Editor’s Adventure Picks

28 Dec 12
The Flume

Taming the Gorilla: The Flume is just one section of the Green River’s most famous Rapid

BEST WINTER HIKE

A.T. THRU SMOKIES

Just over 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail run across the Smoky Mountains in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the U.S. The trail follows a high ridge crest along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, rarely dropping below 5,000 feet of elevation during the meat of the stretch between Fontana Dam in the south and Davenport Gap to the north. The A.T. cuts through the heart of the park and serves as the backbone of its trail system. Numerous spur trails make accessing any part of the A.T. as easy as finding a trailhead within the park. The A.T. through the Smokies also links up some of the most visited places in the park, including the trail’s highest point at Clingmans Dome, Rocky Top, and the iconic Mount Cammerer fire tower. Whether you plan on hiking the length over a week, link up landmarks over two or three days, or just take a day hike from Newfound Gap, the options are virtually endless and there is something for everyone.

This consistent altitude provides stunning views of the Smokies and Black Mountains, but can also trap snow of surprising depth. Even if there is no snow on the ground, having snowshoes on hand is highly recommended. There are also 12 backcountry A.T. shelters spaced fairly evenly along the route through the Smokies, providing cover if a storm does roll through or for camping (permit required).

BEST OF THE REST

Dolly Sods; Hawksbill

BEST SKI RUN

CUPP RUN

Snowshoe Mountain’s Western Territories are the cream of the crop for steep skiing in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Shay’s Revenge may have sections that are slightly steeper, but Cupp is usually open more often and flows better than its sister slope. Cupp Run features 1,500 feet of vertical, the most of any slope in the region, and the run itself is a mile and a half of downhill bliss. Throw in grades in the 50-percent range and this is the steepest, longest run you can find in the Blue Ridge, plus there is a bar at the bottom. Originally designed by French Olympian Jean-Claude Killy, Cupp is also home to the Cupp Run Challenge, a ski and snowboard Giant Slalom that annually draws the best racers in the South. The winners usually finish in less than two minutes. Are you up for the challenge?

BEST OF THE REST

Boulderdash, Silver Streak

BEST SINGLETRACK

PLANTATION TRAIL

In a region with the mountain biking reputation of Davis, W.Va., and the greater Canaan Valley, a trail must really stick out to be our editor’s pick. Well, the Plantation Trail does. This 8-mile “ribbon of pain” is one of the most technical trails in a state full of technical trails. Rock gardens that never end, bottomless bogs, and wheel swallowing roots await those who attempt Plantation. Be prepared to come out the other side with scraped up legs and arms of jelly. You better bring the full suspension and pack a patch kit. Don’t be too afraid, though: there are numerous options to bail out onto Canaan Loop Road via spur trails. But then you wouldn’t get to brag to your buddies back at the bar about riding this beast.

BEST OF THE REST

Kitsuma, DuPont, The Gauntlet

BEST SUMMIT

BLACK BALSAM, NORTH CAROLINA

Black Balsam Knob is one of the jewels of the Southern Appalachians. Rendered bald at the turn of the century, this peak is our editors’ pick due to the unobstructed views of the Balsam Range, Mount Pisgah, Shining Rock, and Looking Glass Rock, among others. If you time it right, you may even be able to spot Mount Mitchell 45 miles off in the distance. By taking the Art Loeb Trail across Sam Knob and Tennent Mountain, you are able to link up over three miles of trail above 6,000 feet, all treeless, making everything from a half-day jaunt to multi-day backpacking possible. Many use Black Balsam as a gateway to the Shining Rock Wilderness, but you don’t have to trek that far for great views and backcountry camping. Pitch a tent on top of one of the balds and you’ll be treated to an epic sunset and sunrise, plus all the stargazing you can handle in between.

BEST OF THE REST

Seneca; Old Rag

BEST SPOT TO GET IT ON

SHUCKSTACK FIRE TOWER

Consider this Great Smoky Mountains fire tower if you are thinking about joining the (almost) mile-high club. Perched just north of Fontana Dam atop Shuckstack Mountain, this fire tower was built in 1934 but ceased being used as a fire tower in the 1960s. Since, it has fallen into disrepair and is in constant threat of being torn down by the Forest Service. Missing steps, rusty supports, and the threat of bears make getting to the top of the tower a test of courage. The shaky structure, combined with the strenuous 3.5-mile hike up from the dam, thins out the herd and provides some privacy, although this is a popular spur trail for northbound thru-hikers hungry for a view just as they enter the Smokies. You may want to keep your eyes peeled if visiting in the spring. The views from 80 feet up in the tower are spectacular, however, if you are not too distracted.

BEST OF THE REST

Max Patch; any Blue Ridge Parkway Overlook

revenge of the rattle snake

Ribbon of Pain: West Virginia’s Plantation Trail lives up to its reputation.

BEST SOLITUDE

JOYCE KILMER-SLICKROCK WILDERNESS, NORTH CAROLINA

Joyce Kilmer may have never seen a poem as lovely as a tree, but we have never seen a wilderness area as rugged as the one named after him in Nantahala National Forest. With over 17,000 acres to explore, plus another 16,000 in Tennessee’s abutting Citico Creek Wilderness, our editors find it easy to leave the modern world behind in Slickrock. Rarely will you encounter another visitor here, even if staying on the primary 13-mile Slickrock Creek Trail. Elevation inside the wilderness ranges from 1,000 to over 4,000 feet, making the landscape as diverse as it is harsh. At the northern portion of the wilderness is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, 3,800 acres of old growth forest spared from the logging boom that decimated Appalachian forests at the turn of the 20th century. Oak, pines, and sycamores stretch a hundred feet into the sky and bulge to 20 feet in diameter. Surely, Kilmer would have thought these trees lovely indeed.

BEST OF THE REST

Cohutta Wilderness; St. Marys Wilderness

FAVORITE PARKWAY OVERLOOK

PEAKS OF OTTER

The Blue Ridge Parkway traces the spine of the Appalachians, giving motorists, hikers, and cyclists some of the best views of the mountains you can find in the South. At mile post 86 is our favorite, the Peaks of Otter. The Peaks of Otter are made up of three mountaintops just north of Bedford, Va.: Flat Top Mountain, Sharp Top Mountain, and Harkening Hill. The three peaks tower above and surround Abbott Lake, providing a scenic contrast of water and mountains. From the overlook, there are numerous hiking options to get to the peaks, plus there is a lodge and visitor center, a great place to stretch your legs and picnic.

BEST OF THE REST

Graveyard Fields; Craggy Gardens

FAVORITE SECTION OF THE A.T.

ROAN MOUNTAIN, TENNESSEE

The section of the Appalachian Trail that traverses the Roan Highlands is our favorite for two reasons: scenery and access. As the A.T. crisscrosses the North Carolina/Tennessee border, it shoots across the 20-mile massif and its bald peaks. It also crosses Carvers Gap, easily the best access to the trail in the area. From the parking lot off Route 261, you can take the A.T. north or south to equally impressive views. South takes you to Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff, while heading north takes you across Round Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald, all providing vistas of the surrounding highlands. The abundant spur trails off the A.T. can have you hiking for hours or days.

BEST OF THE REST

Mount Rogers; Great Smokies

BEST WATERFALL

WHITEWATER FALLS, NORTH CAROLINA

As it flows through North Carolina’s Jocassee Gorge, the Whitewater River drops 1,500 feet over 3.5 miles. A big chunk of that elevation loss comes at Upper Whitewater Falls, arguably the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi at 411 feet. There is some dispute over this claim, but the falls remains a gorgeous site whether they deserve the title or not. The falls are a very popular spot due to their close proximity to Route 281 and short .2-mile, paved path to the first observation platform. Not so popular, however, is hiking to the river via a 150-step staircase, then dropping down a steep trail into the forest. No views from down here, but the Foothills Trail will take you east to Lower Whitewater Falls across the South Carolina state line—another 400 footer—or you can bushwack west toward the actual base of the upper falls. The swimming holes and flat rocks on the valley floor make this difficult trek worth it. Just don’t forget your towel.

BEST OF THE REST

Linville Falls; Great Falls

TOUGHEST RACE

BARKLEY 100 MILE MARATHON

You know it’s bad when the “Fun Run” is 60 miles. Held annually at Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park, the Barkley 100 Mile Marathon is considered the toughest footrace in the U.S., if not the world. Runners must compose an essay touting their merits—and possible insanity—to compete on a poorly marked, briar-infested, no-aid-allowed course that features over 55,000 feet of vertical climbing. As the race has evolved, it has grown into an almost mythical beast in the minds of ultrarunners. Throw in quirks like a random start time, one first-time racer singled out as the “human sacrifice,” an entry fee consisting of a license plate, and that racers have to tear pages from a series of books along the route to prove they completed the course, and you have all the makings of a Homerian epic. Oh yeah, the race was also inspired by James Earl Ray’s escape, and subsequent failure to make it out of the forest, from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1977. Since the race began in 1986, only 12 of around 800 have finished under the 60-hour cutoff. This is truly “the race that eats its young.”

BEST OF THE REST

Hellgate 100; Massanutten 100 Mile Trail Run

BEST BOULDERING

GRANDMOTHER MOUNTAIN, NORTH CAROLINA

Western North Carolina has more than its fair share of amazing climbing and bouldering spots. Our editors chose Grandmother Mountain because of the diversity. You can find anything for anyone at Grandmother, from V2 Car Door up to V8 Hot Rod. This is a very popular spot for climbers because it’s right off the Blue Ridge Parkway and close to Boone, but the area is large with over 100 problems, so there is enough space to spread out. The boulders are also in thick forest surrounded by rhododendron, keeping things relatively cool during the peak of summer.

BEST OF THE REST

Hawksnest; Moormans

OUTDOOR PERSONALITY

SASHA DIGIULIAN

There are plenty of outdoor personalities in the Blue Ridge, but no one has put their stamp on a sport as convincingly in 2012 as rock climber Sasha DiGiulian. The 19-year-old Alexandria, Va. native burst into the national spotlight by not only dominating her sport, but also doing it with style. DiGiulian has won the past three Sport Climbing U.S. National Championships and the 2011 World Championship, but her greatest climbing accomplishments may have come outside the competition circuit. Among her female first ascents in the past year, including Southern Smoke and Lucifer in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, DiGiulian became the first female to climb any route rated 9a (5.14d). In fact, she did it twice: once on Red River’s Pure Imagination and again in Spain on Era Vella. The sky is the limit for this Blue Ridge teen, who is poised to dominate her field for years to come.

BEST OF THE REST

Larry Gibson (activist); Andrew Skurka (backpacker)

FAVORITE RAPID

GORILLA, GREEN RIVER

Gorilla is the most famous rapid on the most famous steep-creek boating locale in the Southeast: the Green River Narrows outside Asheville. The Green is tight, technical, and unforgiving; all of these traits are manifested in Gorilla, the river’s signature rapid and the middle child in the Green’s “Big Three” – Go Left or Die, Gorilla, and Sunshine. The rapid itself consists of three main components. First is the Notch, where the river narrows into a four-foot-wide gap; next comes an 18-foot drop known as The Flume; and finally, Scream Machine, another 10-foot drop. The sequence is also the most visually appealing rapid and during the annual Green River Race, Gorilla can be overrun with spectators cheering on boaters and cringing with those who do poorly – which is frequent. The Green is a rite of passage for any creek boater, and Gorilla is a major factor.

BEST OF THE REST

Sweets Rapid, Gauley River; Five Falls, Chattooga River

BEST SKINNY DIPPING

SKINNY DIP FALLS, NORTH CAROLINA

They call it Skinny Dip Falls for a reason, right? This swimming hole off the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Looking Glass Overlook is a popular spot, so skinny-dipping may only be an option early or late in the day. Don’t go too late though, because this water is frigid, coming right off of Black Balsam. A short jaunt from the overlook on the Mountains to Sea Trail, the main hole has a rock to jump off and several shallower spots to lounge. Venture downstream or up for more secluded places where you may be able to doff your duds.

BEST OF THE REST

White Oak Canyon; Jacks River Falls

BEST STARGAZING

SPRUCE KNOB, WEST VIRGINIA

West Virginia’s highest peak stands at “only” 4,863 feet, but that is more than enough for stargazers up and down the East Coast. Amateur astronomers flock to Spruce Knob during a new moon for the best view of the heavens this side of the Mississippi. The eastern part of West Virginia has the least light pollution in the East and the stars burst from the sky with unsurpassed clarity. The observation deck rises 20 feet above the summit for unobstructed views, although it can be a bit windy. Bring a blanket and picnic, find an open spot beyond the tower and you’ll have the whole sky to yourself. Just don’t forget the wine opener!

BEST OF THE REST

Max Patch, N.C., Whitetop Mountain, Va.

ROWDIEST OUTDOOR EVENT

GAULEYFEST

Held annually on the banks of the Gauley River in Summersville, W.Va., during the third weekend in September, GauleyFest claims to be the world’s largest whitewater festival. The festival caps off the summer paddling season and coincides with dam releases on one of the gnarliest whitewater rivers on the East Coast—a perfect storm that draws hardcore whitewater enthusiasts from across the U.S. and the world. Get this many paddlers together, spike their stoke with epic days on world class Gauley whitewater, and you get a rolling party rowdier than any other in the Blue Ridge. The festival is not all fun and games however; it is also American Whitewater’s largest fundraiser and a showcase for new products and ideas from the paddling industry. Once the sun goes down, however, is when GauleyFest really comes to life.

BEST OF THE REST

New River Rendezvous; Bonnaroo

BEST PLACE TO SPOT A WILD BEAR

SMOKIES SHELTER

There are an estimated 1,500 bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nearly two per square mile. The American black bears are symbols of the park and are amazing, fascinating creatures when observed safely from a distance. Campsites and shelters are routinely closed due to bear activity, and warnings adorn many other trails inside the park. Although actual attacks are rare, bear encounters are becoming more common as more people visit the park during the spring, summer, and fall. Bears who become used to humans become nuisance bears and are then targeted by the Park Service. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear so protect your food and yourself.

BEST OF THE REST

Shenandoah National Park; backyard bird feeder

BEST CANOE TRIP

CHATTOOGA RIVER

The Chattooga River flows 50 miles from its North Carolina headwaters, tracing the border between Georgia and South Carolina It was designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1974 and is one of the last remaining undammed stretches of river in the Southeast. What we love about the Chattooga is its wild feel. The river flows through remote regions rich in dense forest and shores devoid of any signs of humans aside from the occasional hiking trail or primitive campsite. From the headwaters, the river is divided into four distinct sections. The upper two sections are relatively calm, great for tubing, fishing, and a gentle canoe ride with only the occasional rapid. Things heat up in the lower two sections, however, with Class II-IV+ rapids before the river spills into Tugaloo Lake, requiring expert canoeing experience.

BEST OF THE REST

Shenandoah River; French Broad River

BEST TRAILHEAD SCENE

CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER-COCHRAN SHOALS RECREATION AREA, ATLANTA, GEORGIA

There are many trailheads in the Blue Ridge that could be at the top of this list. The region is rife with full parking lots where gearheads talk shop, adrenaline junkies talk tough, and singles talk about what they are doing later. What the Chattahoochee River-Cochran Shoals Recreation Area has that the rest don’t – besides the longest name on this list – is the fact that it is right smack in the middle of the largest metropolitan area in the South. As one of the most popular spots on the Chattahoochee River to run, bike, or paddle and with Atlanta to draw from, the scene can be downright dirty – in a good way.

BEST OF THE REST

Great Falls Park, D.C., Bent Creek, N.C.

BEST URBAN TRAIL

BUTTERMILK TRAIL, RICHMOND VIRGINIA

Part of Richmond, Va.’s award-winning urban James River Park system, Buttermilk is revered by the city’s outdoor sect. Everyone from dog walkers to advance mountain bikers use the trail, so it can be slightly crowded, but you won’t find a better trail in the middle of a major city. This singletrack trail is well maintained and has everything one could ask for: steep climbs, roots/rocks, and consequence. Steep drop-offs line the riverside part of this trail, so beginners on bikes are urged to use extreme caution. Trail runners love the short climbs and riverside scenery; mountain bikers love the speed, tight turns, and technical sections. Linking up Buttermilk with the North Bank Trail and the Belle Island system will give you a 12-mile ride through the inner forest of the inner city.

BEST OF THE REST

Rivanna Trail; Knoxville Urban Wilderness Trail

BEST TRAIL RUN

ART LOEB TRAIL

Many consider the Art Loeb Trail the second best trail in the Blue Ridge behind the Appalachian Trail. For runners, the Art Loeb may be even better than the legendary A.T. Winding 31 miles through the Pisgah National Forest, including the rough Joyce Kilmer-Shining Rock Wilderness, the Art Loeb rises and falls a total of 17,000 feet over its length. From the valley floor to the 6,000-foot bald peak of Black Balsam Knob, this is one roller coaster of a trail. Most (sane) people turn the trail into a two-day backpacking trip, but a few brave souls take it from end to end on the jog. If this is your plan, make sure you pack plenty of fluids as water sources are scarce. The trail also has four distinct sections split up by trailheads and parking lots, so taking it one section at a time is also an option. Any way you tackle it, this is one brutal, gorgeous run.

BEST OF THE REST

Shut-In Ridge Trail; Pine Mountain Trail; Foothills Trail

BEST BIKING COMMUNITY

HARRISONBURG, VIRGINIA

In another category with a long list of possible winners, Harrisonburg, Va. came out on top. Harrisonburg is the biking capital of the bike-happy Shenandoah Valley, a mecca for any two-wheeler. Whether you prefer to shred singletrack, assault asphalt, or just commute to the daily grind, Harrisonburg has it all. The city was named a bronze-level ride center by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and recognized as a top bicycle-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists. That’s a lot of bronze, but when you visit Harrisonburg, you see why: everyone is on a bike. Epic trails in George Washington National Forest, Massanutten out the back door, endless miles of country roads to explore, and a city full of sharrows make this a bike community everyone can love.

BEST OF THE REST

Davis, W.Va.; Brevard, N.C.

Virginia Creeper Trail

Bike Bridge: The Virginia Creeper’s 47 trestles add to the experience of our favorite rail trail.

BEST OUTDOOR COFFEE SHOP

DIRTBEAN, MARLINGTON, WEST VIRGINIA

With all the debate over outdoor gear, technique, risk, method, etc., sometimes it seems like the only things we can all agree on is that coffee, trails, and ice cream are all good things. Thankfully, the Dirtbean in Marlington, West Virginia has combined them all into one sweet shop. At the Dirtbean, you can sip a cappuccino while your bike gets tuned, then grab a sandwich to go for a trailside picnic. Swing back through after the ride and treat yourself to locally made Homestead Creamery ice cream. Whether you are looking for a chain lube and chia latte or a brake bleed and breakfast bagel, the Dirtbean is your one-stop shop.

BEST OF THE REST

Cathedral Café, Fayetteville, W.Va.; Espresso News, Boone, N.C.

BEST SUP SPOT

SHERANDO LAKE, VIRGINIA

It is hard to pinpoint the reason for stand up paddleboarding’s sudden sky rocketing popularity. What Hawaiians have been doing for centuries is just catching fire on the mainland and spreading faster than chiggers in August. SUP packs a lot of punch into one activity: water, adventure, bathing suits, full body workout, getting a tan, etc. It can be as strenuous or as relaxing as you want, and people will still respect you. Our editors chose Sherando Lake in Washington & Jefferson National Forest as their favorite spot for either floating fun or power paddling. This 24-acre lake is closed to motorboats so you won’t have to worry about getting buzzed or negotiating wake. There are also a full range of facilities and camping, so be sure to grab a picnic to go with your paddleboard.

BEST OF THE REST

Fontana Lake, N.C.; Summersville Lake, W.Va.

BEST RAIL TRAIL

VIRGINIA CREEPER TRAIL, VIRGINIA

The Virginia Creeper Trail in the Southwest part of the state may be the most scenic in the Southeast. Running 34 miles from Abingdon through Damascus to the Virginia/North Carolina border at Whitetop Mountain, the trail takes you along and over rivers, meadows, and forests. The Virginia Creeper Trail features 47 former railroad bridges and trestles beautifully refurbished by volunteers. Over 100,000 people visit the trail every year, making this one of the most popular attractions for Damascus, aka “Trail Town, USA.” It is so popular that now you can grab a shuttle to Whitetop and just ride the downhill portion, a long gentle coast of 17 miles that drops 2,000 feet.

BEST OF THE REST

C&O Trail; Silver Comet Trail •

With all this adventure you will need good underwear, so enter for your chance to win a pair of Exofficio underwear!

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Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine

Your guide to hiking in the Southeast, biking in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian adventures from the Highlands to the Piedmont.