Despite your alarm going off before it’s even light out, despite the relentless climbs and knee-shaking descents that seem to go on forever, you know it’s worth it. That moment when the sheltering forest gives way to soaring summit views is even more dazzling when you’ve been earning it for hours. Even the flattened peanut butter sandwich from the bottom of your pack tastes like a million bucks. And then there’s that weightless feeling when, at the end of the day, you’re finally off of your feet and savoring a cold beer. These are just some of the rewards of tackling an epic, all-day hike.
Here, four of our favorite trails near Asheville that will keep you moving from sunup to sundown.
1. Appalachian Trail to Roan Mountain
There are plenty of ways to access the five mile long massif of Roan Mountain, one of the most picturesque landscapes in the Southeast, but the longest and most challenging (and thus, most gratifying) of these is the Appalachian Trail. ‘The Roan’ is located on the North Carolina/Tennessee State line, and is famous for its massive gardens of Catawba Rhododendron that bloom a brilliant purple in the early summer. You’ll definitely want to choose the long way through this heavenly stretch of mountains.
Beginning at Carver’s Gap in Roan Mountain State Park, the AT heads northeast and ambles 14 miles over a number of breathtaking balds, including Jane’s Bald, Little Hump, and Yellow Mountain. The glorious, non-stop views from this rolling ridgeline will make the miles melt away. This marathon of a day hike (also a gorgeous and highly recommended overnight) ends at the trailhead on Highway 19E in Tennessee, so remember to leave a shuttle vehicle.
2. Old Butt Knob Trail to Shining Rock
After you’ve thoroughly soaked in the views and are ready to turn for home, unwind with a more gentle and scenic descent on the Shining Creek Trail. The path begins with a steep plunge, but don’t despair; it soon mellows out and follows a creek for the next three miles. Take a breather at one of the many small trailside waterfalls, and treat your feet to a well-deserved soak.
The Old Butt Knob to Shining Creek linkup is an 8.5 mile loop. Park at the Big East Fork Trailhead off US 276. Begin on the Shining Creek Trail, and look for the northwest turnoff onto Old Butt Knob Trail approximately 1 mile in. Pay close attention, as trails are notoriously easy to miss within the Shining Rock Creek wilderness. The trail will be on your right and begin with an immediate steep climb.
3. Big East Fork
If you’re in the mood for a lengthy hike, but you’re not necessarily jonesing for a punishing climb, this 11 mile loop on The Big East Fork of the Pigeon River will be just the ticket. This lovely and meandering route stitches together sections of the Shining Creek, Art Loeb, Graveyard Ridge, and Big East Fork trails for a dynamic day of rock hopping, river fording, and switchbacks. You will follow the pristine water of the Big East Fork as it tumbles through lush forest, and take in panoramic mountain views at Ivestor Gap. With deep pools for swimming and ample spots for picking wild blueberries and blackberries, the Big East Fork provides the perfect summer escape.
4. Black Mountain Campground to Mount Mitchell
Earn your bragging rights by summiting the highest peak on the east coast on the most direct and difficult trail. Who needs switchbacks when you can reach the towering, 6,682 foot summit of Mt. Mitchell by climbing straight up? Begin in the early morning at the Black Mountain Campground, and prepare for a sensational suffer-fest as you climb 3,600 feet in 5.5 miles. (You may also want to mentally prepare yourself for the trail runners who will dart by, speedy and light, as this trail is popular amongst the most gnarly and super fit athletes in the east.)
As you gain in elevation, the shifting landscape may distract you from the burning in your legs: you will come across new species of plants and animals every 500 feet. The summit of Mount Mitchell has an ecosystem that is otherwise only found in Canada, including Saw-whet owls and northern flying squirrels. From this mighty peak, the sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains are unparalleled. If you decide to plunge down on the same trail that you came up, you will have completed a truly grueling 11 mile day. But the views from the top (and the beer at the bottom) make it all worth it.