Path of plenty

Spring camping in WNC definitely has its advantages: Fewer crowds, longer days, and a chance to soothe that long-standing winter itch to get outdoors create the perfect excuse for planning a trip.

But don’t let the recent unseasonably pleasant days we’ve been enjoying fool you: Spring sunshine can quickly morph into cold, wet, miserable conditions on the trail.

Above Sam’s Gap, I once encountered an agile through-hiker on the Appalachian Trail who was headed north in early April. Asked about his first four weeks on the trail, he shook his head and said, “I have to say that I just spent the coldest month of my life hiking through Georgia and the southern Nantahalas!”

This young man was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska.

For my part, I remember being rewarded one spring morning on Mount Sterling with 8 inches of fresh powder. And while spring is generally a milder time of year, I suggest you think winter when planning trips in April and early May, especially if you’re planning to hike or camp above 4,000 feet. In North With Spring, Edwin Way Teale wrote that spring on the crest of the Smokies is “equivalent to moving backward more than a month in time or jumping northward more than a thousand miles in space.”

But enough about lonely days and cold nights — here’s a trio of overnight camping adventures that offer a fresh twist on the smoky-campfire spring outings some of us know so well. All three trips embody the rewarding themes of self-reliance and open space.

Peak-to-pub weekend backpacking

Years ago, while living in a more southerly state, my friends and I hiked the AT from the Big Pigeon River in Tennessee to Allen Gap, N.C. On our fourth day, we dropped down off Bluff Mountain into one of the loveliest trail towns on the AT — Hot Springs. When my wife picked us up a day later, all I could talk about was moving to that quaint little hamlet. A year later, we packed our bags and moved to the mountains.

Accordingly, our first outing begins south of Hot Springs at Max Patch. The beauty of this little gem is that it starts off with a bang and ends with a beer … and it’s hard to go wrong in between. The point-to-point hike requires two cars (spotting one in Hot Springs) or reserving a shuttle with Bluff Mountain Outfitters. You begin at a breathtaking 4,200 feet, and the trail leads north to the open summit of Max Patch. Spring here offers one of the showiest meadows of wildflowers you’ll ever see.

On a clear day, you can enjoy the panoramic views of Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountain Range to the east. An endless succession of ridges unfolds to the west. For most people, Max Patch is the ultimate destination. But this trip lets you savor the sights, sounds and smells of the 1,200-acre bald, then strike off toward Hot Springs. Daniel Gallagher, who co-owns Bluff Mountain Outfitters, recently reported good trail conditions, commenting: “Some of the through-hikers have already passed through. If there’s any trees down, they report it to us first and we notify the Carolina Mountain Club volunteer trail crew.”

The two- to three-day trip skirts the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, providing plenty of fine scenery along the way. Among the highlights are Max Patch, Walnut Mountain and Bluff Mountain. Several springs and small streams serve as convenient water sources (water should be boiled, treated or filtered). There are two older shelters, notes Gallagher, adding, “Plenty of other scenic and secluded camping areas for tent camping are also found along the trail.”

And when reality kicks back in and you hit the pavement back in town, take the time to enjoy the friendly hospitality of Hot Springs. Stop by the Paddlers Pub & Grill and sip on a cold one while awaiting a well-deserved class V pizza.

For more information, call Bluff Mountain Outfitters at (828) 622-7162, or log onto www.hotspringsnc.org/bluff.html.

Pocket change to paradise

It’s the middle of the month, you’re not getting paid for another two weeks, and there’s really nothing going on in town. What can you do? Dust off your gear, grab some spare change and load up your bike. We’re going to the bus terminal!

Having a couple of days free last month, I did exactly that. I packed my touring bike with a two-day supply of gear and four days worth of food and set off for the Asheville Transit Center. For a mere 75 cents, I racked my bike aboard the number 6 bus, got off south of the airport, unloaded my rig and heeded the time-honored advice, “Go west, young man!”

Thirty minutes later, I was cycling alongside towering hemlocks, rushing water and empty forest roads. Yellow Gap Road (FR 1206) snakes through the North Mills River Campground and Pisgah National Forest for 12 miles. If you’re short on time, North Mills River offers an ideal overnight odyssey only 30 cycling minutes from the airport. For a longer loop, continue along Yellow Gap Road. About 2.5 miles west of the campground, the road gradually ascends to the gap. After an enjoyable descent through the forest, the road levels out for a comfortable five to six miles. Several designated campsites offer creek-side camping, but I recommend taking one of several bike-legal single tracks to get you off the beaten path.

I took FR 476 south and picked up the upper end of the South Mills River Trail. Last spring, I had backpacked the lower basin on the southern end of the trail, and this was like returning home to visit a long-lost friend. There’s a group-friendly campsite at the trailhead at the end of FR 476. One of my favorite swimming holes, Otter Pool, is only a quarter-mile down the trail from the primitive campground.

This cycling adventure offers several options. Spend an additional day at base camp hiking, swimming and fishing, or continue west on Yellow Gap and explore the attractions along Hwy. 276 (the Pink Beds, Looking Glass Falls, the Cradle of Forestry).

For a scenic second-day route, climb U.S. 276 north to the Blue Ridge Parkway and travel north about 23 gorgeous miles back to Asheville. Make sure you have lights (rear and head) to negotiate the nine tunnels en route. All told, this is roughly a 50-mile ride.

Paddling America’s oldest river

Although WNC is blessed with several world-class whitewater streams and rivers, charting a suitable multi-day canoe-camping trip can be challenging. The New River — a National Wild and Scenic River and one of only 14 American Heritage Rivers — is quite the exception. Located near Jefferson in the northwest corner of the state, the 26-mile scenic corridor offers multi-day options, state-park camping and beautiful scenery. Sue Krall, an outings leader with the WENOCA Chapter of the Sierra Club, organizes canoe, bike and hiking trips. “The New is great for beginner boaters and family canoeing,” she notes, adding that the several access points along the river give paddlers options ranging from half-day trips to multi-day canoe camping. “It’s a beautiful river with rolling farmland, spectacular mountain scenery and very little development,” she comments.

New River State Park offers three access ramps with canoe-in camping and riverside picnic tables (advance reservations required). New River Outfitters rents canoes, kayaks and accessories and offers shuttle service for everything from three-hour day trips to four- or five-day river tours. (Trip tip: Budget one day for cycling; the rural roads are ideal for half-day country touring.)

A nice info packet about New River State Park, including a map, park guide and bird list, is available by calling (336) 982-2587, or e-mail: neri@skybest.com. For more information about New River Outfitters, call (800) 982-9190.

Gear geek?

Most warm-weather gear crosses over extremely well — the cookware, sleeping gear, clothing and camping equipment you already have is most likely suitable for spring trips. For cycling, a sturdy rack and a set of rear panniers provides roughly 60 to 70 percent the capacity of a midsize backpack. (I recommend a complete set of front and rear panniers.) If you’re canoeing, a waterproof duffel or large dry bag can store the same amount of gear as a large backpack.

As a rule, you don’t need a lot of special equipment for spring camping. But watching the weather is recommended — and a sense of adventure is a must.

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