Some of the best hiking trails are not the famous ones, but the paths right next door. They are the trails that retain the beauty of the more popular routes, but are forgotten by the public eye. Those are the keepers. Last month, we covered the best hiking trails in the northeastern U.S. Here we explore some of our favorite overlooked gems down South.
Hiking in Virginia: Harkening Hill Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Distance: 3.3 miles round-trip Harkening Hill is the often-forgotten youngest sibling of the popular Peaks of Otter. Because it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of the neighboring Sharp Top and Flat Top, it tends to get far less foot traffic while still offering the great views and fascinating geological formations that are well known on the peaks. Be sure to take the spur trail 700 feet past the summit to the precarious, aptly named Balance Rock! Expect a bit of scrambling and lots of wildlife. Then, when you reach the end, you can take the Johnson Farm Trail loop up to the Johnson Farm for a healthy dose of history. Learn more about hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway >
Hiking in North Carolina: Blueberry Ridge Trail in Nags Head Woods Preserve
Distance: 3.75 miles round-trip When most people think Outer Banks, they think beaches. These barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina are a major tourist destination for just that. But, if you venture away from the crowds, you’ll discover a collection of beautiful, largely overlooked hikes in the Nags Head Woods Preserve. The preserve lies on top of sand dunes that were long ago covered by soil, allowing hardwood trees to take root. Trails through this area are foot traffic only, creating a quiet getaway with a great diversity of wildlife. To get the full experience, you’ll have to journey for a bit. Take the Center Trail to the Sweetgum Swamp Trail. Sweetgum is the most popular trail in the preserve, but about halfway around the loop another trail branches to the left. This is the Blueberry Ridge Trail, and although it’s more strenuous than the others, it is much quieter and takes you past a collection of tranquil ponds. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see the wood’s aquatic inhabitants and diverse plant life. Learn more about Nags Head Woods >
Hiking in Georgia: East Palisades Trail in Atlanta
Distance: 3.4 miles round-trip Atlanta locals might be familiar with the popular paved West Palisades Trail, just 20 minutes from downtown. However, on the other side of the Chattahoochee is a beautiful hike with striking rock formations, a bamboo forest, and views of the river. The blue-blazed East Palisades is a good deal quieter than the West, and you can immerse yourself in nature more than many other wooded hikes around the city. Dogs are welcome on a leash. Learn more about the East Palisades Trail >
Hiking in Florida: Ferndale Preserve on Lake Apopka
Distance: 1.6 miles round-trip The 192-acre Ferndale Preserve is an area often overlooked by hikers, given that it was once an orange grove and is under restoration. On the other hand, because the area is still somewhat untamed, there’s a lot to explore. Here, you’ll see lots of wildlife and few people as you travel over soft sand and hills. You’ll also get a fantastic panoramic view over Lake Apopka, the largest lake in central Florida. The trail is only open Wednesday through Sunday. Keep in mind that it is one of the more difficult trips in the area, given its unusual elevation gain of over 100 feet in half a mile. Trust us, the views make it worth it. Learn more about Ferndale Preserve >
No adventure is complete without the gear to get you there.
Feature/East Palisades Trail image: Flickr/TranceMist, "East Palisades" used under CC BY / Resized Peaks of Otter image: Flickr/Richard Martin, "Sharp Top Mountainside" used under CC BY / Resized Nags Head Woods image: Flickr/bobistraveling, "Nature Conservancy-Nags Head NC0300" used under CC BY / Resized