By Melanie “Peanut” Harsha
Looking for a trail to backpack over a long weekend or two? Well, you’re in luck. The southeastern United States offers some of the most beautiful, gnarly, and scenic trails in the world. Whether you’re training for a thru hike, a beginner backpacker, or just looking to get away for a few days, these trails offer something for everyone.
The following trails are all considered moderate to strenuous and therefore require careful planning. I advise any backpacker to research heavily before embarking on any of these trails and to be prepared for various types of weather any time of year. The weather in the Appalachians can change quickly and drastically with no warning.
Make sure to be prepared with the proper gear and maps. I suggest you stop by your local outfitter to ensure you are properly outfitted for your adventure. HERE is a link to my personal gear set up. Keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you. My favorite maps come from FarOut Guides and I usually use Pocket Profile or National Geographic for handheld maps. FarOut Guides also offer great resources such as shuttle driver information, local accommodations, resupply options, water source updates, etc. If you are newer to backpacking, I suggest starting out with a shorter trail to test out different types of gear.
Over the past few years, trails have seen an increase in use and it’s vital that we recreate responsibly in these spaces. I encourage you to educate yourself to Leave No Trace and check out Responsible Stewardship ETHICS.
Carver’s Gap to 19E (Appalachian Trail Section)
Length: 14.8 Miles
Type: Point to Point
Carver’s Gap, NC to US Route 19 East (36.177357, -82.011642)
Whenever someone asks me which section I’d suggest for a shorter, one-night backpacking trip to get them started on the Appalachian Trail (AT), I recommend the Roan Highlands. This is a section of the AT where you can begin at Carver’s Gap, North Carolina (mile 380.5 northbound on the Appalachian Trail) and end at US Route 19 East (mile 395.3 northbound on the Appalachian Trail). Carver’s Gap has a large parking lot, which makes it an ideal starting point.
If beginning your hike at Carver’s Gap, take the Appalachian Trail northbound and you’ll immediately start climbing. The next three miles will take you over several open areas with 360° views, including Jane Bald and Round Bald. These are some of the most beautiful views along the Appalachian Trail.
Continuing north on the AT, the trail will start a descent about 2.5 miles into your hike. There are several established campsites along this section, including two shelters: Stan Murray Shelter (Mile 3.7) and Overmountain Shelter (Mile 5.6). Overmountain Shelter is famous for its picturesque scenery and a now-closed barn once used as a shelter for hikers. Though the shelter is closed now due to structural concerns, there is room for several tents in a large open area outside of the shelter.
After Overmountain Shelter, you will climb up and over Hump Mountain before a steep descent to 19 East near Roan Mountain, TN. This small town has several options for accommodations, a place to resupply, and a couple restaurants. The town is also famous for its rhododendron festival each June and is known to be very hiker friendly.
Though it is feasible depending on weather and comfort level to hike this section year round, it is most popular in May and June due to the rhododendron blooming. This area will also start to see the bubble of thru hikers coming through March-June.
This section does not summit Roan Mountain, but if you would like to tag this peak, start at Carvers Gap and go southbound on the AT for 1.5 miles to Roan High Knob Shelter for a three-mile out-back-back. This is the highest shelter on the Appalachian Trail at 6,270 feet and is near the summit of Roan Mountain.
Length: 30.1 Miles
Type: Point to Point
Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp (Northern Terminus) to Davidson River Campground (Southern Terminus)
The Art Loeb Trail is located in Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina near Brevard. This trail is a great option for someone looking to do a multi-night backpacking trip in the famous, breathtaking Shining Rock Wilderness.
My suggestion is to leave your car at Davidson River Campground and get shuttled to Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp where you can hike back to your car. The northern terminus has very limited parking. Logistically, this is easiest in my opinion, and your hike will end near one of my favorite places: Brevard, NC.
The Art Loeb has several campsites, making this an ideal hike if you need to be flexible with daily mileage. The Shining Rock Wilderness area does require campers to have a bear canister and fires are not permitted. There are campsites before and after the wilderness, including two shelters, one at Butter Gap and the other at Deep Gap.
Length: 57 Miles
Benton MacKaye Trail Section, Appalachian Trail Section, Duncan Ridge Trail Section
The Georgia Loop is the best route on this list from a logistical standpoint as it is a loop hike. There are several options for places to leave your car as the trail crosses several roads and trailheads. This loop connects portions of the Benton MacKaye, Appalachian, and Duncan Ridge Trails.
If you’re looking for a tough hike and wanting to see some of the most remote, stunning parts of Georgia, this is a hike for you. Because this hike is on three separate trails, each having their own trail markers, it is vital to bring maps and stay aware of your location at all times.
There are established campsites along this entire route, including a couple of shelters on the Appalachian Trail section. This route has everything from waterfalls, gnarly terrain, and spectacular views of North Georgia.
Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap (Appalachian Trail Section)
Length: 74.6 Miles
Type: Point to Point
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is considered to be one of the most difficult sections of the Appalachian Trail. This is the hike I suggest for people who are up for a challenge and wanting a taste of an AT thru hike. This section is also known to ultrarunners as S.C.A.R. (Smokies Challenge Adventure Run).
Because this route is through a National Park, you will have to register for permits. This section of trail is heavily monitored by Park Rangers and is one of the most visited National Parks in the country. There are several large shelters on this trail and GSMNP requires reservations for each night you camp in the park. It is also likely you will encounter wildlife including bears and wild boar. Clingmans Dome is on this route, which is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.
About halfway through this trek is Gatlinburg, TN, which has several accommodations, resupply options, and a local outfitter. Newfound Gap has a large parking area next to Route 441, which takes you into Gatlinburg. This is an easy hitchhike or shuttle into town should you need to stop.
HERE is a link to GSMNP’s website.
Length: 77 Miles
Type: Point to Point
Oconee State Park (Southwestern Terminus) to Table Rock State Park (Northeastern Terminus)
The Foothills Trail is a true thru hike experience and travels through Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina. Table Rock State Park, South Carolina is the terminus where we began our thru hike and we ended at Oconee State Park, SC, where we left our car. This hike can be completed in sections as it crosses many roads and trailheads or as a thru hike in either direction.
This trail takes a thru hiker 5-10 days to complete depending on mileage. We hiked during winter and completed this trek in five days, seeing only two other backpackers. This trail has ladders, rock scrambles, and a couple hundred stairs on Heartbreak Ridge. The Foothills Trails also crosses over several rivers and through a couple of State Parks, which provide nice camping.
HERE is a link to the Foothills Trail Conservancy for more information.
Melanie “Peanut” Harsha (she/her/hers) is a thru hiker, marketing representative for HOKA, and trail runner based in Nashville, TN. She graduated from Appalachian State University with her Masters in Appalachian Studies and a piece of her heart will always lie in the mountains of Appalachia. Peanut thru hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 where her dog, Boo Radley, accompanied her for the first half of her journey. In 2018, Melanie thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with her partner, James. Peanut has also completed several shorter trails, including the five listed above and sections of the Pinhoti Trail and Florida Trail. Melanie plans to complete her triple crown by thru hiking the Continental Divide Trail in the very near future. You can follow her on social media HERE and read more from her on THETREK.CO