What makes hiking in the Southern Appalachian Mountains so special? Or, put another way, what are the things that make hiking in the Southern Appalachians unique?
I’ve been giving these questions some thought for sometime now, and have come up with a list of eight reasons that set the Southern Appalachians apart from the rest of the country. I must admit that some of these are not totally unique, but nonetheless are fairly rare, thus making them distinctive in terms of a hiking feature.
Here’s my list, in descending order:
8) Roan Mountain Goats: Grassy balds in the Great Smoky Mountains, such as Gregory and Andrews, require occasional mowing in order to prevent trees from reclaiming them. On Roan Mountain, however, they use goats!
For the last three years scientists have been testing the use of goats as a measure for keeping the more than 1000 acres of grassy balds in tact. The use of goats may help Roan Mountain in two ways: they appear to be far more economical than mowing, and there’s speculation that goats will actually help promote the germination of the rare Gray's Lily wildflower.
Known as the “Baa-tany Goat Project,” the goats are surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence from July thru September. The enclosure covers a one-half to one acre plot, and is moved every week or two as the goats deplete the vegetation growth.
For the past couple of years the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has been leading guided Goat Hikes on Roan Mountain, thus offering the public an excellent opportunity to see the goats in action and learn about their role in preserving the grassy balds.
7) Fire Lookout Towers: The Southern Appalachians are littered with old fire towers, remnants of a bygone era when rangers climbed their perches to look for wildfires in their respective patrol areas. Most of the towers were abandoned in the 1960s when it was decided that planes could monitor the mountains more economically.
Today, fire lookout towers have become popular hiking destinations, thanks in part to Peter Barr, author of Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers, and the Carolina Mountain Club’s official hiking challenge of reaching 24 lookout towers in Western North Carolina. Many of the towers are still accessible, allowing hikers to soak in the 360-degree views from their prominent vantage points.
Some of the more notable fire towers in the Southeast in terms of architecture include Duckett Top Lookout Tower on Rich Knob in the Pisgah National Forest, Wayah Bald in the Nantahala National Forest, and of course the Mt. Cammerer fire tower in the Smokies.
6) Trail Days in Damascus: Trail Days is the annual Woodstock for hikers. It’s the mother of all hiking gatherings. It’s a celebration of all things Appalachian Trail. And it all happens in tiny Damascus, Virginia, also known as Trail Town, USA where the Appalachian Trail, the Virginia Creeper and the Iron Mountain Trail slice through the middle of town. Each year Damascus becomes the destination point for thousands of thru-hikers, veteran hikers and those who just love hiking and the Appalachian Trail. Trail Days is recognized as the largest trail event in the world, and many A.T. thru-hikers will time their hike in order to be in town in mid-May for the annual three day festival.
5) The LeConte Lodge: Although there are a handful of other national parks that offer hike-in lodging, one of the great traditions in the Great Smoky Mountains is overnighting in the lodge sitting near the top of 6,593-foot Mount LeConte. For those that don’t like backpacking, the lodge offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy a backcountry experience in relative luxury (compared to roughing it!). The LeConte Lodge also has a sister lodge at Big South Fork (Charit Creek) where the only access is hiking in as well. One other backcountry lodge in the southeast worth mentioning is the Len Foote Hike Inn at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia.
4) Azaleas, Mountain Laurel & Rhododendron: One of the great annual events in the Southern Appalachians is the spectacular Azalea, Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron blooms of late spring. For some of the best examples of these beautiful displays of Mother Nature, hike up to Gregory Bald in mid-to-late June to check out the world famous Azaleas that grow atop the 10-acre bald. Spence Field near Rocky Top has the finest display of Mountain Laurel that I’ve ever seen. Early-to-mid June is the best time to visit when they’re usually reaching peak bloom. For Rhododendron, your best bet is Roan Mountain which has the largest natural rhododendron garden in the world. Count on peak blooms arriving around mid-to-late June.
3) Natural Bridges & Sandstone Arches: With places like Arches and Canyonlands National Park, it’s likely that Utah is more synonymous with natural bridges in the minds of most people. However, hikers shouldn’t forget the abundance of natural bridges and sandstone arches that permeate the Southern Appalachians. The Red River Gorge Geological Area in the Daniel Boone National Forest has over 100 natural arches, making it the greatest concentration of arches east of the Rocky Mountains. The Big South Fork region also contains one of the highest concentrations of natural bridges in the eastern U.S., including the largest sandstone arches in the east. Other notable arches include Natural Bridge in Virginia - a National Historical Landmark, and Sewanee Natural Bridge in Tennessee.
2) The Appalachian Trail: It may not be the longest anymore, nor the most scenic, but it will always be the most iconic trail in the world. The Appalachian Trail, America's first National Scenic Trail, is one the most popular trails for day-hikers and thru-hikers alike. An estimated 4 million people hike at least part of it each year. My guess is that most of them know it’s one of the best ways to see and explore the scenic wonders of the Appalachian Mountains.
1) Grassy Balds: One of the great mysteries of the Southern Appalachians is whether or not the treeless mountain tops and ridges, known as “balds,” are natural or if they were manmade. For hikers, does it really matter? Balds provide outstanding vantage points for sweeping panoramic vistas of the Appalachian Mountains. Some of the balds with the best views in the Smokies include Gregory, Andrews, Spence Field and Rocky Top. Outside of the Smokies, hikers should check out Roan Mountain, Max Patch, Mt. Rogers, Shining Rock, Cheoah Bald, Big Bald or Black Balsam.
So, Southern Appalachians hikers, are there any others that need to be added to this list?