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5 Mountain Adventures for the Casual Hiker

By Joe Miller | July 19, 2019 | Healthy Lifestyle

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We love the idea of a mountain hike. We’re also intimidated by it.

Hiking in the Southern Appalachians is often defined by its difficulty. Want to summit Mount Mitchell? At an elevation of 6,684 feet, it’s the highest point in the eastern United States? You have to start at the base and gain 3,700 vertical feet in just five and a half miles. Linville Gorge? How much Daniel Boone do you have in you? And the vast and wild Great Smokies? Let me tell you about the time I climbed Mount Sterling from the Big Creek Picnic Area …

Yeah, there are bragging rights to be had hiking the Southern Appalachians. But there are also plenty of ways to enjoy the mountains by even the most recreational of recreational hikers. Here are five of our favorite darn-near-anyone-can-do mountain hikes. We’ll start by debunking the bravado associated with the three destinations mentioned above.

Mount Mitchell

Mount Mitchell State Park, Balsam Nature Trail, 0.75 miles

OK, nothing atop the Black Mountain Crest trail is easy. But in the context of rugged boreal forest hiking, you get the most bang for your buck hiking the Balsam Nature Trail, which takes you through the spruce-fir forest that gives Mount Mitchell the feel of hiking in the taiga of Canada. For a bit on the Balsam Nature Trail, you’ll hike along a tiny stream; actually, a spring, the highest in the eastern U.S. The tangy smell of spruce and fir, the ever-present chill, the sense of not being in Kansas anymore … you’ll experience it all, in less than a mile. The trail is snarled with tree roots in spots, and there is a bit of elevation, so it may not be for everyone. But if you want to feel like you’ve truly experienced the misplaced world of Mount Mitchell, this trail is for you.

More info, including directions, here.

Linville Gorge

Linville Falls Visitor Center, Erwins View Trail, 1.0-1.8 miles

There are places where you can innocently and inadvertently wander into trouble, places that are mischievously deceiving in their initial presentation. Linville Gorge is not one of them. Try to enter the gorge anywhere but from the Visitor Center and you know from the get-go that Linville isn’t your grandfather’s walk in the woods (unless your grandfather was Elisha Mitchell). The beauty of the Erwins View Trail is that it lets you get a sense of Linville’s rugged beauty without suddenly being enveloped by the gorge’s intimidating terrain. How easy a visit you make this depends on how far you go. The first overlook, for Upper Falls, is just a half-mile in. Continue and you’ll find Chimney View at 0.7 miles, Gorge View at .08 miles and the trail’s namesake view at 0.9 miles. Almost as inspiring as the series of cascades you’ll see are the massive white pines and eastern hemlocks you’ll hike beneath.

More info, including directions, here.

Cataloochee Valley

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cataloochee Horse Trail, 4.8 miles (photo: Shutterstock)

There are several great reasons to check out Cataloochee Valley on the northern end of the Smokies. First are the preserved buildings — a schoolhouse, a chapel, several homesteads — that remain (and are open for exploring) that give a sense of when some 1,200 people lived in the valley more than a century ago. Then there’s the near-guaranteed sighting of elk, reintroduced to the valley in 2001 (near-guaranteed if you’re here at dawn or dusk). And there’s the remarkably easy hiking, at least in the valley itself. Park at the Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead at the south end of the valley and hike the Cataloochee Horse Trail as it heads upstream along Palmer Creek. You’ll gradually gain elevation on the hike out to the intersection of the Little Cataloochee and Pretty Hollow Gap trails, which means you’ll be hiking downhill on the way back. Great views of the surrounding mountains without paying the price of climbing them.

More info, including directions, here.

Doughton Park

Doughton Park, Bluff Mountain Trail, about 3 miles

With 30 miles of trail, Doughton Park offers more hiking options than any other stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A favorite is the Bluff Mountain Trail, which runs the length of the parkway, about 7.5 miles, and stays along the ridge. Segments of the trail are challenging, but probably the least challenging stretch is also the most rewarding. Start from the Bluffs Picnic Area, between mileposts 241 and 242. Park and head south on the trail, through open mountaintop meadows, kept manicured by grazing cows. Hike up to the Bluff Mountain Shelter, then return and take the short hike past the old lodge to the Wildcat Rocks Overlook. Here, you’ll get a sense of the geologic drama of the Blue Ridge Escarpment as the mountain plunges, seemingly straight down, into Basin Cove. Be sure to check out the small dot at the bottom, an old cabin where the 13-member Caudill family once lived; it was one of the few structures left standing after the flood of 1916 all but wiped out the Basin Cove community.

More info, including directions, here.

Pink Beds

Pisgah National Forest, near Brevard, Pink Beds Trail, 5 miles (with 3-mile option)

A most unusual hike: it’s in an exceptionally rugged area of the Pisgah National Forest, yet it’s darn-near pancake flat. The vagaries of nature have created this upland valley where drainage from the Blue Ridge Mountains above collects to form a rare mountain bog. Extensive boardwalk and stretches of the elevated trail take you through this odd oasis, rich with rhododendron and mountain laurel, ferns, and just about every Southern Appalachian flora that prospers in wet terrain. Wildflowers and fireflies abound in summer. If 5 miles seems a bit much, take the Barnett Branch Trail not quite a mile and a half into the hike and pare the journey down to around 3 miles.

More info, including directions, here.