A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices

Hiking the Highlands

So Cool – Winter hiking offers peace and solitude

By Grant MacHamer
Appalachia may be famous for its colorful fall foliage, But autumn gives way to an equally enchanting wonderland of snow covered hills, frozen waterfalls and the promise of evergreens speckled throughout hillsides.

Hiking in the wintertime gives you a new perspective about otherwise familiar trails and local parks. In the winter, the lack of foliage on surrounding trees can offer you spectacular views otherwise covered up. This is a wonderful time to get out and hike because luckily, when temperatures start to drop, so do the number of hikers and insects on the trail, offering you peace and solitude.

Depending on the hike, physical ability and necessary gear, you may have a lot or very little to prepare, but first and foremost you’ve got to choose a hike. If you’re just beginning as a hiker start out simple and get a feel for the kind of trails you like, what kind of distance you’re comfortable hiking and if the trails you’ve chosen are well marked and easy to follow.
The next thing to consider before ambling into the woods is what to wear and bring with you. As for your body a key to staying warm and comfortable on a hike is layering. Layering, means wearing different layers of clothing that can be put on or taken off as you hike to regulate body temperature. Using this method, as opposed to wearing one thick layer, will make for a much more comfortable hike. During snowy hikes especially it’s best not to wear cotton clothing such as blue jeans. Once cotton gets wet it loses nearly all of its insulating properties. Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon or even natural fibers like wool are much better choices. These materials keep many of their insulating properties even when wet.

In the winter proper footwear is especially crucial. In general the ankle support of a sturdy pair of boots is second to none and when dealing with snow, waterproof gear is a must, but at very least waterproof footwear.

Winter day hikes can be fun but require a bit more planning and can be unpleasant or even dangerous to the ill prepared. In January of 2005 a Boy Scout troop from North Carolina set out on a winter backpacking trip to Mt. Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. The trip started as a simple backpacking trip, but ended with rescue squads being called in to save the hypothermic and frostbitten scouts. One thing to keep in mind is that though winter hiking can be a lot of fun, it can be dangerous as well. Here are some things to watch out for when planning your next hike.

So far this winter season has been known for its strange ups and downs in weather but it’s important to be prepared for whatever mother nature throws at you. A quick and easy way to prevent misadventure on the trail is as simple as checking the weather forecast. Weather forecasts for surrounding regions will give you a good idea of what to expect, but if you’ll be hiking in the mountains the weather can change quickly and be vastly different from what the closest weather station might predict. Some local hiking clubs will provide backcountry weather reports and trail conditions but if nothing else it’s best to plan for precipitation even if it means a few extra pounds of gear.

Another good practice when heading out into the backcountry is first knowing your destination and how you plan to get there and secondly to let someone back home know your itinerary in case of an emergency. Always carry a compass and up to date map of the trail when heading into the woods.

Accidents can happen in the woods that are out of your control, but if a few easy precautions are taken most injuries are avoidable. Taking simple steps like stretching before a hike, staying hydrated and hiking at a comfortable pace can prevent many common injuries. Another thing to keep in mind is that most accidents occur in the afternoon, often toward the end of the hike. At this point the body is fatigued and the mind starts focusing more on what happens after the hike than the hike itself. Take special care during this time of day and keep your head in the woods until you get back to civilization.

Winter is often synonymous with people staying indoors, spending as little time outside in the cold as possible which means less fresh air and less exercise. Use winter day hikes as a way to beat the cold weather and stay in shape even after the temperature drops.

Five Favorite Winter Hikes

Cascades - VA
One of the easiest and most rewarding hikes in southwest Virginia is the Cascades. The trail follows a stream valley up the side of a mountain, crossing over the stream several times before reaching the Cascade, a breath taking 60-foot waterfall. Depending on the temperature, the waterfalls and streams may or may not freeze over, either way this trail is sure not to disappoint.

Directions: Follow VA-460 to Pembroke. Turn right onto Rt. 623. Follow four miles to the Cascades parking lot.

Dragons Tooth - VA
A moderate winter day hike is Dragons Tooth near Catawba, VA., which gets its name from the large rock outcropping at the summit that resembles a dragons tooth. It lacks frozen waterfalls but provides enchanting dense forests. There’s a stunning view from atop the tooth. Caution should be taken when climbing the final rock outcropping.

Directions: Take I-81 North to 311 North. Follow 311 for approximately 10 miles. The trail head is on the left approximately 25 miles after Catawba grocery store. Nearly six miles round trip. For more info http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/newcastle/maps/dragons_tooth_trail.shtml

Mt. Rogers - VA
For either a very long day hike or an easier overnight jaunt the high point in Virginia is the place to be. At 5,729’ this mighty mountain is home to a rich spruce-fir forest which tends to inhibit summit views. But bald ridge tops and open meadows adorn the trail to the summit offering views of the wintry landscape and far reaching vistas.

Directions: The main trailheads are located at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park and at Elk Graden on. From the Elk Garden Trailhead (elevation 4450’ and located on State Secondary Route 600), follow either the AT or the Virginia Highlands Trail north to the spur trail. The trail is also about 4 miles one way. A map and compass are crucial for this hike, also be sure to check with the local forest and park service for trail conditions and warnings http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/index.shtml

Storyteller Rock - NC
An easy winter hike around the Boone, N.C. is Storyteller’s rock. This rock outcropping offers spectacular views of a beautiful and supposedly glacier carved valley. This hike is rock but fairly easy except for the climb onto Storyteller’s rock which should be done with care especially if snow or ice is present. There is a small fee for hiking, check www.grandfather.com for prices and trail info.

Directions: Use the Boone Fork Parking Area at mile 299.9 on the Blue Ridge Parkway and take the Tanawha Trail south to connect with the Nuwati trail which ends at Storyteller’s Rock.

Grandfather Mountain - NC
A more challenging option is, Grandfather Mountain. The trail winds through remnants of a glacier-era boreal forest and up ladders and cables, needed to navigate the rocky terrain especially with ice and snow. The summit at 5,964 feet is the highest point in the Blue Ridge and offers spectacular 360 degree views.

Directions: Use the Boone Fork Parking Area at mile 299.9 on the Blue Ridge Parkway and take the Tanawha trail to the summit. Check www.grandfather.com for further info.