There are just a few states along the 2,000-plus linear miles of the Appalachian Trail where it’s easy to access day hikes and weekend backpacking routes in four different states. North Carolina is one of them, and Charlotte’s eclectic restaurant and brewery scene, along with lively neighborhoods like NoDa and South End, make it an ideal jumping off point for your AT adventures. You can experience one of the world’s most iconic footpaths in four very different ways with treks through Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Georgia: Dick’s Creek Gap to Deep Gap
Distance: 15.6 miles
Hikers will explore the rugged and remote Nantahala Wilderness on this day hike from Dick’s Creek in Georgia across the state line to Deep Gap in North Carolina. Starting with a creekside climb to the ridgeline, the trail quickly descends through a series of switchbacks to Cowart Gap. Abundant water along much of the trail makes for a colorful show of wildflowers like bloodroot, trillium, and jack in the pulpit in spring, followed by pink and purple tunnels of mountain laurel and rhododendron in early summer. When August arrives, you can pick blueberries as you make your way down the trail.
You’ll climb 1,000 feet to skirt Buzzards Knob, and the trail yoyo's up and down for more than 8 miles en route to the North Carolina border. Bly Gap’s grassy, open slopes make it an ideal site for backcountry camping if you’re looking to break up the distance with a weekend backpacking trip. As you continue into North Carolina, the trail gets steeper and rockier with challenging climbs to an elevation of 4,600 feet at High Top and Courthouse Bald. Take the half-mile spur trail to dramatic views from Ravenrock Cliff before climbing Yellow Mountain to the trail’s highest point. From there, it’s a sharp, 1-mile descent to Deep Gap.
Tennessee: Carvers Gap to Roan Mountain
Distance: 13.3 miles
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Begin your day hike at Carvers Gap to travel the ridge of the Roan Massif along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Wide open vistas and 360-degree views to the valleys below are marked only by windswept grasslands and boulder outcroppings. After 5 miles, the trail leaves the treeless balds, descending to Low Gap and the Stan Murray Shelter, named for the former Appalachian Trail Conservancy president responsible for routing the AT across this awe-inspiring terrain. Next, you’ll cross the Overmountain Victory Trail used by colonists headed to a key Revolutionary War victory at Kings Mountain.
Climbing back to the balds, you’ll cross Little Hump and Big Hump mountains before descending 2,700 feet to Highway 19E. Near the trailhead, the Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast offers tent sites, hiker hostel and inn accommodations, and shuttles you back to your vehicle at Carvers Gap. Scenery (and crowds) peak along this stretch of the AT in mid-June, when purple rhododendron and orange flaming azalea light up the landscape.
North Carolina: Newfound Gap to Cosby
Distance: 24.7 miles
You’ll want to make shelter reservations well in advance for this popular two- to three-day backpacking trip through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it’s worth it to see the park’s cloud-shrouded valleys from its highest peaks. Begin your trek with a climb through spruce-fir forest at Newfound Gap. At mile 3, you’ll come to the Boulevard Trail junction to Mt. Leconte, the highest peak in the Smokies. If you’re lucky enough to get a cabin in the annual reservation lottery you’re only 5.4 miles from rustic LeConte Lodge and a home-cooked meal, spectacular sunset, and warm bed for the night.
Otherwise, you’ll continue on the AT to stunning vistas and dramatic drop-offs at Charlies Bunion. From here, it’s 6.4 miles to Pecks Corner Shelter, your first opportunity to set up camp for the night. Your second option is to continue another strenuous 5.4 miles over Mt. Sequoyah and Mt. Chapman to the Tricorner Knob Shelter. Either way, your final day is a welcome 4-mile descent to the Snake Den Ridge Trail, which continues 5 miles down to your exit point at Cosby Campground.
Virginia: Massie Gap to Elk Garden
Distance: 7.1 miles
Difficulty: easy to moderate
On this day hike you’ll traverse southwest Virginia’s rolling countryside to bag the state’s highest peak. Start at Elk Garden, named for the vast herds that once grazed in these high grasslands, to hike 3.3 miles across open meadow to Whitetop Mountain and a distinctive Rhyolite outcropping named Buzzard Rock. Here, you get your first glimpse of 5,728-foot Mount Rogers. As you continue the gentle climb to the summit on a spur trail, golden fields give way to dense spruce-fir forest. In fact, thick tree cover obscures your view at the top, so follow the trail to a metallic survey marker bolted to a boulder at mile 4.5 to confirm you’ve reached the peak.
Double back along the summit trail to rejoin the AT and continue north past Thomas Knob Shelter to the jumble of boulders at Wilburn Ridge. Climb the rocky ridge or continue hiking to the trailhead at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park. This 4-mile stretch is the best place to see the herds of wild ponies that roam the high meadows. Though not tame, these stocky, thick-coated beauties are accustomed to hikers stopping nearby for a photo and might even nudge your backpack in search of a snack.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with OrthoCarolina.
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