Higher ground

Roan Mountain
The author on the summit of Roan Mountain

Have you been to Hospital Rock, Walnut Bottom or the Ellicott Rock Wilderness? If you’re wondering how to hike to these places, stay tuned and I’ll get you there.

Here in the Southern Appalachians, we’re blessed with the highest mountains in the East, outstanding waterfalls, and thousands of miles of maintained trails.

For starters, we have Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, the Smokies, Upstate South Carolina, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and the Appalachian Trail. But beyond the top-of-the-pops destinations — Mount Mitchell, Bent Creek and Graveyard Fields, to name a few — simply picking out a hike can be overwhelming, and people end up going back to the same places again and again, wondering why they’re so crowded.

If you’re looking for solitude, borrow a formula from Backwoods Ethics by Guy and Laura Waterman (Countryman Press, 1993). Crowds diminish according to the square of the distance from the nearest road and the cube of the elevation above it. In other words, the farther off the road you go and the more you climb, the fewer people you’ll see.

I’ve been hiking and leading hikes for various hiking clubs for more than 30 years. As the T-shirt reads, “Hiking is life — everything else is details.” Hiking, like most outdoor pursuits, calls for attitude, skill, gear and time. The most important part is attitude: the willingness to get sweaty and tired, to exert yourself, to focus on getting to the destination while still enjoying the actual walking. Sometimes, the exhilaration of reaching the top of a mountain trumps the views, but they look better when seasoned by the high of accomplishment.

A life on the trail

I collect hiking challenges the way some folks collect stamps or coins, but I didn’t initially plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. In the 1970s, however, my husband, Lenny, and I walked our first small section of the AT in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We added miles slowly while peak-bagging other mountains in the Northeast. A weekend backpack here, a couple of days there, and the miles added up. When the drive to the trailhead became an overnight trip, we spent our yearly vacations chipping away at AT miles. Then we discovered Southern hiking — balds with open views, smooth trails instead of all rocks, switchbacks, rushing creeks — and we were hooked on this area.

Many AT hikers give themselves a trail name, but we preferred a motto — “Georgia to Maine in 25 Years” — which we signed in the logbooks in AT shelters. And indeed, it took us almost that long to complete the trail.

Since moving to Asheville, I’ve finished the South Beyond 6,000 (the 40 mountains in the Southern Appalachians over 6,000 feet) and am now working on the Smokies 900 (all the trails in the Smokies).

I’m a social hiker; most of the time I hike with a club, and I’ve found one every place I’ve lived. The Asheville-based Carolina Mountain Club (carolinamtnclub.org) offers more than 175 hikes a year, all led by volunteers. With more than 500 different hikes in the club database, most are not repeated more than once every two years. As a leader, I choose the hike, get it on the club schedule months in advance, find the right map, figure out the distance and ascent, and walk the trail ahead of time. Only then am I prepared to lead the hike.

Through the club, Lenny and I maintain five miles of the AT between Devil’s Fork Gap in Madison County and Rice Gap in Unicoi County, Tenn. At least four times a year, we clean out water bars clogged with leaves and debris. We clip the vegetation obstructing the trail, cut low-hanging branches overhead and pick up garbage. We’ve repainted the white blazes on our section and, in the process, spread paint all over our packs, pants and boots. If there’s a problem we can’t handle, such as a large tree across the trail, we call our AT supervisor, who brings in the CMC trail crew armed with chain saws.

Mission (quite) possible

Here’s your first assignment: To get the lay of the land in the Pisgah District of the Pisgah National Forest, buy National Geographic map No. 780. With your pack, lunch, water and boots, plan a full day of light hiking and exploring. Take the Blue Ridge Parkway south from Asheville to the Mount Pisgah trailhead at milepost 407.6. Climb Mount Pisgah (three miles round trip, 750 feet ascent) and enjoy a 360-degree view on top, including Cold Mountain.

After coming down, follow the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (white circle blazes) west about a mile to the Pisgah Inn, passing the Buck Spring Lodge site, George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge. Follow the trail behind the signboard to the lodge ruins.

Back at your car, continue south to Wagon Road Gap and the popular view of Cold Mountain. Take U.S. 276 south, stopping at the Pink Beds for your picnic lunch and, farther along, at the Cradle of Forestry. (Both are on the left.) Turn right at Sliding Rock and, farther down, at Looking Glass Falls and then the visitor center (both also on the left). After leaving Pisgah National Forest, stop at Dolly’s on the left for some of the best ice cream around.

The answer to my first question? Hospital Rock is in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness in Upstate South Carolina; Walnut Bottom is on the Big Creek Trail on the North Carolina side of the Smokies; and Ellicott Rock is the point where North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia all meet. Keep reading and I’ll get you there.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.org.]

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