Winter Hiking – We’re In it for the Views

The Western side of The Great Trails State offers up some incredible views year-round, but winter is next level.

Winter can be challenging…short days, cold temperatures, and a list of creative excuses to stay inside that can, at times, seem endless. However, a chilly hike could be just the thing you need for a mental reset and to cure the wintertime blues.

In North Carolina, we’re fortunate to have four distinct seasons; with each of those, there are distinct advantages and reasons to get outside and on a trail. Summer, with its warm weather, and everything else that comes along with it, is often where our minds wander when we’re thinking about getting out on a trail. A dip in a lake or a creek after a long hot hike, or perhaps, some ice cream. Summer, a weekend trip to the trails, and hiking go hand-in-hand.

With so many diverse trails in The Great Trails State, it would be negligent to overlook the other seasons, especially winter. While in many respects, it’s the polar opposite of summer, and there are so many reasons to get out and hike in the winter if you’re able to – there’s almost always an option somewhere in the state. If it’s too cold, head down from the mountains to the piedmont and coast where there are more moderate temperatures year-round. Up for a challenge? Journey to the mountains. No matter where you are in The Great Trails State, winter provides unparalleled views with minimal crowds.

Roan Mountain, NC, when conditions permit, it’s one of the best winter destinations in region.

Winter brings a unique set of challenges, along with unique rewards for those choosing to get out on a trail – and preparing for a winter hike in the mountains is more complex than just ensuring you have the right layers. While greenways and trails in the piedmont and coast are usually easily accessed year-round, head west and things can get interesting, with more snow, ice, and colder temperatures.

What’s so special about winter? Winter offers up solitude and silence in a way summer just can’t. There are fewer people out and about on the trails, many animals are hibernating, and the earth itself is frozen and asleep. It’s a completely different kind of experience and one certainly worth experiencing. Not to mention, with most of the trees having shed their leaves, there are incredible views that you can’t take in any other time of year.

What’s so tricky about winter? Well, many of the trails at higher elevations could be snowed in and difficult (or impossible – for example, Mount Mitchell or Grandfather Mountain State Park have trails off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is often closed in winter) to get to at times. Even trails in the piedmont can be slippery at times so it’s always important to lookout for ice. No matter where you go, there are plenty of trails that are ready and waiting for those who plan and prepare.

The Balsams are challenging to access, requiring miles of hiking in the Winter, but the views make it worth it.

No matter where in the state you choose to get out on a trail this winter, it’s critical to know where you’re going and have a plan and the proper clothing and gear with you. Go prepared. Temperatures dip to life-threatening lows daily and while unexpectedly spending the night in the woods in the summer can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, in the winter, without the appropriate preparation, clothing, and supplies, it can be deadly – even at lower elevations and in less rugged terrain. If you’re curious about what you need, it’s best to consult a reputable outfitter or local guide.

Trails often are more challenging to navigate, especially in snow and ice, and there are plenty of slick and treacherous spots that, in the summer, would be less of a hazard. However, in the winter, an icy slip could result in a big fall. Additionally, with some trails being more difficult to access, it makes it more challenging & dangerous for search and rescue teams to help get you out, should an accident occur. The best policy for hiking in more challenging and remote areas in the winter (and any time of year, but especially winter) is to rely on yourself, not someone else. Also, if you’re in a park, be mindful of park closing times, often, they’re earlier than in the summer.

Muddy Creek Greenway in the Snow – Winston Salem, NC

Whether you make it to the western part of the state for a mountainous excursion or across town to a nearby trail or greenway, it’s worth it to make it outside in the winter and appreciate the beauty that the seasons bring North Carolina. Yes, it may be cold, but as we saw on January 1st, it could just as likely be warm and sunny. You may see your breath, you’ll likely get some views you won’t see in the summer, the chances of seeing snakes and ticks are low, and the mosquitoes are non-existent. Plus, it’s Year of the Trail – we’ll see you out there!