5 cool hikes for one hot North Carolina summer
“It’s a hundred degrees in the shade.”
It’s an old adage offered not literally, necessarily, but simply to convey that its one hot day. Lately, it’s been less adage than reality.
When the temperature stays this hot for this long, it’s hard to think about getting out for a hike. Unless you know where to go.
Below are five of our favorite summer hikes, guaranteed, for various reasons, to cool the soul on a humid day. In making our choices, we’ve also tried to pick places less likely to be crowded so you can stay socially distant.
1. Mountains-to-Sea Trail: Holloway Mountain Road to Price Lake
Blue Ridge Parkway, Blowing Rock area
4.3 miles (one way)
True, a lot of people think about hiking when they visit the Blowing Rock area. But they tend to think about the more obvious venues, such as Moses Cone Park or Bass Lake.
Head south on the Blue Ridge Parkway a short distance and take Holloway Mountain Road west. Where the MST crosses, you’ll find a trail under the shade of dense woods dampening the broiling heat. Boone Fork buddies up, offering plenty in the way of cooling water.
If you’re up for more when you reach Price Lake, a 2.2-mile trail rims the lake, with good views of Grandfather Mountain.
More info at the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website here. For the Price Lake Loop Trail, go here.
2. Black Mountain Crest Trail
Mount Mitchell State Park, Burnsville
2 miles up to 4 (out and back)
If you want to cool off, you either go north or you go up. At Mount Mitchell, you do both. The climb to the park’s 6,684-foot namesake peak takes you into a boreal forest more reflective of the Canadian woods than the Southern Appalachians.
Head north on the Crest Trail from the state park parking area. In a mile you’ll top Mount Craig (6,648 feet), Big Tom (6,651 feet) and Balsam Cone (6,596 feet) on rugged, rocky trail. The trail thins the crowd the farther you hike. Keep in mind that you tend to lose 3 degrees for every thousand feet of elevation gained, meaning that if it’s 85 degrees at 300 feet above sea level, it’s in the upper 60s on the Crest Trail.
More info at the Mount Mitchell State Park website, here.
3. Summit Trail
Elk Knob State Park, Todd
3.8-miles (out and back)
The Summit Trail is a fine example of the journey being as important as the destination. The trail to the 5,520-foot summit is a work of art. It’s the result of 6,000 volunteer hours dedicated to creating smooth passage through scenic northern hardwood forest.
The climb is rated “strenuous,” and it is. But instead of watching your step the entire way up, you can admire these gorgeous woods. At the top, you’re rewarded with views of some of the Southeast’s most notable peaks. You’ll see Whitetop and Mount Rogers in Virginia, all the way to Grandfather, Hawksbill and Mount Mitchell in North Carolina.
More info at the Elk Knob State Park website, here.
4. Hunt-fish Falls and Gragg Prong
Wilson Creek area northwest of Morganton
5 miles (out and back)
Water is the main attraction in the Wilson Creek area. As the catchment for massive Grandfather Mountain’s southeast flank, there’s plenty of it. Most visitors, though, are content to stay in the main gorge, rather than explore the network of gravel Forest Service roads. These areas probe deeper, to such gems as Hunt-fish Falls and Gragg Prong.
From the trailhead on FR 464, it’s a 0.8-mile hike down to Hunt-fish falls, a two-drop affair that empties into a rock-rimmed pool. Crowded? Take the trail down Lost Cove Creek, then up Gragg Prong to a series of swimming holes and drops. Gragg Prong Falls is the most notable, but the tight, steep valley is peppered with pools. At least one should be people-free. Note: this is challenging hiking, with some steep climbs on rocky terrain.
More info on getting to Hunt-fish Falls here and to Gragg Prong here.
5. Stone Mountain Loop Trail: Middle and Lower Falls
Stone Mountain State Park, Roaring Gap
Here’s a deal: mountain water without actually going to the mountains. Stone Mountain occupies a rugged perch at the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the line between the mountains and Piedmont. Its rocky locale traps water flowing down the escarpment.
On the popular 4.5-mile Stone Mountain Loop Trail, you’ll find spurs to various waterfalls and pools. Most people are content with the main falls, a 200-foot drop paralleled by a staircase. Do yourself a favor by taking the half-mile spur trail to Middle and Lower Falls and their resulting pools.
More info and directions here.