My birthday falls at the end of June. Growing up, this was unbelievably awesome. Even as the snow days would pile up for the New Hampshire school systems, it was inevitable that summer vacation would narrowly save me from a celebration spent sitting at a desk on a sunny day as my classmates sang the obligatory birthday song. Since moving to North Carolina, though, I’ve enjoyed my birthdays significantly less. Here, June signifies the rapid transition to oppressive temperatures, suffocating humidity, heat and air quality alerts, stale, icy air-conditioned air, and reduced outdoor time. Seriously, this climate just doesn’t do it for me.
This year Stephan planned an escape from the insufferable heat that typically overtakes the eastern half of the state and surprised me with a long weekend in the mountains. I was initially skeptical that it would be notably cooler, but it’s amazing what a drive four hours west can do. When we arrived in Plumtree, a speck of a town on the fringes of Pisgah National Forest, it was a crisp 60-degrees. As I stepped out of the car in front of our rustic, mountain bungalow, all my tension melted away.
As usual, Stephan picked the perfect little AirBnb rental – it was cozy, it was quiet, and it was out in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. Sanchez especially enjoyed her little funhouse, and was quick to make herself at home. Much like me, her gratitude for the cool mountain air was palpable – she sprinted around the yard, up and down the driveway, and across the large front porch, flying off the top of the steps each time she reached the edge. This is a joy that I truly miss in the dead of summer.
We spent the next three days exploring a handful of trails around Linville Gorge and Pisgah/Cherokee National Forests. The scenery was gorgeous, the temperatures were mild, and Sanchez loved every minute exploring the trails. It was exactly what my soul needed…
Part of the larger Appalachian Mountain range, which stretches some 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from Alabama to southeastern Canada, the Blue Ridge Mountains contain many of the highest summits in the eastern U.S. North Carolina and Tennessee alone lay claim to 39 peaks that soar above 6,000 feet in elevation. Much of NC’s swath of the Blue Ridge lies within the protected bounds of Pisgah National Park, which offers hundreds of miles of scenic hiking trails.
One section of Pisgah NP that’s known for its rugged beauty is the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Sometimes called the ‘Grand Canyon of the East,’ Linville Gorge’s granite walls tower 1,400 feet above the Linville River for 12 miles, until the river opens into the Catawba Valley. Because it’s a designated ‘wilderness area,’ many of Linville Gorge’s 39 miles of trails are not the well-maintained, signed tracks you find in most parks – something you should prepare for if you’re hiking in the area.
For our first hike, we headed up Hawksbill Mountain. The weather looked a bit iffy, so we settled on a short hike to see if the storms would hold off. The trailhead was about 40 minutes from our accommodations in Plumtree, with a significant portion of the drive up windy, rutted mountain roads. As we dodged potholes and navigated hairpin turns, I looked back and saw Sanchez’ hunched over in the back seat, her eyes droopy and head hanging limply. It was the first time we’d seen a hint of carsickness in her, and she seemed relieved when we finally came to a stop at the trailhead.
Along with Table Rock Mountain, Hawksbill Mountain is one of the few trails around Linville Gorge that’s sign-posted and maintained. The path was easily discernable, and a quick ascent through the dense forest led up to a rocky, granite summit. Sanchez delighted in leaping from one large boulder to the next, while we took in the views of the gorge and surrounding hillsides.
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: 830 feet
Table Rock Mountain
As we descended Hawksbill Mountain, a thick cloud bank rolled in and it immediately began to rain. Luckily, we were less than a mile from the car and avoided getting too waterlogged. Hoping the weather would clear for an afternoon hike, we headed five miles south to Table Rock Mountain. Poor Sanchez had to endure another twenty minutes of torture on zigzagging Table Rock Road, but she pulled through like a champ and was handsomely rewarded with some PB&J at the trailhead. By the time we’d finished our sandwiches in the refuge of the Subaru, the showers had passed and we were left with clear skies for our second trek.
We hiked Table Rock Mountain as a loop trail (counter-clockwise), following Spence Ridge to Little Table Rock, then taking the 0.4-mile side trail up to the summit. Descending, we followed the path to the right, returning to the trailhead via Table Rock Gap. Because most hikers access Table Rock via Table Rock Gap, the trail is well-marked and maintained. Conversely, there were a couple segments of Little Table Rock where the trail was somewhat ambiguous.
The views from Table Rock were markedly similar to those from Hawksbill – an endless expanse of forested hillsides, the distant peaks blurred by the characteristic blue haze for which the mountains are named.
Distance: 4.2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,512 feet
Straddling the border of NC and TN, Roan Mountain is touted as one of the most scenic sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT) – which, at nearly 2,200 miles long, is considered the longest hiking-only trail in the world. Here, the AT traverses the Roan Highlands, a 20-mile massif that contains the longest tract of grassy balds in the Appalachians. With a series of barren summits above 6,000 feet, the trail offers unrivaled panoramas of Pisgah-Cherokee National Forest.
We reached the trailhead at Carver’s Gap around 8 a.m. At an elevation of 5,512 feet, the air was a crisp 50F and the wind whipped across the exposed highlands. We ascended through a shadowy spruce-fir forest – the landscape eerily silent as soft wisps of clouds drifted between tiers of sharp, splintered branches. We weren’t in the forest for long as, less than half a mile after entering, the trail abruptly unfurled atop Round Bald. The clouds still clung resolutely to the hilltops as we descended to Engine Gap and reemerged atop Jane Bald, but every so often we’d catch a fleeting glimpse of the surrounding countryside.
With the weather set to improve later in the day, we continued across the blustery highlands, past the side trail for the third bald (Grassy Ridge), and descended down into the forest on the AT. The trail quickly plunged down from the highlands, leaving us completely enveloped in the thick woods. We continued walking under a thick, green canopy until we reached the Overmountain Shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap – about 3.75 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation loss from the junction to Grassy Ridge Bald.
As we watched the midday sun finally began to overtake the stubborn morning cloud cover, we headed back for the highlands, hoping to enjoy some clearer views from Grassy Ridge Bald. Much to our delight, when we reemerged from the forest four miles later, the landscape had completely transformed. The warm, mid-afternoon sun now bathed the verdant uplands and you could see for miles under an unclouded sky.
Spring’s transition to summer in the Roan Highlands is marked by June’s much-anticipated rhododendron bloom when, for a few weeks each year, the characteristically green hillsides transform to a sea of vibrant fuchsia. Unfortunately, an early peak immediately followed by a spell of torrential rain left us with nothing more than some bare, withered shrubs. But while we may have missed the mountains ablaze in their magenta glory, we were lucky to spot a handful of Gray’s lilies along the trail. The flowers are both rare and endangered – blooming only in early summer in the Appalachians of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and declining in numbers due to increasing habitat loss, spread of fungal disease, and illegal collection.
In addition to the stellar views and beautiful wildflowers atop the Roan Highlands, we were unbelievably fortunate to have an intimate encounter with a young fawn. As we descended Grassy Ridge to return to Carver’s Gap, we saw a doe leaping up the hillside through the tall grass about twenty feet in front of us. Not expecting to see any wildlife, we stood surprised, fumbling to get our lenses pointed in time. As we paused to peer up along the ridge, we suddenly heard a soft bleat, and a young fawn emerged from the meadow in our direction. He’d clearly lost sight of his mom for a moment, and it was as if he was asking us if we’d seen her. When he then caught sight of Sanchez, he began prancing excitedly – kicking his hind legs in the air – as if inviting her to come play. He hung around us for a few minutes, playfully insisting we escort him back through the meadow, before finally scampering back up the hill in the direction of mom.
Distance: 13.6 miles
Elevation gain: 3,209 feet
With a major afternoon storm system rolling in on our last day, we settled for a short morning hike to Linville Falls. One of North Carolina’s most iconic waterfalls, the three-tiered cataract tumbles 90 feet to the Linville River. The falls can be accessed from several short trails beginning at the Linville Falls Visitor Center, with routes offering vantage points from either the top or base of the falls. Because we were starting from a heavily-trafficked site, we chose the trail that was longest and steepest (relatively speaking here) in an effort to ward off the throngs of families and groups.
The hike was pretty enough and surprisingly uncrowded, though it was what you’d probably expect steps off the Blue Ridge Parkway – short, easy, and somewhat anticlimactic. Sanchez enjoyed a quick splash in the river and we enjoyed the view of the falls and one last opportunity to soak up the mild temperatures and sunshine before heading back to the muggy Piedmont.
Distance: 2.0 miles
Elevation gain: 730 feet
After wrapping up our hiking time in the tranquil countryside, we headed to Asheville to spend the afternoon exploring the town and enjoying a birthday dinner. In the more than a decade that I’d lived in NC (holy shit, that is frightening!), it was the one major hub I hadn’t checked off my list. Known for its vibrant art scene, counterculture, and overall quirky and crunchy vibe, it sounded like an appealing little mountain city.
When we arrived on a gorgeous Saturday evening, the downtown was bustling with activity. The narrow streets were lined with charming cafes and shops, and eye-catching art adorned every avenue. Music wafted from open-air patios and street performers entertained curious onlookers at nearly every corner. No matter where you turned there was something to steal your attention.
For dinner, we grabbed in at an outdoor table at the Laughing Seed Café, one of Asheville’s original veg restaurants (note: in a refreshing change from the rest of the state, most outdoor eating areas in Asheville are strictly smoke-free). Laughing Seed’s menu was quite extensive, offering vegan spins on an impressive number of global dishes. I settled on the harmony bowl with tofu (the small portion was enormous) and a vegan mango lassi, while Stephan opted for a blackberry-ginger-mint lemonade and a few small plates – vegan pakora, roasted rainbow carrots, and jalapeño fries. The meal was delicious, and we topped it off with a giant slice of vegan chocolate fig cake.
Of course, you can’t very well do a birthday with just one dessert, so we headed up the street to French Broad’s chocolate lounge. Seemingly the most popular place in town on a Saturday night, the lined wrapped out the door. Looking at the menu, it was easy to see why – dozens of assorted drinking chocolates, desserts, scratch-made ice creams and handmade chocolates. I capped off the celebration with a few of their vegan truffles – grapefruit-olive oil-fennel, strawberry balsamic, and coconut cream.
Many thanks to Stephan for putting this awesome weekend together. I couldn’t have been happier to get out of the heat and onto the trails… and Sanchez clearly felt the same way.