Y'all. When I tell you I stumbled across a true hidden gem, I am not exaggerating. But before I get ahead of myself, let me back up.
I have been wanting to visit Stone Mountain State Park for a hot minute now. Located just under two hours from my home in South Charlotte, North Carolina, Stone Mountain State Park presents the perfect day trip for those living in the Queen City. An easy drive up interstate 77, Stone Mountain offers scenic views, picture-perfect picnic spots, and even a little bit of history to be learned from the 19th century restored Hutchinson Homestead. From horseback riding to fishing, climbing to camping, visitors can do it all.
The 600 foot granite dome that the park is named after offers a truly unique and impressive landmark. A 4.5 mile strenuous loop trail takes visitors past a large waterfall and ultimately to the summit of the dome. After deciding to visit Stone Mountain on a Saturday, and upon pulling into the lower trailhead parking lot and seeing that cars were parked in overflow areas, I knew it would be crowded. I also knew I had to pick a less popular trail. I like hiking and I like people (for the most part) but I don't like seeing (a lot of) people on my hikes. The Stone Mountain Loop Trail was out.
After studying the map for a bit, I decided on the Wolf Rock Trail. 1.5 miles one way, this trail starts in the same place as the Stone Mountain Loop, but eventually tapers off on its own. After about a mile, you will come to an intersection with the Mountains-to-Sea (MST) State Trail. Keep going another half mile or so and the trail will start to flatten out, winding through a small thicket before opening up to what was not only a complete surprise but one of the best mountain views I've had on my hikes. Now, I'm sure if I had done a bit more research (guilty) I would have known this was part of the hike. However, the fact that I was not expecting this at all made it that much more amazing!
Even more amazing was the fact that I had the whole rock to myself. A hiker's dream come true. Now, it was a big rock, and a few groups straggled through while I was up there, but none lingered. Maybe that was what was even more surprising to me. When I come across a view like that, I am going to stop and enjoy it. The others I came into contact with stopped, snapped a few pics, and kept on moving, but I'm not complaining.
When I was finally ready to move on, I felt refreshed and full of energy. I kept going in the direction I had been heading, joining the Black Jack Ridge Trail, another 1.5 mile trail that would eventually connect to the Cedar Rock Trail, then back to the Stone Mountain Loop trail and back to the starting point, essentially creating my own loop totaling 4.64 miles. One thing I really loved was the diverse landscape and vegetation at various points throughout the trail. Going from lush rhododendrons and bubbling creeks to dry, rocky, hardwood patches was incredible.
To summarize, I hiked a big old loop that was comparable in difficulty and distance as the Stone Mountain Loop Trail, had AMAZING views, and saw only a handful of others on the trail. People! This is the way to do it. And of course, if you were interested in a bit of a shorter hike, another option would be to take the Wolf Rock Trail back down after making it to the summit, for a 3.0 mile trip in total.
I broke up my hike into two segments, the 1.5 miles to Wolf Rock, and then 3.2 miles from there back to the start. Read about the significance of the 3.2 miles in my last blog post here.
NEED TO KNOW:
3042 Frank Parkway
Roaring Gap, NC 28668
November - February: 7am - 6pm
March, April, September & October: 7am - 8pm
May - August: 7am - 9pm
Closed Christmas Day
Entrance Fee: None
Every year for the last 14 years, members of the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, Virginia community come together to honor the Hokies that were lost during the April 16th shooting in 2007.
One of the ways Virginia Tech has chosen to celebrate the lives of those we lost is through an annual run or walk of 3.2 miles. This event has grown over the years, with friends and family of the VT community coming together across the country and the world to remember and honor our fallen Hokies.
In the past, I have volunteered at this event, handing out water and encouraging the participants of the run. This year, due to the COVID pandemic, the event was held virtually, running from April 16-18.
I decided to do something a little different this year and hike my 3.2 for 32. I headed to Stone Mountain State Park, knowing that it would likely be crowded and intending on choosing a less popular trail. Upon pulling into the parking lot, my suspicions were confirmed when I saw people utilizing the overflow parking areas. While most people headed for the Stone Mountain Loop Trail, I set off on the Wolf Rock Trail, a 1.5 mile trail to a huge granite surface that featured amazing views of the surrounding mountains, and equally important, almost no people.
After taking some time to rest, reflect, and enjoy the scenery, I set off on a 3.23 mile journey to create my own loop by getting on the Black Jack Ridge Trail, and from there, connecting back to the Stone Mountain Loop. I got back to the parking area after exactly 3.23 miles (not including the first 1.5 miles up to Wolf Rock).
This was such a great way to complete the 3.2 for 32. Time spent in nature, getting some peace, and taking an extra moment to reflect really embodied the slogan that so many Hokies have come to adopt which is "Live for 32."
If you're interested in learning more about the ways Virginia Tech has celebrated the lives of those lost, as well as reading the stories of each of the 32 Hokies, check out the website here.
I can confidently say that this is how I will be completing my 3.2 miles from now on.
Over the past year, I have gone hiking countless times on trails and parks throughout the Carolinas. 9 times out of 10, I bring my pup Oreo along for the ride, and 9 times out of 10, we have an encounter with at least one other dog-owner who exhibits not only poor trail manners, but quite frankly dangerous actions that could put their, or my own, dog at risk.
Read below for some tips and tricks on how to exhibit safe and respectful hiking while on the trails with your furry companion.
1. Leash Law
First and most importantly, please abide by all leash requirements posted on the trails you're visiting. These rules exist for several reasons, primarily to keep you, your dog, and others using the trails safe. While these rules can vary, most require a non-retractable six-foot leash.
Do not hike with your dog off-leash in areas that are crowded, unfamiliar, or have dangerous terrain. Not only can your dog come into unwelcome contact with others, but can get lost, stuck, or injured.
If you are hiking off-leash, in designated and sanctioned areas, consider having your dog wear a pack or reflective harness. This not only keeps your dog safe, but should you come into contact with others, this will alert them that the dog is not wild or lost, but out there with you on the trails. Be sure to always keep your dog with eyesight and earshot. Your dog should be trained to return to you on command.
Whether your dog is micro-chipped or not, having a collar with tags is very important. Again, it provides a visible sign of ownership, and it makes it easier for other to locate owners should your dog become separated from you. My dog's tag includes her name on the front and the names of me and my husband, and our phone numbers, on the back.
I recently got a hands-free leash for use when hiking, and I highly recommend it! Comfortable and easy to use, it makes it much easier to grab a drink from a water bottle or climb over a fallen log when you don't have to worry about hanging onto a leash!
2. Dog-Friendly Trails
Of course, if you're going to bring your dog hiking, you have to make sure he is welcome there in the first place. While most National Parks allow dogs within the boundaries to some degree, not all trails are dog-friendly. Do your research before embarking on a new trail and ensure that it is one that your dog is allowed to use. These restrictions are in place for the safety of your dog, as well as local wildlife and plant life.
Please note that the rules for National Forests differ, allowing dogs throughout the established boundaries. Of course State and Local Parks vary by region, again making it important to research your area before embarking on your adventure!
Having grown up just 25 minutes outside of Shenandoah National Park, of course I must mention that is one of the most dog-friendly National Parks in the United States. Dogs are permitted on 480 out of 500 trails (leashed of course) and allowed in campsites, with dog-friendly accommodations available.
This is where etiquette really comes into play, and tends to be one of the most common faux pas I encounter on my own hikes.
When hiking with your dog, it is critical to yield the right-of-way to all other hikers, cyclists, horses, etc. When you see oncoming hikers, get to a wider section of the trail, step to the side, and put your dog in a sitting position. If you have a small dog, pick him up if necessary. Keep your dog out of sniffing range of others. Not only is this for his and their safety, but it is common courtesy. You don't know if others have allergies or are afraid of dogs. Do not assume that because your dog is friendly, others will want him in their space.
This is especially important when encountering other dogs. I cannot tell you how many times I have moved to the side, put my dog in a sitting position, and waited for others to pass, only for them to allow their dog to come into our space with no regard for the efforts I am taking to keep my dog away from theirs. Worse yet, I have done the above, waited for the others to pass, and when they made no move to do so, I carefully advanced forward, only to then have them bring their dog right up to us.
It is in these moments that it is crucial to speak up. You are your dog's only advocate. You have to be blunt, and be firm. Do not hesitate to say, "I don't want your dog near mine," or "Please get your dog away from mine." Draw attention to the fact that their behavior is unacceptable. If you say nothing and just try to move on, they will continue to do that with other dogs and hikers they encounter. Eventually this could result in injury, to dogs or people.
4. Leave No Trace
The Golden Rule of all outdoor enthusiasts, the principle of leaving nothing behind during your visit applies to your pets as well. What this breaks down to is picking up after your dog. Nobody wants to encounter dog doo on their hike. Aside from aesthetic and respectful principles, dog waste contains diseases that can impact local wildlife, plants, and other dogs that come by. Pick it up and pack it out.
Use the below chart for additional examples of what to say or do when you encounter other dogs on the trail. Remember to use it for yourself and your own dog's manners as well!
Crowder's Mountain State Park sits roughly 30 miles to the west of Charlotte, North Carolina and offers a wide variety of hiking trails. With 11 trails ranging from easy to strenuous, visitors can enjoy summit peaks or lakeside strolls, Crowder's Mountain is one of the most popular hiking destinations for visitors from Charlotte.
With two main summits, Crowder's Mountain and the Pinnacle, hikers have the opportunity to witness sprawling views of the Piedmont region, including the Charlotte skyline 25 miles away.
I have visited Crowder's Mountain twice. The first time I went alone, on a Friday in November. It was a beautiful, sunny day, but the trails were quiet and I only encountered a handful of people at the summit.
The second time I went was yesterday, the first sunny day after a week of rain, and a Saturday, in February. I knew it would be crowded, but I was not prepared for the hoards of people I saw in the parking areas. Families, couples, individuals, dogs. Everyone was accounted for. This has become my experience more and more as the pandemic continues. These are the things that people are doing now, which is great! I highly encourage people to get outside, take their families or pets, and explore their communities. However, if you prefer quiet trails, check out this park on a weekday and save the lesser know parks for weekends.
During my first visit, I hiked the Pinnacle Trail to the Pinnacle summit. My second visit I wasn't looking to summit because 1. I had done it before, and 2. the aforementioned crowds. I hiked about a mile on Crowder's Trail to Rocktop Trail, where I hiked another quarter mile or so until a came to a rock scramble. I took some time to enjoy the views and get some water, then hiked back down. From there I drove to the overflow parking area and did two short loop trails, Lake Trail and Fern Trail, each about 1 mile long.
Let me know what your favorite trail at Crowders has been! And if you're from Charlotte, let me know your favorite hiking spots!
Need to Know:
I highly recommend visiting the park on a weekday. On nice weekend days, the park is extremely crowded, with cars filling up the overflow parking areas.
Use the Sparrow Springs access point to check out the Visitor Center, get information on trails, and pick up a sticker for your North Carolina State Parks Passport
Sparrow Springs access and visitor center
522 Park Office Lane
Kings Mountain, NC 28086
Linwood Road access4611 Linwood Road
Gastonia, NC 28086
If you're familiar with the Outer Banks, North Carolina, or anything aviation-history related, you are probably aware of Jockey's Ridge (read my post about this amazing North Carolina State Park here). However, despite having vacationed in the Outer Banks for decades, we had never visited, much less even heard of this slightly smaller, but equally amazing natural area composed of just over 120 acres of sand dunes. Established in 1995, Run Hill State Natural Area exists just a few miles up the road from Jockey's Ridge to the north, and just south of the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which can actually be seen from the dunes on a clear day.
With no visitor center, no designated parking lot, and no identifying information other than a somewhat obscured sign, Run Hill is certainly considered off the beaten path, which makes it so worth a visit. While we visited during the off season, you can bet that even during the busiest of summer months, you won't encounter many other people here.
After parking and setting foot on the trail, you will be immediately greeted by a steep slope. It's short, but lots of loose sand can make getting up this little hill quite difficult. Once at the top, you will be able to spot the Wright Brothers Memorial. With no officially marked trails, you are free to wonder the area as desired. Along the way, you will encounter open spaces of sand dunes, deciduous trees, patches of ground cover and even some freshwater ponds. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including many bird species, turtles, snakes, raccoons, foxes, and more. Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is adjacent to the area, and stretches all the way to Jockey's Ridge, providing a continuous tract of natural land for plant and animal species in the area.
With close to 2 million visitors a year at Jockey's Ridge, I guarantee you'll want to check out this spot that remains a secret amongst the locals.
How to Get There:
Located just behind First Flight Middle School, the area can be access by parking at the school and hiking towards the dunes.
However, the easiest way to get there is to turn onto Landing Street from S. Croatan Highway. If you're coming from the south, turn left, and turn right if coming from the north. Drive to the end of Landing Street and turn right onto 10th Ave. At the end of the road is a small shoulder where you can park, across from the sign.
Because there are no designated paths or trail markers, it could be easy to get disoriented while you are exploring. Make a note of certain landmarks, such as the Wright Brothers Memorial or the large electrical lines that cross the middle of the dunes. The Memorial is located to the north and the lines run north to south.
The Kitty Hawk Woods North Carolina Coastal Reserve, located in the town of Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks, comprises over 1,800 acres of wooded area surrounded by the waters of the Currituck Sound to the west and the Kitty Hawk Bay to the south.
As I mentioned in my last post about Jockey's Ridge, my family has been vacationing in the Outer Banks for decades. This is the first time we've visited the Coastal Reserve, and to be honest, we were (pleasantly) surprised at this find. Being from Virginia, we are well experienced with trails in the woods, and were shocked that there was such a large, heavily wooded area in the region.
With hiking, biking, and even horse back riding trails, the woods offers activities for many outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are easy and would be perfect for families with small children, however it would be difficult for those with mobility issues due to muddy or flooded patches and thick ground cover. It's also important to note that there are private properties scattered throughout the area, as well as designated bow and gun hunting regions.
I highly encourage a visit to the reserve. We decided to go on a cloudy, windy day and it turned out to be the perfect activity for the day as we were heavily shielded from the wind. I recommend downloading a copy of the reserve map to carry with you- while the trails are marked, there are some cross overs, as well as areas on paved road. Keep an eye out for the covered bridge- another happily received surprise that we never expected to find in the Banks.
My family has been traveling to the Outer Banks for decades. After so many years of visiting the same place, we have developed a list of favorites and must-dos for each trip. While that list may vary from year to year, one thing remains the same: visit Jockey's Ridge.
Jockey's Ridge State Park, located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina's eastern shores, is the tallest living sand dune on the United States East Coast and a popular spot for locals and visitors, families and adults. The perfect place to fly a kite or watch the sunset, the fun that comes with a visit to the dunes easily invokes a sense of childhood simplicity, reminding you of how easy it is to have fun, no equipment needed.
While some may see the park as a glorified sand box, and it can certainly feel that way, Jockey's Ridge has played a major part in the history of the Banks and forms a part of a complex living ecosystem. Believed to have formed between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, the dunes are constantly shifting as winds blow in different directions, resulting in an ever-changing silhouette.
Lined with sea grasses and small shrubs, the sand does support some plant life. You'll find thicker pockets of live oaks, wax myrtles, and red cedars near the parking area. Small mammals can also be found within the park boundaries, including rabbits, foxes, raccoons, oppossums, and dozens of bird species. Check out the Visitor Center museum to learn more about the history and ecology of the area. Visitors can also participate in hang-gliding lessons on the dunes.
Need to know:
Entry fee: None
300 W. Carolista Drive
Nags Head, NC 27959
Visitors with mobility restrictions can call 24 hours in advanced to reserve a ride to the top of the dunes-- 1-877-722-6762
I've never not finished a hike before. Even the hardest, most uphill hikes. And I mean hardest; like the 17,000 foot Rainbow Mountain hike in Peru with limited oxygen and the requirement to bring an emergency horse cash fund in case you need to borrow a horse to get to the top. I didn't need a horse- I made it on my own two feet.
That's why this felt especially insulting to me. A moderately-rated trail 4.3 mile trail with 1,200 feet in elevation gain and plenty of oxygen and I couldn't make it to the gem at the end- a 100 foot waterfall and the biggest attraction in the park.
But, I had to remind myself during the 1.5 mile uphill trek at the end of the trail, that I had Covid-19 less than 3 months ago. While I didn't have a severe case and recovered pretty completely, it was a setback in my health that I have to acknowledge. While it did affect my breathing capacity, it also took me out of my usual physical activities for some time, meaning I can't necessarily do the things I had been able to do just a few months ago.
It was frustrating and embarrassing, as I was hiking with a friend.
I kept pushing myself beyond my limit and I should have stopped sooner than I did. After wrestling with my mind and making the hard call to turn back, I had to convince myself that it was okay. It was. I can always come back and finish it later, and I will.
One thing 2020 taught me was that it is vital to be kind to ourselves and to our bodies.
Make a bucket list, set goals, establish priorities, but don't allow yourself to become so caught up with crossing things off that list that you hurt yourself in the process.
Jones Gap State Park, located just a little over two hours from Charlotte, has been my favorite South Carolina State Park visit so far. Overflowing with rhododendron bushes lining the trails and a gushing river snaking through the woods, Jones Gap is stunningly beautiful and it is easy to see that natural beauty no matter what season it is.
Located close to Caesar's Head State Park, the two parks share some common ground, forming the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. The trails allow hikers to travel between the two parks, as well as connecting to the Foothills and Palmetto trails. The Middle Saluda River is the state's first designated scenic river, and it's not hard to see why. You can even reserve a riverside campsite, taking in the calming water sounds all night long.
After seeing the article on Only In Your State, we decided to hike to the hidden waterfall, Rainbow Falls, a moderately rated trail 2.5 miles one way. Littered with bridges and rocky water crossings, this trail will keep you on your toes. The last 1.6 miles is uphill, with steps and rocks to climb up. The average hiker will take 4-6 hours to complete.
Need to Know:
Admission: $6 adults; $3.75 SC seniors (age 65 & older); $3.50 children ages 6-15; ages 5 and under, free.
Hours: M-Su 9 a.m. - 9 p.m., daily, during daylight savings time and 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., daily, the remainder of the year. Trails close one hour before dark, year round.
2 Scenic Waterfalls
60+ miles of hiking trails
Andrew Jackson State Park is the very first of the SC State Parks I visited this year, for the sole reason that it is the closest. In fact, it's only about a 25 minute drive from my house, making it the closest of any park, North or South Carolina.
Relatively small, with only two one-mile loop trails, this park is perfect for beginner hikers, families, and those who are just looking for a casual nature walk.
The Crawford Trail takes you through a mixed forest of pine, cedar, and oak trees. You are likely to see birds, deer, and other wildlife on this trail. The Garden of the Waxhaws trail follows the edge of the fishing lake, taking you through both open and wooded areas.
AJ State Park is the site of the homeplace of President Andrew Jackson and includes an 18th-century replica schoolhouse, as well as picnic areas, campgrounds, and fishing amenities.
Need to Know:
Admission: $3 adults; $1.50 SC seniors; $1 children age 6-15; age 5 & younger free
Park Hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m., daily from Nov.1-March 31; 9 a.m.-9 p.m., daily April 1-Oct. 31
The year 2020 gave me a lot of time to change up my hobbies. I've always been an outdoor-lover and hiking enthusiast but after moving to Charlotte, it took me several years to really feel comfortable seeking out and participating in hikes alone.
I'm thankful for the push I felt during 2020 to hike more and explore more of the Carolinas. And, as someone who really likes to cross things off as a count down to a goal, I was pretty stoked to find that both North and South Carolina State Parks offer a program for visiting all of the parks.
While I live in NC, I have found that many of the SC parks are actually within a closer driving distance to me, and therefore set out on a journey to visit all of them. The SC program revolves around the Official Guide. Bring this guide with you to all of the 47 state parks, and get it stamped at each location. Each park features a unique stamp design that you can add to your guide. Once you have visited every park and have gotten each page stamped, you can get a Park Ranger to sign your book and you'll receive a commemorative t-shirt, thus officially titling yourself an Ultimate Outsider!
Visit the SC State Parks page for more information. You can print your own copy of the guide, or pick up a free copy in the visitor's center at any of the parks.
Below are all 47 of the South Carolina State Parks. I will update the list as I visit with * - be sure to check back for posts on my experience of each one!
Aiken State Park
* Andrew Jackson State Park
Baker Creek State Park
Barnwell State Park
Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site
Battle of Rivers Bridge State Historic Site
Caesars Head State Park
Calhoun Falls State Park
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site
Cheraw State Park
Chester State Park
Colleton State Park
Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site
Croft State Park
Devils Fork State Park
Dreher Island State Park
Edisto Beach State Park
Givhans Ferry State Park
*Goodale State Park
H. Cooper Blac Memorial Field Trial and Recreation Area
Hamilton Branch State Park
Hampton Plantation State Historic Site
Hickory Knob State Park Resort
Hunting Island State Park
Huntington Beach State Park
Jones Gap State Park
* Keowee-Toxaway State Park
* Kings Mountain State Park
Lake Greenwood State Park
Lake Hartwell State Park
Lake Warren State Park
* Lake Wateree State Park
* Landsford Canal State Park
Lee State Park
Little Pee Dee State Park
Myrtle Beach State Park
Oconee State Park
Oconee Station State Historic Site
Paris Mountain State Park
Poinsett State Park
Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site
Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site
Sadlers Creek State Park
Santee State Park
* Sesquicentennial State Park
Table Rock State Park
Woods Bay State Park
I like hidden gems, hole-in-the-walls, and offbeat destinations