Best bets for Midwest backpacking

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of November 9-16, 19995

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Best bets for Midwest backpacking

Best bets for Midwest backpacking
Q: For spring break we want to do some backpacking in the Midwest. Where would be the best place within, say, 12 hours of Columbus, OH? We need a good getaway above 35 degrees and far from civilization.
Eric Pickering
Columbus, OH
[email protected]

A: Unless you plan on road-tripping down to the Deep South, you'll be hard-pressed to find great backpacking in temperatures above, say, 50 degrees--especially if you're pining for the mountains. The good news, though, is that the colder temperatures and snow in higher elevations will keep the hordes of tourists away until summer, so you won't need to go too deep into the woods to escape civilization. This said, we recommend heading down to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 800 square miles of mountainous terrain that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border. With over 900 miles of hiking trails, you'll have no shortage of challenging backcountry treks to choose from. For a good four-day, three-night hike in the northern part of the park, aim for the Big Creek Ranger Station, off the Waterville exit on I-40--just over the North Carolina line. From the trailhead, hike five miles along the Big Creek Trail and make a right onto the Low Gap Trail and another left onto the Appalachian Trail. Camp the first night at Cosby Knob Shelter, 8.5 miles from the parking area. Day two will take you 7.4 miles along the Appalachian Trail to your campsite at the Tricorner Knob Shelter. From there, take the Balsam Mountain Trail 5.8 miles to its intersection with Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail and follow this trail 5.4 miles to the summit of 5,835-foot Mt. Sterling. There is no shelter here but there is a campsite (and an unmaintained firetower--climb at your own risk), not to mention some of the best views in the park. On your last day, take the Baxter Creek Trail from the base of the firetower 6.2 miles back to the parking area at Big Creek. There are no facilities at either of the shelters or the campsite; you'll need a no-fee permit, and rangers strongly suggest calling ahead of time (no more than 30 days) for reservations (615-436-1231). For detailed trail information and maps, contact park headquarters at 615-436-1200.

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