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The Danger: Wind
Appalachian Trail, Grayson Highlands State Park, VA
The hike Swaths of fiery rhododendron. Far-reaching panoramas over a sea of gentle green mountains. Wild ponies grazing outside your tent. These soothing sights meld to make Grayson Highlands a sensory delight, and this two-mile section of the Appalachian Trail visits them all. Tack on the Horse Trail East, Wilson Creek, Appalachian Spur, and Cabin Creek Trails, and you can create a 10-mile loop that starts and ends at the Overnight Backpacker’s Lot, on Grayson Highlands Lane, a true life-list weekend.
Start off on the Horse Trail East, which skims across scrub-covered hillsides and offers open views of the surrounding hills. Enter the hardwoods and magnolias along the Wilson Creek Trail, following the pristine trout stream and passing within sight of a 25-foot waterfall. Camp at Wilson Creek Shelter, then head south on the AT to enjoy a high-altitude tour de force across Grayson’s lofty balds before following the Spur to Cabin Creek Trail and its rhododendron-rimmed cascades back to the trailhead.
The risk Highlands hikers sometimes feel more like the sail than the sailor: Forty mile-per-hour winds are common on these treeless, 5,000-foot-high balds, where snow flies from September through May and rangers close the trails when low temps (15°F and below) and high winds (35 mph and above)create a winter-like cocktail. Year-round windchill poses hypothermia hazards, and its force can lift petite trekkers off their feet.
Such punishment caught Virginia hiker Jeff Roberts off guard. He checked the weather forecast prior to backpacking through Grayson Highlands last July, but dismissed the predicted thunderstorms. “In the south, storms happen every day and they’re usually not as big a deal as they can be out West,” he explains. But camped above treeline at 5,400 feet, Roberts discovered a new appreciation. With wind hammering his tent and lightning creating disco-strobe effects, Roberts feared for his life. “I thought about relocating to a more sheltered spot like Thomas Knob Shelter, but it was a half-mile away, and the storm was on top of me,” he recalls. Rivers of water flowed beneath his tent floor, and lightning struck feet from his door. Then the storm passed as soon as it arrived. In other spots, says Roberts, weather might just keep you awake at night—but at Grayson, it can be downright life-threatening.
The Danger: Heat
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon NP, AZ
Combine a 4,380-foot climb with routine summertime highs topping 110°F, and you get a recipe for heatstroke. Most of the Grand Canyon’s 200 annual heat-related rescues occur on this popular river-to-rim stairway. Avoid hiking midday, and pack water and plenty of salty snacks.
The Danger: Whiteout
Mt. Washington, White Mountain NF, NH
A dozen trails lace this 6,289-foot summit (our favorite is the gradual, ridge-hugging Jewell Trail route from the west), and all expose hikers to its legendarily erratic weather (and 100-plus-mph winds). Pack plenty of warm layers to ward off hypothermia (a year-round threat); in whiteouts above treeline, spot the next cairn before continuing.
The Danger: Storm Surge
Lost Coast Trail, King Range National Conservation Area, CA
This 53-mile oceanside trail leads hikers miles from the nearest road and outpost, then squeezes them between rugged cliffs and coast—often pounded by storms. Some years see 200 inches of rain, making this one of the wettest spots in the U.S.
The Danger: Lightning
Continental Divide Trail, Weminuche Wilderness, CO
The CDT rarely dips below 12,000 feet on its 90-mile Weminuche traverse, where blown-open views of sky-scraping summits extend in all directions—and lightning, when it strikes, zaps at eye level.
The Danger: Twisters
Caprock Canyons State Park Trailway, TX
This 64-mile rail trail winds among remote, eroded badlands and golden prairies visited only by bison, but storms here pack a ferocious punch after gathering strength over the West Texas plains.