There are hikes for all kinds — climbs along the rocks to a high mountain waterfalls, casual strolls to expansive mountain views, all-day treks out into the wilderness and brisk jaunts to perfect picnic places. Wherever you go, trying making part of your hike a “soft walk.” Tread quietly and use your senses to experience the world around you without talking. If you see something worth pointing out, communicate without speech. The process will help you tune in to nature and how it communicates with us.
When hiking, you know best what you’re looking for and what you’re capable of — injuries happen when you take on too much or get too tired. Find a hike that suits your tastes and skills.
• Panthertown Valley — Panthertown Valley is a 6,700-acre area in the Nantahala National Forest. It’s been nicknamed the “Yosemite of the East” and is home to granite domes, waterfalls, valley floors and rare high altitude bogs, as well as the headwaters for Greenland and Panthertown Creeks and the East Fork of the Tuckasegee River. Trails abound and primitive overnight camping and catch-and-release fishing is allowed. There are several entrances to Panthertown Valley, but the most accessible route is as follows: Approximately two miles east of Cashiers on U.S. 64, turn left or north on Cedar Creek Road (SR 1120). Continue on Cedar Creek Road 2.2 miles. Bear right or northeast on Nicholson Lane (SR 1121). Continue 3.4 miles on SR 1121 to a flat parking area at a gap where the National Forest boundary begins. The access road from the gap makes an excellent foot travel path. No motor vehicles are allowed beyond this point. For more information, contact the Highlands Ranger District at 828.526.3765.
• Horsepasture River Trail — This out and back three-mile hike in Sapphire offers outstanding view of four large waterfalls and good camping along the way. The trail can be a little gnarly. Use extreme caution when viewing waterfalls, particularly Rainbow Falls, which can be viewed from the top. Falls are slippery and that closer look just isn’t worth the type of injuries that may occur. The trailhead is located approximately 10 miles east of Cashiers. Turn south on U.S. 64 and N.C. 281 at Sapphire. Parking for the trailhead is about 1 mile on the left. The parking area is now of the Gorges State Park.
• Boogerman Trail — This 3.8 mile loop hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park takes you past old growth hemlocks and Robert “Booger” Palmer’s home place (hence the name). There’s plenty of creek views and wildflowers. Nearly a mile in, you’ll see a sing for Boogerman Trail. To avoid a relentless and steep climb, continue further up Caldwell Fork Trail and take the upper loop of Boogerman Trail. The hike begins near the Cataloochee campground. Drive past the campground about 500 feet and park in the next to the footbridge. This is an unofficial parking area and fills up quickly on the weekends. You may have to park on the road.
• Wayah Bald — Located near Franklin in Macon County, this paved trail suitable for the handicapped leads to the Wayah Bald lookout tower, which is a National Historic Landmark offering breathtaking, panoramic views of the area. The Appalachian Trail and Bartram Trail intersect at the tower. From Franklin, travel west on U.S. 64 for 3 miles to Old Murphy Road where there is a Wayah Bald sign. Turn right and drive 0.2 mile to Wayah Road (SR 1310). Turn left and continue for 9 miles to Wayah Gap and FR 69. (Wayah Crest Picnic Area is on the left.) Turn right onto FR 69 and drive 4.4 miles to the Wayah Bald parking area. The road can be rugged in places, though the area is well traveled.
• Hemphill Bald — The Loop hike at Hemphill Bald is 13.7 miles in total, but just 4.7 miles in will get you to the Bald. The bald was named after a pioneer family. From the Blue Ridge Parkway intersection with U.S. 19 in Maggie Valley go South on the Parkway toward the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At milepost 458.2 turn right on Heintooga Ridge Road. Continue for approximately 6 miles to the trailhead at Polls Gap.
• Tsali Recreation Area — Located in Graham County the Tsali Recreation Area is known for its excellent trails. Hikers, bikers and horses all must share, but a bike/horse usage schedule keeps down the melee. Hikers may use any trail at any time. The Thompson Loop and Mouse Branch Loop are billed as easy to moderate and good for families. From Robbinsville, travel east on State Highway 143 until you reach the junction with Highway 28. Turn right at the stop sign and proceed south on Highway 28 for approximately 8.4 miles. The entrance to the Tsali Recreation Area will be on the north side of the road and is well marked with signs. About 1.5 miles from the entrance there is a parking area and it is a short walk to the various trailheads.
• Looking Glass Rock — This 6-mile hike through the Pisgah National Forest travels first through small cove, then steeply up the backside of Looking Glass Rock through many switchbacks, hardwood forests, Carolina hemlocks. At the top of the trail there are cliffs providing views of Pisgah Ridge from Mt. Pisgah toward the Shining Rock/Black Balsam Area and the valleys below. Off of U.S. 276 near Brevard turn onto FR 475. The trailhead parking area is on the right after 0.4 miles.
• Shining Rock Wilderness Area — Shining Rock became one of the original components of the Wilderness System in September 1964. A series of high ridges extends east and west from the north-south oriented Shining Rock Ledge. There are three main access points for trails within this Wilderness. First and foremost is the Black Balsam area near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although this is not part of the Wilderness itself, The Art Loeb (moderate) and Ivestor Gap (easy) trails lead into the wilderness area from here. Several longer trails head up the ridges into the heart of the wilderness from here, and their beginnings are relatively easy, becoming more and more difficult the further you travel. And finally, for those wishing to summit a 6000-foot peak by starting at the base, try the trailhead at the base of Cold Mountain at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp. Trails starting from there are all steep a strenuous.
• Mount Sterling Gap Trail — This low ridge trail begins at Mt. Sterling Gap on Cataloochee-Big Creek Road. It’s only 2.8 miles to the firetower, but is rated extremely strenuous because of a 2,000-foot climb in 2.3 miles along an old jeep trail to the ridge just below the firetower. This firetower is one of three remaining in the Park. There are several excellent lookouts from the trail prior to reaching the main ridge, but the view from the tower is unequalled in the Park. The view includes the Pigeon River Gorge (below), the Unaka Mountains, the main ridge of the Smokies, the Black Mountains (east), and the end of the Southern Appalachians. The peak is a crossroads with trails leading up from Cataloochee, Baxter Creek, and Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, which is 14 miles in and of itself. The Sterling Gap trailhead is located on N.C. 284 at Mt. Sterling Gap.
• Fontana to Wesser — This 30-mile hike along the Appalachian Trails is full of ups and downs. There are shelters along the way, and in the end you’ll find yourself at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Or do the hike in reverse and end at Fontana Dam. To learn more about the Appalachian Trail visit www.appalachiantrail.org.
(Some hike recommendations courtesy of Danny Bernstein, author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains.)