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Swap out: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Swap in: Pisgah National Forest, NC
Gray wolves, grizzly bears, bald eagles. To the ranks of great comebacks in the annals of natural history, add the names of two wildernesses in the southern Appalachians. By World War II, the areas that would become the Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wildernesses appeared to be down for the count, the land denuded, burned, and eroded. Hike its verdant coves and mile-high balds today, and you’d never guess this picturesque landscape was such a wasteland just six decades ago.
The Middle Prong–Shining Rock complex is just one highlight in Pisgah, which sprawls across half a million acres in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. From the deep cleft of Linville Gorge up north to Looking Glass Rock’s granite dome in the south, Pisgah offers scenic diversity unrivaled in the southern Appalachians. Except, that is, for the neighboring national park, visible on a clear day from 6,410-foot Balsam Knob in the Middle Prong Wilderness.
Pitting Pisgah against Great Smoky is like comparing Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. Pisgah has 850 miles of footpaths, including 138 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Great Smoky has 800, with 69 AT miles. Pisgah tops out at 6,440-foot Potato Hill; Great Smoky at 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome. Pisgah boasts the national-caliber Art Loeb and Mountains-to-Sea Trails. Great Smoky counters with a diversity of plant life unequaled in North America. In terms of crowds and bureaucratic hassle, though, there’s no contest: Great Smoky, with 10 million annual visitors and a restrictive permit system, loses by a landslide.
North of Hot Springs, NC, the AT doubles back on itself, traveling south and east to arc around one of the state’s largest remaining roadless areas and a seldom-visited gem, the Shelton Laurel Backcountry Area. This forest is deep and well-watered, the ridges steep and loaded with bear dens. Waterfalls abound and hemlock and tulip poplars attain outsized proportions in hidden hollows. Piece together a 15-mile backpack loop, half of it rolling along the 4,000-foot crest of the aptly named Bald Mountains, by using the AT to link the Jerry Miller and Green Ridge Trails. At Bearwallow Gap, detour less than a mile south on the newly rerouted AT along a knife-edge ridge to Blackstack Cliffs, where you can admire eastern Tennessee’s blue, mauve, and purple ridges.
The Appalachian Ranger District (828-622-3202) has free trail guides. Also get the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s map set 133, Tennessee–North Carolina ($12; atctrailstore.org).
Wilderness does not always equate solitude; witness the deservedly popular Shining Rock Wilderness. Hikers flock to the Rock for extended above-treeline hang time on the Art Loeb Trail, which tags five 6,000-footers between Black Balsam Knob and Cold Mountain. The 360-degree views from grassy summits are too good to be missed, which is precisely why we include the best 3 miles of the Art Loeb on our 20-mile circuit. But when everyone else heads for the camp-o-ree at Shining Rock Gap, you’ll indulge in total privacy by veering off into the wildest sections of the two wildernesses. This route uses the Mountains-to-Sea, Art Loeb, and Investor Gap Trails to close the V created by the Fork Mountain and Fork Ridge Trails. You’ll stay above 5,000 feet much of the route. After slicing through stands of red spruce and yellow birch and pockets of stunted beech, you’ll scoot, blinking, into bright sunlight on grassy knolls. Start either at Black Balsam Knob trailhead (highest in the East) or at Sunburst Campground, depending on whether you like your monster climbs coming or going. Pack spare water bottles so you can dry-camp near Green Knob, in the Middle Prong, or Birdstand Mountain in Shining Rock.
Use Trails Illustrated 780, Pisgah National Forest ($10), and/or USGS quads Sam Knob and Shining Rock.