Obstacle: Humid summers
Solution: The Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) section between Craggy Gardens Visitor Center and Black Mountain Campground in North Carolina stays above 5,000 feet for 19 of its 23 miles. In other words, you stay high and cool. The trail tops out at 6,359 feet on Blackstock Knob, and peakbaggers can drool over three other 6,000-footers a short bushwhack away.
This section of the MST requires strong legs and some planning because you can’t camp within the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor hereabouts. Look north of the MST in Pisgah National Forest, where you’ll find good campsites near Balsam Gap along the Big Butt Trail. Water is scarce, however. Since you’ll need to shuttle cars, consider stashing water at Balsam Gap.
From the 700-million-year-old rock at Potato Knob, savor one of the trail’s newest sections, complete with intricate rock steps lacing through the fragrant fir forest. A bonus is the incomparable vistas of this steep, rugged country.
Directions: Craggy Gardens Visitor Center is on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 20 miles northeast of Asheville, North Carolina.
Maps: Trail Profiles: The Mountains To Sea Trail (Alexander Books, 65 Macedonia Rd., Alexander, NC 28701; 800-472-0438; $16.95).
Contact: Carolina Mountain Club, P.O. Box 68, Asheville, NC 28802; www.carolinamtnclub.com.
Imagine lakes and rivers almost everywhere you look; rich, vast forests where wolves roam; and green, hardwood-covered hills that can bewitch even dyed-in-the-wool mountain lovers. Sounds great, eh? Now imagine extremes of heat and cold that no sane person would dare hike in, and you have a fix on the Upper Midwest state of affairs. Fortunately, we have a fix for the weather.
Obstacle: Snowy winters
Solution: In the Upper Midwest, when the icy wind starts to whip and the snow flies, you either hibernate and dream of an early spring or break out your snowshoes and cross-country skis. But what if you’re not ready to hang up your trail boots? Head south from Chicago across corn country to Illinois’s more temperate Shawnee National Forest. When the road starts to resemble a roller coaster and you can open your windows without catching a chill, you’ll know you’re getting close.
Shawnee National Forest boasts 270,000 acres of rough-and-tumble territory that the glaciers never touched. For a great weekend stomp, head out on the 17-mile Kinkaid Lake Trail, and prepare to be wowed by wild rock formations and the oak-and-hickory-filled uplands. The trail begins on a 90-foot-long footbridge that crosses Johnson Creek, then skirts the wild western shores of the picturesque 2,800-acre Lake Kinkaid. The rest of the route is nothing to be trifled with. Ridge to creek-bottom to ridge runs will test even high altitude hikers’ stamina.
Directions: The Kinkaid Lake trailhead is in the Johnson Creek Recreation Area just off IL 151, 16 miles northwest of Murphysboro.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Oraville and Raddle.
Contact: Murphysboro Ranger District, Shawnee National Forest, 2221 W. Walnut, Murphysboro, IL 62966; (618) 687-1731.
Obstacle: Hot summers
Solution: During the steamy dog days of July and August, head for Nicolet National Forest, where temperatures are often 10 degrees cooler than downtown Chicago or Minneapolis. Best of all, it’s smack in the middle of Wisconsin’s lake country, where cool waters and generous evening breezes make midsummer tenting enjoyable.
A good place to whup summer’s swelter is Hidden Lakes Trail, a circular 13-miler blessed with 10 lakes. At day’s end, dive in, wash off dust and dirt, then listen for loons. In August, watch for fledgling bald eagles and ospreys testing their wings. Don’t miss the stand of stately 200-year-old white pines at the Franklin Lakes Nature Trail near the trailhead or the handsome old-growth hemlock near Four Ducks Lake. If you’re looking to put together a two- to three-day outing and are willing to log some tough miles, be sure to check out the Luna and White Deer Lake loops. Later, wander the connecting Nicolet North and Anvil Trails, where you’ll work up a sweat on the rolling terrain and more than earn your evening plunge.
Directions: Hidden Lakes trailhead is in the northern Nicolet in northeastern Wisconsin, off WI 70 and Forest Road 2181. Look for the Franklin Lake campground, just 11 miles east of Eagle River.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Alvin NW and Anvil Lake.
Contact: Eagle River Ranger Station, Nicolet National Forest, P.O. Box 1809, 4364 Wall St., Eagle River, WI 54521; (715) 479-2827.