The Palmetto Trail spans 472 miles across the entire state of South Carolina starting in the town of Oconee, and ending at the Atlantic Ocean just East of Charleston, SC. Most people don’t have 5 months to conquer the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trails, but don’t be discouraged; the Palmetto Trail presents you with a beautifully challenging trail that will not take the majority of a year to complete. As a matter of fact, most thru-hikers complete the trail in under 2 months, the perfect length for a summer backpacking trip. Here are some tips from our experienced RootsRated staff that will help you along the way:

1. Do Your Homework

The more literature about the trail you can get your hands on, the better. These books or pamphlets will have important information that will come in handy while you’re on the trail. Familiarize yourself with a map of the trail and area, and you will be a lot more at ease making decisions when the time comes. The Thru-Hiker’s Manual for the Palmetto Trail of South Carolina  is an excellent read to prepare you for the PT.

2. Pack Smart

Go lightweight, and be much happier on those long days. The less clothing the better, and the clothing you do choose to bring should be breathable and quick drying like wool or Patagonia’s Capilene. You’re going to smell bad, its just part of it, but you will find that getting a little dirty as opposed to the extra weight of unnecessary gear is a good call. Protecting your feet is very important as well. Never settle for the pair of hiking boots you aren’t completely comfortable with. Find the right pair, break them in, and you will be one happy camper. Trail runners are probably better than full-on boots for the non-technical trails of South Carolina, because they’re less cumbersome. The expert staff at Frugal Backpacker can help you get fit in the perfect pair.

3. Comfortable Sleeping System

Without a good night’s sleep before hiking 15-20 miles the next day, you’re going to struggle a little bit. Find a lightweight, yet comfortable sleeping system that ensures you sleep like the actual log next to you on the trail. An insulated pad/sleeping bag/bivy sack combo, or a hammock with a rainguard are both super comfortable and lightweight options that our RootsRated staffers swear by- especially the hammock, as it gets more air circulation during those hot southern nights.

4. Food & Water

Food is different for everyone depending on what tastes good to you, but most thru-hikers will tell you to pack easy meals that will help keep you going throughout the day. A good example for breakfast would be oatmeal, or a granola/protein powder mix you can pour water over- fast and efficient. Do a light lunch that won’t leave you feeling too full for the second half of the day, and treat yourself to a cooked meal for dinner. Dehydrate some of your favorite foods while in-town resupplying. This makes a delicious meal super lightweight and all you have to do is add water to enjoy it. A good water filtration system is important as well. Iodine tablets are light and easy to use, but ingest too much and your body will start to feel the consequences. Consider a Sawyer Filter .

5. Resupplying

The Palmetto Trail winds through many small towns and even large cities, making it very easy to resupply your food. It’s tempting to stop at every single opportunity and head to town, but try not to defeat the purpose of getting out in the woods and separating yourself from everyday life while you have the chance. The more weight you shed off your gear and clothing, the more food you can carry, making it easy for you to charge through those sleepy towns and get after it on the trail. The less time you spend eating meals in town, the better that burger from Poes is going to taste at the end of the trail.

6. Have a Good Time

You are thru-hiking because it’s what you love to do, and the Palmetto Trail is one of the most beautiful trails in our nation. Don’t get caught up in meeting your mileage quota for the day. This is your chance to pay attention and be grateful for your surroundings, sleep under the massive live oaks, and lay in a cold spring or two. Bring a Frisbee or a ball if you don’t mind the extra weight, and have fun with your days. Once you reach the lowcountry, you’ll have a great time dodging alligators and counting mosquitos, I don’t know about you, but that sounds awesome to me.

These tips will facilitate your experience on the Palmetto Trail, and ensure that your trip through South Carolina’s mountain tops, forests, swamps and marsh will be one you’ll remember for a lifetime.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Logan Waddell for RootsRated.

Asheville sits in a valley that’s surrounded by so many mountains it’s hard to keep track of which ones you’re looking at. Collectively, they’re the Southern Appalachians, but there are different ranges in every direction: the Black Mountains to the East, Black Balsams and Smoky Mountains to the West, Bald Mountains to the North and many, many more. Visitors to Western North Carolina are often looking for that million-dollar mountain view, and it’s definitely out there… you just have to know where to look. It’s true: the hiking scene in Asheville is about as good as it gets. But here are 5 great spots (with spectacular views) to get you started:

1. Craggy Gardens

One of the closest hikes to Asheville with the best long-range views is Craggy Gardens at Milemarker 364.4 off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Because of its easy access, this is a popular spot and although its never exactly ‘crowded,’ you won’t be alone during the summer or fall. Come at sunset for unobstructed views over the Black Mountains. It’s a moderate 30-minute hike, so it’s family friendly.

2. Lookout Trail

Montreat is a private Presbyterian retreat center, but its 20 trails are open to all. The Lookout Trail is a steep, at times rocky .5 miles to the top, but the view is worth the effort. From the top, you can see what’s called the Seven Sisters of the Black Mountains. When you get to the top, there’s an optional loop that will take an additional 45 minutes. The nearby Graybeard Trail, also in Montreat, has amazing views of Mount Mitchell , the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

3. Max Patch

“Balds” are a unique feature of the Southern Appalachians: the climate is too warm for alpine growth but the elevation is too high for the trees that normally grow in the area. So instead of forest, there’s a big “bald” patch of grass like a high meadow. Max Patch is the best known bald near Asheville, about 20 minutes outside of Hot Springs: an easy mile roundtrip from the parking lot with 365-degree views. Plus, the Appalachian Trail traverses the top of it.

4. Black Balsam Knob and Sam Knob

These are two more balds with amazing views. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, go to Mile Marker 420.2 (Black Balsam Road), you’ve got access to two unforgettable views along the Art Loeb Trail , both on top of scenic balds. Both hikes are at over 6000 feet in elevation. From the parking lot, take the Sam Knob Summit Trail (behind the signboard). It’s a 2.2 mile trail of moderate difficulty. The Black Balsam Trail is really just part of the Art Loeb trail that leads to Black Balsam Knob, and it’s also part of the Mountains to Sea Trail. So, follow the Mountains to Sea marker to the Art Loeb Trail and you’re on track. It’s about a 2.5-mile round-trip but you can add on by taking the Ivestor Gap Trail at Tennant Mountain to make it a five-mile loop.

5. Hawksbill Trail

A summer storm rolling in over Hawksbill Mountain
A summer storm rolling in over Hawksbill Mountain

Frank Kehren

Linville Wilderness is one of the most rugged areas Western North Carolina, encompassing around 12,000 acres around the Linville River and Linville Gorge, all of which is part of Pisgah National Forest. This area is known as one of the South’s premier climbing destinations, Table Rock and Little Table Rock in particular being big draws. From the Hawksbill Trail, the views of the gorge and Table Rock are phenomenal. It’s a three-mile loop trail, steep on the way up, with a more gradual slope on the way down.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Joanne O’Sullivan for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by James Lautzenheiser

20170906-Smoky Mountains-Clingmans Dome

Across Great Smoky Mountains National Park, miles of interconnected trails meander through lush, green valleys, hug the banks of moss-laden, rocky creeks, and climb through thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron to the blue-tinged mountain peaks.

You could spend weeks backpacking through this rich landscape, but a weekend trip will also allow you to experience the best of the Smokies. To help you plan your visit, we’ve highlighted three backpacking loops that give you the Appalachian Trail, streamside and ridgeline campsites, killer views, and enough distance and elevation to satisfy your inner weekend warrior.

Big Creek Loop

Combining the best of frontcountry and backcountry camping, the Big Creek area on the northeastern tip of the park off I-40 offers something for every level of hiker. Tackle a 21.5-mile loop over big peaks or lower your mileage and elevation with a night at one of the sweetest creekside campsites in the park. Either way, you’ll hike the AT through some of the most scenic terrain in the Smokies.

You will be in constant awe of the beauty on Big Creek Loop.
You will be in constant awe of the beauty on Big Creek Loop.

Rock/Creek

Roll into Big Creek Friday night to enjoy campground amenities like restrooms, dinner at a picnic table, and campsites with fire rings. You’ll be up early on Saturday to climb the Chestnut Branch Trail 2 miles to the Appalachian Trail. One of the shortest AT access points, the trail passes the remains of homesteads that pre-date the national park.

Turn south on the AT and continue climbing 3.3 miles to the 0.6-mile Mt. Cammerer fire tower spur trail. At 4,928 feet, the tower overlooks the Pigeon River Gorge to the north and Mt. Sterling to the south. From the fire tower, it’s a moderate descent 2.1 miles to the Low Gap Trail. Take Low Gap 2.5 miles to campsite #37 at the Big Creek Trail junction. Right on the banks of Big Creek, you’d be hard pressed to find a more spacious backcountry site in the park.

On Sunday, you can go big or go home, as they say. Going big means a hike up the Swallow Falls Trail 4 miles to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. It’s another 1.4 miles and more climbing to an elevation of 5,842 feet on Mt. Sterling. Climb Sterling’s 60-foot steel fire tower for panoramic views of Cataloochee Valley, the Black Mountains, and the Southern Appalachians. Now, the downhill endurance test begins, with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail. If you opt to go home, you can sleep in, savor your coffee by the campfire, and still have plenty of time to hike the moderate, 5-mile descent along Big Creek back to the campground, passing two stunning waterfalls and plenty of swimming holes along the way.

Big Creek loop ends with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail.
Big Creek loop ends with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail.

virgntn2011

Big Creek Campground is open from April through October and makes a great base camp for groups by serving a wide variety of abilities and interests. On your way home, make sure you leave enough time to refuel at Carver’s Apple Orchard in Cosby, Tenn. At Carver’s you can shop for fresh produce at the farmers market, nab awesome treats at an old-time candy shop, and feast at a homestyle restaurant, where the apple fritters are not to be missed.

Twentymile Loop

In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find a lesser-used trailhead that leads to the AT and one of the most scenic balds in the park. From this trailhead, you’ll log 17.6 miles on the way to Gregory Bald, sleeping one night on the AT and camping the other night on the bald.

Start off Friday afternoon at the Twentymile Ranger Station off Highway 28 near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. A non-technical climb takes you 4.5 miles to meet the AT at Sassafras Gap. Campsite #113, at Birch Spring Gap, is less than 1 mile north of the trail junction. If time allows late Friday or early Saturday morning, head south on the AT for 360-degree views at sunset or sunrise from the top of Shuckstack Fire Tower. The historic lookout isn’t regularly maintained, so watch your step on the 200-foot climb to the top.

In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find the lesser-used Twentymile Loop trailhead.
In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find the lesser-used Twentymile Loop trailhead.

Chris M Morris

You’ll resume your northward journey on the AT, traveling 2 miles over Doe Knob to the next trail junction. Next, take Gregory Bald Trail west a little more than 3 miles to campsite #13 on the bald. Known for spectacular flame azalea blooms each year in mid to late June, the grassy high-elevation meadow offers stunning views of Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, and Clingmans Dome.

On Sunday, make the final 6.3-mile descent to the trailhead on the wide, non-technical Wolf Ridge Trail. Refuel at Fontana Village, just over 6 miles down Highway 28, before heading home. Burgers and brews will hit the spot at Wildwood Grill, while the Mountainview Restaurant highlights seasonal produce, along with fresh, local rainbow trout.

Deep Creek Loop

Along Deep Creek loop you’ll pass Indian Creek Falls.
Along Deep Creek loop you’ll pass Indian Creek Falls.

Alan Cressler

Enjoy the streams and waterfalls of the Deep Creek area in the south-central region of the Smokies on this 28.2-mile loop. You’ll also spend a night in an AT shelter and exit on one of the longest continuously descending trails in the Smokies.

You’ve barely left the Deep Creek Ranger Station before you come across Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls. Once you pass these Instagram-worthy stops, it’s a slight uphill grade for 4 miles along the moderately rocky Deep Creek Trail to campsites 54-59. Claim a site for Friday evening (all but one are non-reservable) to enjoy the refreshing waters of Deep Creek and thickly wooded campsites.

Creek crossings and easy bushwacking are on the agenda Saturday, as you hike another 4 miles to the Fork Ridge Trail. Fork Ridge ascends 5 miles to Clingmans Dome Road and the AT. A short hike north takes you to the Mount Collins shelter, where you’ll spend the night in a high-elevation spruce-fir forest and dramatically cooler, drier conditions. Enjoy the shelter amenities, like cozy bunks and a fireplace inside.

Hike down from Clingmans Dome Road to start your final 11.4-mile descent.
Hike down from Clingmans Dome Road to start your final 11.4-mile descent.

Kevin Stewart Photography

The pre-dawn hike south to Clingmans Dome is highly recommended for 360 degrees of sunrise from the highest point in the Smokies. Hike 2 miles down Clingmans Dome Road to the Noland Divide Trailhead to start your final 11.4-mile descent. The trail slopes gently for the first 5 miles before making a steeper drop into Deep Creek, but there are few roots and rocks to slow you down. Make sure you stop to enjoy the views at Lonesome Pine Overlook along the way.

After logging all those miles, nothing’s going to taste more satisfying than a meal and craft beer at The Warehouse at Nantahala Brewing Co. Wrap up your Smokies adventure on the outdoor patio in downtown Bryson City with specialties like the slow-cooked brisket noodle bowl, apple bourbon pork chops, or Bryson City Brown Ale chicken along with a flagship or seasonal draft.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated in partnership with OrthoCarolina.

Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart Photography

Glen Falls

Western North Carolina is a land of waterfalls. Countless cascades punctuate the waterways braiding the vast expanses of forest and lofty Appalachian peaks dominating the western corner of the state, lending the landscape an undeniably enchanting quality. Some of the falls are accessible only after delving into wild pockets of backcountry, while others are just steps from the state’s tree-lined byways. With the abundance of waterfalls, narrowing down a short list is a formidable of challenge, but these are among the most stunning cascades adorning the western part of the state.

Whitewater Falls

The towering Whitewater Falls.
The towering Whitewater Falls.

Photo Courtesy of JCTDA

Located just outside the town of Cashiers, in the Nantahala National Forest, Whitewater Falls is one of the most awe-inspiring cascades in waterfall-laden western North Carolina—and it has the notable distinction of being the loftiest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. The mighty cascade announces itself in rushing roar audible from the trailhead for the half-mile path to the overlook for the 411-foot waterfall. A second, lower view platform, accessible after a descending a steep set of stairs, provides another perspective of the falls, highlighting the sheer scope of the towering flume.

Schoolhouse Falls

Schoolhouse Falls are accessible via a 1.4-mile hike.
Schoolhouse Falls are accessible via a 1.4-mile hike.

Nick Breedlove

Schoolhouse Falls is located in a stunningly wild corner of the Nantahala National Forest known as Panthertown Valley. Even though the hike is fairly brief, stumbling upon Schoolhouse Falls feels like a foray deep into the backcountry. The 25-foot waterfall spills in a broad flume, pouring into a tannin-tainted plunge pool turned swimming hole during spring and summer. The falls are accessible along the Panthertown Valley Trail via a 1.4-mile hike from either the Cold Mountain trailhead, on the eastern side of Panthertown Valley, or a 2.4-mile hike from the Salt Rock Gap trailhead, on the western edge. Be sure to be prepared for the rugged hiking in the area with a reliable map.

Silver Run Falls

Silver Run Falls is near the town of Cashiers.
Silver Run Falls is near the town of Cashiers.

Jared

South of the town of Cashiers, in the Nantahala National Forest, Silver Run Falls is a popular summer retreat. Compared to some of western North Carolina’s lofty cascades, the 25-foot drop of Silver Run Falls may sound uninspiring. But the broadly spread wall of water spills into an idyllic swimming hole that’s bordered by sizeable stepping stones, providing a unique access to view the falls. The trek to Silver Run is equally restorative—the falls are accessible courtesy of a quarter-mile trail beginning along North Carolina Highway 107.

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls descends 120 feet in a narrow cascade.
Mingo Falls descends 120 feet in a narrow cascade.

Doug Kerr

Just outside the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park within the confines of the Qualla Boundary (and not far from the town of Cherokee), Mingo Falls is a thin but lofty flume. The nearly 120-foot cascade consists of a series of slender strands of water, all of which funnel together just before tumbling into a pint-sized pool in Mingo Creek. The falls are accessible courtesy of a brief but stair-filled climb of about a half a mile to a footbridge at the base of the cascade, accessible from a trailhead located on Big Cove Road.

Glen Falls

A tiered trio of cascades, Glen Falls tumbles over a broad, rocky section of the east fork of aptly named Overflow Creek, which is located in the Nantahala National Forest just outside the town of Highlands. A scenic but strenuous round-trip hike of about 2 miles on the Glen Falls Trail leads to the collection of cascades, with views of Blue Valley early in the trip. The top tier of the falls, which tumbles nearly 70-feet, is visible from an observation area just half a mile down the trail, and the second significant portion of a falls, a wide, 60-foot flume, appears another quarter mile down the trail.

Rufus Morgan Falls

The 60-foot Rufus Morgan Falls is located just outside the town of Franklin. Alan Cressler
The 60-foot Rufus Morgan Falls is located just outside the town of Franklin.
Alan Cressler

Tucked away in a wooded cove in the Nantahala National Forest just a few miles outside the town of Franklin, Rufus Morgan Falls seems much farther removed from any traces of civilization. The 60-foot partially rhododendron-shrouded flume falls flatly over a craggy cliff face and seems to tumble almost unexpectedly out of the thickly grown forest. Despite the isolated feel, the falls are easily accessible after a leisurely, half-mile hike on the Rufus Morgan Trail.

Tom’s Branch, Indian Creek Falls, and Juney Whank Falls

These three waterfalls are In a southern corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not far from the Deep Creek entrance. Tom’s Branch and Indian Creek Falls are easily linked on a brief out-and-back hike. Tom’s Branch, the loftier of two flumes, falls 60-feet, stair stepping a weathered rock face. It will emerge after only about a half a mile hike on the Deep Creek Trail, one of the first pathways in the national park constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. Barely a quarter of a mile later, after the junction the Indian Creek Trail, the second cascade appears—the 25-foot Indian Creek Falls.

After taking in the first two falls, tack on a trip of Juney Whank Falls. The trailhead for the Juney Whank Trail is also located in the Deep Creek area of the park, adjacent to the starting point for the Deep Creek Trail. Juney Whank Falls, a slender shimmering ribboning falling for nearly 90-feet in two distinct sections, appears after just half a mile on the Juney Whank Falls Trail.

Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls is outside of Highlands, N.C.
Bridal Veil Falls is outside of Highlands, N.C.

William McKeehan

Just a couple miles outside Highlands, Bridal Veil Falls is one of the few waterfalls in western North Carolina visitors can drive to—and even behind. The cascade is accessible directly from U.S. Highway 64 along a stretch North Carolina’s 98-mile Waterfall Byway. Created by a drop in the Cullasaja River, the falls thin out while spilling over a prominent rock ledge, which juts out far enough people—and even vehicles—to perch behind the plunging flume and admire the tumbling water from underneath.

A note on safety: Heed posted warning signs indicating danger and stay on established trails. Never climb on or around waterfalls and never play in the water above a waterfall. Rocks can be slippery and it’s easy to lose your balance especially with bare feet. Currents near waterfalls can be extremely swift even in areas further upstream.

Never jump off waterfalls or dive into plunge pools at the base of waterfalls. Rocks and logs can be hidden beneath the surface of the water. Often waterfall pools have swirling water or currents that can drag and keep you underwater. Even if you have seen other people enjoy playing around waterfalls, be aware they have been lucky to escape unharmed.

Waterfalls are constantly changing with varying water flows and erosion of the rocks around them. The current from one place to the next may be faster than you anticipate and the arrangement of rocks or other debris such as logs in the plunge pool is ever-changing.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Alan Cressler

The Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding Asheville are home to a number of oasis-like hikes, perfect for summer.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a paradise in the summer, alive with flowers and fireflies. But the blazing heat can sometimes feel brutal, driving many people indoors to the comfort of air conditioning. There’s no reason to stay cooped up when so many trails offer a respite from the soaring temperatures. Tucked inside the shade of rhododendron tunnels, deep within hardwood forests, and carved alongside roaring rivers, these six refreshing summer hikes allow you to beat the heat while savoring the full splendor of the season.

1. Big Laurel Creek

A rejuvenating creekside hike just 45 minutes outside of Asheville, this even, easy trail along Big Laurel Creek is very popular among locals. The trail is seven miles in its entirety, taking an average of 3.5 hours there and back, although hiking a shorter segment would still be a worthwhile excursion. The best part of your day will be the deep, aquamarine swimming holes that appear occasionally in the Big Laurel River, as well as the cooling mist and sunlit rainbows that arise from trailside waterfalls.

2. Boone Fork Trail

Waterfall alongside the Boone Fork Trail.
Waterfall alongside the Boone Fork Trail.

Joe Giordano

The heavy shade of rhododendron tunnels and a multitude of river crossings make the Boone Fork Trail the ultimate summer hike of the High Trail. This should be your top pick if you are looking to head out of Asheville and explore the Appalachian region for an entire day. This 5-mile loop in Julian Price Memorial Park outside of Boone, North Carolina, is renowned for the variety of terrain that it passes through, which includes coniferous forest, open pastures, boulder gardens and flood plains filled with wildflowers. Slick river rocks, creek crossings and one cut-timber ladder adds a touch of challenge to the ever-changing landscape. Don’t forget to cap off your day with a summer ale at  Lost Province Brewing Company.

3. Four Falls

Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls

Melina Coogan

The nine mile Four Falls Trail in DuPont State Forest provides a show-stopping tour of the area’s most dazzling mountain waterfalls. This spectacular loop will lead you to the base of Triple Falls, High Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls, and alongside the shoreline of cool, placid Lake Imaging. The hike concludes with a quick out-and-back jaunt from the trailhead to Hooker Falls, one of the most popular swimming holes  in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Between waterfalls, the trail winds through deep woods and shaded rhododendron tunnels, providing relief from the relentless summer sun. Park at the Hooker Falls trailhead.

4. Craggy Gardens

The view from Craggy Gardens.
The view from Craggy Gardens.

Parke Ladd

Due to the elevation, the temperature atop Craggy Gardens is about 5-20 degrees cooler than it is in Asheville. Slabs of slate gray rock and bright pink rhododendron blooms create a vivid landscape, surrounded by panoramic 360 views of Asheville, Mt. Mitchell, and the endlessly undulating Blue Ridge Mountains. A mere 1.4 mile loop, this is a great starter trail for kids: quick, steep without being overly demanding, with a dramatic mountain top finale that’s perfect for picnics. This hike could be combined with other attractions on the Blue Ridge Parkway such as Graveyard Fields and Skinny Dip Falls  for a full day of warm weather exploration.

5. Max Patch at Night

The sun sets over Max Patch
The sun sets over Max Patch

Marcos Gasc

While we would be remiss to not mention Max Patch as a breathtakingly beautiful summer destination, we’ll concede that its immense popularity could be a deterrent for many hikers. The solution? Visit this enormous Appalachian meadow at night, when the masses have gone home and the sky is so illuminated with lightning bugs that you can capture their glow on camera using a long exposure, as you would the constellations. Pack a blanket for some summer stargazing directly up the hill from the parking area, or enjoy the cool evening air with a moonlit hike on the Appalachian Trail.

6. Daniel Ridge Loop Trail

Toms Spring Falls
Toms Spring Falls

Johnny Dickerson

Those of us who love pouring over a good, old fashioned map may be confused by the name of this four mile trail, which is actually located on a spur of Lanning Ridge. Misnomers aside, the Daniel Ridge Loop Trail is a lovely and scenic hike which meanders through 50-year-old hardwoods and bucolic pastures enveloped inside the Pisgah National Forest. Sections of steep hillside provide a good workout, but a thick canopy of hemlock and arching mountain laurel dapples and deflects the full glare of the midday sun. The end of the trail criss-crosses over a roaring creek on a series of planks and wooden bridges, until it reaches the base of the monolithic, 100-foot Toms Springs Falls.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Melina Coogan for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Steven Reinhold

Panthertown Valley

Early settlers who ventured into this tract of land found it so wild they referred to the main valley as “a town of painters.” This town of painters – an ancient Appalachian term for Panthers – has vocally transformed into the modern day Panthertown Valley. Panthertown’s land has switched hands many times over the years. During the 1920’s a symphony of axes, saws and dynamite filled the valley as loggers harvested virgin timber. In the 1960’s Liberty Life Insurance purchased the Valley; intent on damming the Tuckaseegee to create a lake resort. Those plans never came to fruition. Lucky for us, the U.S. Forest Service acquired the land in 1989 and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Nantahala Ranger District.

What Makes It Great

Today the valley is home to an intricate network of trails which wind through Panthertown’s unique landscape. Hundreds of millions of years ago forces within the Earth melted mountain d rocks which later cooled and hardened into mountainous “granite plutons”. Over many millennia the forces of erosion have rounded and revealed these towering monoliths within Panthertown Valley. The Valley’s trail system leads visitors by the bases of and to the tops of these rounded cliff-sides.

The Valley has become a popular destination for hiking, biking, climbing and horseback riding. Regardless of the crowds, an escape to serenity is little more than a foot path away in Panthertown. The Forest service maintains a network of signed trails which most people will instinctively follow. In addition to these “hiking highways,” a labyrinth of unmarked and unnamed “faint-paths and foot-trails” have been developed over the years by a wily group of local enthusiasts.

Venturing out on these lesser known trails can be exhilarating and empowering, but sometimes just plain dangerous. Pick up a copy of A Guides Guide to Panthertown, by long time Valley enthusiast Burt Kornegay, bring your compass and GPS, mark your divergences, and then go explore!

Who is Going to Love It

Panthertown’s terrain has created a land of waterfalls which plummet raucously over laurel lined rock faces. Between falls these creeks meander slowly through groves of luscious growth along the valley bottom. Tannins from decaying vegetation in the bogs stain the waters of Panthertown an intriuing tea-color. Sandy beaches and water-carved plunge pools, line the creek banks and offer a reprieve from sweltering summertime temperatures. Come to Panthertown in the heat of the summer, bring your swim gear and take advantage of all the aquatic opportunities in the Valley.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

 An hour and 20 minute drive from Asheville will get you to the Cold Mountain Gap trailhead.

Venture out on the Greenland Creek Trail; work your way up the Creek to see three waterfalls on your way to Tranquility Point, atop Little Green, where you will gain an expansive view of the valley!

Explorers can gain access to the East side of the Valley from Salt Rock Gap Trailhead. Take the Panthertown Valley Trail for a quick viewpoint from Salt Rock, then continue down into the valley to soak up the sun’s rays at the Sandbar Pool!

There is no fee to visit Panthertown Valley and many established backcountry sites are available. Dogs are welcomed, but be bear aware, and practice Leave No Trace principles on your visit.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Steven Reinhold for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Fox & Owl Studios

Image for Alum Cave
Dog Friendly: Yes
Seasonality: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter
Distance: 4.4 miles
Time To Complete: 2 – 3 hours

A roundtrip of 4.4 miles, this trail starts with a pleasant walk through green canopies of rhododendrons, as you follow along a creek. The trail continues to give you plenty of nice photographic moments. The hike is moderate in difficulty, but gets a little more strenuous as you close in to the large overhang called Alum Cave. The scenery changes throughout the course of the trip, and there are several interesting geological features and pretty bridge crossings, which make this a great family hike. The “cave” is a great place to have lunch, and reward yourself with a scenic view over the mountains. If you are wanting to do this hike, start as early as possible to avoid the crowds.

What Makes It Great

Any hike in the Smokies will provide great sights—this hike provides especially fantastic ones. Once you have begun climbing, several key (and incredibly interesting) landmarks will be passed. The trail actually goes under Arch Rock, the first key landmark (reached in just over a mile) and a great spot for a photo. Steps climb through the arch and show some of the geologic diversity that can be found in the Smokies. Continuing on, you will have expansive views from Inspiration Point. When you are looking out from this point, try to find the “Eye of the Needle,” a hole in the top of a rocky ridge nearby.Other than the views, the length of this trail is another great feature because of all that is available and seen within a short 4.5 miles. Many hikers set out to see the Alum Cave Bluff and end up enjoying the hike enough to continue on to the summit of Mount Le Conte. If you get to the “cave” and think that the views are spectacular, continuing on from there will not disappoint. Even if you do not wish to make it all the way to the top, continuing on provides increasingly great views as you go.

Who is Going to Love It

The short length of this hike makes it perfect for anyone. Families will love the accessibility of the car, and hardcore hikers will love the ability to continue on to the summit of LeConte. Alum Cave itself provides the perfect break spot, so feel free to take your time and enjoy the views out over the mountains from the turnaround point.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Parking for the Alum Cave Trail can be found on the main park road as it heads away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center towards Newfound Gap. There will be a roadside sign marking the trailhead, so park at the lot (which fills easily) and the trailhead will be quickly found.If you are planning to stay on LeConte, make sure to make reservations ahead of time.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Matt Guenther for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Snotgoblin

Image for The Jump Off
Dog Friendly: No
Seasonality: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter
Distance: 6.5 miles
Time To Complete: 2-4 hours

Unique features are scatted throughout the Smoky Mountains, from deep valleys with quick rivers to steep summits with rocky slopes. Trails that explore this Appalachian diversity will stick in your memory and keep you searching for a new favorite spots. With a steadily inclining segment of the infamous AT brining you most all the way to one of the most unique viewpoints in the entire Smoky Mountain National Park, the Jump Off is well worth the walk.

What Makes It Great

The Jump Off is a notable 1,000 foot cliff face on the side of Mount Kephart. Once you see it, you’ll easily understand the name, as it produces magnificent views of Charlie’s Bunion and Mount Guyot from atop a very steep precipice. To get to this impressive landmark, one great option is to take the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap and connect it with the Boulevard Trail.

It’s a 6.5 mile out and back trail with quite a bit of climbing, but it’s generally pretty steady grade, so don’t be too worried. About 2.7 miles in, after you’ve conquered most of the elevation gain, you’ll reach the trail junction for the Boulevard Trail. Take a left here, and not before long, you’ll encounter the Jump Off junction, from where you’ll only have about half a mile left until your final destination. This trail provides great hiking in all seasons.

Diversity keeps things interesting on any trail, and this one does not disappoint. From the trailhead at Newfound Gap the path to the Jump Off steadily winds and ascends along the AT, giving breathtaking ridgeline views of the Smoky Mountain Highlands. Several large clearings along the way allow photo-ops for hikers that give a unique view of the surrounding forest. From these clearings the destruction of the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid can be seen on neighboring mountains. The towering trees lining the trail often are surrounded with thick mosses and ferns, giving hikers the feel of wandering through a rainforest. During the winter months, the trail is often coved with ice like melted candle wax. During these colder months the trail is more difficult but the added aesthetic of the ice makes an unreal experience.

Who is Going to Love It

Hikers, this trail is all yours. Trail runners will also enjoy the upward journey to this iconic mountain feature, but hikers will have the most enjoyable time. Because this is a section of the famed AT, many long-distance hikers will be passed along the way. This trek may even inspire you to do a long trip of your own.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Parking for the Jump Off is found at the Newfound Gap lot. The trailhead can be found at the edge of the parking lot, where the AT will be followed for 2.7 miles to the Boulevard Trail intersection. Once a left is taken onto the Boulevard Trail, the Jump Off trail will be on your left after about 0.5 miles. All of these trails are well marked.

Any backcountry camping requires a permit, and dogs are not allowed on the trail.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Matt Guenther for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Pen Waggener

There’s a bit of Tarheel pride in the fact that Mount Mitchell is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River. So important is the peak that, in 1915, it was named the first state park in North Carolina.

Mt. Mitchell didn’t just help to create the N.C. State Park system though. At 6,684 it’s also responsible for creating its own climate and weather.

Because of its height, the climate at the top of Mt. Mitchell more resembles that of forests in the U.S. Northeast and Canada. During the Pleistocene era (pronounced play-stuh-seen so you can impress your friends), things were a bit colder in the region. Cooler temps allowed plants and animals normally found in northern climates to head south. Things warmed back up and these colder climate loving travelers were relegated to the highest peaks where altitude keeps things a bit chillier.

Lower average temps aren’t the only weather patterns that the mountain seems to control. On even otherwise clear days Mt. Mitchell can be ringed by mist. Warmer, wetter air is pushed to the top and cooled, condensing ambient moisture and creating a cloud. Unpredictable storms and wind are a common result.

The chance to view the world from on top of the east coast and watch the sunrise over the mists that settle in the valley more than make up for the unpredictable weather. While the roughly 12 mile roundtrip is commonly completed as a day hike, the best way to experience the all that the mountain has to offer is by taking an overnight backpacking trip.

The trip starts at the Black Mountain Campground, roughly 2 hours drive from Charlotte. Operated by the Cradle of forestry, this 46 site campground is a good accommodation alternative if you’d rather make the trek sans backpack. For this backpacking trip, though, you can park your car at the BMC lot at no charge.

From the BMC hit the Mount Mitchel Trail. After a steep climb you’ll get to, well, more steep climbing. The backcountry camping area is four miles in on Commissary Ridge. It’s easy to spot as the trail flattens and you break free of the forest. Walk a few steps on the double track path and the meadow, complete with several obvious fire rings, is on the left.

Look around. There are some really nice but less obvious spots to set up camp located just down a small hill from the meadow. The stream you walked through on the way to your campsite is your water source. Filtering is a great idea unless you’re looking for a quick way to lose some pre-holiday weight.

Once you’ve ditched your pack and set up camp, finish the final 1.6 or so miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell. There are a couple different trail options near the top, it doesn’t matter which you take. As long as you’re going up, you’re doing it right.

As soon as you pop out of the forest again you’ll step onto the parking lot. There’s a paved road that brings drivers to the peak. (This explains why you saw the guy in motorcycle gear carrying a 20 ounce soda on the trail a few minutes before).

At the top you’ll find bathrooms, a nature center, and a snack bar. The near famous elevation sign is to the right and the trail to the observation tower is to the left when facing the buildings. The 360 degree view from the tower makes the entire effort worthwhile.

After you’ve had your fill at the top, return to your campsite using the same trail you took up. Find a good seat for sunset. The mist settles in the lower valley for the evening and reflects the oranges and pinks of late afternoon. The best place to watch might be just past the campground on the dual track road. You can usually find firewood in this area as well.

Prepare for temps 20 degrees or colder than in Charlotte. Bring appropriate rain gear even on the driest of days (you don’t want to be the one who temps fate just to save 8 ounces in your pack). And most importantly, have a good hike to the highest point east of the Mississippi!

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Rob Glover for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Rob Glover

Image for Charlie's Bunion
Dog Friendly: No
Seasonality: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter
Distance: 8.0 miles
Time To Complete: 3-5 hours

Delving into the etymology of Charlie’s Bunion reveals a historical tale of exploration during the earliest days of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Famed author and adventurer, Horace Kephart, was leading a reconnaissance trip high into the remote Saw-tooth region of the Smokies. This knife edged ridgeline runs between the Mt. LeConte and Mt. Guyot massifs; its airy undulations are some of the most remote parts of the Park and a profile view, of the 10 mile stretch of peaks, resembles the serrated edges of a saw. Warn out from the rigors of exploration Kephart’s companion, Charlie Conner, removed his boots during a break and revealed a set of haggard feet. His mangy extremities resembled the nearby, and bulging outcropping of rocks known then as Fodderstack. Kephart, one of the Great Smokies’ greatest advocates, proposed renaming the rock Charlie’s Bunion to commemorate his misery.

What Makes It Great

Charlie’s Bunion, known to locals as The Bunion, can be reached by a 4 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. A picturesque drive to Newfound Gap, sight of the Park’s inauguration, leads to the start of this scenic hike. Forests of fragrant Firs line the rocky path and long range views will entertain your eyes as you make your way North on the AT. This particular section of the AT has a total elevation gain of 1,600’ and climbs to over 6,000’ on the sides of Mt. Kephart as it leads to The Bunion. Nearly 3 miles into the trail hikers are offered a reprieve from the rigors of trail life at the Icewater Springs Shelter. Bring a water filtration system and nourishment for a high country hiatus at this “life-list” shelter. Icewater Springs is home to amazing Appalachian views and a perpetually cold water source, making it an ideal resting point on your way to The Bunion.

Four miles into your hike a signed spur trail on your left will lead you in the direction of Charlie’s Bunion. Explore the area carefully, large drop offs and loose rock here will require your utmost attention. Your reward for reaching the Bunion is paid off in views. The Bunion is walled in by the beautiful behemoths: Mt. Kephart Mt. Guyot and Mt. Leconte. An uninterrupted westward view, over the sprawling green expanse of Eastern Tenessee, opens up on the summit.

Who is Going to Love It

If you’re looking to experience the Appalachian Trail – sans blisters, and without having to walk all the way to Maine – then you will love this 8 mile, out-and-back sampling of the world famous trail. Adventurous scramblers will find a playground on The Bunion’s rocks and photographers can capture amazing sunset views from this precipitous peak.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

From Asheville, an hour and half drive will take you to the Newfound Gap parking lot where you will begin your hike northbound on the AT. Ample parking and restroom facilities are also available at Newfound Gap.

A day hike to the Bunion does not require any permits or fees.

If you wish to stay at the Icewater Springs shelter make reservations in advance, this shelter is quite popular, and plan on purchasing a permit for $4 per night, per person.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

Written by Steven Reinhold for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Justin Meissen