Southern Superlatives

Southern Superlatives

longest rock scramble

Old Rag, Va. 

There’s no denying that the nearly mile-long scramble up the side of Old Rag is one long, hand over hand, squirming jungle gym.

“You’re not going to find any rock scramble as long as Old Rag,” says Andy Nichols, owner of Shenandoah Mountain Guides and founder of the Old Rag Mountain Stewards, a rescue group that “patrols” the formidable mountain. “But it’s also really crowded.”

Squeezing through a slot between two boulders is fun. Waiting in line for 20 minutes to squeeze through a slot between two boulders is maddening. If you want a scramble with similar quality but none of the crowds, head to Strickler Knob on Massanutten Mountain, west of Luray, where you’ll find a good half-mile of hand over hand boulder hopping that leads to an incredible summit view.

“You’re rock hopping, then the next thing you know, you’re climbing hand over hand and you feel like you need to rope in,” Nichols says of the summit approach. Once you reach the top, you have 360-degree views at your feet.

Explore It Start at the Massanutten Trailhead on Crimson Hollow Road west of Luray. Begin hiking east on the orange blazed Massanutten Trail before finding the pink-blazed Strickler Knob Trail. Be prepared for double-overhead freehand climbs and tight squeezes through slots between boulders. Pink blazes do a good job of keeping you on trail. And as always when hiking and scrambling around rocks, beware of snakes.

highest mountain

Mount Mitchell, N.C. (6,684 feet)

Okay, you know Mount Mitchell is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. But do you know it’s only 37 feet higher than the next highest mountain east of the Mississippi, Mount Craig (6,647 feet)? Craig is in the same Black Mountain Range as Mitchell. It’s even in the same state park as Mitchell and is connected by a pretty sweet trail with Mount Mitchell. But what does being 37 feet shorter than the tallest mountain in the East get you? Considerably more solitude. While Mitchell has a cafe and parking lot near its summit (you can request a golf-cart ride to the observation tower, if you like), Mount Craig is still in its wild, rugged state. No golf carts, no restrooms, and a fraction of the visitors.

Explore It Park at Mount Mitchell State Park (found off the Blue Ridge Parkway at the end of NC 128) and bag the summit if you haven’t already. The observation tower offers a stellar view and Mitchell has a bizarre micro-climate and ecosystem that’s worth exploring. But spend most of your time hiking the 4.5-mile Deep Gap Trail along the crest of the Black Mountain Range. The craggy summit of Mount Craig is the first mountain you’ll cross after heading north from Mount Mitchell. From Craig’s summit, you’ll enjoy a broad view of Craig’s bigger brother Mitchell and a chunk of the Black Mountain Range of giants.

Mitchell Craig

wettest trail

Jacks River Trail, Ga.  

As far as traditional trails go, Jack’s River Trail has to take the cake, with at least 42 stream crossings in under 17 miles. It’s a pain in the ass if you’re not wearing the right shoes. But consider the rise of canyoneering routes like Bonas Defeat Gorge in North Carolina, or Red Creek in West Virginia, and the sky’s the limit for river crossings. But then you get into philosophical questions like, “what constitutes a trail?” and we don’t want to go there right now. So long live Jack’s River as the King of Stream Crossings.

Explore It Find the Jacks River Trailhead off of Forest Road 62, on the edge of the Cohutta Wilderness in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Other than the river crossings, the trail itself is relatively flat. You’ll find good campsites all along the river, particularly before and after Jacks River Falls. Trekking poles would help during some of the deeper crossings. And bring your fly rod. Jacks runs through the heart of the Cohutta Wilderness and is home to some feisty populations of rainbow, brown, and brook trout. With a fly rod in hand, all those stream crossings become opportunities for success.

most remote spot

Virginia Coast Reserve, Va.

When we say remote spot, we mean specifically the piece of dirt farthest from any road in a given state. In the entire Southeast, the farthest you can get from a road with your feet on the ground is in Florida, on an island in the Marquesas Island chain, roughly 25 miles from the nearest road. If you’re looking for the most solitude in our backyard, look no further than Virginia, where you can stand exactly 8.3 miles from the nearest road. As long as you have a boat.

The most remote spot in our region is on an island inside the Virginia Coast Reserve, according to Ryan and Rebecca Means, a biologist duo who’s made it their mission to find the most remote spot in all 50 states. The patch of sand that is farthest from a road in Virginia happens to be Rebecca’s favorite remote spot in the South. “We had a long, isolated beach hike to get to the spot,” says Rebecca Means. “I love a wild beach, and this one was definitely wild.”

Explore It The Virginia Coast Reserve is comprised of 14 wild barrier islands between the Maryland border and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, which are owned and protected by the Nature Conservancy. You’re going to need a boat to get there, and you’re going to need permission. Day visitation is generally kosher, but check with the Nature Conservancy’s visitation guidelines to make sure your trip fits the bill. 

oldest river

The New River…or is it? 

Oldest river in the country, second oldest river in the world, right? Not so fast. Labeling the New as the oldest river in the country isn’t as cut and dried as you’d think, according to studies by the National Park Service and West Virginia University. Even though it’s commonly accepted that the New is damn old, and usually bantered about as the second oldest river in the world, the exact age of the New has been debated scientifically for decades, primarily because there’s no definitive way to date a river. Based on geological studies and analysis with other rivers, most scientists date the river between 3 and 320 million years old. That’s old, but an argument can be made that the French Broad River, and a number of others, are just as old if not older.

Explore It Oldest, shmoldest. We love the New for the good, clean fun it offers, regardless of its age. Here are two ways to sample this river. In North Carolina, paddle a multi-day stretch of the river as it passes through New River State Park, which has launches and campsites scattered throughout a 26-mile stretch of the New designated as a National Wild and Scenic River that calmly twists through the North Carolina foothills. Or raft the much more tumultuous stretch of the New that carves the dramatic New River Gorge in West Virginia. The Lower New is a full day of class II-IV rapids.



hardest rock climb

Southern Smoke Direct, Red River Gorge, Ky. (5.15a) 

You might recognize Southern Smoke (5.14c) as being the route that helped catapult D.C. native Sasha Digiulian to stardom last year when she became one of the few women to climb the 5.14 grade. Adam Taylor, a Kentucky local, recently established Southern Smoke Direct (5.15a), which takes the already formidable Southern Smoke route and adds a more direct boulder problem to the beginning. The direct start gets the climber pumped in just a few moves close to the ground. In a previous article, Taylor told BRO that sending the route was like a runner squatting heavy weight before trying to run a 5K. At 5.15a, Southern Smoke Direct is the toughest rock climbing route in the Southeast, but Taylor already has his eye on developing a route inside the gorge that might be a bit harder.

Explore It There are only a handful of climbers in the country climbing 5.15 right now. If you’re one of them, you already have the beta. For the rest of us mortals, hook up with a guide at Red River Outdoors ( They can run you by Southern Smoke Direct on your way to more appropriately graded routes.

steepest commercially run river

Upper Yough, Md. 

Just take a look at the numbers. In 10 miles, the Upper Yough (pronounced “Yock”) has 14 class IV and five class V rapids, dropping 115 feet per mile on average. The gradient maxes out at a whopping 200 feet per mile inside the canyon through a section referred to affectionately as “The Miracle Mile.”

Compare that to the Upper Gauley, arguably the most beloved class IV-V romp in our region, which drops an average of 36 feet per mile with a max gradient of 48 feet per mile, and you’ll understand just how steep the Upper Yough truly is.

Explore It Block off five hours between April and October and sign up for a trip with Precision Rafting, which has been running the Upper Yough since 1981. The meat of the river is five miles inside a canyon with 20 back-to-back class IV-V rapids. •

Size Matters

Need More Superlatives? Try these on for size.

Biggest Cave System
Mammoth Cave, Ky.

At 390-miles of connected passages, Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system in the world, not just the Southeast. Deepest Gorge: Nolichucky River Gorge, Tenn. It’s not your typical stone-wall canyon, but the Nolichucky gorge rises 3,000-feet from the river to the tip of Unaka Mountain, the highest mountain lining the gorge at 5,180 feet.

Smallest Wilderness
Allegheny Islands Wilderness, Pa.
371 acres. The Wilderness area is comprised of even islands in the middle of the Allegheny River. But it’s behemoth compared to the Pelican Island Wilderness, in Northern Florida, which is a tiny six acres.

Largest National Forest
George Washington National Forest, Va./Wva. 

Call the G.W. a cool mill: 959,414 acres in Virginia and 104,866 acres in West Virginia. Largest Lake: Kentucky Lake, Ky. This manmade wonder covers a whopping 160,309 surface acres with 2,380 miles of shoreline. By comparison, the lake is just 30,000 acres smaller than all of Shenandoah National Park.

Curviest Road
Tail of the Dragon, N.C./Tenn.

In a deep corner of Western North Carolina/Eastern Tennessee, an 11-mile stretch of US 129 has an astounding 318 curves as it winds its way toward the border.


Here are the best rivers in the Blue Ridge!

Share this post:

Discover more in the Blue Ridge: