4 unique trips for the hiker who’s tried everything

EASY DOES IT: "It's an interesting area because you can't see the waterfall unless you hike in," says French Broad Adventures' Tyler Donaldson. Photo courtesy of French Broad Adventures

The great outdoors of Western North Carolina offers seemingly endless opportunities. Hikers can witness breathtaking vistas or get splashed by a waterfall on the most basic of hikes. But anyone can take a trek to the next level with a Zen llama, a backcountry art class, secret waterfalls or a magical firefly experience. Consider one of these trips led by local guides for your next adventure in WNC (and eastern Tennessee).

Get calm with a llama

If you need help mellowing out, consider a stroll in the woods with a woolly camelid. “I’m always reminding people to slow down to the llama’s pace,” says David Wynn, founder of Llamas of Hot Springs. “A lot of people are coming in from cities and the hustle-bustle lifestyle. I always share with them that llamas like to hike pretty slowly and nibble here and there.”

The trip begins at the trailhead on the edge of downtown Hot Springs with a brief introduction to Wynn’s llamas and a safety talk. Depending on the group size, each person may saunter with a llama on a leash. While following Silvermine Creek, hikers will see wildflowers (which will also prove as snacks for grazing by their llama companions) and learn about the unique biodiversity of the Southern Appalachian and Hot Springs history. The gentle out-and-back hike is approximately 1.5 miles and typically two hours long. It’s mostly on flat terrain but with a couple of minor stream crossings.

Wynn, who has a background in mental health, says he notices shifting energies among the hikers, noting that most adopt the “slow state of mind” by the end of the hike. “This is just what I needed!” is a common phrase remarked post-trip.

Sandals, waterproof boots or a change of shoes and socks are recommended. Trips start at $60 per adult and $30 per child. More information is available at hotspringsllamas.org.

Rappel down a waterfall

Are adrenaline-pumping experiences more your speed? French Broad Adventures’ Canyoneering Expedition — a combination of hiking, rock scrambling, rappelling and swimming — is worth checking out.

This hike meets in Asheville, and participants travel to a secret location in Pisgah National Forest. Once at the trailhead, an expert guide will cover safety. Hikers then walk 1.5 miles to the top of a waterfall for a 150-foot rappel descent to the river below. A guide will help hook participants into the safety equipment and demonstrate how to rappel, while a guide below helps belay.

Access to the falls is off the beaten path. “It’s an interesting area because you can’t see the waterfall unless you hike in,” says group sales director Tyler Donaldson.

The expedition offers views hikers would never see otherwise, such as a patch of moss in the shape of a heart found in one of the middle ledges, Donaldson says. Peregrine falcons, eagles, salamanders and other wildlife may also be visible. Depending on the group size, hikers can rappel a second time or relax by the river. Guests can slide or plunge into the cool mountain waters below on the hike back.

Participants should plan to be in the wilderness four to six hours. No experience is necessary, although comfort with heights and rappelling is required. French Broad Adventures provides safety gear, Astral water shoes and a small backpack. Excursions start at $141 per person. For more information, visit FrenchBroadRafting.com.

Learn watercolor painting

Adventure isn’t for everyone. For those who prefer a quieter outdoor experience, Blue Ridge Hiking Co. guide and local artist Heidi Nisbett leads three-day backpacking trips in Pisgah National Forest that also are watercolor painting lessons.

Nisbett provides painting supplies to share as well as an all-natural watercolor palette, water cup, brush and watercolor sketchbook. All food and gear are provided, and no experience is necessary.

Nisbett hopes that backpackers will find a deeper connection with nature the way she does when painting outside. “For the duration of that time, you’re so focused on what you’re doing,” she explains. “You aren’t thinking about work, your family back home, the hard miles you hiked that day. It’s mindfulness, setting an intention and being present in that moment with what’s around you.” (If an overnight trip sounds like too much, Nisbett also teaches “paint-and-sip” workshops at Hi-Wire Brewing’s Biltmore Village location.)

BRUSH STROKES: Blue Ridge Hiking Co. guide and local artist Heidi Nisbett leads three-day backpacking trips in Pisgah National Forest that also are painting lessons. Photo courtesy of Blue Ridge Hiking Co.

During the daily 2-to 3-mile expedition, backpackers can expect to see waterfalls, wildflowers and views of the surrounding mountains near the John Rock Trail. Nisbett teaches watercolor basics like atmospheric perspective and brush stroke techniques. After the three days of hiking, guests will have walked quite a few miles in Pisgah National Forest as well as completed a few watercolor paintings.

Visit www.BlueRidgeHikingCo.com for more information.

Peep synchronous fireflies

Synchronous fireflies are one of at least 19 species of fireflies living in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which sprawls across western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Each year, the special fireflies (Photinus carolinus) return for a showstopping performance as they search for a mate. For a dose of natural wonder that truly cannot be seen anyplace else, guests can venture into the park to watch this mass of fluttering bugs flashing in sync.

Viewers can expect to see entire sections of the forest pulsating with light as the fireflies harmonize. According to the National Park Service, a series of five to eight flashes, followed by an 8-second pause, repeats continuously. It appears random until the periods of darkness synchronize; the flashing syncs as more males join and create the display. Lindsey Barr, owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Co., compares the sight of the synchronicity of the fireflies to the ethereal glow of bioluminescent algae in the ocean.

Blue Ridge Hiking Co. hosts an overnight trip to see the synchronous fireflies, which takes place at 10 a.m. June 10 near Gatlinburg, Tenn. (There is a shuttle available that departs from Asheville.) Melissa Watkins will lead the group to a backcountry campsite in hopes of witnessing the light show. The 9-mile loop trek, in historic Elkmont, an area of the park that was once a logging community, features waterfalls, wildflowers, riverside hiking and 1,400 feet of total elevation. Hikers should plan on covering approximately 4.5 miles each day and be comfortable with night hiking, as this is when the fireflies are active. (The trip is planned during the season when synchronous fireflies are most active; however, there is some risk involved, since no one can guarantee firefly sightings.)

The overnight trip costs $505 per person, which covers permits, guide fees, backpacking gear, food and transportation between the meet-up location and the trailhead. Scholarships, sliding-scale fees and payment plans are available for the trip as well. For more information, visit BlueRidgeHikingCo.com.


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