We may take winters off, but nature doesn’t. You haven’t seen anything until you crawl out of your sleeping bag as the sun rises over a fresh layer of snow. The leaves are gone, offering more scenic exposure through the winter-bared trees. You want to experience true quiet? Hike into a wilderness area after a fresh snow—the woods dampened by the white blanket of insulation. You want solitude? Go backpacking in the dead of winter, while everyone else is inside sipping cocoa.
Here are four favorite winter backpacking trips, from overnighters to full blown three-day excursions, that take advantage of some of the most under-appreciated long trails in the Southeast.
The Bartram Trail: Georgia/North Carolina
This 100-mile National Recreation trail traces William Bartram’s steps through North Georgia and Western North Carolina, crossing a number of high elevation balds and gorge-cutting rivers along the way.
The Plan: A three-day, 30-mile trek from Wayah Bald to Cheoah Bald.
Highlights: Three balds, mile-high ridgeline section, river camping. The views from the ridgeline will be enhanced during the winter by the leafless trees.
Day One: Start your hike at Wayah Bald (elevation 5,385 feet) and soak up the views without climbing the fire tower—which is currently in rehabilitation, then enjoy the two-mile ridgeline hike that hovers above 5,000 feet before hitting the 5,440 foot Winespring Bald. Then drop 2,000 feet, from the bald to Nantahala Lake. It’s a steep downhill that gets steeper the closer it gets to the manmade reservoir. Skirt the edge of the lake and look for a campsite farther down the trail along the river. Miles: 7.5
Day Two: Roll out of your sleeping bag and follow the Bartram as it parallels the Nantahala River for several miles. Climb over Rattlesnake Knob then drop back down to the river as it heads into the Nantahala Gorge. You’ll put in a lot of miles, but most of the hiking is level. Try to stay dry during the copious creek crossings. Find a primitive campsite along the river again. Miles: 16.5
Day Three: Wake early—you have a legitimate summit ahead of you. Your final destination, Cheoah Bald, awaits you at the end of this gruesome day. Hikers have called Cheoah the “Grandstand of the Atlantic” because there simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe the view from its grassy peak. But you’ve got to climb 3,000 feet in under five miles to enjoy that view, so get cracking. And be forewarned, there’s no road access to Cheoah, so be prepared to backtrack to the Nantahala. That’s the price you pay for solitude.
The Cumberland Trail: Tennessee
The entire 300+ mile Cumberland Trail (CT) is still in development, but will eventually traverse the Cumberland Plateau from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in Kentucky to Chickamauga National Military Park on the edge of Chattanooga.
The Plan: For a two-day trip, head to the southern terminus and hike a 23-mile lollipop loop that connects the CT with a diverse loop trail in Prentice Cooper State Forest. Designated primitive campsites are scattered throughout this loop, making it possible to reduce the number of miles you hike each day.
Highlights: Views of the Tennessee River Gorge, crazy rock formations, boulder hopping, and creek-side camping. This area receives a lot of attention during the warmer months, but crowds thin during winter.
Day One: The hike starts at the CT’s southern terminus at Signal Point (note: no overnight parking; arrange for a shuttle that will drop you off at Signal Point and pick you up on Tower Drive: outdoorchattanooga.com). Follow the rim of the Tennessee River Gorge to Edwards Point, a massive rock overlook of the river 1,000 feet below. After the overlook, you’ll trade the gorge views for high bluff hiking and, eventually, Mushroom Rock, a formation that seems to defy gravity. Cross the North Suck Creek on the 200-foot-long swinging bridge, then keep following the CT into Prentice Cooper State Forest and camp at the designated Popular Spring Campsite.
Day Two: Wake early and follow the CT until it intersects Mullins Cove Loop at the Indian Rock House, a narrow rock chasm and archeological site. After the rock house, follow Mullins Cove along the rim of the Tennessee River Gorge to Snooper’s Rock, another natural overlook, then take the trail across Tower Drive. The trail follows the bluff beside Mullins Creek and undulates through skinny valleys cut by feeder streams. Towards the end of the trail, you’ll boulder hop along the side of Mullins (warning: slick rocks) before finishing at the Cumberland Trail parking area on Tower Drive. Miles: 11
The Massanutten Trail: Virginia
The Massanutten Trail traverses some of the most rugged and scenic ridges in the Shenandoah Valley. Nearby is the Tuscarora Trail—an “alternate” route along the Appalachian Trail that traverses even wilder terrain.
The Plan: A 19-mile mini-loop that combines pieces of the Massanutten Trail with the Tuscarora Trail for a two-day highlight reel of the area.
Highlights: Views of the Shenandoah River and surrounding mountains, technical rock scrambling, ridgeline hiking, creek side camping. The winter-bared ridge offers breathtaking views of the valley.
Day One: Park at the Signal Knob lot on FR 678 and head north on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail, where you’ll start climbing to the Buzzard Rock overlook. Soak in the big views to the east. Two more miles of ridgeline hiking leads you to views from Signal Knob of Great North Mountain on the West Virginia border. At 2,100 feet, Signal Knob is the high point of your trek. From there, you’ll descend past the junction with the Tuscarora Trail into a small creek valley. Look for a campsite in a meadow near the creek along the Massanutten Trail. Miles: 8.5
Day Two: Follow the Massanutten Trail for another mile, where it intersects again with the Tuscarora. Take a right on the blue-blazed Tuscarora and climb steeply to the ridge of Three Top Mountain. You’ll hike for 3.5 miles, traversing the ridgeline via boulders and rock scree. Huge views of the Shenandoah Valley will accompany you the majority of the way. Stay on the Tuscarora as it crosses the Massanutten Trail again and continue following the blue blazes for 5.5 miles back to FR 678 and your car.
Benton Mackaye Trail: Georgia
One of the most freshly minted long trails in the Southeast, the Benton Mackaye Trail travels 300 miles through wilderness areas in Georgia and Tennessee, and primitive backcountry in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina. The BMT offers a more rugged, less crowded alternative to the AT through Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, though only a select few have thru-hiked the entire trail.
The Plan: A masochistic three-day backpack is made by joining the Benton Mackaye with the Duncan Ridge Trail. It’s a 31-mile point to point (visit BMTA.org for shuttles) that traverses what many say is the toughest terrain in Georgia.
Highlights: Waterfalls, solitude, high elevation balds, swinging bridge, expansive views. Long Creek Falls is often frozen, and the views from the mountain tops are especially spectacular in winter.
Day One: Start in section two of the Benton Mackaye at Three Forks, where Stover, Chester, and Long Creeks meet. Less than a mile from the start, take the side trail to Long Creek Falls, a 30-foot vertical drop. You’ll hike for two miles, eventually climbing 700 feet to “The Bald,” a former helicopter landing pad that’s been expanded by the U.S. Forest Service. The trail undulates for miles, rising to peaks, then dropping to gaps, through one of the most remote sections of the BMT. When you hit the Toccoa River Bridge, look for a good campsite along the bank of the river.
Day Two: Climb Toonowee Mountain for the first 1.5 miles, then continue the roller-coaster hike from ridge to gap. You’ll pass through a hemlock grove before crossing state road 60, then climb a series of mountains until summiting Rhode Mountain, where you’ll break from the BMT and follow the blue-blazed Duncan Ridge Trail. There’s a good campsite at the summit of Rhode, but water is scarce. Miles: 8
Day Three: Wake early because the bulk of your hiking will be done on this third day. Follow the Duncan Ridge Trail as it drops quickly from Rhodes Mountain and then rolls endlessly from peak to gap. Switchbacks are scarce, so the elevation change is quick and sometimes painful. The highlight of this section is Coosa Bald. During the summer, the views are obstructed, but the winter offers massive views from the 4,271-foot peak. Drop off the bald and continue on the D.R.T. The trail ends at the base of Blood Mountain near Hwy 180.