Best Day, Weekend, and Long-Distance Hikes of the Southeast
When many people think of mountains, it’s easy for the mind to immediately turn to the splendor of the Rockies, the majesty of the High Sierra, or the rugged peaks of New England. However, the Southeast United States boasts some of the best hiking in the country, in my opinion. The southern Appalachians are home to soaring 6,000+ foot peaks. A lush, rainforest-like environment lends itself to incredible waterfalls and rivers. And let’s not forget the weather. Hiking is a year-round activity here. The latitude means winters are mild, with very little snow, and the altitude promises cool nights, even in the summer. Read on to discover what I consider to be some of the best hikes in the Southeast.
The Best Hikes in the Southeast
Best Short Day Hikes
Max Patch, North Carolina
Distance: 2.4 miles
Deep within Pisgah National Forest, you’ll find one of the most breathtaking picnic or camping spots anywhere in the world. Max Patch is a classic, Southeast grassy bald with views in all directions. While you can reach this spot via a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, the easiest way to see Max Patch is via a 2.4-mile loop trail that begins from the Max Patch trailhead. A shorter, but steeper, 1.4-mile trail will also take you straight to the summit. If you want to make this into an overnight (or even a two night) backpacking trip, start from the trailhead and hike the Appalachian Trail northbound for ~20 miles to the charming town of Hot Springs, NC.
Blood Mountain, Georgia
Distance: 4.6 miles
Blood Mountain is famous for being the highest peak along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, and perhaps more famous for being the first big climb that northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers face. The most popular way to ascend Blood Mountain is by taking the Byron Reece Trail to the Appalachian Trail and hiking southbound on the AT to the summit. This 4.6-mile out-and-back hike provides stunning views as you begin to crest Blood Mountain and culminates at the peak, where you’ll find a stone trail shelter. Other options for summiting include a 5.6-mile loop beginning and ending at Lake Winfield Scott, or a six-mile loop combining the Freeman Trail with the Appalachian Trail, beginning and ending at Byron Reece Trailhead.
Providence Canyon, Georgia
Distance: 2.5 miles
Providence Canyon, affectionately referred to as “Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon,” is a hidden gem in southern Georgia, right on the state line between Georgia and Alabama. This hike is a visual representation of what happens when unsustainable farming practices are used, but it is incredibly beautiful at the same time. The canyons are reminiscent of the massive western canyons and are unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else in the Southeast. The 2.5-mile canyon loop trail gives you a nice taste of the canyons and formations. However, for those wanting a longer hike, the park does have a seven-mile backpacking loop that offers more options for hiking and camping as well as access to the canyon floor.
Yonah Mountain, GA (4.4 miles; Difficulty: Strenuous)
Linville Gorge, NC (1.6 miles; Difficulty: Easy)
Best Long Day Hikes
Mount Mitchell, North Carolina
Distance: 12.4 miles
Difficulty: Very Strenuous
Mount Mitchell, towering at 6,684 feet above sea level, is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Part of the Black Mountain Range, Mount Mitchell is located in Mount Mitchell State Park, near Asheville, NC. Starting at the Deep Gap trailhead and ascending via the Black Mountain Crest Trail provides some of the most strenuous and scenic hiking south of the White Mountains. As a point-to-point hike, the mileage comes in at just over 12 miles. This route takes hikers over six peaks above 6,000 feet, including Mount Craig, the second-highest peak in the East. If you’d like to summit Mt. Mitchel via an easier route or only have one vehicle to work with, starting at Black Mountain Campground is an alternate route of about 10 miles out-and-back. Turn either of these hikes into an overnight backpacking trip to cut down on daily mileage.
Rabun Bald, Georgia
Distance: 8.2 miles
Rabun Bald is the second-highest peak in Georgia, standing at 4,696 feet above sea level. An observation deck at the top provides incredible 360-degree views. For a short hike, hikers can choose to start at Beegum Gap. However, I think the best way to summit Rabun Bald is via the Bartram Trail from the Hale Ridge Road trailhead near Clayton, GA. This hike provides a gradual ascent of around 1,800 feet of elevation gain over 4.1 miles one way through a lush forest and past a small waterfall and a few creeks. Hikers wanting a longer hike can plan to start at any other trailhead on the ~114 mile Bartram Trail to see more of what this southeastern long-distance trail has to offer.
Mount Cammerer, Tennessee
Distance: 11.1 miles
The tower at the summit of Mount Cammerer takes the cake for coolest lookout tower I’ve ever seen. The 360-degree views of the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains are just an added bonus. Mount Cammerer is one of 24 lookout towers that make up the Carolina Mountain Club’s Lookout Tower Challenge. This hike ascends Mount Cammerer via the Low Gap Trail and the Appalachian Trail within the park boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While not exactly short, this out-and-back hike is the most popular and shortest route to the top. There are loads of incredible hikes within GSMNP, but this is my favorite of the ones I’ve done. Cosby, TN, is the closest town, but any trip to this area wouldn’t be complete without a stop in nearby Gatlinburg.
Panther Creek Falls, GA (6.9 miles; Difficulty: Moderate)
Table Mountain, SC (7.2 miles; Difficulty: Moderate)
Best Short Backpacking Trips
Roan Highlands, Tennessee
Distance: 16 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
No list of the best hikes in the southeast is complete without the Roan Highlands. This area of Tennessee provides an ethereal hiking experience that can’t be matched anywhere else in the Southeast. Spring wildflowers cover the grassy balds in color. Winter snows cap the peaks and dust the conifer forest, turning everything into a winter wonderland. Beginning at the Toll House Gap trailhead, this one-way hike on the Appalachian Trail takes you over the summit of Roan High Knob and across the grassy balds of the Roan Highlands. Camp at Overmountain Shelter and continue on to the small town of Roan Mountain, TN, the following day.
Cumberland Island, Georgia
Distance: ~20 miles
Cumberland Island National Seashore has it all (except mountains). Explore the ruins of the Dungeness Mansion, watch wild ponies graze on the salty dune grasses, and walk along beautiful shorelines and under Spanish moss-covered canopy. The island offers three backcountry campsites, as well as a front-country site with a few more amenities known as “Sea Camp.” There are miles of trails and several loop options on the island, making easy planning for shorter or longer treks.
Panthertown Valley, North Carolina
Distance: Five to 25 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, depending on route
Panthertown Valley has been called “The Yosemite of the East” for its diverse and wild atmosphere. Sheer granite cliffs, mesmerizing waterfalls, and white sand beaches along the shores of sparkling, cold-water streams and rivers make this a unique place to visit. The area boasts ~30 miles of official USFS designated trails. Additionally, hundreds of miles of unofficial (unmarked) user-created trails exist within its boundaries. Find a trail map here.
Cohutta Wilderness, GA (mileage varies; Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, depending on route)
Art Loeb Trail, NC (30.1 miles; Difficulty: Moderate, with strenuous sections)
Best Long Treks and Thru-Hikes
The Appalachian Trail, GA, NC, TN
Distance: 466.4 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, depending on section
More then 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail traverse through Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Countless hiking and backpacking opportunities exist along its corridor. Take a short day hike to Cowrock Mountain in Georgia or Siler Bald in North Carolina. Head out on an overnight or weekend backpacking trip from Springer Mountain or Wayah Bald. Or, you could take off for two months and hike all the way from Georgia to Virginia (highly recommend).
The Foothills Trail, South Carolina
Distance: 77 miles
Difficulty: Moderate, with strenuous sections
South Carolina has its own long-distance hiking trail. In its 77 miles, the Foothills Trail crosses Sassafras Mountain, the tallest mountain in South Carolina, travels through lush forest and past several creeks, rivers, and waterfalls, and winds through two state parks. This beautiful and lesser-known long trail is a great fall or winter thru-hike option. Additionally, the Foothills Trail Conference maintains a list of volunteer shuttle drivers that can help you get from point to point, so shorter sections are also easy to plan and implement.
Pinhoti Trail, AL and GA (377.1 miles; Difficulty: Moderate, with strenuous sections)
Florida Trail, FL (1,300 miles; Difficulty: Moderate)
Mountains to Sea Trail, NC (1,175 miles; Difficulty: Moderate, with strenuous sections)
Benton McKaye Trail, GA (~300 miles; Difficulty: Moderate, with strenuous sections)
There are so many incredible and diverse hiking trails in the southeast that it was really hard to narrow it down to the scope of this article. Did I leave off one of your favorites? Please share your favorite Southeast hikes in the comments below.
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