Panthertown Valley, North Carolina
Located a few miles from the town of Cashiers, Panthertown Valley takes up over 6,500 acres of the Nantahala National Forest. This place is pretty rugged and wild. No bathrooms. No visitor centers. No trash cans. Just 30 miles of maintained trails that wind through hodgepodge forests, over streams, past multiple waterfalls, and up along the tops of granite domes that overlook the valley below. There are even a few clean, white sandbars in places where the streams widen out to form deep pools. Relax on the beach in the middle of the woods! Be sure to bring a map as there are loads of unmarked trails that spiderweb throughout the area, criss-crossing over the official trails. Panthertown Valley is the perfect place to just wander. While there are a few “musts” like hiking to the top of Big Green Mountain or visiting Schoolhouse Falls, it really is a place where you don’t have to have an agenda. So many of the trails loop and reconnect, you can spend the day following whichever path looks the most interesting. If you want even more adventure, there are plenty of awesome backcountry campsites scattered throughout the valley. If you camp, be sure to store your food properly as there are black bears in the area. There are no roads through the valley. To visit, you have to leave your vehicle at one of the entrances and then hike or mountain bike your way in. Panthertown Valley is designated as a Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and is completely maintained by volunteers. Check out their site below for more information.
Little River Canyon National Preserve, Alabama
Little River Canyon is one of the only national park units found in Alabama. The limestone/sandstone canyon is carved by the Little River, which is one of the only rivers in the nation that flows for nearly it’s entire length on top of a mountain. The preserve is in the northwestern corner of Alabama, just outside the town of Fort Payne. Swing by the visitor center first to grab a map and get your passport book stamped. Like most National Park units, they also offer the opportunity to be part of the Junior Ranger program. Kids can get a free booklet to take with them as they explore the park. Once they’ve completed all the activities (scavenger hunts, drawings, trivia, etc.) they can turn it in at the visitor center and be sworn in as a junior ranger and receive their badge. Close by the visitor center is Little River Falls. Check out the overlook and then follow the short, easy trail that follows the river and eventually leads down to the water’s edge and Martha’s Falls. Take the time to wander back upriver along the rocky shoreline. You’ll find gigantic boulders in and around the water and several great spots to swim if the water isn’t flowing too swiftly. After you hike back up to your car, head out onto the scenic Canyon Rim Drive which winds the full length of the preserve. Stop at one (or all) of the several overlooks for great views of the canyon and river, and if you’re feeling adventurous, take one of the very short but very steep trails to the bottom of the canyon. At the southern end of the preserve, visit Canyon Mouth Picnic Area for both the easiest access to the river and the calmest water. If you come for more than a day, be sure to check out DeSoto State Park, which is practically next door. It has great hiking and biking trails, several waterfalls, a nature center, a playground, and plenty of campsites, cabins, and mountain chalets.
One last tip: be sure to use the address of the visitor center (4322 Little River Canyon Pkwy, Fort Payne, AL 35967) when getting directions. I always forget to do this and I just type “Little River Canyon” into Google maps and it takes me to some dirt road in the middle of the preserve. D’oh.
One more last tip: As summer brings Alabama heat, the Little River drops drastically. Waterfalls become trickles and swimming holes become shallow mud puddles. Visit in the spring or early summer if you want to play in the water. See below for the official nps site.
The Virginia Creeper Trail, Virginia
The Virginia Creeper Trail is what is known as a rail trail. A rail trail is result of an abandoned or unused railroad being transformed into an active path for hiking, biking, and/or horseback riding. Biking the Creeper Trail is a fun and beautiful experience that can be enjoyed by every member of the family. The trail runs 35 miles through southeastern Virginia, from Abingdon to Whitetop. The midway point is the town of Damascus which is also a major trail town for the Appalachian Trail. (Try not to visit the weekend after Mother’s Day or you will be in the middle of the Trail Days festival and the crowds will be insane.) You can ride the trail in any direction you choose, but most people ride the 17-mile stretch from Whitetop to Damascus. Why? Because it is almost completely downhill with a very gentle, gradual descent. You rarely have to pedal and you don’t really have to ride your brakes, either. The surface of the path is crushed limestone and provides a very smooth ride. It is a pleasant, leisurely coast through lush Appalachian forests and beautiful Virginia countryside. The trail passes through gorgeous farmlands, alongside several creeks and rivers, and over massive, breathtaking trestle bridges that reminds riders of the trains that used to run along the route. Riding the trail is definitely not a race. As it winds between civilization and wilderness, take your time and enjoy the experience. One of the first stops is old train depot that now sells snacks and drinks with a playground outside. There are several great swimming holes along the route. If you get hungry, a few different cafes with sandwiches, burgers, and ice cream have set up shop right next to the trail. The ride from Whitetop to Damascus can take all day, if you allow it. If you zip through (please don’t) or if you decide to make a weekend of it, the route from Abingdon to Damascus is not as quite as easy, but still not too challenging. I’ve never done that route, but according to everything I’ve read, it’s mostly flat with a very slight downhill grade and then a gentle ascent as you come into Damasucs. Like I said, this ride is for everyone. There are outfitters in Damascus where you can rent any kind of bike setup you need, including pull-behind trailers for little ones. Some of these businesses will also shuttle you to the beginning of the trail if you only have one vehicle with you. There are half a dozen sites about the Creeper Trail, so I’ll just link the one I found most helpful.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Florida
Do you love the beach? Do you not love the massive crowds that cover every inch of sand during the warmer months? Consider Topsail Hill Preserve State Park for your next beach trip. Located in Santa Rosa Beach, the park is only ten miles from Destin. Even in the middle of summer, when all of the park’s bungalows and campsites are full, there is still plenty of room to spread out on the three miles of completely undeveloped shoreline. There is no direct access to the beach by car. Visitors can walk, ride their bikes (available for rent in the park) or catch the free tram down the half-mile paved road to the boardwalk which leads to the white sands and emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of high-rise condos, your backdrop will be huge, rolling dunes and long-leaf pine trees. All the usual beach activities are available here. Swimming, gathering shells, sunbathing, etc. The beach is amazing, but if you are one of the rare breed like me that gets antsy after a few hours, Topsail has plenty more to offer. Several trails, paved and unpaved, travel through the park, winding past 25 foot dunes and through beautiful, maritime forest. My suggestion is to bike and explore as far as you can towards the western end of the park, and when the trail gets too sandy, lock your bike to a tree and continue to explore on foot. There are few freshwater dune lakes in the park that are great places to fish. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent, just keep an eye out for gators. You may also see deer, dolphins, sea turtles, numerous species of birds, and even the occasional black bear. That’s right. You don’t have to drive all the way to the mountains. There are bears in Florida. Just don’t feed them. Official website is below.
Grundy Forest State Natural Area, Tennessee
Your average day hike is going to have one to a handful of “oh wow” moments. A beautiful overlook. An interesting rock formation. A plunging waterfall. The Grundy Forest Day Loop is a 2-3 mile trail that is one big “oh wow” moment from start to nearly finish. Grundy Forest is part of South Cumberland State Park which is comprised of several different areas spread over four counties in middle Tennessee. All the areas are a blast to hike and explore, but if you only have a day, definitely spend it at Grundy Forest. This trail is the northernmost section of the 12.5 mile Fiery Gizzard Trail, which has been named by Backpacker Magazine as one of the top 25 hiking trails in the U.S. The parking lot for the day loop is located a few miles from South Cumberland’s visitor center and has restrooms and picnic tables. There are two trailheads on opposite sides of the parking lot. I highly recommend starting your hike on the trail nearest the sign-in station. It takes you directly down to the creek which follows the trail for nearly the entire hike. One of the first things you will see is a gigantic stone bluff with an overhang so large it almost forms a cave. Just past that is a colossal 500 year old hemlock. And so on and so forth. Waterfalls and cascades abound on this hike. If it is warm, definitely bring your swimsuit as there are tons of deep turquoise pools in the creek as well as several sliding rocks. Though somewhat rocky and scattered with tree roots, the trail stays fairly level throughout and is doable by most ages and skill sets. When you get to the intersection, head across the bridge and a little ways down the Fiery Gizzard itself to Sycamore Falls, perhaps the best place on the hike to stop for a swim. When you get back to the intersection, head left past the junction where Big and Little Fiery Gizzard Creeks meet and then eventually up into a tamer, sunny section where the trees are a little more spread out. Follow this along the tops of the bluffs and past a CCC-built backcountry campground and eventually to the parking lot. This is not a trail to rush through. Take your time and soak in the ancient trees, massive rock walls, and constantly changing creek. The thick forest canopy gives this hike a secret, magical vibe. I know I am laying it on pretty thick, but I am telling you, this hike is one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever done. We couldn’t shut up about what we were seeing the whole time we were hiking. I hope to go back some day soon with an overnight pack and do the entire Fiery Gizzard.
One note: We did this trail in April on a Tuesday and didn’t see many other hikers. It probably gets a little more crowded on the weekends and the creek levels most likely drop some in the late summer. That said, I can’t imagine this hike being anything but a great experience. See South Cumberland's site for more info.