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5 Classic Adventures That Make Us Happy The Blue Ridge Is Home

roan highlands

Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder. With stay-at-home orders in place, most of us have been keeping our outdoor recreation low-key with neighborhood bike rides, repetitive running routes, and backyard campouts. And that’s left us pining for what we love most about the Blue Ridge—the iconic adventures that make the South such a special part of the country to explore. With that in mind, we’re celebrating a handful of all-time favorites, the region’s classic scenic escapes that we can’t wait to revisit. 

Red River Gorge
Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Photo by David Sorich.

Climbing the Red

A beloved natural gem in the South, Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is a coveted rock playground visited by climbers across the country. Located in eastern Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest, the Red holds a majestic landscape of natural sandstone sculptures—full of holes, steep walls, ledges, and overhangs—that’s become world renowned for its bounty of sport and single-pitch trad options, boasting thousands of recorded routes for climbers of all levels. Beginners can get a great intro to the Red on the Great Wall or Bruise Brothers in the Muir Valley Nature Preserve, while steeper lines are found at revered spots like the Phantasia and the Motherlode, which holds some of the toughest routes in the South. 

New River Gorge Bridge
Sunset aerial view of the New River Gorge Bridge.

Paddling the New

West Virginia’s New River Gorge is a wild and scenic treasure that’s been called the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Flowing north through the Southern Appalachian from its headwaters in North Carolina, the old river gets to the Mountain State and becomes the New River Gorge National River, 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater that ruts through massively awe-inspiring rock cliffs, at points more than 1,000 feet above.  

The surrounding area has fostered foundational Southern scenes in both climbing and paddling. For the latter, the New’s upper section, running from Hinton to Thurmond, consists mainly of long pools and Class I-III rapids for newer boaters to cut their teeth. Below Thurmond, the Lower Gorge section flows right under the famous New River Gorge Bridge and is known for big, monstrous water—class V rapids with colossal waves and powerful currents that deliver unforgettable thrills. The river is a rite of passage for all paddlers and the lifeblood of the rafting industry that was pioneered on its waters a half-century ago.  

A view of the Smoky Mountains at sunset. Photo by Ben Klea.

Hiking the A.T.

It doesn’t get any more classic than spending your summer days hiking the Appalachian Trail—the beloved 2,193-mile footpath that is a main artery of adventure in our backyard mountains. It was tough to hear that many aspiring thru-hikers getting ready to head north from Springer Mountain had their dreams dashed earlier this spring, when we were all asked to stay off the trail for an indefinite amount of time. But soon enough we’ll be back on the A.T., hiking the roller-coasters of rocky ridgelines, cresting summits, and cooling off in backwoods waterfalls. We’ll certainly relish the next time we can take a multi-day backpacking trip on the 71-mile stretch of the trail that runs through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, trek through the grassy balds and soak in stunning views in the Roan Highlands, or tackle the quintessential Blue Ridge terrain of Virginia’s Triple Crown.

Biking Blue Ridge Singletrack. photo by Jess Daddio 

Riding Pisgah

With 500,000 acres of forest and hundreds of miles of trails, North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest is the premiere playground for mountain bikers in the Blue Ridge and beyond. Riding Pisgah is all about the bounty of singletrack options, as grueling climbs, technical terrain, and lengthy fire roads combine with the adrenaline-inducing flowy descents. The required endurance, though, is always rewarded with stunning scenery, as dense woods with idyllic waterfalls open up to vast rock cliff views. 

With plenty of downhill thrills, the Black Mountain Trail—located in the forest’s Pisgah Ranger District—is considered a classic Pisgah ride that, when combined with Thrift Cove, can be turned into an epic 30-mile journey. Another essential is the 16-mile Laurel Mountain/Pilot Rock Loop, an extra challenging switchback-laden route that hits high elevations and mingles big drops and gnarly rock gardens with gorgeous expanses of mountain laurel during the warm months. 

Pitching a Tent Anywhere

We had trouble deciding on the most iconic spot to pitch a tent in the Southern Appalachians because, frankly, we have way too many favorites. Whether it’s the lush, grassy meadows of Virginia’s Grayson Highlands, the tranquil hardwood and cypress forests of South Carolina’s Congaree National Park, or the deep, isolated woods of Tennessee’s Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, we’re fortunate to have so many majestic spots to sleep under the stars. With summer on the horizon, we’re optimistic that one day soon we’ll be able to safely pack up a full load of gear and escape to the Southeast’s backcountry for some much-needed time to recharge. 

Cover photo: A scenic view from the Roan Highlands. Photo by Steve Yocom

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