The Second Best Trail in the Blue Ridge: The Art Loeb Trail is the highlight reel of the Southern Appalachia.

Some days, everything seems to go your way. You make every traffic light, your favorite song plays on the radio, and you arrive at a quiet trailhead with no other cars in the parking lot. The sun smiles down on you from bluebird skies, and every step feels effortless.

This was not one of those days.

I was attempting to run the North Carolina’s Art Loeb Trail, the second-best footpath in the Blue Ridge—only the Appalachian Trail offers more. The Art Loeb is a highlight reel of Southern Appalachia—panoramic balds, pristine headwaters, unspoiled wilderness—packed into 31 scenic miles. I was hoping to run all of it in a single day.

The Art Loeb Trail has been featured in every outdoor magazine (including this one), yet few ever tackle it end-to-end. Maybe it’s the name. Art Loeb was an overworked businessman who had a heart attack in his early 40s. He began walking in the woods. Eventually he connected a series of trails across the highest peaks and scenic stretches of Southern Appalachia.

Today, the Art Loeb Trail is a mini-A.T., offering all of the high-elevation grandeur without all of the crowds. It is the best of trails; it is the worst of trails. It is butter-smooth singletrack near the Davidson River and a shin-bashing boulderdash through the raw Shining Rock wilderness. It is a thin ribbon of trail between panoramic heaven and laurel hell.

A downpour greeted me at the trailhead, located on the northern edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness. I slipped on my hydration pack, stuffed with a few energy bars and gels, and plunged into the deluge. In the first three miles, the trail climbed 3,000 feet through thorn-choked overgrowth. I skidded across rain-slickened rock and face-planted in the mud. Then I reached an unmarked five-way trail junction—and realized my map was still in the car.

A pink ribbon marked one of the trail options, so I decided to follow it—back down 3,000 feet to the next valley and several miles off-trail.

Backtracking, I finally arrived back at the five-way junction and guessed wrong again. This time, I ended up on the summit of Cold Mountain, made famous by Charles Frazier’s novel. Views from the 6,000-foot peak should have made my sidetrack worthwhile, but the vistas were hidden behind the clouds’ gray gauze.

I returned to the junction once more and finally found the main trail, which headed south toward the wilderness namesake. Shining Rock is a glittering quartz cap atop a nearly 6,000-foot ridge. To get there required crawling on all fours, slashing through brambles, and splashing through ankle-deep water for miles.

Finally, the wilderness tunnel opened into a panorama of 6,000-foot peaks, including Black Balsam. When I arrived at the summit, gale-force winds nearly blew me off the mountain.

I plunged down the flooded trail and arrived at the Blue Ridge Parkway. I checked my watch: I only had four hours left to cover the remaining 19 miles before nightfall, and of course, my headlamp was back in the car with my map.

I shivered in the cold rain, watching tourists drive by in their cozy SUVs. This was the only road crossing and my last chance to bail. I reluctantly pressed on.

Slick rock and mud underfoot made even the downhill miles slow-going. The rain intensified. “Focus on the positive,” I said out loud. But I could think of only one positive at that moment: I had plenty of water.

As I slogged up Pilot Mountain, I tried to think shiny, happy thoughts. I repeated the oft-quoted mantra, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But today, I needed to just shut up and eat my damn lemons.

I recalled reading the make-lemonade quote in a bedtime book to my three-year-old son. “I’m thirsty,” he replied.

Remembering this, I accidentally smiled. It spilled into out-loud laughter as I replayed my string of bad decisions and bad luck. Amid the storm, an inverted rainbow had appeared.

Let me be clear: I’ve always resented the overly cheery pixies who exhort everyone to SMILE! Phony smilers annoy the hell out of me. This was different. As that surprise smile spread across my face, I felt a wave of ease ripple through my body. My jaw unclenched, my stiff legs loosened, the tightness in my chest lifted, and for the first time all day, I was having fun.

It’s easy to be positive and feel good when the sun is shining, but it’s only when things aren’t going your way, when you aren’t in the zone, when nothing is clicking, that your character is put to the test. And isn’t that really what adventure is all about?

For the rest of the run, I soaked it all in—literally. My waterlogged shoes were lead weights around my feet, but I plodded the trail without the added heaviness of a bad attitude. Yes, it was raining sideways and numbingly cold, and I had wasted hours wandering lost in the wilderness. But I was alive, grateful to spend even this unlucky day exchanging my breath with the forest.

Four hours later, I glided down to the Davidson River trailhead just as darkness was swallowing the twilight forest. I was utterly destroyed—trashed quads, blistered feet, bloody nipples—but not defeated. I looked up into the wet sky and smiled.

– Will Harlan
Editor in Chief