Tucked away in Marietta, SC at Jones Gap State Park, is an immensely beautiful 125′ waterfall, Falls Creek Falls. The 1.7 mile out and back hike is strenuous as it ascends approximately 600 feet with a few flat stretches thrown in the mix. But it is worth every bit of effort. This moderately hiked trail is often overlooked, making it one of my favorite spots. I love of having the solitude of enjoying the trail with just myself and my dog. That’s right, it’s dog friendly! The trail head is roughly 45 minutes from Greenville, SC depending on your location, making it a great local option for an afternoon trip. I highly recommend this impressive local gem. I guarantee that will not be disappointed, but maybe a little sore and in awe of what South Carolina has to offer.
Distance: 1.7 mile out-and-back
Directions: Head north on US 276 from Greenville (you will pass SC 11 Junction). Turn right on River Falls Road; then go 4 miles. Turn right on Duckworth Road; then go a 1/2 mile. Turn right on Falls Creek Falls Road.Trailhead is down on your left with parking.
Looking to get in a convenient trail run/hike? Frugal Greenville staffer, Johnnie’s go-to trail might just be your new favorite. Established in 1935 as the main water supply for Greenville, Paris Mountain State Park is a trail staple for the morning warrior. It offers great scenery and miles of trails, but is close enough to have you back home before the game. This bucolic park features plenty of plant life, 3 reservoirs, and a picturesque dam.
Johnnie’s favorite route through the park makes a loop out of several trails for a total journey of around 6 miles:
- Brissy Ridge: Start/Parking
- Direction: Left or clockwise
- Difficulty: Slight incline | Wide Trail
- Difficulty: Moderate – somewhat steep in short intervals
- North Lake
- Difficulty: Moderate – roots on roots on roots on the north east side
- Difficulty: Moderate – 20 or 30 yard stretches of incline
- Brissy Ridge: Back to start!
Looking for a hike that’s short enough to do in an afternoon, but challenging enough to keep the crowds at bay? You might want to give Frugal Backpacker Greenville Staffer, Marie’s favorite hike a try – Rainbow Falls. Located in Jones Gap State Park, these stunning falls and offer plenty of space to spread out for a picnic or wade around the base (always use caution on slick rocks and around water).
Distance: 5 mile out and back
Directions: From Greenville, head north on 276 toward Caeser’s Head State Park. Continue 2.6 miles past the park and turn right onto Solomon Jones Road. After 4.6 miles, you’ll see a small parking area on the right. Head back about 10 yards and turn left to to access the trail.
Start out on the blue blazed Jones Gap Trail, then after 3/4 of a mile veer right onto the red blazed Rainbow Falls Trail.
What better way to reward a vigorous effort on the trail—or up a summit—than by sitting back and soaking up the serenity of one of nature’s most beautiful shows? Fortunately, Knoxville has plenty of gorgeous sunset hikes right in its backyard. Whether you’re sticking close to town or venturing further afield, Knoxville is the perfect launching point for your next memorable stroll in the woods. Here are seven recommended sunset hikes in and around Knoxville that are sure to take your breath away.
1. High Ground Park
This historical landmark in South Knoxville boasts excellent views of the city and is known for its picturesque sunsets. Once the site of Fort Higley, a Union camp constructed in 1863, High Ground Park is bordered today by hardwood forests, native flowering bushes, and a stone wall. To catch the sunset, park in the dirt lot at 1121 Cherokee Trail and follow the gravel trail as it winds its way into the River Bluff Wildlife Area. Hang a right at the first fork, and take your pick at the second fork—either way, will bring you to the overlook and the park’s famous swing. The golden hour light here is phenomenal, and the sunset isn’t bad, either.
2. Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park
Another close-to-home sunset hike, Sharp’s Ridge offers a panoramic view of the Knoxville skyline, with the postcard-worthy gradient of the Great Smokies in the background. The 111-acre park is just 10 minutes from downtown, and while you can drive to the top of the ridge or the overlook (the sunset, as viewed from this observation deck, is considered among the most beautiful in America), there’s plenty of hiking to be had, too. If you plan to hike for your sunset, head to Sharp’s Ridge in the fall when the leaves have dropped and the mountains are visible from the three-mile multi-use trail below.
3. Clingmans Dome
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee, so you know it’s a great place to catch the sunset. On clear days, the 360-degree views go as far as 100 miles, and sunsets here are breathtaking. The summit is accessible via a steep paved trail, but the Appalachian Trail also crosses Clingmans Dome, so hikers looking for a challenge can watch the sunset, then head to one of the nearby backcountry shelters. The dome is also the western terminus of the 1,150-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, so the possibilities for pre-sunset hikes are nearly limitless.
4. Cades Cove
A longtime Cherokee hunting ground, Cades Cove is one of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most worthy sights. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circumnavigates the entire cove; bikes are allowed on the road, as well. Several hikes begin at trailheads along the Cades Cove loop, including the five-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls, as well as hikes to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top (14 miles roundtrip to tag both summits), both of which offer fantastic sunset views.
5. Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
With its dramatic sandstone bluffs, the highest concentration of natural arches and bridges in the eastern United States, gorgeous views of the Cumberland Plateau, and access to the Big South Fork River, it’s no wonder Big South Fork NRRA sees well over half a million visitors each year. Just an hour north of Knoxville, Big South Fork is home to more than 180 miles of trails for hiking and trail running, plus another 35 miles of mountain bike trails. Plan to explore during the day, then drive, bike, or walk to the East Rim Overlook, where it’s a short hike to a stunning sunset vista.
6. Cherohala Skyway
A combination of the names of the two national forests it passes through, Cherokee and Nantahala, the Cherohala Skyway is about 40 miles long and provides access to excellent hiking—not to mention gorgeous sunset vistas. The remote Big Frog Mountain Wilderness clocks in at just under 8,400 acres and include 35 miles of backcountry trails, including several that lead to the summit of Big Frog Mountain itself. The views from Big Frog are spectacular, especially at sunset, and can be reached via the Wolf Ridge, Hemp Top, and Licklog Ridge trails. But don’t get too taken by the unforgettable vistas: This area has tons of black bears, so travel in groups and talk as you head back to the car from your hike after dark to avoid startling one.
7. Loyston Overlook Trail
Less than 40 minutes north of Knoxville, Big Ridge State Park is tucked in the Cumberland Mountains and features 15 miles of forested trails. The Loyston Overlook Trail is short but steep and leads to a lookout above Norris Lake, which now covers the former site of the town of Loyston. The well-marked trails here mean it’s easy to find your way back to the car once the sun has set. But it’s not for the faint of heart—thanks to the park’s haunted history (it’s all in good fun), you’ll want to travel in a group at dusk.
Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart Photography
Dedicated organizations such as the Carolina Thread Trail, the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail, and the Tarheel Trailblazers are the engines driving new trail projects across the Carolinas. From flat, wide rail trails to gnarly sections of technical singletrack, miles upon miles of new outdoor experiences are constructed every year.
They’ve been so busy in fact, that a complete list of all the new trails would be nearly impossible to curate. Instead, we’ve listed six segments that are interesting for either the trail itself or what’s around it.
1. Love Valley Trail
Sometimes the trail is only part of a much larger experience, and such is the case for the 2.6-mile stretch of the Carolina Thread Trail known as the Love Valley Trail. Ideal for horseback riding but open to bikers and hikers, this smoothly graded path runs along the southern edge of the Brushy Mountains and begins in Love Valley. The real draw of the area, especially for equestrian fans, is the Old West-themed town center. The dirt road, where only foot and hoof traffic are allowed, is lined with hitching posts, wooden walkways, and saloons. Not what it once was—many of the shops have closed and buildings are for sale—the novelty of seeing a town where the horse remains king is still worth a visit.
2. East Main Extension at the USNWC
Land acquisitions in 2014 and 2015 effectively doubled the footprint of the U.S. National Whitewater Center located on the western edge of Charlotte. According to its directors, the center plans to protect the land rather than develop it, resulting in hundreds of open acres just waiting for trail designers to work their magic. One of the most challenging recent additions is an extension on the existing East Main Trail. Now totaling 6 miles, the trail includes sharp climbs and swift descents, earning its nicknames “East Pain” and “Beast Main”. All trails at the USNWC are open to foot and bike traffic.
3. Bigleaf Slopes
The 2.2 miles of singletrack at Bigleaf Slopes in Statesville, NC is yet another testament to the tenacity and hard work put forth by the Tarheel Trailblazers. Working in conjunction with Iredell County, the superheroes of the singletrack have created another stellar mountain bike park out of the previously unused land. Trail mileage will continue to spread throughout the 104-acre tract, but for now, the ride is fairly fast with moderate elevation changes.
4. Piedmont Medical Center Trail Extension
The Piedmont Medical Center Trail is one of several dazzling amenities at the Rock Hill Outdoor Center. A recent extension to the trail, made possible in large part by the Carolina Thread Trail, has made it even better. Now connected to existing paths in the adjacent River Park, the system extends for over five miles. Bikers and walkers will find a mix of construction including pavement, boardwalk, and natural surface trail. Flowing alongside the Catawba River and through the forested River Park, the trail offers a serene escape at the outdoor center.
5. The South Fork Rail Trail
Passing through a Cypress swamp isn’t a common occurrence in the central Piedmont of North Carolina, so catching a glimpse of this unusual biome during a peaceful run on the South Fork Rail Trail is a cool experience. In fact, the swamp setting is just one of several points of interest along the new two-mile, natural surface trail in Lincolnton, NC. Keep an eye out for large leaf magnolias, the remnants of a bridge destroyed by Union soldiers during the Civil War, and the rocky shoals of the South Fork River. This smooth trail is an excellent spot for a morning walk, jog, or short bike ride.
6. MST section along the Haw River
The Mountains to Sea Trail is an incredibly ambitious, 1,150-mile trail housed completely within the state of North Carolina. While the trail is walkable now—dozens have actually completed it—around half the distance requires overland passage. Several new sections of trail are added every year and one of the longest recent additions is the four-mile continuance of the Haw River Trail in Burlington, NC. Following the banks of the placid and rocky Haw River, the trail extension creates a total of eight uninterrupted hiking miles.
Featured image provided by Nathania Johnson
Beginning off of scenic highway 105, the Profile Trail offers hikers an opportunity to witness some of the spectacular and beautiful views the high country has to offer – views famed naturalist John Muir once wrote about in 1898. You’ll start by lightly treading through the headwater streams of the Watauga River as it winds 3.1 miles through seven different types of natural communities, including northern hardwood, Canadian hemlock, and acid cove forests.
What Makes It Great
These forests also house plenty of wildlife and almost 200 different species of birds. Profile Trail hikers can spot woodland species such as Warblers (especially in spring), Scarlet Tanagers, Louisiana Water Thrushes and numerous varieties of Vireos. As the trail continues to spiral up the mountain, you’ll pass a great campsite, numerous breathtaking overlooks, and, my personal favorite, Shanty Spring (a cool and delicious fresh water spring located at about mile 2.7).
The last 0.3 miles will get your heart pumping, calves burning and put you on your hands and knees as you climb up rocks along the steepest part. Once you reach the top of the Profile Trail, you’ll have two options: left or right. Since this is “Profile Trail to Calloway Peak”, you will swing left on the Grandfather Trail. It will take you 0.4 miles along the ridgeline and up three ladders to the summit of Calloway Peak.
Calloway Peak sits at 5,946 ft with the best views of Grandfather Mountain, Linville Gorge and sometimes even the Charlotte skyline. John Muir described the sublime scenery from the summit as, “I couldn’t hold in and began to jump about and sing and glory in it all” and the sunsets here as, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Bring some tasty snacks, plenty of water, and good company, and it will be a hike that you won’t regret.
Who is Going to Love It
This trail is for nature, adventure, and hiking enthusiasts. You’re gaining about 2,000 ft of elevation from start to finish. You’ll want to have comfy hiking boots and a backpack full of water and your favorite snacks to stay fueled along the trail. If you have any knee or leg problems, I suggest bringing trekking poles for additional support. There are benches along the trail for when you need a breather. It is well maintained and well traveled, although the last 0.3 miles can be rocky and uneven.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
There is an official parking lot for this trailhead. Since this is a hiking favorite, I would suggest getting there early to secure a parking spot; the parking lot fills up quick. If you do arrive and the lot is full, you’re able to park along the shoulder of Highway 105 at your own risk. Grandfather Mountain State Park requires hikers and backpackers to fill out a permit (they’re free and available at the information board at the trailhead).
Dogs are permitted but must be leashed at all times.
If you plan to camp, remember to camp in the designated areas, there are plenty of beautiful sites along the trail.
Featured image provided by Chelsie Mitchell
The nearly 3,500 wild acres of Elk Knob State Park, which includes the second highest peak in Watauga County, was nearly lost to developers in the early part of the 21st century. The area was being considered for the construction of a summer home community until a group of local landowners and concerned citizens, together with the efforts of The Nature Conservancy, purchased the land and deeded it to the North Carolina Department of Parks and Recreation.
Today, Elk Knob is one of North Carolina’s newest state parks, open year round for the enjoyment of hikers and naturalists who are drawn to its scenic beauty and unusual ecology. It lies within a small mountain range north of Boone known as the Amphibolite Mountains, named for their unique geological foundation. Amphibolite, a dark, crumbling metamorphic rock, disintegrates into a rich soil that plays host to rare plant species such as Flame Azalea, Purple Fringed Orchid, and Gray’s Lily.
The soil is inhospitable to the type of heath shrubs that typically choke the ground floor of Northern Hardwood forests. In the absence of mountain laurel, blueberries, and rhododendron thickets, the forest feels wide open and expansive, a unique characteristic for the peaks of Appalachia. Rosy Bells, Trillium, Starflower, and Jewelweed carpet the ground in vivid hues during the spring and summer. You may find yourself breathing more deeply than you have in months.
Although there are some decidedly steep and strenuous sections en route to the summit of Elk Knob—the longest of the three trails currently constructed throughout the park tops out just shy of four miles round-trip—it’s generally a nicely switchbacked and straightforward route for most hikers. A gently rolling one-mile loop encircles the picnic area. Moderate trail lengths make the park a popular destination for families, trail runners, and afternoon adventurers—but don’t forget the real reason to visit Elk Knob. As one of the highest peaks in the Appalachians, the summit of Elk Knob boasts an exceptional tri-state view of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, including Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak on the East Coast, fifty miles away in the Black Mountains. The experience at the summit is one of unparalleled quiet, only interrupted by the occasional whistling of High Country winds that rush up the side of the mountain.
For Appalachian University Students like Margot Brown, the primitive camping spots along the Backcountry Trail provide an easily accessible respite from the rigors of college life: “It’s not car camping, but it doesn’t take long to get there. We can sleep out overnight and then be home for class the next morning.”
Winter adventurers will experience a summit feathered in hoarfrost, and dazzling views of rippling, white-frosted mountains without having to brave the cold for too many hours.
Elk Knob State Park is located off of Meat Camp Road in the community of Todd, North Carolina, 9.5 miles outside of Boone. Picnic tables, grills, and restrooms are available. First come first serve campsites can be found along the Backcountry Trail; there are two group sites that require reservations.
Featured image provided by Joe Giordano
Doughton Park, located between milepost 238 and 246, is the largest recreation area along the 469 mile Blue Ridge Parkway. It also happens to be one of the most spectacular locations to soak up fall color changes in the area.
It’s easy enough to stop at a lookout along the BRP and get the view you came for at Doughton — the scenic highway follows the ridge at the top of the park, putting you in a perfect position to peruse the panorama. But to get fully immersed in the landscape, walking some of the 30 miles of trails is the way to go.
The trail system at Doughton is pretty simple. The longest trek runs for about 16.5 miles and creates a ring around the entire park. If time allows, this is the best way to experience all the amazing views the park has to offer.
To make the walk a little easier and more in line with a day-hike time budget, use the trails that cut through the center of the park. The Grassy Gap fire road links to the Bluff Ridge primitive trail. Bluff Ridge is 2.8 miles of nearly straight uphill climbing, terminating on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A shelter sits right near the end of the trail and is a great place for lunch with a view.
While hiking is the main attraction, Doughton Park also offers some other amenities. The campground holds 60+ tent sites and 25 RV sites. Rainbow and brook trout can be found swimming in Basin Cove Creek, just waiting for skilled anglers. And cross country skiing is allowed when the park is accessible in winter (even when other parts of the BRP are closed).
Back in the day, the late 1800’s that is, the area was home to the bustling Basin Cove community. In 1916, however, a flood claimed most of the structures in the area. Two notable survivors are the Brinegar Cabin (circa 1885) and the Caudill Family Homestead. Both are accessible by trail and offer a glimpse into how this very tough breed of settlers once spent their days.
Luckily you don’t have to work nearly as hard as the Caudill’s to get your dinner. Once you’ve finished stuffing your eyes with panoramic scenery, it’s time to stuff your belly with some classic Carolina feed. Featured on BBQ with Bobby Flay, the Brushy Mountain Smokehouse and Creamery is the perfect place to help you balance out all the calories you burned at Doughton. Pulled pork is the star of the show, but this North Wilkesboro eatery also offers ribs, chicken, country ham, fish and a whole pile of other choices including their signature side dish, Brushy Mountain Caviar.
Saving room for dessert is a requirement. As the name suggests, Brushy Mountain makes their own ice cream which is then generously applied to shakes, sundaes, and cakes.
If you want a peek at peak Blue Ridge leaf season from the top of a peak, then Doughton Park in late October and early November is where you need to be.
Featured image provided by Rob Glover