Not long ago we threw out ideas for five hikes you could take to see if hiking might be your thing. Trial trails, none more than three miles in length, all intended to expose you to why, according to the Outdoor Foundation hiking is the fifth most popular form of outdoor recreation in the country.Maybe you took one of these hikes (and if you haven’t yet, you can find them here). Maybe you thought, “Hey, this is fun, and I’m getting exercise to boot.” Maybe you discovered a new appreciation for the outdoors, especially in what you once considered to be the bleakest time of year, winter. Maybe you thought you’d like to try something a little longer, something more challenging. Maybe, in a contemporary context, you gained some insight into what motivated and elevated “Wild” gal Cheryl Strayed.
Today, we return with five more hikes, medium North Carolina hikes intended to take you to the next level of hiking. The level where you need to prepare a little more, to check the weather beforehand to see what clothes you need, to bring water and maybe a snack or two. The level where it wouldn’t hurt you to consult the online GetHiking! guide with tips on gear, the health benefits of hiking, and more.
These hikes I’m sharing today are between four and seven miles. Their terrain is a little more taxing, their escape from civilization more pronounced. At times, you might stop and hear only the subtle sounds of the late winter forest: a squirrel darting across dry leaf litter, windblown branches rubbing against one another, assorted indecipherable sounds of the living forest. Hike them, assess. We’ll be back in two more weeks with five longer hikes — and suggestions on how you can turn this experiment into a lifelong pursuit.
Company Mill Trail
- 6.0 miles
- Umstead State Park
This is the most popular trail in one of the most popular of North Carolina’s state parks. Or at least the first mile is. That first mile takes you over three mild ridges down to Crabtree Creek and the rocky remains of the old Company Mill dam. The creek makes a popular destination for families and folks who only occasionally hit the trail. Cross the green footbridge over the creek, however, and a four-mile loop gets you away from the Umstead masses. Hiked clockwise, you follow Crabtree upstream for a short ways, then take a long upland route that brings you to Sycamore Creek in the heart of the park. Here, you’ll see a spur to the Sycamore Trail, which, someday, you may take to the far side of this 5,700-acre park. Today, however, you’ll take the return loop, through more hardwood forest, back to the creek and back to the trailhead. Rolling terrain throughout, stretches where rock and exposed tree roots demand your attention.
More info here. http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/wium/main.php
Moore’s Knob Trail
- 4.7 miles
- Hanging Rock State Park
Four-point-seven miles? you mildly protest. That’s barely enough to qualify! Hold that thought until the end of the hike. This loop trail, starting from the park’s Visitor Center, is most easily hiked clockwise, and as such begins with a bouncing descent to the lake and boathouse, then along one of the creeks feeding the lake. Pretty, you say, but pretty easy as well. After more mellow hiking through a mountain laurel tunnel you reach a fork: go straight for the Tory’s Den Trail, go right to stay on Moore’s Knob. Right, and up — and up, and up, and up.
For more than a mile the trail climbs, aggressively at points, over rock and tree roots for the most part. You reach the ridge, but the climbing continues. After two or three false summits, you top out on Moore’s Knob, where one of hiking’s ultimate rewards awaits: views in all directions, but especially west, to Sauratown Mountain, Pilot Mountain and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. Give your legs time to recover, because the descent isn’t much easier, especially the first half mile or so, down a series of earthen steps. Back at the Visitor Center, be sure to go out on the back deck for the view of Moore’s Knob and an appreciation of 4.7 miles.
- 5.6 miles (Pine Cliff Section)
- Croatan National Forest
The Neusiok Trail runs a total of 20 miles through the coastal Croatan National Forest, which might lead to some assumptions. That you might not want to hike a coastal forest in the dead of summer (true). That it’s swampy in spots (true). That it’s entirely flat (not so true). In fact, we like the Pine Cliff Section, which runs from the Pine Cliff Recreation Area on the banks of the Neuse south to NC 306 because while there is a flat run or two, there are some surprisingly rolling stretches as well. And those stretches are oddly reminiscent of the mountains some 300 miles west, with splashes of holly and galax.
You’ll also find fun human history along the way, including remnants of a once prolific local industry (moonshine) as well as “what-the-devil-was-that?” moments (the Harrier and Prowler jets landing next door at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point). Lots of reasons to recommend the Neusiok as a discovery trail.
Birkhead Wilderness Loop
- 7.2 miles
- Birkhead Mountain Wilderness/Uwharrie National Forest
Although a designated wilderness area, this 5,160-acre northern extension of the Uwharrie National Forest isn’t that wild. The trails are blazed and there is the occasional sign, occurrences you don’t typically see in an area granted the wilderness imprimatur. But the trail does the trick in exposing you to land largely undisturbed by man since receiving its wilderness status more than 30 years ago.
Starting at the Lassiter Mill Road trailhead and hiking clockwise, take the Robbins Branch Trail up a long ascent before it drops down to its namesake creek. After a half mile or so, it parts with the creek and climbs a draw to meet the Birkhead Mountain Trail. Go right and follow the Birkhead through an open forest for a little more than two miles before heading right on Hannah’s Creek Trail. Along Hannah’s Creek you’ll hike through cheerful (in winter especially) runs of holly and mountain laurel before being deposited back at the trailhead. A long hike and exposure to a wilderness!
- 5 miles
- Pisgah National Forest
- North of Brevard on U.S. 276 (four miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway)
The Pink Beds Loop is on the rugged Blue Ridge Escarpment, an area known for its precipitous drops. Yet this trail is remarkably flat, with only a little over 200 feet of overall elevation gain. That makes it a strong contender for your first medium-length mountain hike. It’s unusual, too, in that Pink Beds is a rare mountain bog, created in part with the help of enterprising beavers. The boggier portions of the trail are elevated by boardwalk, but there are times when evasive action is needed.
Still, this proximity to relatively still water, especially in spring, offers opportunities to observe the mountain frog and salamander populations. The trail is easy to get to, located just off U.S. 276, has ample parking and a picnic shelter for your post-first-medium-length-hike-in-the-mountains celebration.
[Top image: Shutterstock]