Recommended hikes: April 2012
You’ve had three months to get your legs under you; we’re going long this month. Four of this month’s picks are from “Backpacking North Carolina,” the fifth is a bonus trip first reported on this site (and with everything you need to know herein). All hikes were designed for backpacking but can easily be amended for a long day trip. You’ve got the extra sunlight — the sun doesn’t set until after 8 p.m. come the end April — make use of it.
Lassiter Loop Trail / Merchants Millpond State Park, 5.5 miles (Trip No. 47, NCHikes.com). You have lots of opportunities to paddle in a swamp, but few to hike through one. Of those options you do have, it’s best to take advantage of them before the weather heats up. The 5.5-mile Lassiter Loop Trail is the trail less traveled, not, I think because it goes through a swamp. Rather, because it’s at Merchants Millpond State Park, best known for its swamp paddling opportunities. When you do go to Merchants Millpond you really should allot an extra hour (or two; it’s easy to get ... mislocated) to rent a canoe and paddle the 760-acre millpond, peppered with Spanish moss-draped bald cypress and tupelo gum. On foot, you’ll encounter these water-loving trees as the trail, aided substantially by boardwalk, snuggles up to the swamp. Where it heads to slightly higher ground you’ll walk beneath a hardwood forest canopy dominated by impressive beech trees and through a dense understory choked with bays. Plan to wrap up your hike near dusk and be serenaded by a mixed chorus of carpenter frogs, leopard frogs, bull frogs, cricket frogs and tree frogs.
Umstead State Park, Raleigh, 18.1 miles (Trip No. 37, “Backpacking North Carolina”). 18.1 miles may sound like a long way, but ... who are we kidding, it is a long way. But this is a very doable hike that’s always going up or down, but not by much. Start on the Harrison Avenue side of Umstead and take the Company Mill Trail over three short ridges down to Crabtree Creek. Good photo ops where 1995’s Hurricane Fran breached the old Company Mill dam, creating a narrow, rocky opening that flows mountainlike, even in summer. The trail continues to the middle of this 5,600-acre park where it meets with the Sycamore Trail, which follows its namesake creek for a spell before heading upland toward the north end of Umstead. A short connection on Potts Branch Trail brings you to the Sal’s Branch Trail and the turnaround for this trip. The way back is on the opposite side of the loop trails you took over. Classic Piedmont hiking through hardwood forests that have been maturing since the park’s creation in the 1930s.
South Mountains State Park, Morganton, 11.8 miles (Trip No. 34, “Backpacking North Carolina”). Recently, someone told me they were going to this new place, South Mountains State Park: Did I know anything about it? For one, it’s not really new, established with an initial land purchase of 5,779 acres in 1974 (the park has since expanded to 18,000 acres). But it seems new to a lot of people because it’s off-the-beaten-path location (Morganton is the closest town, though the the town isn’t that close) keeps it off our radar. Too bad, because this spacious park has 40 miles of trail and the 80-foot High Shoals Falls. The falls is quite popular; it’s also quite close to the main parking area, meaning there’s lots of privacy elsewhere at South Mountains. The 11.8-mile loop prescribed in the book is a nice mix of old roadbeds and singletrack trail that’s friendlier than its distance might suggest.
Doughton Park: Basin Cove Loop, Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, 7-18 miles (Trip No. 11 “Backpacking North Carolina”). This trip has all sorts of options. Starting from Longbottom Road at Basin Creek you immediately have three: To the north, Cedar Ridge Trail takes you up to the Parkway near the Brinegar Cabin, where you can catch the Bluff Mountain Trail south through the vast meadows and balds that make Doughton Park a popular Blue Ridge Parkway destination. To the south, Flat Rock Ridge Trail traces another ridgeline up to the Parkway, where you’ll take Bluff Mountain Trail north through Doughton Park. Straight takes you up Grassy Gap Trail to a primitive campground where three options await. The 2-plus-mile Bluff Mountain Primitive Trail takes you straight up the escarpment to Doughton while the southern veering Grassy Gap Trail, following old roadbed, is the most mellow way to reach the top. Or, take the Basin Creek Trail up a narrow canyon where falls seem to trip over themselves for your attention. The trail ends at the one-room Caudill cabin, where a determined couple raised 13 kids more than a century ago. Not a bad option in the bunch.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Deep Creek Loop, Bryson City, 13.5 miles (Trip No. 20, “Backpacking North Carolina”). Possibly 13.5 of the easiest miles you’ll find in the Smokies. This lollipop loop heads up Deep Creek, the first mile or so of which is popular with tubers (not of the potato variety). Traffic thins, the scenery doesn’t as this old roadbed continues along montane Deep Creek, past great campsites. After more than six miles you have your only significant climb, a short one up to Martin’s Gap where you catch the Sunkota Ridge Trail for some high ridgeline hiking before dropping to Indian Creek and your return home.