After spending the last two summers out West hiking what some may consider to be the most beautiful and rugged trails America has to offer along the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get that same experience this summer while staying back East in my home state of North Carolina. But I knew I couldn’t just sit at home scrolling through Instagram daydreaming about exotic places; I knew I had to at least try to find adventures in the mountains I have called home for the better part of my life. With that in mind, I began trying to come up with trips that would be exciting and new but fit into my tight schedule. Randomly scrolling through Instagram, I came across Adam Collins profile and in his description he had something called the High Country Loop (HCL). Intrigued, I had to learn more, so I contacted Adam to ask about the loop. After more talks with Adam and even a lunch together in Boone, NC one day, I knew the HCL would be perfect for what I wanted to do. It was the right distance–around 170 miles or 10 days–and it connected all my favorite parts of North Carolina like Grandfather Mountain, Wilson Creek, Linville Gorge, Mount Mitchell, and the Roan Highlands. And while I had been to all of these places before, I had never connected all of them on one go. I reached out to a few friends, and Neemor and Cotezi decided to join me on this trip.
Day 1 | Boone Fork Trailhead
Starting this trip I had a strange feeling come over me; I felt like I was starting a thru-hike with the excitement of seeing new things, spending multiple days in a row in the woods, and some nerves regarding the unknown even though I knew I would only be out for around 10 days. The first part of the hike was beautiful as we walked parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway through vibrant green woods and across calming mountain streams before making it out to Rough Ridge and getting our first views of the trip. The views from Rough Ridge are your classic Blue Ridge Mountain views with countless ridges. Even if you spent a lifetime you would never be able to explore all the different folds and peaks of those ridges. A coolness came over us which was much welcomed because it had been a hot and humid day. Relaxing in that coolness didn’t last for long. With the distant rumble of thunder, we knew that our brief refuge from the heat was only because of a growing storm that would soon be upon us. We hurried to put on our rain gear and got ready to start hiking again. Rough Ridge can be very exposed in places, but we kept climbing and eventually made it back into the safety of the forest. Up to this point and for the next few miles the trail had been relatively flat but soon we began a very steep descent over the next three miles leading to the Wilson Creek area. The change of scenery was quite stark after dropping a few thousand feet. The first day is always tough and we were starting to feel it, so we looked for a camp spot and some water. Water was not that hard to find but a flat spot to set up for the night proved more difficult. Just before we had to get out our headlamps we were able to find a spot where the three of us would be able to set up for the night, and after some dinner and typical trail conversation, it was off to bed.
Day 2 | Entering Wilson Creek National Forest
The morning of the second day we finished our decent and started our long day following along Wilson Creek. The trail hugged the creek and each time we ran out of land on one side we had to ford it to the other side repeating the process over and over again. At first, we took off our shoes at each crossing to try and keep them dry. (I had packed my Bedrock Sandals so I just kept them on for most of the day.) But my companions with only their shoes decided, after about 4 or 5 crossing, to just trudge through the creek with shoes on because the whole process was taking too long. At first, the crossings were looked at as an obstacle, but as the day wore on they were a much-needed friend to help cool us off from the warm summer day. Not only was it very warm, but the humidity seemed to be trapped by the rhododendron tunnels we were walking through. It was so thick I could actually feel myself wading through it. With all this water we were fortunate to pass some stunning waterfalls along the way. After countless river crossing and fewer miles than I have fingers, we finally started to climb away from the valley and up toward the tops of the mountains. The climb was steep and long but once on top, we were able to follow a ridge for a good amount of time before all of us in exhausted unison agreed it was time to call it a night. The gnats drove us into our tents pretty early on, but I was not complaining about that. It felt good to lie down and slowly fall asleep to a small babbling creek and the twinkle of hundreds of lightning bugs through the mesh wall of my Fly Creek.
Day 3 | Linville Gorge
We started day three walking along a very enjoyable ridge before dropping back down to all the rivers and streams. Once again like day two, we had many water crossings and wet feet were inevitable. We stopped to have an early lunch beside a roaring falls before starting the climb that would lead us up to the rim of the Linville Gorge. The climb was long and steep which was a trend that was starting to form with this hike. We finally made it to the top of the climb after a few breaks to catch our breath. Reaching the top not only afforded us views similar to day one but also a breeze that was much needed after the sweltering climb. We hiked along the rim for a while then stopped for a break to properly take in the view. After about an hour, we reluctantly decided to push on. The beautiful views along the rim continued as the trail dropped down just to go right back up again. But it was later in the day and the sun was starting to give way to cooler temperatures. We managed to make it to the first water source in a long while as the sun started to go down. After some debate, we decided to have dinner by the cold mountain spring before pushing on into the darkness to try to find a place to set up camp. On summer nights camping spaces are long gone by this time of day, but around 10 p.m. we managed to find a flat enough spot and thanks to the wind and clear skies we were able to cowboy camp.
Day 4 | The Climb Out
Woke up to the sun shining through the tree we were camped under. The first thing I did was rush to the edge of the rim to watch the golden morning light hit the other side of the gorge. After that, we packed up and began our descent to the Linville River. On our way down we went through an area that was familiar yet very different. One of my first backpacking trips was through this area, but back then it was completely burnt from a recent fire. Now more than ten years later, there were plants growing all around the trail and even some small trees. It was very special to me to see how the natural world will always just rebuild itself after trying times. We finally made it to the river which was about 60 feet wide but not too deep making the crossing quite straightforward. After this crossing started potentially the longest/steepest climb I have ever done (or it at least felt like that). In less than two miles we climbed nearly 2,000 feet. But at the end of that long, sweaty climb we were rewarded by views that allowed us to see all of what we hiked the previous day. Heading out after a short break we reached a gravel road which we followed for the rest of the morning. With that climb done we thought the hard part of the day was behind us. Little did we know we had many challenges still to come. After leaving the gravel road we started a gentle climb that wandered through an old forest with a meandering stream running through; a very peaceful respite. Upon reaching the top we left the idyllic forest and entered a burned area. With temperatures in the 90’s and the sun high in the sky, it was not an enjoyable place to be. There was no escape from the sun, and so no choice but to keep plodding along. The sun began to wear on us. After three hours we made it to a small oasis with shade and cold water. We stayed there to cool down and rehydrate before pressing on. There were only a few more miles of burnt trail to hike through before reaching an old logging road in a beautiful forest with ferns growing beneath a magnificent canopy where the sun streamed through the forest canopy. The day was long and challenging. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, we set up camp in the glowing light of our headlamps. It felt good to lie down and call it a day.
Day 5 | Then There Were Two
The day before was tough on all of us but Cotezi came into the hike dealing with a lingering injury that she had picked up the year before on the PCT. Her injury started to act up and she decided that it was in her best interest to get off the Loop before the injury got worse.
So it was just down to Neemor and myself. We, like most hikers, ate a lot during the prior days on the trail, and we had been going slower than anticipated, so we had to hitch into Marion, NC to resupply at the local supermarket. We just needed enough supplies to get us to Burnsville–about a day-and-a-half of food. With fresh resupply and a stop at McDonald’s, we headed back to the trail to start the day. From the road we had a decent climb up before getting to ride the ridge. Bunches of tall grass along the trail meant ticks–both Neemor and I found 20 or more ticks on us the first five days. After tick checks we eventually made it to the Blue Ridge Parkway. For me this really felt like we had achieved something; we were so close to the end of our big stretch on the Mountain-to-Sea Trail. After following along the parkway and crossing it a few more times we headed back deep into the woods and began climbing. We hoped to make it to a proper campsite, but once again we didn’t hike as far as we had planned, and once again as the sun began to set we made due with a somewhat-flat and not-too-overgrown spot to set up for the night. With larger mountains looming in the distance, we knew we would have a big climb the following morning.
Day 6 | A Change Of Scenery
We woke extra early to try to make up for lost time the day before. The morning started with a chill and gentle downhill before reaching the campground we had planned to stay at. We then began our hike up the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi–Mount Mitchell. The climb was long but not as steep as the ones we had earlier in the trip. We started down low still surround by deciduous trees and rhododendrons as we walked along a stream. Once breaking from the stream the trail got a bit steeper and before long we were in among the coniferous trees. The smell lets you know you are around 5,000 feet or higher, so I knew there wasn’t much longer till the top. As we began to hear the chatter of other people, we knew the summit must be just around the corner. Soon we hit a paved walking path and could see the concrete structure that allowed a view of the summit. After reaching the summit and taking in the view for a few moments, we headed down to the main parking area where there is also a concession stand. After a few cold drinks and chips, we finally left the Mountain-to-Sea trail and hopped on the Black Mountain Crest Trail, which we would follow for around 10 miles. It felt good to change trails even though not much was different. The trail was still very challenging, but we were privy to some amazing views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. We traversed the largest collection of 6,000-foot peaks in the eastern US and it really felt like it with constant climbing and descent. After five hours we finally started our final push down the mountain to Bowlens Creek. We didn’t quite make it there but for once we found a very flat and clear spot to set up camp before the sun started to set; the only thing we were missing was water. But it was only a few miles to Burnsville and all the food and drinks we wanted the next day.
Day 7 | Hitching To The Familiar
It was an easy two miles down to the road and a quick hitch to get us into Burnsville where we went straight to Ingles grocery. Once there we spent the better half of the morning relaxing in the air conditioning, eating as much as we wanted, and charging our cameras and phones. With full stomachs and batteries, it was time to get back to a place very familiar to both of us: Carvers Gap on the Appalachian Trail. But to get there we had to hitch a decent way. We had mild success with hitching and met a wide assortment of characters along the way. After one hitch taking us in the wrong direction and an unplanned stop at a diner we got our final hitch up to the top. Once there we were quickly reminded how popular this section of the AT is and for good reason. Almost immediately after leaving the gap you are welcomed into the Roan Highlands with stunning views. Upon reaching Jane Bald, we took a quick break to enjoy the cool mountain air. However, we soon saw off in the distance an approaching storm. We knew there was a shelter not too much farther down the trail, so we got going. Not even 15 minutes later the storm was on top of us, and we quickly got out our umbrellas. The rain turned the forest into a mysterious tunnel with the steam coming off of the ground creating an eerie feel. Before long we did reach the shelter where we took cover and waited out the storm. There we were kept company by other travelers who shared stories to help pass the time. Once the rain came to a halt we had one short climb before it was all downhill to the Overmountain Shelter and our stopping point for the day. At the shelter, we were amazed by how many other hikers were there. We chatted for a while before I set up my tent, and Neemor prepared his bed in the shelter. We gathered as the last glow of the sun faded and gave way to the tinkle of stars and fireflies alike. Slowly, one by one, everyone went to bed hoping for a drier day to follow.
Day 8 | One Last Night
We woke to the sound of birds chirping and even though it was early, it was the best I had slept the whole trip. Even the tent wet from the dew was well worth it. We were some of the first to leave the shelter area and start the climb up. Everything was so green and full of life that morning from the rain the day before. We managed to keep a good pace the whole day and reached the top of Hump Mountain early on. The views from up top were amazing. Off in the distance we could see where we would sleep that night–the top of Grandfather Mountain. From the top of Hump Mountain we just had a few easy miles down to the road through the forest, which was a welcomed sight with its shade. We reached the road before noon and only had to wait about 15 minutes for a hitch to pick us up. The lady who gave us a ride was so kind. She even went out of her way to bring us to our final trailhead. But before we made our final climb of the trip we stopped at McDonalds one last time. Reaching the Profile Trail parking lot pretty early gave us time to lie around and digest the less-than-nutritious McD’s. The climb to the top of Grandfather is tough, but we enjoyed our time knowing that tomorrow it would all end. We reached our campsite with some daylight to spare, which gave us time to reflect on the journey. Soon it was time to tuck in for one last sleep in the woods.
Day 9 | Full Circle
We had time to sleep in a bit, but the excitement of completing the loop was too much. I woke to see Neemor was all ready to hike, so I packed quickly and we headed down to where this whole trip started. It felt strange to me since on all of my other long trips I had always ended somewhere different than where I’d started. But this loop trail came out at the exact same spot we started and nothing had changed. Even though nothing had changed, I felt as if I had changed. Or at least the way I thought about adventure had changed. Slowly, I was coming to the realization that I don’t need to go to some far-off land or spend months out on the trail to find adventure. My two goals had been to find adventure and rediscover my home. Through the High Country Loop’s tough terrain and journey of the unknown, I was able to get that sense of adventure I was seeking. The Loop also provided me the opportunity to revisit and connect with all my favorite places in North Carolina. And I now had a better appreciation of North Carolina’s High Country as well. While I will always dream of the next big adventure, I now know I can’t just wait around for it to happen. I need to make the most of the time I have and try to find the nooks and crannies of my own backyard that I haven’t yet explored. I urge you to do the same. It is fun to scroll through Instagram and see everyone’s amazing trips and think, “maybe one day I can do that”, or “I would like to go there”. Dream big about those trips to come, but in the meantime go out and explore what you can! Make the most of what is around you!
Words and images by Douglas Hurdle. Watch the video he made from this hike: Rediscovering Home – A Journey Along the High Country Loop