Western North Carolina's wild byways offer unsurpassed opportunities for family treks — a chance to expand relationships with one another and the environment, with no admission fee required.
Hiking can make a profound difference in kids' lives, says Carolyn Ward, program director for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation's Kids in Parks. Oft-cited statistics reveal that children today are "plugged in" to media for an average of eight hours per day, and one in three children is overweight or obese. With family expendable income declining, the need for fun, cost-effective activities for families has grown.
"We're already in a generation of parents who didn't go to the woods as kids. If we don't do something, we'll end up with lots of folks voting who don't see value in national parks as natural resources," Ward points out. Besides the obvious physical benefits, exposure to nature, she claims, decreases ADHD, depression and school-yard bullying, and increases SAT scores, brain activity and growth.
Whether parents want to bond on a budget, sustain an active lifestyle or just enjoy an outdoor adventure, these outstanding hikes are accessible, memorable — and free.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Mile Marker 384: The pilot TRACK Trail for Kids in Parks, the Asheville Visitor's Center at Mile Marker 384 introduces families to nature. Parents pick up brochures at the trailhead and use these to guide exploration. Preschoolers get a "hide-and-seek" brochure, while teens to adults can get brochures featuring riddles, activities and clues tiered for age and interest. Kids registering at www.kidsinparks.com receive certificates and prizes. Rangers will loan a TRACK Pack tool kit to budding scientists. Six more TRACK Trails open along the Parkway this season, including disc golf at Richmond Hill Disc Golf Course. Loops 1.2 miles. Located at Mile Marker 384 on the Blue Ridge Parkway off Tunnel Road.
Douglas Falls Trail: The first leg of the Douglas Falls Trail is an "easy hike … quick, with room to play in the water for kids," says Chris Neumann, organizer of the Asheville Hiking Meetup Group (www.meetup.com/asheville-hiking), whose 850 members have executed about 360 hikes over the past two years. "This spot has salamanders, crawdads and pretty wildflowers," he says. Part of the Pisgah National Forest, this Buncombe County waterfall hike is one mile total. Check trail conditions before hiking. Treasure-hunting opportunities — including trendy geo-caching and letterboxing — abound. Bring a camera. Take Highway 19/23 N to the Barnardsville exit, turn right on Hwy. 197 and make another right on Dillingham Road. Follow Dillingham until it ends on a gravel road, FR 74; then travel about another 8 miles to the trailhead.
Laurel River Trail: The full length of this in-and-out Madison County hike near Hot Springs is seven miles, but the exceptionally flat trail along the banks of the river is a cinch. Walk until tired, have a snack before heading back out. This trail includes possible beaver sightings, rushing whitewater, breathtaking rock formations, trout pools, camping spots, ruins of the dead town of Runion, and icicles dripping from the rock face as seasons change. The trailhead is at the intersection of Highways 25/70 and 208.
DuPont State Forest: Three breathtaking waterfalls await adventurers on this trail: Hooker Falls, Triple Falls and High Falls. "It's a great area," says Neumann, who's done the hike several times with kids involved. "There are a couple of places to cross the river, and the trails are well marked. It's a longer hike, but maintained better than many trails." North Carolina's newest state park, DuPont lies between Hendersonville and Brevard. Park at Hooker Falls Access Area on Staton Road.
Lower Catawba Falls: Outside Old Fort, in McDowell County, Lower Catawba Falls is a great place to play in the creek-sized, free-flowing river. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs through the area, and there are four to five miles of nothing but waterfalls. "The trail follows the water the whole way through," says Neumann. "It's level, with a payoff at the end: The kids like to climb the rocks." The three-mile round-trip trail is an old stagecoach route, and ruins of early hydroelectric facilities provide visual markers. Stop at the Lower Falls, enjoy a snack, and head back. Be warned: the trail to the upper falls is for experienced climbers only. Take I-40 East to exit 73, then right on Catawba River Road.
Sunburst: Taking its name from an old logging town, the area called Sunburst in Haywood County is known for a spectacular waterfall and attendant swimming hole (great for older kids), plus a challenging but family-friendly hike boasting particularly impressive views. The Ivestor Gap Trail, part of the Shining Rock Wilderness, lies between the Parkway and Canton, and its trail leads through hardwood forests, eventually culminating at a rocky ledge featuring the aforementioned vista. Backtrack trail exceeds six miles, so start early, pack a lunch, and prepare to backpack preschoolers. From the Parkway, find the trailhead at USFS 816, off Mile Marker 420.
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Lost in the woods? Not so much…
Ideal for upping the ante of wilderness fun for kids, geo-caching and letterboxing are forest-orienting activities that combine of-the-minute technology with old-timey elements of treasure hunting and hide-and-seek. See www.geocaching.com and www.letterboxing.com for more info.
[Sherri L. McLendon is a freelance writer in Weaverville, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]