I don’t know about you, but winter is one my favorite times of the year. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is full of excitement while the months following are dotted with anticipation of hearing that four-letter word uttered by the local weatherman (yes, I’m talking about SNOW). The mere mention of a single snowflake gets me as giddy as a school kid. There are few things I love more than a having a foot of snow to romp around in with my dog. Now, I know not all people are as crazy about the winter months as I am, which I can understand. The days are often cold and unless you love snow as much as me or you are a winter sports enthusiast, there may not be much to entice you to plan a trip to the mountains. But I will let you in on a little secret; there is more to do in winter than just snow sports. For one, winter is actually a great time to enjoy some of the incredible hiking areas here in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains. While we do have our fair share of cold weather and the occasional snow, you can always count on a break of mild weather in between, perfect for hiking. The trails are much less crowded while the fallen leaves give way to spectacular long-range views. You will also want to bring a camera because you will often catch a glimpse of unique natural wonders like frozen waterfalls or massive icicle rows hanging on rock faces like frosty beards.
Now, keep in mind that winter hiking does not come without a few stipulations. Often roads into parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and sections the Blue Ridge Parkway are closed. But even with the sections closed, there are still plenty of year-round accessible hikes in Haywood County. One of my favorites, which I recently hiked, is Sam’s Summits Loop Trail. This is one of the two local hiking areas that have been highlighted by local Blue Ridge Naturalist, Ken Czarnomki. Ken’s passion for hiking and to provide easily accessible year-round hiking options fueled his project to create a unique guide of this area. He has personally hiked, cataloged, hand-drawn and written a hiking guide solely dedicated to the Sam’s Summit Loop Area, which is part of the Shining Rock Wilderness area of the Pisgah National Forest. It is accessed via Hwy 215 South which intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway, but because the trail head is not located on the parkway, it can accessed even when it is closed.
Sam’s Summits Loop Trail is 9.75 miles total, which can take up to six hours to hike. The hike is technically comprised of six different trails to create the loop, so even if you’re looking for a shorter hike, this is still a great option. When I recently hiked it, I had less than 3 hours to hike, which I was able to hike a few miles in and back out on the Mountains to Sea Trail. I was still able to experience many of the stunning features of this trail, including a pristine stream flowing straight out of the mountain, scenic long range views, including one of Devils Courthouse, and enjoyed a quiet stroll through a beautifully dense spruce plantation. I plan to hike more of it later this season as it has quickly become one of my favorite winter hiking areas. If you want to check out Sam’s Summits Loop Trail yourself, stop by one of Haywood County’s two visitor centers (Waynesville or Maggie Valley) and pick up a copy of Ken’s free guide. Or give us a call at 1-800-334-9036 and we will mail you one. We will also be more than happy to share some of our other favorite winter hiking spots and fun activities here in Haywood County!
On a final note, I do always like to stress the importance planning accordingly when hiking in the winter. Temperatures can be very different at higher elevations, so remember to always check the weather forecast, pack appropriate gear, including layers and warm hiking boots or shoes. Also, keep in mind the days are much shorter and darkness can fall as early as 5:00 PM so please allow yourself enough time to hike in and out. I always carry enough food, water, and warm layers to keep me safe overnight, just in case. With proper planning, winter hiking will quickly become one of your favorite times to hike as well.
Check out other fun winter activities to enjoy in Haywood County including Skiing or Snowboarding at Cataloochee Ski Area.