way.
“Jeans are the worst thing,” she added, since they hold moisture. In the summer, that means you’ll be hot and sweaty. In the winter, that moisture can turn your body even colder.
Instead, she recommends wearing synthetic clothes that wick or “breathe” through the fabric and don’t hold on to your body’s moisture. Shorts will give you more mobility.
For novices and experienced hikers alike, Bernstein recommends getting involved with a local hiking group. It’s a great way to meet new friends and share the experiences.
Bernstein also encourages hikers to get out past the popular trail sites and beat the crowds by starting your hiking day early. That way if you happen to get lost, you’ve got more daylight hours to find your way to safety.
Along the way, you never know what you’ll find.
Bernstein recalled one time when she was out hiking toward Mt. Sterling when she heard a rustling in the woods.
“This is it,” she thought to herself, imagining she’d come upon a huge bear.
But it turned out to be a man. She still laughs about that one.
A Life on the Trails
In addition to hiking in states along the East Coast, Bernstein has hiked in California and throughout Europe.
As a college professor, she had two sabbaticals in New Zealand.
“And I made good use of it,” she said, having completed nine of the major trails in that island country.
In the 1980s, when she lived in Europe, she hiked from town to town in England and also ventured into Scandinavia and France.
But as plenty of experienced hikers will tell you, Western North Carolina is a hiker’s mecca. When she was living in New Jersey, she and her husband would take weekends to hike sections of the Appalachian Trail. They jokingly proclaimed their motto as “Georgia to Maine in 25 years,” and it took about that long. No doubt, driving got to be a bit much. Georgia, which is the bottom end of the Trail, was more than a day’s drive from her home. She and her husband would walk the A.T. in three-week chunks, and that’s how they discovered Asheville.
“Basically, we moved here for the hiking,” Bernstein said.
The couple resettled in May of 2001 — literally just after she handed in her last grades as a professor.
In no time, she joined up with the Carolina Mountain Club after doing a little homework as one might seek out churches after moving to a new area. With members from throughout Western North Carolina and from as far away as Raleigh, Charlotte and South Carolina, the club has a steady membership and is one of the longest-running clubs that maintains the Appalachian Trail.
Bernstein fell in love with the diversity of flowers found along the hiking trails in Western North Carolina. In New Jersey, she admits she never was into flowers.
“Here, you can’t help but learn about the flowers,” she said.
At Hemphill Bald, for example, you can sample 50 different types of flowers in May. And to behold a meadow full of trillium is like walking into a fairy tale.
“Everything here depends on the altitude,” she explained.
From the beginning of March in South Carolina, spring works its way up the mountains like a reverse avalanche of green.
And beyond the scenic beauty is the rich history — the Cherokee culture, the Scotch-Irish legacy and the evidence of artifacts, buildings and monuments.
Along with the mountain vistas and graceful trees, Bernstein says she treasures ever chimney, every railroad spike, and every cabin she passes.
Now she works as hike leader for the Carolina Mountain Hikers and occasionally teaches hiking classes.
She’s climbed all 40 of the 6,000-foot mountains in the Southeast, she’s hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and now her latest challenge is to hike all 900 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She has about 200 miles to go. Unlike the linear A.T. or the summit hikes in New Hampshire, the Great Smokies challenge requires going through a network of trails, crisscrossing back and forth through similar terrain.
“I feel incredibly lucky,” she said, having had the experiences of hiking some of the most beautiful trails in the world.
Now her new book gives her the opportunity to share a part of these wonderful experiences. Her Western North Carolina book signings began in April and continue throughout the month of May with stops at bookstores in Waynesville, Sylva, Hayesville and Highlands. For more information, go to www.milestonepress.com.