Every year around this time I get to thinking about the trails I want to hike in the year ahead.
Want to? Make that must.
They’re not necessarily long trails, trails that demand a day’s worth of attention. Rather, they’re trails that hold a unique allure that gives them a special spot in my hiking heart. Corny, perhaps, but it’s true. These are the trails that make me even more excited to get out and hike. And I think they might have a similar effect on you.
Today, I make my case for my 5 must-do hikes for 2021. And I’ll continue to make my case throughout the year, reporting back after I complete each one. If my argument proves compelling and you elect to try one of these hikes, we’d love to hear about your visit.
Now, on to my 5 must-do-hikes for 2021.
1. Carolina Beach State Park, Carolina Beach
My first visit to this coastal state park south of Wilmington was in 2005. I needed some coastal hikes for a book I was writing and thought, “It’s got meat-eating plants. How can it miss?” So I started with the Flytrap Trail (named for the park’s star carnivore, the Venus flytrap).
That hike alone was beyond pretty good. Then I did the loop that hooked me, the 3-mile Sugarloaf Trail. I started at the marina, hiking a sandy beach along the Cape Fear. Shortly, the trail went inland, into a pine savannah dominated by snowy white sand and rich, green longleaf pines. I summited mighty Sugarloaf, a 50-foot sand dune now anchored by thick vegetation that was a lookout during the Civil War. And there were lots of sprawling live oaks peppered throughout.
Thanks to the scenic distraction, it’s possibly the shortest three miles I’ve ever hiked. Learn more about the park and hike.
2. Haw River State Park, Iron Ore Belt Access, Greensboro
Have you ever driven a mountain road that has just the right swerve and sway, that lets you get into the perfect rhythm of the ride? The Great Blue Heron Loop Trail is the hiking trail equivalent.
After warming your legs on the third-of-a-mile connector from the trailhead, this 3.2-mile loop swerves and sways through a forest of mature upland hardwoods, bottomland woods, pine and meadow. It cozies up to the headwaters of the Haw River. It passes jumbles of rust-colored rock tipping the area’s distant past as a source of iron ore.
The trail works with the rolling landscape and stays surprisingly flat throughout, yielding the aesthetic rewards of undulating terrain minus the tired legs. Learn more about the park and hike.
3. Reedy Creek Nature Preserve, Charlotte.
Enter from Rocky River Road and you’re greeted by a dog park, ball fields, basketball courts, a disc golf course — all of which will give the seeker of quiet pause. Keep driving, though, and soon you’ll enter the Nature Preserve portion of this urban playground. From the Visitor Center (currently closed, but you can still access the trails), you’ll find 10 miles of blissful hiking.
The Umbrella Tree Trail and Big Oak Trail both take you past their respective namesakes. The Robinson Rockhouse Trail is a short excursion to the impressive remains of a house built of rock dating to the late 1700s. The Dragonfly Pond Trail offers water, the Sierra Trail offers a more upland hiking experience. All less than 10 miles from uptown. Learn more about the park and hike.
4. Eno River State Park, Fews Ford Access, Durham.
You’d think that hiking a trail a couple times a month, year after year might get tiresome. Not when it’s the Buckquarter Creek/Holden Mill figure-8 loop at this linear state park along the Eno.
About half of this 4.2-miile circuit is along ridgeline, half along the Eno. I like to start with the ridge portion of Buckquarter Creek, a rollercoaster ridge that, in winter, provides views of the Eno below. The flood plain area where the two trails meet is especially good for spring wildflowers.
At Buckquarter Creek, cross to the Holden Mill Trail and hike along the Eno, a particularly rocky stretch that involves some mild scrambling. Return along the ridge portion (a stout climb initially), then, back at Buckquarter Creek follow that trail downstream along the Eno. Just before the end (saving the best for last!), enjoy a mini-cascade on the Eno from the wood staircase. Learn more about the park and hike.
5. Pink Beds, Pisgah National Forest north of Brevard.
You can’t have a “must hike” list in North Carolina without at least one mountain hike. Mine: the 5-mile Pink Beds Loop Trail.
he rugged Blue Ridge escarpment is the last place you’d expect to find an “easy” 5-mile hike. Yet nestled into the side of the mountain about 3,200 feet above sea level, you’ll find Pink Beds Valley, an upland bog so named for the profusion of pink-blooming flowers visible from miles away. A touch of coastal swamp high in the Southern Appalachians.
On the drier, slightly higher north side of the hike you’ll follow old roadbeds through forest and meadow; about two-and-a-half miles in the trail picks up the South Fork of Mills River. From here you enter the bogs, your passage through the boggier stretches on elevated boardwalk. Total elevation change: 100 feet. Learn more about the hike.