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A couple weeks ago I posted a blog about the 7 principles of Leave No Trace when hiking, backpacking, and camping: Click here to see blog post. This week, I am following up on that topic. I interviewed Zane Wolf, who used to work for the Forest Service. He had some awesome tips and insights on how to effectively care for the environment, prevent damage, and enjoy it simultaneously!

man with a mustache smiling

Zane Wolf

Question: What were the top mistakes you saw people make in regards to LNT (Leave No Trace)?

The answer Zane gave surprised me, but made so much sense. He said, “Leave No Trace has a kind of polarizing effect when it’s used unhealthily. You can see somebody who’s not practicing a LNT principle, and you could jump down their throat about it…but that isn’t going to solve anything. If you approach them in a healthy manner and give them some pointers on what they could do better in the future without being confrontational and rude, you are perpetuating a true outdoor steward lifestyle far better than if you were to act like an elitist.”

If we want to protect our environment, then we have to be aware that sometimes our attempts might come off as judgmental or confrontational. No one wants to be lectured, so if you see someone not abiding by LNT, take a moment to be sure your words won’t sound argumentative.

Question: What was the most shocking effect of people not practicing LNT that you saw while working for the Forest Service?

Nothing could have prepared me for the answer that came out of Zane’s mouth. While working on the Forest Service, Zane got a call from some hunters asking if they could shoot an elk with a tracking collar. The hunters were told that was fine, but to return the tracking collar to the Forest Service. Not long after, Zane recalls, “they called us back and told us that the elk didn’t actually have a tracking collar on at all, but that it was a toilet seat.” He said that when they saw the elk’s body, the skin on it’s neck had grown around the seat. This meant that the poor animal had been living with this for over a year. It’s hard to think about something like this happening, but it’s important to realize the damage we can cause if we don’t practice LNT principles.

male elk in a field surrounded by female elk

Question: What LNT mistakes are often made that create more of an issue than people realize?

Something that Zane saw all too much of during his time with the Forest Service was people failing to hike and camp on durable surfaces. Most hikers who don’t know about LNT often assume that going off trail, or pitching a tent wherever they see fit, couldn’t cause THAT much damage. Unfortunately, it really does effect the environment significantly. Zane gave a great example of these effects on trail switchbacks. Because water flows downhill, switchbacks are put in place for shedding water as slowly as possible. This reduces the amount of sediment being taken by the rain. When people hike up a mountain and go off of the designated switchback trail, it defeats the purpose entirely. The less functional a switchback becomes, the more vegetation is killed. This then forces animals to move down the mountain for food. When that happens, the population of animals forced to relocate is often decimated by hunting. Again, a sad reality, but an important truth to remember.

Question: What are some of your tips and tricks for effectively and easily practicing LNT?

Zane stressed the importance of principle 5, which is to minimize campfire impact. As I discussed in the last LNT blog, it’s always best to not use a fire at all. Instead, try to use a camp stove, which will automatically leave no trace. If you do build a fire, here are a few pointers from Zane:

  1. Make sure to put the fire in a hole that is at least 7 inches deep if there is no pre-existing fire ring.
  2. If you are in an environment/climate that allows you to burry your fire to put it out, there is a specific way to do this. Zane said that if you stick your hand in the dirt and it is still hot, then the fire isn’t sufficiently put out.

Campfire at night

Another way Zane likes to use LNT is in his personal life. This viewpoint is one I hadn’t thought of, but really love. Here are a few of his methods for applying the LNT mindset to your everyday life:

  1.  “As far as traveling and camping on durable surfaces, that applies directly to building a foundation with your life upon something that you know is sound.”
  2. “You can plan ahead and prepare, and make a good life plan. You can be prepared for what the consequences may be if you decide to go out on a limb.”
  3. “Minimizing campfire impact, to me, applies directly to burning bridges. Don’t burn a bridge that you might need someday.”
  4. “Disposing of waste properly is something that applies directly to your mental health. Don’t stuff something down in a corner emotionally where it doesn’t need to be. If you need to dish something out, then dish it out right then in a healthy way instead of letting it fester.”

 

I’m really glad Zane agreed to do this interview, and am happy to say I gained a lot of valuable information and advice. My hope is that I can spread this insight to all of you. If you can adopt the LNT principles, both on and off the trail, then your relationship with yourself, others, and the environment will be more fulfilling and enjoyable.

 

Across the 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 front-country 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 terrains 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 hhard-pressedto 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 Insta-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.

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Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart Photography

On any given summer weekend in Hot Springs, North Carolina, pack-laden hikers and paddlers in wetsuits can be seen traversing the sidewalks of this tiny, no-traffic-light Appalachian Trail town, population 575. Acoustic music drifts from the open doors of taverns and the occasional train whistle echoes through the valley.

Surrounded by Pisgah National Forest, Hot Springs is only about 25 miles (40 minutes) from Asheville, but it feels a world away. Adrenaline may be pumping on the Class III rapids of the French Broad River which runs through the center of town, but on the main drag, Bridge Street, the pace is nothing but slow Southern town, with a certain mountain charm that has to be experienced to be understood.

Looking down at Hot Springs from Lover's Leap
Looking down at Hot Springs from Lover’s Leap
Joanne O’Sullivan

And it’s no surprise that people have been experiencing this place for over a century. The mineral springs, for which the town is named, first brought tourists here in the 1880s, but it’s the Appalachian Trail, which literally runs down the main street here, that has given Hot Springs a reputation as an outdoor destination.

As a home base for exploring the river, the national forest, or the many nearby trails, Hot Springs has everything you need. Here are the essentials for a Hot Springs visit:

Gear Up 

Diamond Brand Outdoors and Frugal Backpacker have been supplying AT thru hikers and daytime visitors with provisions since 1964. Not only do they have gear, food, maps and all other kinds of supplies hikers might need, they also have a world of knowledge and local expertise.

Fuel Up 

Considering the size of the town, there are an impressive number of places to eat in Hot Springs. The Spring Creek Tavern describes itself as ‘hiker friendly,’ (which means they don’t mind if you smell like sweat and dirty socks), and with 12 beers on tap as well as excellent pub standards like burgers and wraps, it’s a great place to refuel. The covered deck next to the creek has prime seating and is usually full on weekend nights. Just next door, Still Mountain Restaurant and Tavern has more of a bar-pub feel and menu, and they often have musical acts playing into the night on their outdoor patio.

If you really clean up well, Mountain Magnolia Inn is primarily a romantic B &B, but it’s also an upscale restaurant with amazing views and is open to the public.

Get Out There 

The French Broad River next to Hot Springs
The French Broad River next to Hot Springs
David Wilson

There are about a dozen rafting concessions near Hot Springs, including an outpost of the Blue Heron Whitewater and Hot Springs Rafting Co. Each outfitter offers something a little different. Some offer kayaks, canoes, and funyaks. Some offer tubes, with guided and self-guided trips depending on the area of the river (the French Broad near Hot Springs has everything from Class I to Class IV). Of course, you can bring your own gear, too.

If you’re seeking a hike, the Appalachian Trail runs down the sidewalk in Hot Springs then back into Pisgah National Forest, but there are plenty of other local trails, depending on what you’re interested in. The local library has plenty of information. One of the most popular hikes in Western North Carolina is just 20 minutes from town at Max Patch, a Southern Appalachian bald with 360-degree views and great picnic opportunities.

Wind Down

After a long day on the trail or fighting the rapids, the outdoor mineral baths at Hot Springs Resort and Spa might be just what you’re looking for. The tubs are spaced far enough apart to allow for privacy, and the optional spa services menu includes everything from integrative massage to hot stone and mud bath therapies. The resort also has tent and RV camping sites along the river, plus cabins.

If you’d rather unwind with a drink, Iron Horse Station might be more your speed. The restaurant and tavern offer a varied menu, wine, beer, and acoustic music. It’s located in a historic building across from the railroad track and there are upscale hotel rooms located upstairs.

Bunk Down

Hot Springs Cabin
Hot Springs Cabin
David Wilson

In addition to the other lodging options mentioned, there are a number of local campgrounds. Appalachian Trail hikers favor the Sunnybank Inn, operated by Elmer Hall, a man who has hosted hikers for over 30 years. If you’ll be heading toward Max Patch and want a more private retreat, try Kana’Ti Lodge, a small eco-lodge with spectacular surroundings.

If you’re looking for a perfect outdoor weekend getaway in the southeast, Hot Springs should definitely be at the top of your list. 

 

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Featured image provided by David Wilson

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. 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 State 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 camp sites can be found along the Backcountry Trail; there are two group sites that require reservations.

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Featured image provided by Joe Giordano

Why waste the winter months hibernating indoors? Snow, ice, and frosty temperatures provide plenty of fodder for outdoor adventure from moderate to extreme. When winter weather rolls into the Southeast, North Carolina’s wild spaces are briefly and beautifully transformed, with much more to offer beyond black diamond downhill runs.

1. Snowshoeing

Requiring far less finesse than downhill or cross-country skiing, snowshoeing is ideal for ski school dropouts — and sturdily-built snowshoes can go places skis can’t. In the High Country just north of Boone, Elk Knob State Park consistently gets a more-than-generous dusting of snow. Even better, the park remains open throughout the winter, Elk Knob’s trails are prime for exploring by snowshoe after a coating of fresh powder.

In Beech Mountain, the loftiest town in the eastern United States (sitting at 5,506 feet), visitors can explore 30 miles of maintained trails, and snowshoe rentals are available at the Beech Mountain Resort. Novices can warm up on the recreation center’s 1/3-mile loop, while pros can head for the 8 miles of alpine tracks at the Emerald Outback, the town’s picturesque trail park. Tentative snowshoe converts can ease into the sport with a guided tour at Sugar Mountain Resort outside Banner Elk.

2. Winter Hiking

Explore Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, located on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Christopher Sims

Head for North Carolina’s most popular trails when temperatures plunge, and less hearty hikers have gone home to roost for the winter. Waterfalls are among the state’s most popular hiking destinations, and in winter, most cascades are equally stunning, transformed into gravity-defying ice sculptures. Outside Brevard, head for Moore Cove Falls, in the Pisgah National Forest, accessible after a brief 0.7-mile hike. Or strike for the state’s most popular flume, Linville Falls. You can hike there via the trails that begin along the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 316). Even when the parkway is closed for winter weather, the falls are still accessible courtesy of trailhead located off NC 183 (on Wiseman’s’ View Road, NC 1238), outside the town of Linville Falls.

Or you can set out for one of the state’s most popular peaks, Max Patch, without the fall and summer crowds. An iconic southern Appalachian bald outside the town of Hot Springs, the 4,629-foot Max Patch is crowned with more than 300 acres of airy alpine meadows. The view-laden summit is accessible via a number of approaches, including the Appalachian Trail, but the most direct route is the 2.6-mile loop beginning at the parking area on Max Patch Road (SR 1182).

 

3. Rock Climbing

Some crags are better in winter, including some of North Carolina’s premier routes, which are best tackled after autumn’s crisp chill arrives. Slopes too toasty in spring and summer become climbable. Rising dramatically above a thickly wooded expanse of the Pisgah National Forest, Looking Glass Rock, just a few miles outside Brevard, is one of the largest monoliths in the country, providing unparalleled climbing opportunities. The massive granite dome is best climbed in fall and winter. For bouldering aficionados, Looking Glass also has plenty of problems, primarily collected along the base of the North Side of the monolith, accessible along the North Side Trail.

Southeast of Asheville in Chimney Rock State Park, the southern cliffs of Rumbling Bald make for another ideal winter climb, and the Rumbling Bald Trail also meanders past three boulder fields loaded with nearly a thousand problems.

 

 

4. Canopy Tours

North Carolina’s stunning landscapes become even more spectacular when viewed from above, and for outdoor-lovers immune to frosty temperatures, canopy tours aren’t just limited to spring or summer. Soar above the snow-frosted landscape in the North Carolina High Country with the two-hour Snowbird Tour at Hawksnest outside the town of Banner Elk. Or get a bird’s eye view of southern Appalachia with a winter zipline adventure at Navitat or Treetops Adventure Park in Asheville.

5. Ice Climbing

North Carolina is one of only two states where Fox Mountain Guides offers ice-climbing.

During icy winters, the land of waterfalls becomes a frozen wonderland, making North Carolina of the best ice climbing destinations in the south. For novices, Fox Mountain Guides operates in Pisgah National Forest and offers expert-led trips. North Carolina is the only state aside from New Hampshire where the climbing school offers ice-scaling expeditions.

For experts, when wintery conditions prevail along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the ice-glazed bluffs and crags of Doughton Park (milepost 240), provide an abundance of climbing options, including tackling the rock ledges framing the iconic roadway (climbing is permitted when the parkway is closed to vehicles). In the Nantahala National Forest, just outside Cashiers, the soaring cliff faces of Whiteside Mountain appear glazed with ice year-round. However, when the cliffs truly are iced over, Whiteside is transformed into one of the East’s top destinations for unflappable, peak-bagging pros — with options like Starshine, an iconic 200-foot route.

6. Cross-Country Skiing

While snowy forecasts may keep drivers off roadways, predictions of wintery weather will have cross-country skiers chomping at the bit. When snow and ice render North Carolina’s most stunning roadway — the Blue Ridge Parkway — inaccessible for vehicles, the thoroughfare is transformed into an extensive Nordic track for cross-country skiers. The High Country section of the parkway skirting Grandfather Mountain between Blowing Rock and Linville is beloved by local Nordic enthusiasts. Near the parkway’s southern terminus, the stretch of roadway around Soco Gap can also become skiable, loaded with close-ups of the frosty peaks of the Great Smoky and Plott Balsam mountains. Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 292.7), the more than 20 miles of carriage-roads lacing the 3,500-acre Moses Cone Memorial Park morph into Nordic wonderland with a blanketing of snow.

7. Backpacking

The Appalachian Trail crosses the top of Max Patch Mountain, offering views of the Appalachian Mountains.
Jason A.G.

Winter camping makes for a singular outdoor adventure. Familiar landscapes can take on a different dimension—and present new challenges. Tackle a bite-sized thru hike in western North Carolina on the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail, rambling through the Shining Rock Wilderness and over some of the loftiest peaks in the Black Balsam mountains. The trail can be broken up into shorter sections for backpackers wanting to cut their teeth with a quick winter overnight.

For ambitious backcountry snow-bunnies, the Bartram Trail, named for 18th century naturalist William Bartram, winds through North Carolina and Georgia for 100-miles, mingling with the Appalachian Trail several times. The western North Carolina stretch rambles through pristine expanses of the Nantahala National Forest, culminating at the summit of 5,062-foot Cheoah Bald.

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Featured image provided by Adam Fagen

Intro

Mt. Sterling towers above the Pigeon River Gorge on the northern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sterling is a mountain steeped in history and covered in an elegant mix of hardwood and evergreen forestry.

The mountain was mistakenly named after a 2 foot streak of lead that crosses the Pigeon River on the Northern foot of the mighty mountain. Prospectors flocked in search of silver that was never found. Nowadays, visitors still come in search of metal, in the form of the east coast’s highest remaining fire tower.

On Sterling’s 5,842 foot summit stands a rickety and rusted, 60 foot tower which peaks above the surrounding forestry to give brave onlookers a sprawling view of the surrounding beauties of Southern Appalachia. It’s actually the tallest existing true fire tower in the South. (Want to explore WNC fire towers?)

What Makes It Great

In terms of a view, the one achieved from braving the harrowing and narrowing steps of the Mt. Sterling fire tower is unparalleled. Once you’ve adjusted to the swaying old fire tower, you can enjoy panoramic vistas in all directions.

The most popular approach to Sterling’s summit starts out at Mt. Sterling Gap and involves a 5 mile round-trip through the woods. The Gap is in the middle of a remote and rugged stretch of road that is historically known as “The Old Cataloochee Turnpike.”

From the Mt. Sterling Gap Trailhead, hikers begin their journey on the aptly named Mt. Sterling Trail. For 2.3 miles, the trail winds upwards 2,000 feet along Sterling’s flanks through old-growth fir forests lined with fascinating flora. Once you’ve completed this section of trail, the path turns to the right and gently follows the ridge line of Mt. Sterling for another .4 mile to its summit. The summit is home to a fragrant evergreen forest and backcountry campsite #38.

Water can be found roughly .2 mile past the summit down the well-signed Baxter Creek Trail. Although beautiful, the summit itself does not offer any long range views. View seekers must make their way up the tower to obtain a scenic perspective.

Who is Going to Love It

Adventurous hikers who desire a memorable view are really going to find what they are looking for on this mountain. The tower provides some incredible photo ops and an almost unimaginably expansive view of the Smokies, as well as Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. If you enjoy the pungent aroma of evergreens, then the forests of Mt. Sterling are the perfect place to come to stimulate your sense of smell.

Hikers looking for a more strenuous day can take the Baxter Creek trail for a strenuous 6.2 mile approach to Sterling’s summit from the Big Creek Campground area.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

From Asheville, take Interstate 40 west to the North Carolina/Tennessee state line and take exit 451 for Waterville. Turn left and cross the bridge onto Waterville Road. After 2 miles, you will come to a four-way intersection. Take a left onto Mt. Sterling Road and continue for 6.7 miles on the gravel road until reaching the sign for Mt. Sterling Gap.

If you are up for a scenic drive after your hike, continue in the same direction on The Old Cataloochee Turnpike into Cataloochee Valley to view historic sites and famous wildlife. Well marked signs will help you return from Cataloochee Valley to Interstate 40.

No fees or permits are required for a day hike to Mt. Sterling but you must register ahead of time for a spot at backcountry campsite #38.

Featured image provided by Miguel Vieira

Intro

The Appalachian Trail follows the crest of the Appalachians along the North Carolina and Tennessee state line. In between the soaring mountains of the Great Smokies and the rolling hills of Hot Springs, the AT passes over the grassy bald known as Max Patch. The man-made meadow on top of the mountain was once home to large herds of grazing cattle. Today, the luscious green summit is home to one of the most acclaimed view-points in the Southeast and the herds have switched from bovine beasts to outdoor enthusiasts. A variety of trails can be used to access Max Patch. The most popular and pedestrian of the choices leads hikers to the grassy summit on a short, half -mile climb to the top.

What Makes It Great

At 4,600 feet, Max Patch is not a particularly high mountain, yet the views from the top are highly acclaimed. The view’s infamy comes from its grass covered summit stage, which offers long range views in every direction. The view is framed to the southwest by the northern giants of the National Park: Mt. Guyot, Mt. Sterling and Big Cataloochee. The Plott and Great Balsam Ranges paint the southeastern skyline while the towering crest of the Black Mountains stands guard to the east and the Roans to the north. The Patch is surrounded by picturesque rolling hills and mountains leading up to these mighty ridge lines in three directions. To the west, however, an uninterrupted view over the lush expanse of Tennessee allows for a famously stunning sunset view.

Several trail options line the sides and summit of Max Path. From the parking lot, visitors can take the direct route to the summit for a 1-mile round trip or the 2.4 miles loop which circumnavigates The PatchThose looking for a prolonged jaunt through the woods can follow the AT north or south as far as their hearts desire.

Who is Going to Love It

Photographers will find life-list photo opportunities atop Max Patch thanks to its ideal location on the western edge of the Appalachians. Bring your tripod along and set up for spectacular stellar and sunset shots. (Looking for more photogenic landscapes?) Romantics can take full advantage of Max Patch’s beauty by packing a blanket and picnic lunch to the easy access summit. Cap off your romantic evening as you return towards Asheville by taking a dip in the dreamy waters of nearby Hot Springs Resort. Anglers, bring your gear and cast a line in the Forest Service pond just past the parking area. The brave even venture to The Patch in winter for skiing and sledding amongst the sublime scenery.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

A trio of route options leads to Max Patch from Asheville. If you choose to tackle these routes in winter, come prepared with an emergency kit and snow-worthy vehicle. There is no access fee for the trailhead. Camping is allowed in nearby areas, but is prohibited on the summit itself. Venture just past the summit for the prime locations. Bring your fury friend along for this outing: the area is dog friendly and they will thoroughly enjoy the grassy summit!

Featured image provided by Jake Wheeler

Intro

Mt. Pisgah Campground is located high atop the Pisgah Ledge at Flat Laurel Gap off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Centered amongst the wonders of the Pisgah National Forest, at an elevation of 5,000’, the Mt. Pisgah campground is ideally located for a ridgeline retreat. This mountain top campground is home to 70 tent and 70 RV sites, restroom and shower facilities, as well as several handicap accessible sites. Pack up all the luxuries car camping affords and reserve a spot in the heavenly confines of Mt. Pisgah Campground for your next adventure vacation!

What Makes It Great

The true beauty of this campground lies in its unique location along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A 20 mile drive along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway takes visitors high atop the prominent Pisgah Ledge on its way from Asheville to the Mt. Pisgah campground. The campground is nestled amongst some of the finest outdoor recreational opportunities around. With little more than a short drive campers have access to the Big East Fork and Black Balsam trailheads, Mt. Pisgah, Looking Glass and Sliding Rock as well as the famous mountain biking trails of the Pisgah National Forest! An elevation of 5,000’ ensure cool summertime temperatures! The campground also has access to a picnic area and nature trails that leave directly from the grounds.

The world famous Pisgah Inn sits directly across the parkway and gives visitors unique access to the finer things in life as they camp in the wilderness. The dining room at the Pisgah Inn is lined with glass and overlooks the pristine Pisgah National Forest below. A delicious array of Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner items are served to patrons as they enjoy the finest view available from a dining room table! The Pisgah Inn also offers a Country Store, for those last minute camping supplies, and access to laundry facilities to refresh your wardrobe on prolonged outings.

Who is Going to Love It

The Mt. Pisgah campground and its surroundings amenities combine to form an outdoor oasis that “glamping” dreams are made of! Take advantage of the drive-up campsites by bringing your luxury list of camping items! Venture out on an epic Pisgah adventure during the day then return to camp for a shower. Next, cap off your epic day with a beverage and the delicious fare at the neighboring Pisgah Inn; camping never tasted so good.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

The Mt. Pisgah Campground is located at milepost 408 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Gather your gear at Diamond Brand Outdoors, conveniently located right beside the Parkway!

Sites range from $16-$19 and the campground is open spring through fall.

Check Recreation.gov for more details on availability and reservations. For more information on the campground’s rules and regulations and a detailed map of the grounds click here.

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Featured image provided by Steven Reinhold

The color experts predict our warm, dry winter and wet, temperate summer have set ideal conditions for a bright and healthy 2017 fall color show in the North Carolina mountains. Dr. Howard S. Neufeld, professor of biology and the “fall color guy” at Appalachian State University in Boone, says healthy trees will add to bright yellows joining the familiar orange and purple hues that mark autumn in the Asheville area. The Blue Ridge Mountains put on a show that spans six to eight weeks thanks to the variation in elevation throughout the region, according to RomanticAsheville.com.

There’s nothing quite like fall in Western Carolina — when the mountain air turns crisp and cool, the nostalgia comes flooding back with overwhelming waves of inexplicable sensation. Here are 30 reasons why autumn in Asheville is the most spectacular time of year.

1. Months of Foliage

The mountains of Western Carolina donning their fiery October red.
The mountains of Western Carolina donning their fiery October red.
Sarah Zucca

Due to early frost, warm weather, and a dramatic variance in elevation, the Blue Ridge boasts one of the most brilliant and long-lasting displays of foliage in the country. What a spectacular season to wander through the mountains, from high up in Craggy Gardens and Graveyard Fields, which are the first to turn, to the relative low country of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock, which are the last to peak in early November.

2. Sleep Soundly

It's more comfortable than it looks!
It’s more comfortable than it looks!
David Clarke

Say goodbye to the restless, muggy nights of summer. A slight drop in body temperature is actually conducive to falling asleep and waking up refreshed, so curl up in your down sleeping bag and enjoy a chilly fall night under the stars. Check out Mt. Pisgah Campground, perched high in the Pisgah National Forest. Or, just sleep with the windows open!

3. Fall Festival Season is Back

Asheville Outdoor Show at Salvage Station.
Kelty

Festival season never really stops in the North Carolina mountains, but there’s an ah-mazin’ run from the Asheville Outdoor Show in September to the Asheville Holiday Parade in November. Fall also plays host to Goombay, Autumn at Oz, LEAF, and more. Head out to Franklin for PumpkinFest, an iconic mountain celebration featuring the World Famous Pumpkin Roll.

4. Happy Dogs

Happiest dog ever.
Happiest dog ever.
Peter Laurent

Dogs across the Southeast are breathing a sigh of relief now that the temperatures are finally dropping. With her fur coat no longer a burden, your dog is happily anticipating a brisk season of chasing balls, rolling in dead leaves, and accompanying you on those long, refreshing hikes.

5. Seasonal Brews

One of the most compelling reasons to get outside this season is what’s waiting for you when you return: lots of seasonal craft favorites like Asheville Brewing Company‘s Carolina Mountain Monster Imperial Stout, Catawba Brewing Company‘s King Don’s Pumpkin Ale, and Hi-Wire Brewing‘s Apricot Sour Ale. Spend some time exploring the stunning landscapes of Linville Gorge Wilderness or Pantertown Valley, then put your feet up and indulge with a sensational season brew. If a day of tasting is more of your thing, Asheville Oktoberfest can’t be beat.

6. Invigoration

Feeling inspired to go for a long hike? Not surprising.
Feeling inspired to go for a long hike? Not surprising.
Rachel Titiriga

Is it the snap in the air, the sweet relief from August’s humidity, or the backdrop of orange and gold that makes us feel so alive and and alert? Autumn breathes new life into the soul and the landscape, painting the mountains burgundy, turning cheeks pink, and instilling a craving for hard work and adventure. Channel this burst of energy by tackling some of the best trail running spots in the area.

7. Crunchy Leaves

Don't you want to crunch it?
Don’t you want to crunch it?
Nana B Agyei

There’s something so satisfying and quintessentially autumn about crunching your heal down on a dry, brittle leaf. It adds yet another element of tactile delight to the endless hiking trails that surround Asheville.

8. No More Pests
The air is clear of pollen, mosquitos are no longer swarming, and poison ivy has lost its summer potency. Overall, the wilderness is a more friendly, comfortable, and inviting place to lose yourself for the weekend.

9. Cooler Races

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s folks in Asheville keeping things weird!
Asheville Running Experience

Weekend warriors, get ready! Not only is the temperature cooler, but the races have more spunk and personality. The Asheville Running Experience offers five events over three days: ARX Happening, ARX Half Marathon, Asheville Brewing Super Hero 5K & Fun Run, Asheville Urban Odyssey presented by Frugal Backpacker, and Chasing Trail 8K. The cooler season also sees Asheville’s oldest running event, the Thomas Wolfe 8K; the Shut-In Ridge Trail Race; and the Asheville Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving.

10. Empty Swimming Holes 

So cold. But so worth it.
So cold. But so worth it.
Melina Coogan

September still has its fair share of 80+ degree days and there is a major perk to taking an early fall dip: with the kids back in school and the holidays over, you might find some peaceful solitude at the region’s best swimming holes and have swimmable waterfalls all to yourself!

11. Whitewater Races

Kayaking racing season in full force
Kayak racing season in full force.
Melina Coogan

Kayakers, take your marks! The Green Race — one of the greatest spectacles in outdoor sports — takes place on the first Saturday of November.

12. Apple Orchards 

This dog seriously loves apples
This dog seriously loves apples.
Melina Coogan

In terms of classic fall adventure, nothing compares to the endless delights of an apple orchard. Go for a hay ride, hang out with a scarecrow, sip on warm cider. Picking apples under bright cobalt skies is the perfect excuse to get the whole family outside for the day.

13. Stock Up On Gear

We kick off the fall season with an awesome Labor Day Sale and keep the local love coming throughout the season to ensure everyone has the “Asheville uniform:” plaid shirt, vest, and beanie or trucker hat. Perfect for days spent on the trail and nights spent on the town.

14. Driving with the windows down

Ahhh, yes.
Ahhh, yes!
Chovee

For the past four months, driving has been either sweltering hot or artificially freezing. Fall brings the immense pleasure of driving with the windows down, making your commute to the trailhead downright enjoyable. Blast the radio and cruise The Blue Ridge Parkway (America’s longest linear park!) with fresh air rushing in and your hair flying in the breeze.

15. Bouldering Season

It's bouldering season again.
It’s bouldering season again.
Melina Coogan

September kicks off the start of bouldering season in Western Carolina; the air is snappy and the holds are grippy! Throw on your wool beanie, chalk up, and get thee to Rumbling Bald.

16. Pumpkin Seeds

One of the best ways to spend a fall evening with friends
One of the best ways to spend a fall evening with friends
Melina Coogan

As if you needed another reason to carve a pumpkin: those pepitas (or pumpkin seeds) are chalk full of magnesium, manganese, and protein. Roast them with a little sea salt and bring them along on your next hiking session for a healthy, locally grown snack. Churches, schools, and civic organizations all sell pumpkins as fundraisers, so you can feel even better about your new orange purchase.

17. Cozy Dates

Catching the last of the sun's rays on Black Balsam Knob.
Catching the last of the sun’s rays on Black Balsam Knob.
Melina Coogan

It’s only natural that we’re all looking for love before winter sets in. That, combined with the inherent coziness of shorter days and blustery weather, makes autumn the optimal season for dating. Check out these romantic fall outings for you and your sweetie.

18. Scarf Season

Apparently, scarf season isn't just for humans.
Apparently, scarf season isn’t just for humans.
Melina Coogan

Be it chunky knit cowl or fine wool wrap, we all appreciate the little boost of being bundled up in a bright scarf. Part fashion and part good sense, it’s the perfect accessory for heading outdoors, out with friends, or to the office.

19. Leaf Piles

At the intersection of household chores and childhood delights, enormous leaf piles are autumn’s answer to the swimming hole. Rake one up and dive right in — you know you want to.

20. Bonfires

There's nothing quite like the smell of campfires in autumn
There’s nothing quite like the smell of campfires in autumn.
Melina Coogan

Stave off brisk evenings and impending darkness with the warmth and glow of a backyard bonfire. Invite some friends, toast a marshmallow, and crack open some cheer. For many people, wood smoke is one of the most pleasant and nostalgic smells out there. Kick back, breathe deep, and enjoy!

21. Afternoon Light

Taking a break to lounge in the autumnal glow
Taking a break to lounge in the autumnal glow.
Melina Coogan

By mid-October, the foliage has reached the height of its splendor. When late afternoon sunlight filters through the deciduous canopy, the forest is transformed into a shifting kaleidoscope of gold, amber, and scarlet. Even the most focused and dialed-in adventurer will take a moment to pause and moved by this display of mountain glory.

22. Photography

With such an exuberant spectrum of color and texture, fall is a dynamic season for anyone with an eye for photography. Capture every radiant detail from a single copper leaf to a whole sweeping landscape. (We recommend visiting these particularly photogenic places during peak foliage.)

23. Foggy Morning Trail Runs

Rising early with the fog to enjoy a trail run is about as good as it gets
Rising early with the fog to enjoy a trail run is about as good as it gets.
Beau B

What could be a better start to your day than a trail run through the still-quiet fog of an October morning? Perhaps you’ll even see the silver of the season’s first frost feathering the grass and leaves before the warmth of the daylight melts it away.

24. Race Bikes at Oskar Blues 

The sublimely named Dirt Diggler Gravel Grinder will be held in September at the Oskar Blue REEB Ranch. This hybrid bike race is a 50/50 blend of gravel and pavement, capped off with 2 miles of sweet single track. If it’s not your thing, biking through the meandering roads of Transylvania County is great or you can also experience DuPont National Forest‘s autumn finery by foot.

25. Hot Coffee on Cold Mountain Mornings

Toboggans and piping hot coffee: two surefire signs that fall is in the air.
Toboggans and piping hot coffee: two surefire signs that fall is in the air.
Melina Coogan

Simply put, waking up in the mountains on a cold fall morning, preparing a hot cup of coffee, and watching the steam rise against the brightening sky is one of the greatest pleasures on earth. If you prefer a barista to craft your cup o’ joe, High Five‘s Riverside Drive location on the French Broad River in Woodfin has a great view.

26. Petrichor

Fall brings the possibility of passing tropical storms, bringing strong winds and heavy precipitation to the Blue Ridge. Rivers rise, gardens thrive, and we get to experience petrichor — that wonderful earthy scent that occurs after a hard rain falls on dry earth. For a rejuvenating adventure, check out a riverside hike such as the Laurel River Trail after a rainstorm and breathe deep.

27. Corn Mazes

Getting lost in a corn maze is one of the most quintessentially autumn things you can do.
Getting lost in a corn maze is one of the most quintessentially autumn things you can do.
Kevin Zamani

Getting lost amongst the stalks: it’s an autumnal right of passage. Check out the Eliada Corn Maze, just five minutes from Downtown Asheville. One hundred percent of proceeds go directly to Eliada Children’s Home.

28. Sunny Days on the Rock

Autumn is the most enjoyable time of year to explore the local crags. The rock is no longer sweating in the summer sun and the views from the top are more beautiful than ever. Tie onto the sharp end and tackle the iconic multi-pitches at Looking Glass Rock in the cool breeze, without fear of burning up.

29. Cider Season

There are a lot of cozy things about fall, but cider might just be the coziest of all.
There are a lot of cozy things about fall, but cider might just be the coziest of all.
Melina Coogan

We may not fully understand the difference between apple juice and apple cider, but we know that cider is by far the more delicious way to rehydrate after a long ride, especially when it’s fresh pressed from the orchards of Western Carolina. For the hard stuff, be sure to check out CiderFest NC in October to taste some of the region’s finest.

30. The First Dusting of Snow

The faintest of dustings near Black Balsam Knob
The faintest of dustings near Black Balsam Knob
Melina Coogan

Sometime in late October, we’ll wake up and catch our first glimpse of the Blue Ridge Mountains dusted in snow. Then we’ll enjoy a brief and vibrant few weeks of frosty mornings coupled with warm days before winter takes its hold on the land. For outdoor enthusiasts, this means only one thing — ski season is just around the corner.

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Originally written by RootsRated.

Featured image provided by flattop341

Repeat after me: traveling light is very important. Why, especially if your destination allows you to check bags for free, is it worth the effort to pack light? Packing light can be the difference between a great vacation and a lot of bag schlepping.  When you bring more bags you limit your ability to experience your destination like a local. Have you ever tried packing on to a crowded bus loaded down with bags? It’s not a simple or safe idea. And, of course, the less you bring, the more flexible you can be with your plans. Here are a few of my top tips for lightening your load.

Organize Your Travel

A simple, but often overlooked, truth is that you can’t pack effectively until you know what you’re packing for. Ask yourself what activities you will really want to participate in, how you’ll be getting around, and what you will realistically want to carry. If you will be taking public transit, think about what you can move quickly and keep safe.

In most cases, one bag should be the goal. If you need a personal item, I recommend choosing a bag that can slip securely over the handle of your roller bag or one that zips on, like these options from Deuter and Osprey.

Once you’ve selected a great bag, think about the best way to organize it. I’m a huge fan of packing cubes that offer compression features, like the ones made by Grand Trunk (currently available at DBO). These are a great way to fit a little more in your bag. As a bonus, they’ll also keep your items organized and easy to access on the road. Alternatively, try rolling items and organizing them by category into gallon size zip top bags.

Bring Items That Do Double Duty

Look for items that fill multiple needs. If you plan your wardrobe right, there is no reason to bring two wardrobes for day and night. I’m a huge fan of sleek technical pants and relaxed dresses from brands like Prana, that are comfortable for all day wear, but can be dressed up for dinner. Rather than bring multiple jackets, I try to stick with a lightweight rain jacket for most destinations. It hardly takes up any room and since it’s also windproof, it keeps me plenty warm in most conditions.

Match Your Items

Lay out the items that you’re thinking of bringing and nix anything that doesn’t match the rest of your clothing. When you can mix and match your outfit options increase exponentially. A couple of well chosen accessories are an excellent way to avoid outfit fatigue.

Follow the Rule of Threes

When it comes to packing light three is the magic number. It’s the right amount of items to have for wash one, wear one, dry one, convenience. Follow this rule for shirts, socks, and underwear, and bring a little powder detergent and a Scrubba bag, and you’ll reap benefits in the form of a fantastically light bag. Picking clothing in quick drying technical materials will make this even easier.

Only Bring It If You Can’t Buy It

It’s good to be prepared, but the world is not as unfamiliar of a place as you might think. It’s easy to weigh down your bag with toiletries, food, and things that you “might need”, but pretty much anything that you leave at home can be purchased at your destination. I’d rather make a quick stop for an essential that I left behind, than lug something around that I never wind up using.

Get Tough

Do you really need it? Does it fill a purpose that nothing else in your bag can? Will your trip really be better because you brought it with you? If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, leave it behind.

Get Better Every Time

These tips will get you a great start with packing light, but experience is an excellent teacher. When you return from your travels, take note of what you wound up using and what stayed in the bag. Use your insights to lighten up your bag on your next excursion.

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