There’s no reason to put outdoor adventure on pause in the winter.
Here’s seven good reasons why we love winter hiking, and seven trails to try in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains of Haywood County.
As always, make sure you’re prepared before you hit the trail. Check out our companion article — Know Before You Go: Seven Winter Hiking Tips — for strategies to pull off your outdoor winter adventure without a hitch.
Winter is no reason to stay inside, so go on and hit the trail!
- The sound of silence
A hush falls over the woods in winter. But the quiet unlocks a secret world that you miss out on during summer hiking. Without leaves on the trees, sound travels further and is more acute: the beat of a bird’s wings as it lifts from a branch or the scuttle of a squirrel nosing about for its acorn stash.
A hike to Mount Sterling in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a perfect place to experience the sound of silence. This is one of the more strenuous hikes on our list, so read on if a leisurely jaunt is more your style.
The Mount Sterling Trail is a steady uphill climb, gaining nearly 2,000 feet. It’s a six-mile round trip — three miles up and three miles back down — through an inviting woodscape.
P.S. If you go the distance, you’ll be rewarded with 60-foot fire tower at the top with panoramic views!
Directions: Take I-40 west toward Tennessee. Just after crossing the state line, take Exit 451. Go under the highway, cross the river and turn left. Go 2.3 miles and turn left again. Reset your odometer counter, and go another 6.7 miles to the trailhead on the right.
- Crisp, clear skies
Visibility is stellar in winter, a perk of cooler temperatures and lower humidity that make for long-range views. The winter horizon is a endless sea of peaks and ridges, with views of up to 100 miles in just-right conditions.
Take a hike to Max Patch in the Pisgah National Forest to soak up the views of winter hiking. At an elevation of 4,629 feet, the grassy, open balds of Max Patch boast a panoramic view. You can chose from a 1.5-mile loop trail or a 2.5-mile loop trail.
Directions: Take I-40 west toward Tennessee. Get off at Exit 7 for Harmon Den and turn right on Cold Springs Road. Go six miles and dead-end into Max Patch Road. Turn left and go another 1.5 miles to the parking area.
- A breath of fresh air
Getting outside in winter doesn’t have to be a major expedition. A leisurely stroll through nature is sometimes all we need to recharge and re-energize after too much time cooped up indoors.
If you’re looking for a quick-and-easy escape from the winter doldrums, take a walk through the Corneille Bryan Native Garden at Lake Junaluska Assembly. This is a delightful half-mile loop trail meant to enjoy slowly. Wander through the meandering paths with resting places and babbling brooks. Please be respectful of the private community and don’t leave the path. There are 500 species of native plants here waiting to come back to life in spring.
- Unfettered views
More peaks over 6,000 feet than anywhere else in the eastern US: that’s Haywood County’s claim to fame, one the locals are quick to brag about. But not every high-elevation hiking trail reveals its views.
Most trails are enclosed by lush forests — at least in summer. With the leaves out of the picture in winter, the views open up, making it the perfect time of year to hike the Cataloochee Divide Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The trail follows a ridge with relatively few ups and downs as far as mountain hiking goes — with views in both directions thanks to no leaves.
You can make this trail however long or short you want by simply turning around at your designated half-way time. There’s a short uphill at the beginning, but the trail levels off quickly once you reach the ridge, with gentle undulations from there on out.
Directions: From Maggie Valley, head north on U.S. 276. Just before reaching I-40, turn left on Cove Creek Road and follow signs toward Cataloochee. As soon as you reach the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — a spot known as Cove Creek Gap, the high point before you start your descent into Cataloochee Valley — there’s a small parking area on the side of the road, and the trail takes off to the left.
- A new perspective
Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. But winter hiking opens up a whole new world that you don’t see in the other seasons. With no understory covering the forest floor, you can see much further through the woods, making it easier to spot wildlife or marvel over a moss covered boulder you would miss during lusher times of year. Pay attention to unique and striking tree shapes, which are usually hidden by leaves, or even try your hand at tree identification by studying the bark.
A great winter hike for forest observations is the Mountains-to-Sea trail through the primeval forests of the Middle Prong Wilderness of Pisgah National Forest.
The trail sits at an elevation of over 5,000 feet in a very remote and rugged area, so only experienced hikers should try this one. It isn’t marked with trail signs, but it’s not hard to follow. Fun fact: this is the home territory of the rare Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel.
Directions: From Bethel, go south on N.C. 215. After passing the gorgeous views of Lake Logan. From here, its another 11 miles to a parking area on the right side of the road where the trail begins. The road will get twisty and steep as you reach the top. If you come to the Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ve gone a half-mile too far.
- A slice of solitude
Haywood County has plenty of room to roam in all seasons, but winter hiking is a chance to claim even the most popular of spots all to yourself. The fabled Cataloochee Valley, home to the Smoky Mountain elk herd and rich pioneer history, draws visitors by the thousands in summer. But the crowds melt away come winter, leaving this idyllic slice of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park yours to enjoy.
There are lots of trails in Cataloochee Valley, but a good one for winter is the Rough Fork Trail. The wide, pleasant trail through the woods is relatively flat and easy for the first two miles.
You can make the trail however short or long you want, just turn back where you please. At the one-mile mark, you’ll come to the historic Woody House, built 150 years ago by early settlers of the valley. It makes a great lunch spot.
Directions: From Maggie Valley, head north on U.S. 276. Just before reaching I-40, turn left on Cove Creek Road and follow signs into Cataloochee Valley. Once you reach the valley floor, take the road all the way to the far end of the valley. The Rough Fork trailhead begins where the road ends.
- The Parkway on foot
High-elevation sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway are closed on-and-off during winter when there’s lingering snow and ice. Even a patch or two of residual ice can lead to closures, but that’s great news if you’re looking for an easily accessible winter hike.
Walking on the Parkway when it’s closed to traffic is a great way to get outdoors and explore in the wintertime without venturing deep in the woods. You’ll discover how many wonderful things you miss when driving the Parkway. Kids can bring their bikes, too, since you’ll be on pavement.
Before you go, check the Blue Ridge Parkway web page for a real-time map of road closures, or call the Haywood County Visitor Center for an up-to-date report.
A great place to walk on the Parkway is around Wagon Road Gap (milepost 412.) It’s a flat section of the Parkway, with open views in both directions.
Directions: From downtown Waynesville, head south on U.S. 276 for 21 miles, passing through the communities of Bethel and Cruso. After climbing up a section of steep twists and turns, you’ll pass under the Parkway. This is your queue. Turn the Parkway entrance road and park along the side of the road. Don’t block the gate though, as maintenance vehicles still need to get through.
And perhaps the best part of a winter hike? Afterwards you can treat yourself guilt-free to hearty meal at the amazing restaurants Haywood County serves up, whether it’s a savory plate of ribs at Haywood Smokehouse in Waynesville, a juicy bison burger at Juke Box Junction in Canton or a steaming dish of lasagna at Frankie’s Trattoria in Maggie Valley. Cap off the evening with a night on the town, or pour a mug of hot cocoa and kick your feet up. You’ve earned it!