Recommended hikes: December 2011

December — the one month when, for a variety of reasons, you simply need to get out on the trail. Need to entertain visitors from afar? A hike will expose them to the state’s natural beauty — and wear them out. Need to get out yourself? Nothing like a long day — or weekend, for you backpackers — on the trail to vanquish holiday stress. Whatever your reason, we’ve got five options perfect for the month of December.

Coast

Neusiok Trail, Croatan National Forest, Havelock. 20.1 miles, with shorter options (Trip No. 42, “Backpacking North Carolina,” Hike No. 5, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”).
One reason to love winter: hiking and backpacking the Neusiok Trail. For much of the year, the Neusiok meanders through inhospitable territory, temperatures even in the 60s bringing out assorted flying pests, temperatures above 70 the forest’s more threatening denizens: the cottonmouth, and the timber and pigmy rattlers. But daytime winter temperatures in the 50s and overnight lows near freezing eliminate the fear factor from this coastal escape. Backpackers will appreciate shelters and well water spaced at the 3.7-, 11.3- and 19.3-mile marks (hiking from north to south), while a handful of roads through the Croatan make for a series of shorter dayhikes. A favorite: the 6.75-mile hike from the northern trailhead in the Pine Cliff Picnic Area at the end of FR 132 south. This trail takes in a scrubby pine forest, steep ravines (with holly and galax), signs of the area's bygone entrepreneurial past (stills) ... . Quite an entertaining hike. Either leave a shuttle where the trail crosses NC 306, or it’s a two-mile hike back to your car up 306 to FR 132.

Piedmont

Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Orange County, 2.9 miles (Hike No. 20, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina). Normally, you’d expect to spend a good hour in the car to find a spot as remote as the Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. But thanks to the 1999 efforts of the Triangle Land Conservancy, this 295-acre preserve remains intact amid the encroaching sprawl of Durham and Chapel Hill. Your escape from the city happens quickly: From the main trailhead off Mount Sinai Road, you descend through dogwood, red cedar, sweetgums and loblollies into a floodplain forest rich with the rare: four-toed salamanders, Thorey’s grayback dragonfly, green violet, bloodroot, stemmed yellow violet and columbine. Walk along New Hope Creek to the Beech Loop, a bluff trail that gets its name from the sizable Fagus grandifolia that dominate the hillside. Later, check out remains of the Johnston Mill and homestead dating to the early 18th century. An especially foot-friendly tread (trail surface) makes this a particularly good venue for less able hikers.

Latta Plantation, Charlotte, 4.2 miles (Hike No. 28, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). So much hiking so close to town. Sixteen miles of trail explore this 1,343-acre preserve on the north side of town; we recommend a loop that includes the Hill, Cove and Split Rock trails, a loop that features a rare Piedmont prairie, a type of grassland common in the region prior to the European invasion but rarely found today. This being winter, you’ll miss out on the wildflowers common to a Piedmont prairie (such as the smooth coneflower), but you will get a sense of the vast open spaces that today we typically associate with the West. Some good shoreline and cove hiking on this loop as well.

Mountains

Linville Gorge: East Rim, 14.1 miles, with shorter options (Trip No. 7, “Backpacking North Carolina”). Out-of-town visitors are always looking to do “name” adventures — something the folks back home probably have heard of and would likely be impressed by. Linville Gorge is one of those places in North Carolina, an area known for its rugged beauty, falls and 2,000-foot deep  (in spots) canyon. A great way to explore this wilderness is from along its East Rim. More adventurous types can start at the south end of the gorge and within two steep miles be atop Shortoff Mountain (from there, the hiking levels considerably as you head north). Or, take Forest Service roads up to the Table Mountain access where you can quickly climb 3,680-foot Tablerock Mountains (great 360 views), check out The Chimneys (popular with climbers) or take the Spence Ridge Trail, down into the gorge (it’s the easiest trail down). Great photos that come with bragging rights.

Price Lake, Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, 2.7 miles (Hike No. 55, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). Looking for an adventure for the not-so-adventurous? The 2.7-mile trail around Price Lake on the Blue Ridge Parkway is a great option. First, by mountain trail standards it’s not long. It’s also nearly flat, with a cumulative elevation gain of just 18 feet. The trail surface — or “tread,” in the trade — is largely foot friendly and the scenery is consistently good, alternating between the deep green waters of Price Lake itself and the occasional glimpses of the surrounding mountains — Grandfather Mountain, for instance. One caveat: the BRP closes if there’s snow or ice; call ahead for current conditions: 828.298.0398.