Like most folks, I didn’t travel much in 2020 because of the pandemic.
It was the first year in a while that I didn’t hop on a plane to visit a national park. It was also the first time in years that I didn’t go on a multi-day backpacking trip on a long- distance trail. I stayed closer to home, within a day’s drive, and I found new places to explore.
At the end of 2020, my year of outdoor adventures felt no less complete. I gained an even greater appreciation for the Southern Appalachian Mountains here in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. There is jaw- dropping scenery in our backyards, with countless places to discover. We are very fortunate to live where we do.
So regardless of what the new year brings, here are some of the best local adventures that would be wonderful to add to your 2021 hiking bucket list:
1. Explore a new trail to breathtaking vistas
The Whitehouse Cliffs Trail in Rocky Fork State Park, near Flag Pond, is only a year old. As with many new trails in our region, it was constructed with a vast amount of volunteer labor. The 2-mile round-trip hike is short, but at the 3,340-foot summit you’ll have panoramic scenery of the park’s impressive surrounding mountains along with nice views of Big Bald — Unicoi County’s highest peak.
2. Witness the best sunrise in the region
Drive to Carver’s Gap near Roan Mountain, Tennessee, and plan to arrive about an hour before sunrise. With a headlamp, hike north on the Appalachian Trail for approximately a half mile to the grassy summit of Round Bald. If you have some extra time, continue another .75-mile to the summit of Jane Bald. Both locations will give you a high-elevation sunrise you won’t soon forget.
3. Go on an off-trail waterfall adventure
If you’re looking for something a little more extreme and remote, put your skills to the test by finding a series of four beautiful waterfalls on Dick Creek, near Erwin. This hike is not for beginners! Start your trek at the Rock Creek Campground and work your way to the Dick Creek watershed on the north face of Unaka Mountain. The farther you go upstream, the more difficult the terrain becomes. Go in the spring to avoid excess underbrush and take a friend with you on this 8-mile adventure. Detailed trail directions can be found at HikingBill.com.
4. Take the family on a rails-to-trails excursion
For numerous reasons I often sing the praises of the Guest River Gorge Trail, near Coeburn, Virginia. One, it’s stunningly beautiful with high sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, wooden trestles, and a large tunnel built in 1922, all along a very scenic, tumbling, whitewater river. Two, it’s normally secluded when many other trails in our area are extremely overcrowded. And three, it’s a hike or bike ride that the whole family can experience on a wide, railroad- grade path. Many offshoot trails go down to the river and beg to be explored, while some lead to swimming holes for a nice dip in the summer months. The trail is about 6 miles long, so its entirety is perhaps best seen with a mountain bike or gravel bike, but walking works just as well.
5. Go on a wildflower hike
Numerous trails in our region are teeming with beautiful woodland wildflowers in the spring and summer months. Two of my favorites for seeing spring color are at Laurel Run Park, near Church Hill, and the Margarette Falls Trail near Greeneville. In March through May, you’ll find everything from Bluets to Trillium, to Wild Violets and Iris. For summer color, check out the Roan Highlands for flowering Catawba Rhododendrons and Flame Azaleas in early June. A few weeks later look for the Gray’s Lily — a very rare and beautiful high- elevation flower found exclusively in our area of the Appalachian Mountains.
6. Discover the slot canyons of the East
In my opinion, The Great Channels of Virginia, near the town of Abingdon, is the most unique trek in the southwestern region of the state. If you haven’t hiked it, then this needs to be at the top of your bucket list. Exploring the 20-acre labyrinth of four-hundred- million-year-old sandstone rock, sitting atop Middle Knob on Clinch Mountain will leave you astonished. It’s a moderate 6.6-mile out-and-back hike with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Parking is limited, so get there early.
7. Experience Big South Fork
If you need to get away for a long weekend, while still having a relatively short drive, then my number one recommendation is the Big South Fork National Recreation Area near Oneida. It is one of my favorite places to hike in all of Tennessee. And even though the landscapes are vastly different, I feel it rivals the grandeur of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but without the hordes of people. There is a reason the legendary John Muir visited this place. You should as well! Set up your tent at Bandy Creek Campground and use that location as your base camp to explore some of the most amazing trails you’ll find in the entire east. Be sure to hike the Twin Arches Trail Loop, the Angel Falls Overlook and the Litton Farm Loop. But whatever you do, don’t miss out on the Honey Creek Loop. This 6-mile trail remains my favorite trek in Tennessee. It has all the diversity you can imagine, with numerous waterfalls, long-distance vistas, colorful soaring bluffs, massive overhanging sandstone caverns, Indian rock houses, and the distinctive Honey Creek stream that cascades though enormous moss- covered boulders and narrow crevices. It is extremely beautiful, but also a rugged, technical and challenging hike. So do your research prior to going and mark this one off your bucket list.