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Fall hikes: how to avoid crowds and find the trails less traveled

By Joe Miller | September 24, 2020 | 3 min read | Healthy Lifestyle, Coronavirus, Explore NC, Fitness

Father and daughter hiking take pictures of scenic overlook

Fall trails: Avoid the crowds with a little planning

Fall arrived on Sept. 22, officially clocking in at 9:31 a.m. But unless you’ve been inside for the past couple weeks, you probably noticed that the season got a bit of a head start.

This past weekend, the last full weekend of summer, was fall-gorgeous. Temperatures throughout much of the state only reached into the mid-60s with lots of sun. Overnight lows dipped into the 40s.

The weather is great if you love exploring the outdoors. It’s also not-so-great.

Fall weather traditionally lures more people outdoors and onto the trail. The cool air, the sunny skies, the color: what’s not to love? This will be especially true in the fall of 2020, with entertainment options still limited and people antsy to get out. We’ve shared tips on how to enjoy the outdoors safely during COVID-19, since the outdoors is one of the lowest-risk environments right now. So what’s a person who wants to stretch their legs outside to do?

Stay away from the places where the masses congregate.

Now, we could name names, identify specific spots where you can go to escape the crowds. But then everyone who reads this would know about these secluded spots and, well, they might not be secluded anymore. Instead, we’ll empower you to find your own secluded spots, with the following tips:

Avoid the main trailheads.

Find the more remote trail access points for where you’re headed. In particular, look for trailheads that don’t have paved parking, are on gravel roads, don’t begin from a visitor center, don’t have restrooms. Study the map; you can find them.

Avoid the main trails.

Start from a more remote trailhead and you’ll be on a trail that likely doesn’t get much foot traffic — initially, at least. Some of these trails might hook up with more popular trails.

Avoid parks near urban areas.

Earlier this year, 12 of our state parks kept their trails open while the other 29 had to close. Why? The 12 that stayed open were in more remote locales. When the weather is especially nice, focus on trails in those more remote parks, which you can find here.

Hike where the horses do.

In this post, we tout the virtues of hiking trails developed with horses in mind — but open to hikers as well. North Carolina State Parks, for instance, has 118 miles of horse trails in 11 parks. Hundreds of additional miles of equestrian trail can be found in the state’s four national forests.

Hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

The state’s best known trail also, curiously, offers your best bet for a quiet ramble. We offer tips on how to identify some of the statewide trail’s less trod treat, in a post you may read here.

Also, timing can be everything:

Hike early.

Most N.C. State Parks open at 8 a.m. — a good time to go, especially this weekend with near-perfect weather. It’ll be chilly early, which should keep the numbers down at the trailhead. Sunday mornings are also typically less crowded.

Hike late.

It’s fall, so State Parks are beginning to close earlier, many of them at 8 p.m. in September and October (check the hours of your park of interest here). Many other trail systems are open dawn to dusk: sunset today (Sept. 24) in Raleigh is at 7:07 p.m. On Oct. 24, it will set at 6:27 p.m. Remember to take a headlamp or flashlight.

Think outside the dry box of your house:

Hike in the rain.

Perhaps your best bet at solitude is in the rain, especially in a light rain on a trail protected by a lush canopy overhead. Unless there’s also thunder and lightening in the forecast, we’re big fans of hiking in a light rain. It’s a much different experience, and one in which you’re unlikely to encounter any fellow hikers. Read about hiking in the rain here.

One trail less traveled…

OK, we’ll let you in on one specific trail network that’s less-traveled: Seven Mile Creek Natural Area in Orange County. Check it out in the accompanying video.

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