Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Head to the northern tip of this heavily visited park for diverse, remote, crowd-free terrain. From Big Creek Campground, Chestnut Branch Trail and the AT tour high ridges with rhododendron canopies that open into groves of towering old-growth hemlock and hardwoods. When summer thunder makes you feel like a pin in a bowling alley, scoot down overgrown, seldom-traveled Balsam Mountain Trail to Laurel Gap’s cozy stone shelter and soothing meadow.
Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200; www.nps.gov/grsm.
Pisgah National Forest
Can this be Carolina? At 5,000 feet, a chill wind whips through the Blue Ridge gap, rattling the red spruce and frosting the scraggly high-mountain blueberries on the Art Loeb Trail’s rugged northern end. But 2 dozen hard-earned miles later, flowering dogwoods, magnolias, and azaleas perfume the lazy lowland breeze, which is warm and decidedly Dixie.
Contact: Pisgah Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, (828) 877-3265; www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc.
Linville Gorge Wilderness
Dense rhododendrons, unmarked trails, and a knee-pounding 2,000-foot descent to its namesake river are par for the course in Linville Gorge. The reward? The wildest beauty in the Southeast. Follow the Shortoff Mountain Trail along the eastern rim of the gorge, scramble up to Table Rock, then descend to the Linville Gorge Trail for solitude and basking on river boulders.
Contact: Pisgah National Forest, (828) 877-3265; www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc.