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Off the Beaten Path: The South

Part 5 of a 5 part series:

by: Ben Shaw

At the end of this lockdown, I’m going on a trip…. Part 5 of 5, the last stop on our journey around the country, the south. If I have a long weekend, these are the places I run to…

Roan Highlands, Tennessee

Hiking, Backpacking

I’ve done the Tour Du Roan three times, three different ways. I’ve hiked it in the winter, fall and summer, it’s always been a beautiful section of trail. The highlands are several different peaks spanning 20 miles along the North Carolina-Tennessee Boarder, this highest of which is Roan Mountain. Roan stands tall at 6,285’ and is home to the highest shelter on the Appalachian Trail, believe me when I say this, it gets cold up there…. The nice thing about this section of trail is that it offers a great supply of water, a lot of diversity and plenty of points to bail out if you need. My advice is to book a shuttle out of the Mountain Harbor Hostel to Iron Mountain Gap and spend the next four days hiking north towards Highway 19 East. You’ll go through old growth pines, grassy balds, and see some awesome sights along the way. This section of the AT is best done in the late fall and early spring in my opinion, it improves the views! Be warned, this one is a knee bender though, there’s a few thousand feet of elevation change between start and finish.

Best time to go: Year Round

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

Car camping, Kayaking, Hiking

Nestled down by the Florida Georgia Line, sorry, couldn’t help myself, the mystic black swamp of Southern Georgia covers 438,000 acres of wetland protected by both a National Wildlife Refuge and National Wilderness Area. Its boundless with adventure, and unfortunately, I’ve never been there…. Luckily Dalton has, and here’s his two cents on this wonderful destination:

“Okefenokee is primarily a place for those wanting to take a walk or paddle on the wild side. With a wide array of different swampy channels to paddle through, adventurers will pass by breathtaking mangrove fields, wide open plains and of course the mucky murky swamp. Okefenokee boasts an incredible ecosystem containing, raptors, otters, cranes and best of all, a plethora of alligators. You can choose to do kayaking day trips or a multi-day trip, either way you’ll get to see some incredible sites.”

Best time to go: April-October (Maybe not July unless you really like humidity…)

Laurel River Lake, Kentucky

Hiking, Car Camping, Boating , Swimming, Kayaking, Cliff Diving

Laurel River Lake is a man-made reservoir that covers between 5,600 – 6,600 acres and has over 200 miles of shoreline. Most of the surrounding area is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest and is open to boating, swimming, dispersed camping and tons of fun. There’s two boat in campgrounds on the north and south sides of the lake and several developed campgrounds scattered around the lake as well. One of my favorite summer escapes is to snag a spot at the White Oak Campground and spend the weekend exploring the north channels of the lake for cliffs to climb and dive from. If you need a summer escape, this is your place…

Best time to go: April-November

Grayson Highlands / Mount Rogers NRA, Virginia

Hiking, Backpacking, Car Camping

Are you starting to figure out that I like the mountains? The Grayson Highlands and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area encompass 154,816 acres of rolling hills, wild ponies, wilderness and sweeping mountain vistas. At the center of all of this is the 5,729’ high point of Virginia, Mount Rogers, unfortunately the summit isn’t that exciting, sorry Virginia. I will say though, the trails are amazing, with over 200 miles of trail systems, the area offers endless options. You can enjoy a quick weekend along the Appalachian Trail of you can wander off of one of the plentiful side paths and spend a week traversing the entire area. Pro-Tip, there’s cattle all over the place so keep an eye out…. Getting charged by a long horn will get your heart going a little more than you probably asked for.

Best time to go: Year Round

Black Mountains, North Carolina

Hiking, Backpacking, Car Camping

The Black Mountain range contains 6 of the 10 highest peaks east of the Mississippi and the tallest, Mt. Mitchell sitting at 6,684’. The highest part of the range sweeps north to south for 15 miles and creates a famous to me trail, the Black Mountain Crest. It’s a 12.1 mile slog up and down some extremely difficult terrain. The range also hides a “class 3” route up the backside of Celo Knob to 6,327’, it’s an awesome scramble up…. Your three options in the area are setting up a basecamp at the Briar Bottom Campground to explore the area or enjoy a stay at Albert’s Lodge (the owner is a gem of a man). If you’re up to backpacking, you can stay at Deep Gap, but be warned, the area is popular with Black Bears, luckily they’re no larger than your dog!

Best time to go: Year Round

Lake Jocassee, South Carolina

Kayaking, Car Camping, Cliff Diving, Fishing

Lake Jocassee is definitely a hidden gem, it’s a man-made lake covering 7,500 acres and is open for public recreation. Your best bet is to setup camp at Devils Fork State Park, boat in sites are available. From there you can either wander your way around the lake during the day or set out across the lake to find your own spot to hide away on the north shore. There’re hidden waterfalls, too many secluded coves to count and breathtakingly clear water here. The lake even boasts records for some of the largest freshwater fish ever caught in the state of South Carolina. I wish this one was a little closer to home because I’d be there every weekend if I could.

Best time to go: Year Round

Explore more locations from the Off the Beaten Path Series: South, Southwest, Northeast, Midwest, Northwest

Pisgah National Forest: Mt. Mitchell


Trip Report

Pisgah National Forest: Mt. Mitchell

By Kayla “Clover” McKinney




Trip Length: 3 days, 2 nights (includes driving time)

Total Mileage: ~23 miles

Date: Late September 2015

Conditions: Mix of cloudy and sunny during the day, foggy in the morning, highs in the mid-60s to low 70s and lows in the high 40s – low 50s at night. I hiked in a long sleeve synthetic shirt and pants mostly. I was warm and snug in my ~30 degree bag at night.

Highlights: Tallest summit in North Carolina and the tallest summit east of the Mississippi, stunning scenery, challenging trails, diverse forests, wildlife, Mountain to Sea Trail.

Distance from Cincinnati: Approximately 6.5 hours by vehicle. GPS directions to the Black Mountain Campground, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. The directions are straight forward.

Permits: There is a fee for camping at Black Mountain Campground and is first come, first serve. There is no permit required for camping at Deep Gap (also first come, first serve).

Description: The Black Mountains are the highest mountain chain east of the Mississippi river with Mt. Mitchell being the tallest summit at 6,684 feet above sea level. The entire ridge is mtmitchellapproximately 10 miles long and contains 14 peaks, all over 6,000 feet, and is known as the Black Mountain Crest.* A large portion of the hike coincides with the Mountain to Sea Trail. For our hike, we did not explore the entire Black Mountain Crest, but instead started from the Black Mountain Campground at the base of Mt. Mitchell and hiked to Deep Gap, a large established campground in Pisgah National Forest. Do not underestimate the Black Mountains! The hike from Black Mountain Campground along the Long Arm Ridge to the Mt. Mitchell summit gains approximately 3,700 feet in elevation over 5.6 miles and is steep and technical in many areas. For most of the hike, you are on an exposed, narrow ridge above the clouds. Once you’ve gained the majority of elevation, the elevation change between the 5 additional peaks is relatively small. The lowest elevation is Deep Gap, which is at approximately 5,800 feet. On this hike, you summit Mt. Mitchell (6,684ft), Mount Craig (6,647ft), Big Tom (6,580ft), Cattail Peak (6,584ft) and Potato Hill (6,475ft), all in one day.

Trip Breakdown:

Day One: Drive from Cincinnati to the Black Mountain Campground and stay there for the night. There are flush toilets and showers. Note: the trail head for Mt. Mitchell is located inside the Black Mountain Campground. There is a large Pisgah National Forest trail head across the street but it is NOT the correct way to go (trust me, because I ended up admitchellsignding ~3 miles to my trip by starting out at the wrong trail head).

Day Two: Start at the Black Mountain Campground and follow signs for Mt. Mitchell and immediately begin ascending for 5.6 miles. You will pass two junctions along the way, one for Higgin’s Bald, which is an alternative trail that will take you to the same place, and one for Commissary Ridge. Follow the signs for the Mt. Mitchell summit. You will eventually reach the paved and suddenly civilized summit of Mt. Mitchell.The summit was crowded and full of people who drove up for the view. Take the opportunity to fill up on water at the Mitchell summit area and enjoy the panoramic views. Continue from the summit to the Deep Gap trail head and to Mount Craig. From Mount Craig, follow the trail to Big Tom and down along the trail. At some point, you will transition from the Mt. Mitchell State Park to the Pisgah National Forest, right around Cattail Peak. At a few points in this area, there are a series of fixed ropes to assist in navigating down the steep terrain. The last peak of the day is Potato Hill (I still have no idea why this steep mountain was called a hill). You are exposed on a narrow ridge and high above the clouds. Continue downhill until you reach a large clearing with an established fire ring and set up camp for the night at Deep Gap. Be sure to hang your food for the night because you are in a bear sanctuary*.

Day Three: Start climbing up the way you came from Deep Gap, back up Potato Hill and Cattail Peak. You will re-enter Mt. Mitchell State Park (there will be signs posted on the trees) and shortly after you will arrive at a junction. Turn onto the trail marked 191A and continue on down. This part of the trail is very steep and rocky, but beautiful and exposed. You will come to another junction, and you’ll want to turn right onto Maple Camp Ridge. This trail is flat, open and easy. You’ll be able to move quickly along it until you meet up with the Long Arm Ridge once more. From here it will be a steep and steady descent. We refilled our water once more along the Long Arm Ridge. Consider doing the Higgin’s Bald side trail to add different scenery along your way back to Black Mountain Campground. The side trail only adds about .25 miles.

Water: I carried 3.5 L of water (a 2.5L reservoir and 1L Nalgene.) We filled up at the Black Mountain Campground, the Mt. Mitchell Summit, and at a stream located along the Long Arm Ridge Trail. There is a water source near Deep Gap, but it is a .5 mile hike away from the campsite.

Options: To save mileage on the second day, consider hiking up the Long Arm Ridge and staying the first night at the Commissary Ridge campsite approximately 4 miles up. Another option is to drive to the top of Mt. Mitchell and hike to Deep Gap from there. There is camping near the Mt. Mitchell summit as well, though you will need a permit for these spots.

*Additional Notes: As mentioned, part of the hike to Deep Gap is through a bear sanctuary. Please practice proper bear awareness through these areas such as properly hanging all of your food, food packaging, cooking equipment, and other scented items. Also, make a note to be somewhat loud when hiking, so as to potentially warn any nearby bears of your presence; simply raising your tone higher when talking should work. The occasional “HEY BEAR!” is a good idea, too. Additionally, these trails are steep and rocky and I highly encourage the use of trekking poles and boots with ankle support.

*An image of the entire Black Mountain Crest.

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