In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Quiet morning walks on narrow trails surrounded by lush
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
Quiet morning walks on narrow trails surrounded by lush thickets and pine forests, dipping your toes into cold mountain creeks and sinking into the sandy banks of wide rivers heading toward the sea, watching vibrant sunsets from craggy peaks and on coastal boardwalks, and everywhere, hearing the call of birds and seeing glimpses of wildlife. In North Carolina, trail hiking usually means incredible views along the way and once you reach your destination. But for those who are looking to take the first step, these things can seem out of reach. Whether you’re a savvy hiker or daunted by the idea of beginning your journey, North Carolina’s hiking experts are here to guide you as you strap on your boots and hit the trails.
“One of the things I always like to say is that the trail doesn’t care,” says Jennifer Pharr Davis, a record-setting hiker, former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville. “You don’t have to hike a certain number of miles or go a certain speed to be considered a hiker. If you go out there and are in the woods on a trail and enjoying it, you are a hiker.”
We spoke with Davis and two other experts and lifelong hikers — Tom Weaver, President of the Carolina Mountain Club in Asheville (the oldest hiking and trail maintaining club in the state), and Chris Wilkes, co-owner of the Highland Hiker in Highlands — to discover their best tips for hiking beginners, the most important gear, and how to start preparing at home.
|Jennifer Pharr Davis
Owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company and member of the President’s Council of Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition
President of the Carolina Mountain Club and former Volunteer of the Year for the Appalachian Trail
Co-Owner of the Highland Hiker
Jennifer Pharr Davis: I’m a North Carolina native and grew up in western North Carolina but didn’t start hiking until I found the Appalachian Trail at age 21 and completed that 2,190-mile journey. And after that, I was hooked and have been hiking ever since, mostly in western North Carolina and on trails across the state.
Tom Weaver: I grew up on a farm and have always hiked. All my life, I’ve lived in different parts of the world and enjoyed hiking everywhere I went.
Chris Wilkes: I grew up here in North Carolina and here in Highlands, you’re in the middle of Nantahala National Forest. We have great hikes to do and great things to see. Along with that, at Highland Hiker, we’ve been printing a guide to day hikes in the area for about 40 years.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: It’s always just such a huge stress release. It feels so therapeutic and healing. There’s this hiker expression that goes, “The trail gives you what you need.” I’ve just found that to be true.
Tom Weaver: I think it’s the fresh air, the exercise, getting out in nature, reconnecting. I spent a lot of my career behind a computer screen, and always, after work was done, I didn’t feel like sitting behind the TV or computer screen. And so I do hands-on sort of things — hiking, gardening, woodworking.
Chris Wilkes: There’s always a new way of looking at a view at the top of a hike. A waterfall will look way different after the rain than after it’s kind of dry for a week. So, you’re never really seeing the same thing twice. You can do a hike 1,000 times and you’ll still notice something new on the 1,001st.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: The Black Mountain Crest Trail in Burnsville is just spectacular. I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the Southeast. It just has such a wide variety of biodiversity and then it has these really cool rock outcroppings and geology, and the views are incredible.
Tom Weaver: There are lots and lots of great places to hike in North Carolina. Living in the western part of the state, in Asheville, we’re blessed with the Appalachian Mountains. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail and the Appalachian Trail come right through our area. And those are both great trails to get out on for an afternoon, overnight, or for a week.
Chris Wilkes: Most of my favorite trails are going to be here in this area in western North Carolina. I like the shorter hikes, stuff I can tackle in a morning or afternoon. I like the Chattooga River Trail, and I like Jones Knob, which overlooks the valley down below Highlands.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: I’ve hiked in all 50 states and on six continents. I love hiking anywhere and everywhere, but just the constant seasonal changes, diversity of plant life, and the ample water sources we have here make North Carolina unique. And then the great history and stories that live in these mountains, as well. I think I’ll live here and be learning for the rest of my life, even if I live to 100.
Tom Weaver: I think the number of trails we have and the care that the maintainers spend to keep them very hikeable. It’s very green here with mountains and waterfalls. It’s just a blessing.
Chris Wilkes: I think what sets apart the trails in western North Carolina is the old-growth forests.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: For views, probably Burnsville. There’s really nice hiking, and you don’t have the same crowds and traffic that you have in other areas. I think Mount Mitchell is a must-do. Mitchell is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River and it has such a unique ecosystem at the top. If you hike from the base of the mountain on any of the trails that lead to the summit, you’re just going through so many different types of microclimates and it’s such an interesting, dynamic place to hike.
Tom Weaver: There are so many, but I go back to Max Patch. Our club has spent a lot of time rehabilitating the Appalachian Trail over on Max Patch, so that’s my No. 1 destination. Black Balsam is certainly glorious as well in the Graveyard Fields area along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Chris Wilkes: In my neck of the woods, Rabun Bald, Whiteside Mountain, Jones Knob, and Yellow Mountain — which requires a lot of hiking but has good payoff with a 360-degree view. Satulah Mountain has got a really good view from up top, too. And I would make sure that I did at least a stretch of the Appalachian Trail.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Make sure you have hiking essentials in your pack, including plenty of food and water, first-aid, and a rain jacket. I recommend not carrying too much weight at a time to only carry what you need and not trying to go too far or too fast too soon. I think any exercise you can get is great. Even just walking around your neighborhood or stretching your legs at work. It’s a great way to start prepping for a hike, but also know that when you go out there, based on your fitness level, you want to plan your hike accordingly.
Tom Weaver: Going with someone who is an experienced hiker always helps. Our experienced hike leaders talk about preparing for a hike; it’s not just what you carry in your day pack or your backpack, but also about exercising and getting prepared. Walk around your block, walk up and down your street to get ready for a hike out in nature — getting in a little bit of proper shape before you get out on the trails.
Chris Wilkes: Know how to plan for a hike. When you live in an urban environment, the parks and the trails are set up for pretty easy access and walking. So sometimes if you’re on a [more remote] trail, even a really well-marked one, compared to that, it can seem kind of daunting, like, “Wait, is this where we’re supposed to go? This looks kind of like a trail.” But just keep in your mind that a trail that’s well-traveled will seem well-traveled. Also — make sure to let people know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Believe me, that information has saved some lives here.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Start by wearing comfortable shoes. You don’t have to buy really expensive hiking boots to start hiking. Taking a cell phone is always great, but you shouldn’t rely on that as your No. 1 safety tool. You should always come prepared, and then use your phone to accentuate your hike and make it better by taking photos or looking at different online resources or plant ID apps.
Tom Weaver: A checklist would include things like comfortable shoes, appropriate clothing that fits the weather, and water. For longer hikes, bring a raincoat, food, sun protection, hiking boots instead of just comfortable shoes, navigation tools, and a first aid kit. Those are basic elements on our checklists for any new hiker. Comfortable shoes are the most important thing in my mind. Beyond that, a properly fitting pack to make it comfortable to walk and carry those essentials. Hiking poles are always a great help to relieve some of the pressure on your knees and your hips as you’re going up and down the hill and for general stability on the trails out in the woods.
Chris Wilkes: It’s always good to plan out exactly how much time you’re wanting to spend out on the trail and pack accordingly. Have some band-aids, one of those super-absorbent towels, and a packable rain jacket. In this part of the state, rain can come quick, and it can leave quick, too. If you’re going to be out for more than three hours during the summertime, the chances of you running into rain are pretty good. But footwear is by far the most important thing. Truthfully, it’s about the fit, and the better the shoe fits, the more comfortable you’ll be hiking and the longer you’ll go. And don’t forget about the socks!
Jennifer Pharr Davis: For beginners, I would just say to look local. Start as close to your backyard as you can, and then go from there. When people are getting started, so much of it is about finding a place that feels like home and that feels familiar. And then what you realize is that most of these trails connect to other trails and land management areas. It becomes this whole interconnected adventure.
Tom Weaver: There are lots of easy-to-use trails. We’ve got an extensive database of hundreds of hikes. But the Mountain-To-Sea Trail corridor along the Blue Ridge Parkway here in the Asheville area is an easy spot to find lots of in-and-out access points.
Chris Wilkes: There are tons of hikes here in the Highlands and Cashiers area that are like half-a-mile to the viewpoint but with a lot of payoffs. If you’re just here for the first time doing hikes in Highlands, Sunset Rock, Satulah Mountain, and Chattooga River Trail are very easy to find and do. You can knock those out in an hour and get to see these really, really pretty views and waterfalls.
Tom Weaver: I think the first time I hiked in the Roan Mountain area during the blooming of the rhododendrons was just unbelievably spectacular and took my breath away.
Chris Wilkes: Those rare times where you get to see wildlife flash by because you were still and quiet.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: My favorite hiking moment that I’ve ever had was on Roan Mountain, which is on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail. I was up there by myself at sunset and the sky was changing colors, the mountains were changing colors. There are spruce and fir trees, so it smells like Christmas year-round, and I could hear the birds. And it just hit me at that moment. It was so beautiful — inspiring — and I realized that I was a part of nature as I was walking through it.