Nature & Outdoors

Hiking Goes Viral

By Randy Johnson

Who would’ve believed last winter that we’d be locked away indoors for months, only to end up jockeying for position on trails suddenly overrun with people?

This summer’s guided national park nature hikes will include rangers reminding us to keep six feet of social distance on the trail.

That’s where we are. At one time or another lately, the most popular formal trails and even remote paths in national parks and forests were shut down. Luckily, as I write this, ding, an email press release from the national forests just arrived announcing the reopening of primitive trail hiking and camping in North Carolina.

We may be out of the woods for now on closed parks, but it’s plausible that COVID-19 cases could spike again. That said, it may be best to continue avoiding the crowds. At the very least, choosing out-of-the-way places to hike may help us rediscover why many people got into hiking in the first place.

I don’t always urge people to avoid popular trails. In fact I’m chagrined to admit that my guidebooks to hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, throughout North Carolina and elsewhere have probably made some hikes more crowded. Every time I drive by the Rough Ridge parking area on the Grandfather Mountain portion of the Parkway I wince at the packed parking lot. I’ve been recommending that hike since before the Parkway even opened! I blame myself! You might as well too.

Articles I wrote in the mid-‘80s for The State magazine (forerunner of today’s Our State) were the first to recommend hikes on what’s now a too popular part of the Parkway. Books followed.

But don’t get the impression that my hiking guides or anyone else’s are full of popular hikes because there’s a shortage of “worthwild” places to go. Not so.

Strategy, Strategy

In fact, my own guides contain not just out-of-the-way hikes, but ways to turn popular places into almost private escapes by offering indirect or alternate ways to enjoy busy destinations.

That’s not just a pitch for my guidebooks. What follows are some recommended strategies and places for losing the crowds. Numero uno: do not hike on the weekends if you can help it, or stick to off-seasons.

Another idea: pick an alternate starting point. Following are a few examples of what I mean.

To hike scenic High Country meadows on the Appalachian Trail (AT), many people start at busy Carver’s Gap near Roan Mountain. Then they say “excuse me, excuse me” all the way up Round Bald.

In Hiking North Carolina I suggest an “alternate start” for an AT hike on the Roan Highlands that’s reached via US 19-E, a gorgeous drive through a less visited part of Avery County. Turn right 8.2 miles south of Elk Park on Roaring Creek Road, and successive rights lead to a dead end at the trailhead.

This scenic hike hits the AT in historic Yellow Mountain Gap, where the patriot militia called the Overmountain Men crossed the ridge in 1780 on their way to victory in the Battle of Kings Mountain. Hike the AT north to the waving grassy balds of Little Hump and Hump Mountains.

That access isn’t a secret, it’s in the book, so forge an “alternate alternative” just across the ridge in East Tennessee’s Carter County. The Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area is reached via TN 143 on the way to Carver’s Gap, just south of the town of Roan Mountain, which recently became an official AT “Trail Town” like Damascus, Virginia. From Hampton Creek Cove, climb the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail to Yellow Mountain Gap and the open balds.

For another AT option, head farther toward Carver’s Gap, but turn right just past Roan Mountain State Park at Jack’s Petrol & Provisions on Cove Creek Road. Continue on Hughes Gap Road to the AT at Hughes Gap. South, the AT makes a challenging climb to Roan that leaves the crowds behind. At the top, whether you go right off the AT to visit Roan’s legendary rhododendron gardens, or stay left on the AT to Roan High Knob Shelter, it’s about 5 miles one way, 10 miles round trip. Eighty percent of either hike is empty and you avoid the car crowd and entry fee at the rhododendron gardens. The peak bloom is around June 20. Go midweek!

North on the AT from Hughes Gap, it’s also a quiet 3.3-mile hike for an overnighter at the Clyde Smith Shelter, a campsite with a Grandfather Mountain connection. It’s named for Smith, an AT pioneer and Blowing Rock boy scout leader who back in the 1940s blazed some of Grandfather Mountain’s early trails, placed artistic trail signs, and built the first Hi-Balsam backpacking shelter (which was rebuilt in 1981).

A few more alternate start hikes:

The Cascades is a noted, and popular, Blue Ridge Parkway interpretive waterfall walk north of Deep Gap at Milepost 271.9. But from nearby Tompkins Knob Overlook, at Milepost 272.5, you can take an inconspicuous connecting trail to the start of the Cascades Trail for a peaceful out-and-back stroll. Or, continue to the Cascades and at least the first half of the hike will be less busy.

I’ve recommended a similar stealth start that makes Rough Ridge quieter. Start at Wilson Creek Parking Area (Milepost 303.6) and the hike north to, and back from, the Rough Ridge summit on the Tanawha Trail is far less crowded than the climb up from the Rough Ridge parking area (Milepost 302.8). Caveat: This “secret start” is always less travelled but it’s in Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway so choose weekdays.

If you have the right skills, and take a low impact approach, off-trail bushwhacks really ditch the crowds. I often urge adding a little side trip to a formal trail to find some solitude.

You can also turn an out-and-back walk into a loop. Holloway Meadow Loop is an example. It starts from the new parking area on Holloway Mountain Road for the Tanawha Trail/Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Hike north on Tanawha, make a left at the Boone Fork Trail junction. Where Boone Fork bears right from a meadow at a marker post, stay straight under the rhododendron. This old road grade trail emerges from the woods to wander left through a stretch of meadow back to the Tanawha Trail you used to hike in. Turn right to retrace your steps back to your car (about 2.6 miles). I’ve recommended that walk in a number of my books, including Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon. A few years ago, the Parkway approved the circuit as a formal hike. 

Moses Cone Park’s refreshingly gradual carriage roads start at a few mobbed trailheads and parking areas—but study a map (or hikes recommended in my books). There are other roadside trail access points that rarely see more than a hiker or two. I describe one hike in Cone Park this way: “a remote trailhead permits a lonely circuit in a normally busy Blue Ridge Parkway hiking area.” Despite that recommendation, on a recent Coronavirus weekend, I only saw two other hikers.

Hike to Nowhere

Maybe now’s the time to popularize a new, but old, concept—a hike to nowhere. Many formal trails along the Parkway in Cone and Price Parks pass tempting side trails, some are old roads, that explore little-known beauty spots. Old Johns River Road at Price Park Milepost 296.1 is nice. Another favorite of mine leaves the Mountains-to-Sea Trail on a route long used by early farmers. Along the way, a spectacular vista of Grandfather Mountain tops a secluded meadow.

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is another best kept secret path to nowhere. Remember that hike from Tompkins Knob above? The crowd is sure be heading north from the overlook, on to the Cascades, or nearby log structures. But look south, to the right, across the grass, to that little hole in the woods where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail slips off to solitude. It’s a marvelously white piney walk, with a pine needle padded tread and gradual grade.

Besides that spot, my Parkway trail guide includes a detailed mileage log of the entire road that lists the location by milepost of every overlook, entrance, exit, and more—including places where the Mountains-to-Sea Trail crosses the Parkway, as it does so many times north of Blowing Rock. Pick one of those places, park gently on the grass (which is permitted), and hike one way or the other. Maybe flip a coin. Take a hike to a quiet piece of nowhere and “shelter in peace.” Then turn back when you’ve forgotten all about “sheltering in place.”

Post-Coronavirus, the safest place to hike may be somewhere no one else wants to be. But don’t feel bad about that. After all, solitude has long been touted as the ultimate reward for taking a walk in the woods.

Randy Johnson’s fourth edition of the FalconGuide Hiking North Carolina publishes in June 2020, twenty-five years after the first. Visit www.randyjohnsonbooks.com or Mountain Dog and Friends pet boutique in Foscoe, NC.

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