Is the monotony of school or work getting you down? Looking for a way to de-stress? Perhaps you just want to experience something new? If you have functioning legs and any sort of appreciation for the outdoors, these six beautiful hiking destinations scattered across North Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee should be on your to-do list.
1. Long Creek Falls- Ellijay, GA
I will say, I'm biased towards Long Creek Falls and the surrounding area-- I grew up camping at "3 Forks", a campsite a mile south of the falls on the Appalachian Trail, so a handful of my most fond childhood memories were made here. With that being said, it's a beautiful area regardless of the sentimental value it holds, and epitomizes everything that's awesome about the North Georgia mountains.
Like most other places on this list, I added it not only for the waterfall itself, but because of everything that surrounds it as well. Being just over 5 miles from Springer Mountain, the starting point for the Appalachian Trail which extends all the way to Maine, it is an excellent place to day hike for those interested in getting their feet wet on the AT. For those looking for a shorter, easier trek, there is a trailhead at 3 Forks which puts you only a mile away. This option makes for a relaxing two mile out and back hike during which you'll not only see Long Creek Falls, but another unnamed waterfall before you get there--you get a lot of bang for your buck. Bring an eno and kick back as you enjoy the beautiful North Georgia scenery.
2. Panther Creek Falls- Clarkesville, GA
This one is a North Georgia classic, and a favorite among UGA students. Being just an hour and fifteen minutes up the highway from Athens, it's an awesome day trip for Dawgs looking to get their outdoor fix. It's a three and a half mile hike from the trailhead to the falls, and an easy three and a half miles at that. There is very little elevation gain, and most of the hike is so beautiful that you're more concerned with the beauty of your surroundings than how your legs feel. If you go during the warm months, wear a swim suit, because the pool below the falls is perfect for a refreshing dip after the hike.
If you're looking for an overnight experience, bring a backpack and some camping supplies, for there are a number of really cool backcountry sites along the way. The two times I've been, my friends and I have opted to camp out on the small beach area below the falls-- nothing beats falling asleep to the sound of the waterfall, and it makes for quite the photo op, too.
It doesn't hurt that Tallulah Gorge, one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi, is just twenty minutes up the road. If you get an early start, it would be totally doable to hike to Panther Creek Falls and down into Tallulah Gorge in the same day. If that's your plan, though, you better be ready to feel the burn by the time its all said and done!
3. Max Patch- Spring Creek, NC (on TN border)
Though it isn't much of a hike, it still holds a special place in my heart, as well as many southeast outdoors enthusiasts. Max Patch is one of the busiest, most talked about and photographed places not only in the Southeast, but on the entire Appalachian Trail. It is a massive bald (a mountaintop with no trees) spanning the length of five or six football fields, allowing for incredible views in all directions. The hike up is steep, but short-- only about a quarter of a mile. While many tourists park and hike the quarter of a mile to the top, it is often a destination for beginning or ending AT section hikes. For example, two years ago a couple friends and I began a hike at Max Patch, then went on to Hot Springs, NC, which amounted to a 24 mile hike we completed over the course of three days. However you choose to access Max Patch, it is certain to take your breath away.
One piece of advice: If you go in the winter, bring gloves! The lack of tree coverage means you're exposed to brutal winds, and in colder weather it can be miserable. The one time I've been atop Max Patch, it was 15 degrees and the wind was howling--I couldn't feel my hands within five minutes of reaching the top. Learn from my mistakes.
4. Wesser Bald Fire tower- Andrews, NC
Ever since the first time I hiked the mile and a half from Tellico Gap to the fire tower atop Wesser Bald some eight years ago, it's held its ground as the most beautiful view I've ever witnessed. Wesser Bald is already one of the highest mountains in the surrounding area, but there's a tower situated atop the mountain from which forest service rangers used to keep a watchful eye out for forest fires, though now it serves primarily as a tourist attraction. The tower rises up and over the surrounding canopy, offering absolutely awe-inspiring 360 degree views of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains. You can see a number of interesting landmarks from here, including Clingman's Dome, which is the tallest peak on the entire Appalachian Trail as well as the third tallest mountain east of the Mississippi.
Wesser Bald's proximity to the Nantahala River certainly doesn't hurt it's case. The Nantahala Cascades are an absolutely stunning section of river featuring a host of waterfalls and rapids which you just so happen to drive right alongside on your way to the trailhead. The lower section of the river is beautiful too, not to mention it is home to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a hub for southeastern outdoorsmen. Situated at the end of the river, a short and sweet twenty minute drive from the trailhead, the NOC offers whitewater rafting, zip-lining, and a number of other activities any outdoor enthusiast is sure to love, in addition to two delicious restaurants for satisfying that post-adventure hunger. For the most adventurous spirits out there, it should be noted that you can hike from the fire tower down to the Outdoor Center-- it's about seven and a half miles along the Appalachian Trail. If you choose to do so, prepare for your knees to take a beating, for it is steep! With that being said, the views make it well worth it.
5. Mt. LeConte- Gatlinburg, TN
Mount LeConte via the Alum Cave Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and for good reason. Though it's a steep 5 mile hike, it offers some of the best views in the smokies. It starts off along Alum Cave Creek, climbing slowly until it departs from the creek and begins the steeper ascent to Alum Cave, one of the most interesting geological formations in the southern Appalachian mountains. When you hit this massive overhanging wall of rock, you know you're about halfway to the top. Once you finally reach the top of the ridge and flatten out, just before you reach the backcountry shelter, you'll walk through a "hallway" of Christmas trees, which caught me off guard my first time up LeConte. Flora like this is one of the things that make the Smokies stand out when compared to surrounding mountains.
Looking to make the most of your hike up Mt. LeConte? The top of the mountain is home to the famous LeConte Lodge, a collection of furnished wooden cabins that hikers can reserve for overnight stays. It is the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States, and serves as a rewarding, cozy mountain getaway following a butt-kicker of a hike. In addition, it would allow you to take full advantage of the two viewpoints LeConte has to offer-- Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. Situated less than a quarter mile from the lodge, Cliff Top is a massive rock outcropping, perfectly located for watching the sunset. Just a half mile hike from the lodge in the other direction will take you to Myrtle Point, from one side of which you get an incredible view of the smokies, and the the other you get to watch the sun come up over Gatlinburg in the morning... that is, if you're willing to get out of bed to do so.
6. Linville Gorge Wilderness- Marion, NC
The Linville Gorge is a special, special place. There are numerous options for day hikes, some of which take you down to the roaring Linville River, others which take you to some incredible geological formations, and some that hike you right up the side of massive mountains, allowing you to see for miles upon miles. Linville Falls seems to be the most popular tourist destination in the Gorge, but there are endless opportunities for adventure outside of just the most popular spots. Some of my favorite sections of trail within the gorge are the Chimneys, which is this half mile long portion of the Mountains to Sea trail which literally cuts right through some of the wildest rock formations I've ever seen. Another really interesting trail which contrasts the higher elevation environment of the chimneys is the Linville Gorge Trail, which follows the river on the western side of the gorge, opposite the Chimneys, Shortoff Mountain, and Tablerock Mountain, a few of the wilderness' most noteworthy landmarks. Despite being a relatively rough trail (carrying a GPS and/or compass and map is advised), it offers some of the humbling views in the eastern US. Looking up at the massive cliffs lining the opposite side of the gorge sure does make you feel small.
One day in the Linville Gorge not enough for you? There is a 23 mile loop which connects a number of trails to provide an all-encompassing experience for the gorge-goer who needs more than a day hike-- it's usually done in three. The loop takes you across the eastern ridge, down into the heart of the gorge, across the river, alongside the river, back across, and finally up and out of the gorge to where the journey began. Whoever is brave enough to take on the challenging hike (it is said that one mile in the Linville Gorge equates in difficulty to two miles on the Appalachian Trail) will be rewarded with stunning ridge views, peaceful backcountry camping, refreshing dips in the river, and more. The only problem is the first river crossing is in the middle of two class 5 rapids, so you must catch it when the river is low in order to cross safely, being that the bridge was wiped out by a flood several years ago. While this may be inconvenient sometimes, it epitomizes what this incredible, unforgiving wilderness is all about.