The North Carolina mountains present all four seasons more dramatically than any other region of our state. The element of surprise that varies depending on the season you visit is a big part of what makes a trip to the mountains exciting, and camping is a great way to experience it. So prepare to spend four days away from the hustle and bustle of your daily routine and get in tune with nature in the High Country.
Day 1: Loosening Up on the Edge of the Blue Ridge
Embrace your natural surroundings by hitting the mountains first at Stone Mountain State Park, where there are 14,100 acres of rock, forest, meadows and cascades at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains’ slope. During warm months, you’ll catch the dogwoods, wild azaleas and mountain wildflowers in bloom. If you enjoy fishing, the park has 17 miles of protected trout waters (rainbow and brown). And the trail network here offers plenty of scenic wallop.
The 4.5-mile Stone Mountain Loop explores a mountain meadow and gives full view to the park’s namesake 600-foot granite dome (which, hiking counterclockwise, you’ll climb via a wood staircase). Expansive views and stunning opportunities await up top.
Now that you’ve loosened up, load up on provisions at the Stone Mountain Country Store. Then make your way out of the park as you embark on the half-hour drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Doughton Park, and catch the sunset on the Bluff Mountain Trail. This 7-mile trail runs the length of the ridge, passing largely through open meadows, offering ongoing views and more prime wildflower opportunities. But don’t lollygag too much. The gates to the park – and your campsite – close at 9 p.m. in March and April; at 10 p.m. May through September.
Day 2: A Host of Parkway Options
Pretty good at cooking breakfast over a campfire but not so hot at making camp coffee? On your way to Elk Knob State Park by way of Sparta, swing by Sparky’s Coffeehouse and score an energizing espresso or one of Sparky’s signature specialty drinks, from The Jack Black (“spiced brown sugar hot chocolate”) to The Jack White (“slightly sweet, slightly blended frappe”). An hour later, as you’re cruising through West Jefferson, you might realize you want a heartier breakfast. So pull into the Hillbilly Grill for the kind of morning meal – eggs, country ham, biscuit and grits – that provides the fuel you need for a day of exploring.
Elk Knob is a mile-high park, but rather than resembling the Southern Appalachians, it’s more akin to a northern hardwood forest, with lots of sugar maple, yellow birch, American beech and yellow buckeye trees. You climb through this forest on the 1.9-mile Summit Trail, which takes you to a rocky top with 360-degree views.
With a great view already under your belt at 11 a.m., continue south to Boone, where you can take a detour on Main Street to check out the famous Mast General Store. Get on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Blowing Rock, but not before stopping at Kilwin's to watch fudge being made – and perhaps get a pound or two of Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chunk.
There are so many options heading south on the Parkway: the 30 miles of carriage trails at Moses Cone Memorial Park, the wonderful 4-mile hike around Price Lake, and the 13.2-mile Tanawha Trail on the east flank of Grandfather Mountain, to name a few.
More than likely, you’ll need to put off exploring Linville Gorge for a day and check into your accommodations for the evening: your tent at the Linville Falls Trailer Lodge and Campground in Linville.
Day 3: Going Into (and Coming Out of) Linville Gorge
Linville Gorge has been described as one of the wildest spots on the East Coast. During its 13-mile run through the gorge, the Linville River drops 2,000 feet. The 11,786-acre Linville Gorge wilderness includes several trails, though because this is a wilderness they are neither maintained nor blazed – and as a result, not easy to follow. Don’t let this deter you; there are several ways to experience the gorge.
A good start is at the National Park Service’s Linville Falls Visitor Center at Milepost 316.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here, you can get general information about exploring the gorge. It’s also a gateway to about 2 miles of trail that provide the safest access to the defile.
If you want more, enter the gorge from the west rim via four trails off the “Kistler Memorial Highway” (which is actually a gravel road). The easiest of the lot is the 1.4-mile Conley Cove Trail, rated “more difficult” (the others are all “most difficult”). Another gorge option that offers as much scenic bang without as much banging terrain, is from the east rim and the Table Rock Picnic Access. You can hike the ridge south to The Chimneys (popular with rock climbers) and on to Shortoff Mountain (mostly flat hiking from The Chimneys south) or north to Table Rock Mountain; then into the gorge via the 1.75-mile Spence Ridge Trail, which also offers “more difficult” access to the gorge.
No matter what approach you take, prepare to spend the day marveling over the gorge.
Day 4: Hike the Highest of Highs
After spending the night along the South Toe River, which defines the south side of your Black Mountain Campground, hopefully you’re well rested. Because today you’ll hike the highest mountain on the East Coast, 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell. As was the case with Linville Gorge, there’s more than one way to do this.
If you’re feeling fit, a trail departs the west end of the campground and doesn’t stop until it’s covered 5.5 miles and climbed 3,700 vertical feet to the summit. It’s not an easy hike. Though there are few killer climbs, the ascent is relentless with very little in the way of relief. It’s also very rewarding, starting in a classic Southern Appalachian hardwood forest and, around the 5,500-foot mark, transitioning into a forest of Fraser fir and red spruce more representative of Canada. The temperature is also known to drop the higher you climb, so you might want to dress in layers.
A second option is to drive to the summit – not all the way, there’s still about a 100-yard paved walkway from the concession stand parking lot to the impressive stone observation tower that anchors Mount Mitchell State Park. If the first option is more adventurous than you’d like, but the second is too little, there’s a third option. Drive to the top, bag Mitchell, and then head north on the Black Mountain Crest Trail. This trail ticks off four more 6,000-foot peaks in less than 4 miles and includes some challenging, rocky stretches. It also includes relentless views west into Tennessee and north into Virginia.
Regardless of which adventure you choose, check out the state park’s mountaintop restaurant before heading home. It’s got the type of food you crave after a long day on the trail. Better still is the view: the east-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows let you look out and recap not just your day, but a good deal of your mountain escape.
North Carolina State Parks offer a variety nature activities, but this also includes potential hazards. Take care, be safe and enjoy.