On a hike about this time last year on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail a woman turned to me and commented on the diversity of the trail. It made me smile: the fall color had all but past; now, the terrain was a mix of grays and browns — not the most inspiring of colors.
This particular route, a 10-mile stretch along Falls Lake north of Raleigh, was purposefully picked. There are features that are on display year-round, of course, but were masked by what we frequently perceive to be the more the more alluring world of green.
The 75-foot bluffs anchored with stately beech bearing elephantine trunks, for instance. How do they cling to such steep slopes? Why aren’t they letting go of their leaves, like most other trees? And their smooth, mottled whitish-gray bark, it’s — stunning.
Or the bottomland woods, which often house the largest trees in the woods, the poplars, the sycamores, the oaks. In summer, their soaring crowns get lost in the canopy, but now they rise forever. The farm fields and meadows, remnants and reminders of how so much of this land looked as recently as a century ago. The intimate coves and their splashes of green holly, the wetlands, the points bravely reaching out into the chilly
There remained some yellow, but largely we were navigating a forest of 50 shades of gray, those shades courtesy the brighter, slanting sunlight that comes with winter. The bite of the hawk, with fewer leaves to shield us, caused zippers to climb an inch or two higher, rolled up fleece to roll back down the arms, collars to come to attention. We could peer deeper into the woods, the sky appeared even bluer, the crunch of leaves underfoot even crisper.
What is it that causes so many to retire boots, packs, and poles when cold weather hits? Beats me, because winter hiking can be the most rewarding hiking of the year. Winter light alone is cause to explore: the Sun is closest to Earth during the Northern Hemisphere winter, and casting brilliant light, while the low angle at which we receive it practically lights the world from the ground up. The naked forest gives wildlife fewer opportunities to hide, while a properly dressed hiker can stay toasty even on a 25-degree day. So what’s keeping you inside?
Here are three options for keeping you on the trail during the winter days ahead:
Our collaboration with N.C. State Parks, N.C. Recreation and Park Association and GetGoingNC offer hikes throughout the state. Find a hike near you, here.
North Carolina State Parks
Ranger-led hikes at most parks in the system. More info here.
With North Carolina chapters in Charlotte, Greenville, the Triad, the Triangle and in Western North Carolina, you’ll find hikes nearby and statewide. Details here.