The Mountains are Calling
Wherever you go in the Carolinas you’ll find yourself surrounded by a landscape almost too lovely for words. In the mountains this is especially true. Views of ridges and peaks marching to the horizon; the crenelated shape of the land; the trees — emerald green, blazing with fall color or bright with spring blooms — all around; and the waterfalls, streams and rivers — rushing and placid — all invite you to stay, unwind a little, explore. Exploring the mountains means lacing up your hiking boots and hitting the trail, maybe even bringing the tent along to make it an overnight expedition. So get out your road maps, put your boots and tent in the car, and head for the hills, we’ve got five places to visit when you hear the voice of the mountains calling.
Chimney Rock State Park
This AAA TourBook GEM is one of the most recognizable landmarks in North Carolina is also one of the easiest to explore. The trails and climbing here offer something for beginners and seasoned hikers alike. Climb to the top of the 315-foot “chimney” via a set of stairs that deliver an excellent workout and sweeping views of Lake Lure and Hickory Nut Gorge at the top. Other hikes are available, with kid-friendly options like the Great Woodland Adventure Trail, an easy trek to the base of the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls, and a short but strenuous hike through the forest on Four Seasons Trail. If rock climbing is your thing, or if you’d like to learn, Fox Mountain Guides & Climbing School provides rock climbing lessons and programs at Chimney Rock and nearby Rumbling Bald (also part of the park). You can also climb on your own (with a permit, of course) at Rumbling Bald, where numerous hiking trails lead to boulder fields and rock faces where sport climbers and bouldering problem solvers will find plenty of routes. There’s no camping in the park, but you can camp nearby at River Creek Campground.
Drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, North Carolina, and you’ll drive through the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, another AAA TourBook GEM. Detour off the parkway for a drive up the slopes of Grandfather and the hiking trails, wildlife exhibits and unparalleled views there (not to mention the Mile-High Swinging Bridge). Many hikers take to Black Rock Nature Trail a two-mile trek that leads through a forest of rhododendron, galax and fir trees to a view of Grandmother Mountain. The truly adventurous will tackle Grandfather Trail, a tough, five-mile trail that involves cliff-scaling ladders, rock scrambles and some breathtaking views. This is a daylong, weather-dependent, strenuous hike, so be prepared before you hit the trail. One spot every visitor should see is the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, connecting the visitors center and one of the mountains many sub-peaks. Don’t be scared, the bridge isn’t a mile high, but it is a mile above sea level; crossing the bridge is a rite of passage for many, so grab a handrail and head across. There’s no camping on Grandfather Mountain, but you can camp just up the road at Julian Price Memorial Park, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Cataloochee Valley sits in the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a drive in on a lovely, but twisting, mountain road, you’ll be rewarded with a valley filled with fields and elk, mountain streams where plenty of trout swim, as much hiking as you can handle, and one of the best star shows in the Smoky Mountains. Because it’s remote, Cataloochee sees fewer visitors than the rest of the national parks, which means you’ll have many trails to yourself and the campground, though popular, is small and will feel a little more homey. Make your campsite reservation, set up your weekend home and hit the trail. Boogerman Trail, a 7.4-mile loop, starts near the campground and climbs along the low ridges there; Big Creek Trail is a 10.6-mile trek but along the way you’ll pass a lovely waterfall. Historic structures abound here, with the Palmer chapel and cemetery, the Palmer and Caldwell houses and Beech Grove Schools being among the most picturesque. There’s an equestrian campground here and though there’s no rock climbing available, you can climb to the top of Mount Sterling, a 5,842-foot peak where you’ll find some exceptional views of the Smokies.
Devils Fork State Park
Despite a frightening name, Devils Fork State Park makes a great base from which to explore Lake Jocassee and the mountains of western South Carolina. For starters, the camping is excellent whether you choose a wooded campsite, one on the shores of the lake, or one on the boat-access-only island just offshore. Second, there are two short trails in the park — the Bear Cove Trail and the Oconee Bells Nature Trail — that are perfect for stretching your legs before a big day of hiking on the nearby 77-mile Foothills Trail. Plus, the Oconee Bells Nature Trail gives you the chance to spot the endemic and endangered Oconee bell wildflower for a brief, beautiful moment in spring. For climbers, know that the Jocassee Gorges are rich in bouldering fields — Bearfields, Jedi Boulders, Lighthouse, Beasley Gap and Ghost Town are a few — but wants for sport climbing routes. Fortunately, fishing, paddling and exploring the lake provide plenty of distractions.
Caesars Head State Park
This South Carolina classic is a must visit for outdoors enthusiasts. The huge granite outcropping that gives the park its name is also a prime spot for fall foliage views, raptor watching and soaking up the panoramic sight of South Carolina’s Blue Ridge. The two-mile Raven Cliff Falls trail, leading to a 420-foot waterfall, draws visitors in every season, but the five-mile Jones Gap Trail combines a forest walk, mountain views and plenty of stream crossings to make for a compelling hike. Bring your tent and camp in the park at one of 19 trailside campsites. Don’t forget to bring a fishing rod (and South Carolina fishing license) and cast a line or two for brook, rainbow and brown trout.