At Blue Ridge Outdoors, we know that cool outdoorsy towns attract cool outdoorsy people. That’s why we relied on you, our readers, to help us decide the region’s top outdoor towns. This year, editors narrowed the field to 36 towns from Georgia to Pennsylvania and put them up against each other in random matchups online. More than 85,000 votes and four weeks later, we had our top three contenders. What is it about these three towns that sets them above the rest? We consulted locals to find the answers.
Bryson City, N.C.
One glance at the downtown stretch of Bryson City proves just how appropriate it be that this small North Carolina town earned the number one spot in our 2014 Top Towns Contest. Known as the Outdoor Capital of the Smokies, Bryson City boasts a triumverate of adventure, charm, and community. Located smack dab among the towering peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains with the Tuckasegee River flowing through, Bryson City is considered by many to be one of the last frontiers of the East. The town isn’t just a hub for adventure—Bryson City breeds it.
“I grew up in Florida and, in typical Floridian fashion, my family would go whitewater rafting around here,” says part-time Bryson City resident Laura Farrell. The summer before Farrell’s senior year of high school, Farrell’s mother encouraged her to do something different and to step outside her comfort zone. Farrell decided to enroll in an intro to kayaking course taught by the staff at Bryson City’s Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a leap, she says, that changed her life.
“After that, I couldn’t get the idea of living up here [in Bryson City] out of my head.”
And she didn’t. From 2002 until 2009, Farrell raft guided at the NOC during the tourist season. She now continues to live there when she isn’t guiding adventure trips around the world for Adventures by Disney. Farrell has come a long way since that intro to kayaking course—she is now one of Team Dagger’s elite kayakers and has paddled in fifteen different countries as well as consistently placed high in a number of the country’s most challenging steep creek races like the annual Green Race, the Lord of the Fork, and the Cherry Creek Race. Despite having traveled extensively around the world, Farrell says the two things that keep her coming back to Bryson City are the community and the accessibility to multisport adventure.
“When I worked at the NOC, a standard day for me would be to get up and go mountain bike around the property before work, surf the wave on my lunch break, and then get back out on the river in the afternoon,” Farrell says. “There is a really fun group of people here that have histories ranging from Olympic paddlers to craft brewers.”
Because of Bryson City’s proximity to the NOC and legendary runs like the West Fork of the Tuckasegee and the Cascades and Upper Nantahala, the area is largely known for its whitewater scene. In 2013, the town served as host for the ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships, which drew over 500 athletes from more than 40 countries to the mountains of western North Carolina.
But whitewater aside, there are plenty of other outdoor activities that make Bryson City a one-stop shop for adventure. Stand-up paddleboarding is quickly becoming the family-outing go-to, and the Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee Rivers are both low-key options for a relaxing float. Fontana Lake just outside of town is also the perfect getaway when you’re in need of a little quiet and some good fishing.
For hikers and runners, this place is a trail mecca. Just two miles north of town is the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park where foot-traffic-only trails weave through cold mountain streams and dense green canopies. The Deep Creek Loop is a particularly popular hike, as its moderate-grade four-mile trail takes visitors past two scenic waterfalls—Toms Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.
Hop on the Noland Divide Trail to see the town of Bryson City from above. This trail can be taken all the way to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in Tennessee, a grueling but rewarding 29.8-mile trek out and back. The Appalachian Trail runs right through the NOC property, and a popular day hike is to climb the 30-foot tower on the A.T.’s Wesser Bald and catch a 360-degree sunrise or sunset.
For a combination of fun, fast, and technical singletrack, look no further than Tsali Recreation Area. With a system that boasts close to 40 miles of trails, which take riders past grand views of the neighboring Fontana Lake and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tsali easily ranks among the top places to ride on the East Coast. The 7.5-mile Thompson Loop is a perfect example of a Tsali ride that caters to the beginner and advanced biker alike.
After a day of adventure, kick back at the Nantahala Brewing Company, which is open daily and offers live music. The Bryson City Cork and Bean provides a surreally wonderful fine-dining experience to visitors after a rugged weekend in the woods. Join the folks at this “mountain social house” for savory crepes in the morning or tapas-style plates and locally sourced entrees at night.
With feet propped up, a Nantahala Brewery Noon Day IPA in hand, the call of cicadas in the night, the inklings of sweat and neoprene in the air, it’s no wonder this place beckons to the adventurous soul.
“If you’re coming up with nothing to do in Robbinsville, you’re not looking hard enough.” That’s Almond, N.C., native Paul Butler talking about the outdoor recreation scene in Robbinsville.
Tucked away in the southernmost part of western North Carolina, the town received a short-lived five minutes of fame when one of its locals, Jim Tom Hedrick, appeared on the Discovery Channel’s hit TV show Moonshiners. White lightning aside, Butler says one of the biggest appeals of the Robbinsville area is the close proximity to world-class hiking, running, biking, and kayaking.
“There is easy access to so many great rivers and creeks that not many people have paddled,” Butler says.
From the Cheoah River to Snowbird, Santeelah, Yellow, Slickrock, and Tallulah Creeks, Robbinsville is jam-packed with class IV-V runs that are just a half hour outside of town.
That’s not to say that there are no beginner-friendly paddling options here. Grab a SUP or rec boat and hit up nearby Lake Santeelah, a gorgeous body of water surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest. The lake is also a scenic spot for wake boarding, water skiing, and fishing.
Not into water? A pair of hiking boots should help you get a taste of the best of Robbinsville just fine. From Lake Santeelah, hike eight miles to where the Santeelah system connects to the Appalachian Trail. From there you can head north or south and encounter challenging terrain and some of North Cackalacky’s finest mountain vistas.
“One of the most difficult parts of the A.T. is the section from the Nantahala Outdoor Center to town,” Butler says. “Cheoah Bald is definitely a must-see when you come through.”
Other trails like the Benton MacKaye, Twenty-Mile, and Bartram Trails, all known for their rough and rugged terrain, weave around just outside of Robbinsville, occasionally crossing paths with the Appalachian Trail and making it easy to link up epic trail running loops or plan for extended backpacking trips.
Though the Appalachian Trail is certainly an iconic part of adventure in the Southeast, Robbinsville is also close to some other spectacular hiking destinations. Just down the road, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Slickrock Wilderness Area in particular are the crowned jewels of the region, together spanning over 17,000 acres in the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. Hike through Joyce Kilmer’s 3,800 acres and stand beneath some of the East Coast’s oldest trees, from sycamore, to basswood, oak, and yellow poplar. With trunk circumferences greater than 20 feet, this is certainly a hike you’ll want to have your camera ready for.
Road cyclists can rage up the Tail of the Dragon, a mountain pass that packs in 318 turns in 11 miles. The Cherohala Skyway is like a mini-Blue Ridge Parkway but without the crowds. The mountainous highway is dotted with pull-offs and overlooks that can occupy a whole afternoon. It crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests (hence, Chero…hala), and is a popular destination for leaf peepers in the fall.
When you’re looking for an adventure base camp in North Carolina, you may want to consider ditching the bigger cities and go, instead, with a quieter, quainter small town like Morganton. It’s a town on the rise, and it’s within striking distance of some of the most iconic outdoor adventures in western North Carolina.
“For being such a small rural town, they seem to be way ahead,” says Asheville native Mark Lundblad.
Although Lundblad, a national ultrarunning champion, lives in Asheville and commutes an hour to his job in Morganton, he says he’s done the majority of his ultra training right there in town on the Catawba River Greenway.
“I can run from work and go the length of the Greenway,” he says. “It’s great because there’s people out walking, biking, running, and everyone’s very courteous and friendly. It’s not near a major road, so you feel like you’re away from town and away from civilization, but you’re not.”
Just outside of downtown, Morganton actually has a number of mountain bike trails that connect to the local greenway. The bike shop Cyclewright holds weekly group rides, and is always accommodating to visiting riders in the area. The Table Rock Loop and South Mountain trails are beginner-friendly but will still offer experienced cyclists a little challenge and a good time.
“I think what makes Morganton unique is the variety of outdoor activities to do here,” Lundblad says. “There are as many here as there are in Asheville, but it’s a little more low-key. It’s not hippie; it’s just quiet, so if you’re not into quite as much culture and breweries and fancy restaurants, in that aspect, I think Morganton can appeal to a lot of people.”
Not far from town is the incredibly scenic Lake James, which wraps neatly around the eastern mountains of Pisgah National Forest. Hop on a boat, SUP, or inner tube and spend the day floating through the clear blue waters. From Lake James, you can get your first glimpse of another must-see destination—the Linville Gorge. Only about an hour’s drive from Morganton, the Linville Gorge boasts spectacular views and remote, off-the-map trails that can quickly turn an easy-breezy day hike into an epic bushwhacking adventure. The climbing here is also phenomenal, and rock climbers from all over the world come to the exposed gneiss rock gorge to try their hand at some of the best, and certainly some of the most difficult, traditional climbing in North Carolina. Round off your visit to Linville by hiking down to the three-tiered Linville Falls, a true beauty and a challenging hike both ways.
Best place to escape:
When you need to disappear for a weekend, cozy up by a fire with a jar of moonshine, and spend a little quality time with Mother Nature, look no farther than Davis, W.Va. With a population of about 400 people and more than half a million acres of protected public lands within a 15-minute drive from town, Davis truly embodies all things “wild and wonderful.”
Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Canaan Valley State Park, and Blackwater Falls State Park are closest to town, but Davis, and its sister town Thomas, make great base camps for many other destinations. Drive an hour south and you can access both the Otter Creek Wilderness and Dolly Sods Wilderness areas as well as Spruce Knob—Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, one of the most iconic climbing destinations on the East Coast. Want more? The 900,000-acre sprawl of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest completely engulfs the town of Davis and can be used by mountain bikers and equestrians alike.
During the warmer months, you’ll never have a shortage of trails to explore, whether it’s by bike, foot, or hoof, but if you’re in town during the winter, you best be prepared to ski. Head over the mountain to Canaan Valley where local legend Chip Chase at White Grass Ski Touring Center can get you set up on some cross-country skis. If downhill is more your thing, jet over to Canaan Valley Resort and check out the 43 slopes and newly renovated lodge there.
After a day in the woods, you’re bound to work up an appetite. The folks over at Sirianni’s Pizza Café can whip up some delicious pies while Hellbender Burritos across the street serves meal-sized burritos stuffed with homemade ingredients. The Purple Fiddle in nearby Thomas is a great place to cap off a weekend of adventuring, offering stellar live music nearly every night and craft beer from the local Mountain State Brewing and Blackwater Brewing Co.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Roger Lilly
Manager and co-owner, Blackwater Bikes
“I like living in Davis because I like the outdoor activities. For riding, there’s great mountain biking and really great road riding. You can do most things here out of your front door other than road biking. It’s funny, you have to put your bike in your car and drive somewhere to get started because there are limited paved roads up on the mountain.”
Best place to make trail friends:
Holed away in the southwestern corner of Virginia is a quaint little town that has the Appalachian Trail for a sidewalk and the Virginia Creeper rail-trail as a road. Damascus, more appropriately known as Trail Town U.S.A., might not have the best selection when it comes to restaurants, but it does carry its weight when it comes to good beer, great trails, and an awesome community.
Start your morning with a cup of joe from Mojoe’s Trailside Coffee. You’ll likely meet your first local here. Ask if Just Bill is still around. He’s the Keeper of the Creeper and would be happy to show you a thing or two about mushroom foraging or fly tying.
After getting your caffeine (or blueberry pancake) fix for the day, you can walk out the coffee shop door and be on the Virginia Creeper Trail or the Appalachian Trail in a matter of steps. Rent a bike or hook up a shuttle with Sun Dog Outfitters and ride the most popular, and arguably the most scenic, 17 miles of the Creeper Trail back to Damascus. The multipurpose Iron Mountain Trail also funnels into town and can be linked up with the A.T. for loops of varying lengths. You’ll probably see the local running crew out on the trail squeezing in a post-work run on a beloved 8-mile loop.
Damascus sits at the base of Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park, making it just a 45-minute drive away from wild blueberry pickin’, feral miniature ponies, and 360-degree panoramic views of southern Appalachia’s mountainscape. Head over to Mt. Rogers Outfitters for beta on hiking in the area. Jeff and Steve over at the shop are both longtime hikers and Damascus residents. They’ll tell you everything you need to know and can even help arrange a shuttle.
Hit up Adam over at the Damascus Brewery after you’ve had your share of trekking for the day. Before you leave, make sure you ask Mac for a whirl around the dance floor.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Casey Bledsoe
Turner Leasing Co.
Favorite outdoor activity: Mountain biking
Favorite local spot: Iron Mountain Ridge from Lum Trail To Shaw Gap with a post-ride brew at the Damascus Brewery
“My favorite thing about living here is having a network of rugged, backcountry trails literally right outside of town. You can hike or bike right out of here and be in the woods instantly, like living at a trailhead that has restaurants and a brewery.”
Best place to be carless:
If there’s any place in the Blue Ridge where it’s encouraged to own a nicer bike than car (if you have one at all), it’s the cycling hub of Roanoke. Although largely an urban environment with a population nearing 100,000 people, Roanoke boasts a startling amount of green space and staggering number of trails.
The 568-acre Mill Mountain Park is located just five minutes away from the heart of downtown. Its interweaving singletrack takes riders to scenic overlooks, to Roanoke’s highest point—Mill Mountain (1,703ft), and to the Roanoke Star, the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star (and maybe the only).
The Mill Mountain Greenway connects Mill Mountain Park with the Roanoke River Greenway and ultimately downtown Roanoke, making it easy for people in town to escape for a quick afternoon ride or post-work trail run. The Roanoke River Greenway is only partially complete but is in the works to become a 30-mile bike and pedestrian pathway that will make it possible to travel from western Roanoke County near Spring Hollow Reservoir through the City of Salem to the City of Roanoke, Town of Vinton, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Virginia’s Explore Park.
Just outside of Roanoke is the nation’s second largest municipal park, Carvins Cove Natural Reserve. At 12,700 acres in size, Carvins Cove encompasses over 40 miles of trail and an 800-acre reservoir that can be seen from one of the area’s most popular (and the A.T.’s most photographed) hiking destinations, McAfee’s Knob. The reserve also borders 14 miles of the A.T. and is just a short jaunt from the Blue Ridge Parkway, great for road cyclists looking to put in big miles and tackle some even bigger elevation change.
One of the defining features of Roanoke is that it incorporates both the ease-of-access to the great outdoors with the diversity and nightlife of bigger cities. Check out The River and Rail Restaurant for a unique southern Appalachian inspired French dining experience or head over to Local Roots, a popular farm-to-table restaurant that features regionally grown food. There are a number of breweries in town and with Roanoke’s close proximity to the Crooked Road, good bluegrass is always just around the corner.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Julia Boas
Events manager, Roanoke Outside
Favorite outdoor activity: Hiking
Favorite local spot: McAfee’s Knob
“I think Roanoke is a great mountain town because it is small enough that as soon as you move here, within a week you will have people calling you to be their climbing, paddling, hiking, or biking buddy. Many of the outdoor amenities run through the middle of the city, and everything is so accessible. It’s one of the only places I’ve been to where you can hike something as beautiful as McAfee’s Knob on the A.T. in the morning, stand up paddleboard on the Roanoke River in the afternoon, and be able to drink local craft beer and watch live music downtown by early evening.”
Best place to wear a skirt:
Deep Creek Lake, Md.
When most people think of kayaking, Maryland isn’t usually the first paddling destination that comes to mind. But in the westernmost corner of this small Mid-Atlantic state are some pretty rugged mountains and world-class paddling that draw adventurous souls from all around the world.
For the river rat, the Deep Creek Lake area is a paddling paradise. The Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI) in McHenry is a great training ground for slalom paddlers and those just getting into the sport. This year, the ASCI hosted the 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, a testament to the quality of this mountaintop whitewater center’s course.
Deep Creek Lake itself is a popular summertime destination for flatwater activities like standup paddle boarding and fishing, but the nearby town of Friendsville, Md., is where you’ll find the happenin’ scene. The Upper section of the Youghiogheny River is a world-renowned class IV-V run that releases every weekend in the summer. The takeout for the Upper Yough ends right in Friendsville, and it’s not uncommon to drive through town on a Monday and see nearly every car pass by with a kayak, raft, or shredder strapped to the roof. For post-paddle eats, stop by and see Chris at Water Street Café (his pepperoni and veggie rolls are off the chart) or dig in at the Riverside Hotel’s all-vegetarian restaurant.
If you can time it right, paddle the Upper Yough one day and hit the nearby Savage River the next. The Savage has a long history of sporadic release schedules in the summertime, but catch it on a day it’s running and you’ll be well-rewarded with some of Maryland’s best class III-IV whitewater.
In the wintertime, Deep Creek Lake receives an average of 100 inches of snowfall per season, turning this kayaking hotspot into a powder hound hub. Wisp Resort has over 172 acres of ski terrain and has every snowsport activity imaginable—from cross-country skiing to snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and alpine skiing and snowboarding.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Mike Logsdon
Executive Director and Professor at the Garrett College Adventuresports Institute; Executive Director of the Adventure Sports Center International
Favorite outdoor activity: In the summertime, paddling class I thru class V whitewater on any of the 20+ sections of the five major rivers that are within a 50-mile radius, and in the wintertime, ski patrolling.
Favorite local spot: Wisp Resort
“I’ve lived here for 38 years. What’s great about [the Deep Creek Lake area] is the distinct 4-season climate, diverse geology, the challenge of “meeting what’s thrown at you,” and being immersed in a recreational area, which provides a clean industry with constantly changing, new, and interesting visitors.”
Best place to dabble:
Boone-Blowing Rock, N.C.
Skiing. Climbing. Paddling. Fishing. Underwater basket weaving.
Okay, maybe not the latter, but whatever your passion is, the Boone-Blowing Rock area likely has you covered. Situated just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of western North Carolina, Boone has all the characteristics of a lively college scene (thanks in part to Appalachian State University, located right in the heart of Boone) while still managing to maintain a small-town vibe.
For the climbers, Boone is a rock mecca and serves as a great place to base out of for trips to the spectacular Linville Gorge, just under an hour’s drive from town. Table Rock and Shiprock are two of the more popular crags in Linville, but the multipitch Mummy and Daddy routes in the Amphitheater are two trad classics that any climber visiting the area should be sure to hit. Closer to Boone you’ll find the local crag, The Dump, as well as developed bouldering areas like Blowing Rock Boulders, Hound Ears, and Grandmother Mountain. Head over to Footsloggers, the climbing outfitter in town, to stock up on chalk and beta.
The paddling scene is equally as saturated with opportunity as the climbing, from floating the flat headwaters of the New River to flying down one of the jewels of southern Appalachian whitewater—the class II-IV Watauga River. The biking crowd is also on the rise, especially after last year’s grand opening of the Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park. Even nearby ski resorts like Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain Resort offer mountain biking options in the off-season while the in-town Appalachian Ski Mountain is the local go-to in the wintertime.
Post-ride, climb, or paddle, head over to the Coyote Kitchen and indulge in more “Southwest Carribean Soulfood” than you can handle. Wrap up the best of the High Country with a brew from one of the craft breweries in town, Appalachian Mountain Brewery or Blowing Rock Brewery.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Beth Holcomb
Coordinator of Campus Visit Experiences at Appalachian State University
Favorite outdoor activity: Fly fishing
Favorite local spot: The Elk River, my backyard
“The outdoor opportunities in and around Boone are unparalleled. We have amazing bouldering in downtown Boone, and big crags only a few minutes away. The headwaters of the Watauga and the New Rivers are right here, among many other smaller creeks. The trails are extensive and the views are amazing! It doesn’t get any better.”
Best place to party down:
What the town of Ohiopyle lacks in population (77), it absolutely makes up for in good times both out of doors and at the bar. This little community in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania doesn’t have a traffic light or a grocery store, but it’s by far one of the most scenic mountain towns on the East and is located in the heart of Ohiopyle State Park.
During the summertime, the place is bustling with raft guides, kayakers, and mountain bikers. Bisected by a train on one end of town and bordered by the Lower Youghiogheny River, Ohiopyle is highlighted by one of its most iconic features: Ohiopyle Falls, a river-wide, 20-foot waterfall. Every year, the falls are opened to the kayaking community and the town even puts on an annual Falls Race in late summer.
What makes the town’s close proximity to the class II-III Lower Yough (pronounced yawk) even better is the fact that the run can be shortened into a mile-long loop that does not require a shuttle. Ohiopyle is considered home turf for a number of former and present-day professional paddlers, and with good reason. After learning the basics on the Lower, nearby runs like the Upper Yough, Big Sandy, Meadow Run, and the Cheat Canyon provide quality class IV-V whitewater almost year-round and the chance for paddlers to progress their skills.
Mountain bikers looking to test their legs on some Pennsylvania singletrack better be prepared for the technical rock gardens that are characteristic of the trails around Ohiopyle. The Sugarloaf Trail System, Pressley Ridge Trail, McCune Trail, and Baughman Trail are just a few of the popular rides around, but Ohiopyle is also just a short drive away from Laurel Ridge State Park and Seven Springs Mountain Resort.
If you’re in town for a few days, try to catch a performance from the local band Fern Cliff Collective. They often play at the Falls City Pub & Restaurant in Ohiopyle and they always bring a big crowd. Even if you find yourself waiting an hour for food, you can guarantee that the band’s kickin’ covers and original tunes will have you dancing so hard you won’t even notice.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Buck Marietta
Raft guide, Whitewater Adventurers
Favorite outdoor activity: Paddling an inflatable duckie
Favorite local spot: The Lower Youghiogheny River
“I love Ohiopyle because there [are] beautiful places and waterfalls and peace in the wintertime. There is a lot of fun outdoors here like whitewater rafting or kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, and hunting too. But I am no good at hiking and mountain biking. Lucky me, I’ve lived [here] a long time.”
Best place to booze cruise:
Now, we certainly don’t condone boozing and cruising, but when you live in the quaint mountain community of Brevard, it seems like the most logical thing to do.
Situated at the base of Pisgah National Forest, the college town of Brevard is chock full of young, outdoorsy people who like to ride, run, climb, paddle, and drink good beer. There’s a quick and tasty burrito joint, Pescado’s, right downtown as well as the gelato shop, Kiwi Gelato, both of which are must-visits after a day in the woods.
Oskar Blues Brewery is the bigger brewery around, but Brevard Brewing Company right downtown is quickly growing and has been putting out some truly unique beers. There’s usually a group ride that meets weekly at Oskar Blues, both for its convenient location and its large supply of tasty liquid carbs for the post-ride hangout. Oskar Blues has also recently partnered with REEB bikes and has plans underway for a bike guide and concierge service know as The Bike Farm. The 145-acre farm just a few miles outside of Brevard borders DuPont State Forest, a waterfall and biking mecca, and will serve not only as growing grounds for Oskar Blues’ hops but also as a place for mountain bikers to play and stay in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Pisgah National Forest is full of quality, technical singletrack and riders can explore the forest’s expansive trail system for months and still not see it all. If you’re not a mountain biker and you’ve come to Brevard, there are still plenty of options. Looking Glass is one of the most well known traditional climbing destinations in the Old Cackalacky, and the Toxaway River is one of the most challenging class V runs on the East, so make sure to bring your A game.
On second thought, maybe you ought to cruise before you booze.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Seyl Park
Favorite outdoor activity: Mountain biking, hiking
Favorite local spot: Avery Creek Trail
“I moved to Brevard in 2002 to work in the Wilderness Leadership Department at Brevard College. Since then, I have fallen in love with the easy access to Pisgah National Forest, the small town atmosphere, and it’s a great place to raise a family. What’s not to love?”
Best place to reboot:
Hot Springs, N.C.
Sometimes, it’s nice to treat yourself to a little rest and relaxation. If you’re looking for an order of “mountain time” with a side of southern hospitality, Hot Springs is the place for you. With a population just shy of 600, this diamond-in-the-rough offers visitors a chance to reconnect with nature amid the mystical woods of Pisgah National Forest.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the defining features around town. The trail literally replaces the sidewalk through much of Hot Springs. Hike directly out of town on the A.T. and connect to the Lover’s Leap Loop, an easy 1.6-mile trail that juts off from the A.T. and takes hikers on a scenic tour of the ridgeline that overlooks downtown and the French Broad River. Max Patch is another must-do hike and is one of the highlights of the A.T. Make a day of it by hiking up in the late morning and bringing a picnic so you can take in the 360-degree views while you lunch.
The class III section 9 of the French Broad River ends in Hot Springs and draws whitewater rafters to town every summer. The sections below and above section 9 are flatter but great for fishing and standup paddle boarding.
To cap off the entire Hot Springs experience requires a trip to the town’s namesake. Soak away your worries in one of the natural hot mineral springs, an experience that is said to be therapeutic for the mind and soul.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Darren Reese
Sports editor, The Greeneville Sun
Favorite outdoor activity: Hiking
Favorite local spot: A.T. from Hot Springs to Rich Mountain fire tower
“For anyone going to Hot Springs, my recommendation would be to visit Max Patch…it’s the crown jewel of the area in between the Smoky Mountains and the Roan Balds. Also just outside of town, you can take a drive along Paint Creek, which offers hiking, fishing, swimming, and camping possibilities of its own.”
Best place to live out of your car:
Raft guide, video boater, climbing guide, yoga teacher, seasonal workers from far and near. Come one, come all. Need a plan for those three or four months of summer? How about you ditch your apartment, pack the car, and head to Fayetteville. There’s plenty to do in the area, from mountain biking to horseback riding and whitewater kayaking, so you won’t get bored. Plus, the campgrounds and restaurants here are used to seasonal dirt bags who live in mobile lodgings of all shapes and sizes (and varying states of practicality).
Abandoned school buses, Chevy Astro vans, your two-door Honda Civic. Nothing fazes the adventure community here. They’ve seen it all, and more importantly, they too have probably spent a good portion of their early years in the back of their own Toyota Tacoma or (heaven forbid) in their Wal-Mart base camp tent.
The river lovers will have plenty to do in Fayetteville. The upper stretches of the New River are great for float trips, fishing excursions, or stand up paddle boarding. For a little more excitement, grab your kayak, raft, shredder, or river board and head to Cunard to run the Lower New River Gorge. This class III-IV run is as classic as it gets for East Coast whitewater, and if you stick around through the summer, you can scratch off another classic while you’re in town—the Gauley River. Both the Lower (class III-IV) and Upper (class IV-V) sections of the Gauley are internationally recognized as quality whitewater, taking paddlers and rafters through house-size boulders and alongside dramatic cliff faces deep within the gorge.
Rock hounds will find a really active and well-established climbing community with the local climbing outfitter Water Stone Outdoors at its core. Check out Endless Wall for some classic climbs-with-a-view or head to the crags in the Meadow River Gorge if you’re looking to experience a less populated glimmer of the climbing potential in this West Virginia gem.
No summer in the New is complete without one dive bar experience. Charlie’s Pub is the place to go for that. Don’t worry—it’s within walking distance of town.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Maura Kistler
Co-owner, Water Stone Outdoors
Favorite outdoor activity: Rock climbing
Favorite local spot: Long Point Trail
“It sure has the fundamental prerequisites of a great mountain town: world class climbing, paddling, mountain biking, and fishing resources that are ridiculously convenient. You don’t have to drive around wasting gas and getting bored. Just head out the door and grab a three-sport day. So, yeah, we have the resources, but what sets us apart is our community, which is friendly, relaxed, inclusive, community-minded, tolerant, and fun. This is a surprisingly functional little oasis in our messed up world. Fayetteville has not arrived. It is becoming.”
Best place to go big:
Want to spend the weekend getting your butt kicked? How about heading down south to the city of Chattanooga, once an industrial nightmare of a city but now, a place so kickin’ with hipster vibe and big adventure, one might accidentally mistake this southern metropolis for Burlington.
Rising 1,000 feet from the Tennessee River which winds through town, the city of Chattanooga sits amid the Cumberland Plateau. The plateau covers 24,000 square miles from Kentucky to Alabama and is home to a complex labyrinth of interweaving rivers and, consequently, impressive gorges, making it a hot spot for experienced paddlers and climbers alike.
In the summertime, the dam-release Ocoee River offers up fun class III whitewater just outside of the city. If the busy raft traffic has you feeling anxious, there are nearly 30 other class IV-V runs within a 30-minute drive from town.
The climbing here is absolutely phenomenal. Boulderers can check out Little Rock City (formerly known as The Stone Fort), one of three sites in the Triple Crown Bouldering Series. Foster Falls is home to tons of sport routes while Sunset Rock and the Tennessee Wall offer up quality trad routes on the rim of the Cumberland Plateau.
After you’ve gotten a taste of the rivers and the rocks, grind yourself into the dirt with a mountain bike ride. Most of the singletrack around here is for the intermediate to advanced rider, so be prepared for technical trails with steep rock drops.
Before you do anything in Chattanooga though, head over to the local hostel, the Crash Pad, and grab yourself a place to stay for a few days. If nothing else, the place is affordable, conveniently located, and just plain neat—it’s a LEED certified building, meaning a few days’ stay here will save a little green in more than one way. If you tend to travel solo, you’ll likely be able to find a belay buddy or a trail partner for the day—even the employees at the hostel are down to get out and climb or at least recommend some spots to newcomers of the area.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Bethyn Merrick-Nguyen
Happiness Ambassador, The Crash Pad
Favorite outdoor activity: Rock climbing
Favorite local spot: Bouldering at Stone Fort and traditional climbing at the Tennessee Wall
“I like living in Chattanooga because it’s a great balance between great outdoor activities and city living. I don’t have to choose between being near a metropolitan area with a university, big businesses, and good restaurants or excellent outdoor opportunities. I love having chickens and being in a creative city. Chattanooga allows me to be a part of its growth; as it fills in the downtown area with fun new things, the administration is open to new ideas. We have public outdoor film nights, free concerts, 24-hour parties… It’s cool to be a part of the first event and then see it come back year after year, getting stronger each time.”
Best place to go clipless:
Believe it or not, there’s more to Georgia than peaches and southern charm. The small town of Ellijay in particular has already established itself as the Mountain Bike Capital of Georgia, but with over 50 trails and a tight-knit community of cyclists, this northwest Georgia gem may very well be on its way to establishing itself among the nation’s top cycling hubs like Moab and Bend and Santa Fe.
A logistically easy mountain bike experience starts (and ends) at Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Getaway just a short drive from downtown Ellijay. Nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest, the getaway offers riders over 80 miles of singletrack trails and connects to the IMBA Epic Pinhoti trail system. Forest Service roads bisect these trails quite often, so creating long, all-day rides to train on (or just to go big on) is easy to do.
Other popular rides in the area include Bear Creek Trail, Doublehead Gap Ride, Tumbling Creek Loop, and Mountaintown Creek, one of the most remote rides in the area and one that travels past cascading waterfalls and scenic ridge riding. The crew over at Cartecay River Bicycle Shop in town can get you dialed into the classic rides about town and often hold demo rides at the nearby Blankets Creek trail system.
The Cohutta Wilderness Area is another singletrack mecca as well, providing both a sense of wilderness and impeccably well-maintained trails only 15 minutes from Ellijay. Beginners, be forewarned—the trails around are more suited for the intermediate to advanced rider. But if there’s anywhere to up your two-wheel game, it’s here.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: Travis Crouch
Local outfitter owner, County Commissioner Elect
Favorite outdoor activity: Hiking and kayaking
Favorite local spot: Three Forks area
“Ellijay and Gilmer County are where we call home for many reasons. First, we enjoy a wonderful mild climate with four distinct seasons. Second, we are strategically located at the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which has virtually unlimited outdoor recreational opportunities. Third, our cost of living is very reasonable compared to much of the rest of the country. Fourth, we enjoy ease of access with major highways connecting us to larger communities when the situation calls for it. Finally, we have never lived or visited anywhere else with friendlier people or more sense of community. You shouldn’t take my word for it, however, come see for yourself!”
Best place to be a Millennial:
Yes, Harrisonburg is home to James Madison University, making this college town inevitably young and hip. But recently the downtown portion of the ‘Burg has seen some new shop windows and an overall vibe that is trendy, unique, and down-to-earth all at the same time.
Situated in the Shenandoah Valley at the base of George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, it’s a millennial mecca. Granted, between the live music offered weekly at the Clementine Café and the raging good time (and beer) you’ll find at Three Brothers Brewing Co., there’s enough to keep you busy without the outdoors. But that being said, why wouldn’t you want to go outside and play when the city is only minutes away from an expansive sprawl of mountain biking and hiking trails?
Visitors to the valley will find a strong cycling community in Harrisonburg, primarily molded around the Shenandoah Bicycle Company and the Shenandoah Valley Bike Coalition (SVBC). Local rider and Shenandoah Mountain Touring owner/guide Chris Scott is at the forefront of that community, and is always active in helping develop new trails or maintain current singletrack. Scott’s nearby mountain bike getaway at the Stokesville Lodge and Campground is only a short drive from Harrisonburg and sits just down the road from a host of SVBC grant trails like Narrowback (beginner friendly) and Lookout (more for the advanced).
The Rocktown Trails at Hillandale Park are great for residents looking to squeeze in a quick lunchtime ride or for beginners wanting to cut their teeth. Designed with IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) in mind, the downtown singletrack offers something for novices and advanced riders alike.
LOCAL LOWDOWN: David Frazier
Favorite outdoor activity: Trail running, hiking
Favorite local spot: The Wild Oak Trail
“I love the Harrisonburg area because it is a vibrant base camp for adventures in any direction. You can head west to the remote areas of George Washington National Forest or East to the Shenandoah National Park; in between these two prime destinations you have the Massanutten Mountain Range, the Valley’s jewel, to split the difference.”