We are all explorers. In the spring we seek out the best trails; in the summer we look far and wide for the deepest, most refreshing swimming hole; in the fall, we climb mountains to find the best views. Now, winter is here, but that is no reason to pack that adventurous spirit in the attic with your Bermuda shorts and Tevas. Those same trails you trek in warmer months are still there, only now they are (hopefully) covered in snow, waiting to be rediscovered.
In the South, the white stuff can be non-existent or overwhelming; big winter storms may be years or days apart. The waiting can be agonizing, but when the snow does fall, the land is muffled by a blank canvas waiting for your skis to smear the first broad stroke. This is the essence of backcountry skiing: freedom, self-reliance, self-expression. In the backcountry, things begin to fall into their natural place without being hemmed in by lifts and ropes. So grab your glide wax, point your tips down the fall line, and explore this guide to the best backcountry in the Blue Ridge.
Roan Mountain Highlands
Activities – cross country skiing, downhill skiing, camping, snowshoeing
Roan may be the most important cross-country and backcountry ski zone in the South, and the most popular. During Nordic skiing’s heyday in the South (late 1970s and 80s) a group calling themselves the High South Nordic Guide Service ran tours out of Tennessee’s Roan Mountain State Park to modest success. Kristian Jackson teaches Recreation Management at Appalachian State University and has been skiing Roan for years.
“If snow conditions are good, [Roan] is as good as it gets anywhere: beautiful scenery, the snow is often really fine and powdery, and it gets really harsh snowy winter conditions with high winds and really cold temps,” Jackson says. “It can make for a really out-of-the-ordinary Southern experience. You can drive up there from the Piedmont and it’s like you went into Canada.”
Jackson says he watches for storms coming out of the northwest that bring buckets of snow and wind atop the 6,000-foot peaks of the highlands. The lee side slopes load up with windblown snow, creating pocket zones deep enough for face shots. Roan is such a big area, though, that there is ample opportunity to get off the beaten path and explore its bald ridges.
“The great thing about Roan is that it is such a vast mountain, you can get off the beaten track really easily and get into some very remote settings,” Jackson says. “There are some open fields and some bowl-like areas where you can get a bunch of turns in.”
When the snow is good and the massif is hopping with skiers and snowshoers, Roan may remind you more of Colorado than Tennessee or North Carolina.
From the Tennessee side of the mountain, Carver’s Gap on Route 143 is the best and easiest access point. From the parking lot at 5,700 feet, head west on the road to the summit. The roads themselves make a great cross country ski tour to the observation tower at Roan High Bluff, or hop on the Appalachian Trail and make it a loop. Be sure to stop off at the Roan High Knob Shelter, the highest shelter on the A.T. that sits just below the summit of Roan High Knob.
From the North Carolina side, access the area from the end of Roaring Creek Road west of Carver’s Gap. The approach is steeper, but more angled terrain means more opportunity for downhill skiing. Get on the Overmountain Victory Trail and take it to where it crosses the A.T. at the huge Overmountain Shelter, a great place to overnight or set up base camp for tours in the area.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Activities – cross country skiing, camping, snowshoeing
When the seasons change and the crowds thin out, Great Smoky Mountains National Park can become an afterthought to the general public. This would be a mistake, says Randy Johnson, author of several hiking guide books, including the seminal read on backcountry snowsports below the Mason Dixon, Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie.
“The high crest of the Smokies, because it is so high, can really surprise you with the amount of repeated dumps at high elevation,” he says. “The hit on the Great Smokies is no one really knows about it. Even though the Smokies are more southerly, they are so lofty as a ridge crest, they create their own weather and often times have a microclimate of amazingly deep snow up there. In a good winter, when Roan is skiable and Mitchell is skiable, the Smokies can have six-foot drifts up there.”
Johnson says one of the aspects of GSMNP that gets overlooked is the winter access. The Tennessee Department of Transportation plows Newfound Gap Road, providing an easy approach to numerous trails along the way.
“The Newfound Gap Road that crosses the Smokies is a public highway, they have to plow it,” Johnson explains. “It may be closed under significant snowfall, but it always re-opens. It is not difficult to go up the Newfound Gap Road and park and find awesome cross country or snowshoe conditions.”
Johnson does warn that weather can move in fast on the high ridge of the Smokies, so snowshoes are a definite must-have.
They don’t wait for the snow to close the Clingmans Dome Road to the iconic peak, so this is your best option for gradual cross country skiing. Pick up the road at Newfound Gap and follow it seven miles out and seven miles back. If you are feeling strong, the A.T. parallels the road and is a good loop option. Along the way is the Mount Collins shelter, roughly half way to the Dome. Numerous spur trails, like the half-mile Spruce-Fir Nature Trail are excellent options if the sun isn’t going down on you.