N.C. Mountains | Six great hikes

The 2-mile trek to the summit at Elk Knob State Park rewards hikers with views of Grandfather Mountain, Mount Jefferson and, seen here, Peak Mountain.
The 2-mile trek to the summit at Elk Knob State Park rewards hikers with views of Grandfather Mountain, Mount Jefferson and, seen here, Peak Mountain.

We asked Stephanie Jeffries to name six of her favorite hikes in North Carolina. She’s co-author with Thomas Wentworth of “Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia” (University of North Carolina Press, $22).

▪ 1. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, outside Robbinsville. It isn’t easy to get to, Jeffries said, but is one of the only places on the East Coast where you can see a true old-growth cove forest: “If you want to hug big trees, this is the place to go.” The hiking isn’t difficult. She recommends the 2-mile loop trail: “It’s on a tract that was supposed to be logged – but even the foresters didn’t want that to happen because the trees are so beautiful.”

▪ 2. The Linville Gorge area, which is is quite popular but not too strenuous. Park at the Table Rock picnic area, Jeffries advises, and take the 1-mile hike to its summit. Your reward? “On a clear day, there are incredible views of Linville Gorge, Grand Canyon-esque views to the west and views of other mountains, too.”

▪ 3. Roan Mountain, on the Tennessee line, especially if you’re a fan of “Sound of Music.” It’s on the Appalachian Trail and is one of the trail’s most scenic stretches. Jeffries: “Park at Carver’s Gap and follow the easy trail up the mountain. While most of North Carolina’s mountains are forested, it’s open and grassy here. You climb three grassy balds – grassy, meadow areas. It’s a rolling climb to the balds, mostly easy. To reach Grassy Ridge is 5 miles, in and out.”

▪ 4. Elk Knob, one of North Carolina’s newest state parks, is in the Amphibolite Mountains – a tiny range in the northwest corner of the state that includes Mount Jefferson. One appeal is botanical diversity: The soils are less acidic and more nutrient-rich than other places. “You can see different northern hardwood forests, mixed on the bottoms are lots of wildflowers.” You see that progression in the hike, a rocky but moderate 3.8 trail, roundtrip. “It’s steep in places and a steady climb up, from a mature hardwood forest to a shrunken, gnarly beech forest at the summit due to the harsh climate.” The visual payoff: “At the summit are two areas where you can take in views, including Grandfather Mountain, far to the south.”

▪ 5. The Alum Cave Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “It takes you near Peregrine Peak and a squeeze-through spot at Arch Rock – it’s fun, especially for kids. … Alum Cave is more an overhang than an actual cave; it’s probably about a 100-yard area that used to be mined for epsom salts.” The trail is about 4.5 miles roundtrip – and pretty strenuous: “You rise 1,000 feet in a quarter of a mile. It’s a lot easier coming down, with gravity on your side.”

▪ 6. Grandfather Mountain’s Grandfather Trail is a favorite with Jeffries’ kids: “We do this as a one-way, by shuttling two cars: We park one on N.C. 105; then we park the other near the Swinging Bridge and hike up to the ridge line and descend to the first car. Up high, you see trees that have branches only on one side because of the harsh winds. Other areas are completely open, and plants that can hack it up there include some endangered species.” It’s a strenuous 2.4 miles that – as part of the fun – includes ladders and ropes: “A sign at one ladder has a sign pointing the way to MacRae Peak. The sign points straight up.”