Great hikes from the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains

Humpback Rocks in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. (© Ben Girardi)

For outdoors lovers across the country, the Southern Appalachian Mountains are a premiere destination for escape, exploration and adventure. Spanning millions of acres from Virginia to Alabama, the national forests and parks that blanket our Southern Appalachian Mountains are the largest continual track of public lands east of the Mississippi River. With more than half of the U.S. population living within an eight-hour drive of Southern Appalachia, this area's iconic trails and peaks offer abundant opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing and other recreational activities.

These are some of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s favorite hikes that explore some of our favorite wild and scenic places in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Art Loeb Trail

Art Loeb Trail from Black Balsam Knob to Cold Mountain, Pisgah National Forest, NC

This long and challenging out-and-back trail rewards hikers’ perseverance and endurance with spectacular views from the ridgeline of Cold Mountain. It’s a technical and demanding six-hour hike through diverse forestland, with lots of water crossings, rocky terrain and some steep elevation changes. The trail takes hikers through parts of the Shining Rock Wilderness, North Carolina’s largest wilderness area. Hikers familiar with the trail warn that the descent can be even more difficult than the ascent. There are campsites along the trial for those who prefer backpacking to a day trip.

Rhododendron Trail

Rhododendron Trail, Cherokee national forest, TN

This path is perfect for folks of all ages and skill levels who wish to hike by the Cherokee National Forest’s Ocoee River, where mountain runoff creates the appearance of small cascades. While the trail serves as a connection between the Ocoee Whitewater Center—where the 1996 Olympic rafting trials took place—and Thunder Rock Campground, it’s only about 1.5 miles one-way, and an easy access point to see native plants, pools filled with tadpoles and wildflowers, and a glimpse of the nearly extinct American Chestnut. And if you’re in the mood for something more challenging, you can also try out the 10-mile Ocoee River Loop that’s accessible from the campground.

Chattooga Trail

Chattooga River Trail, Chattahoochee National Forest, south carolina/Sumter national forest, SC

This trail follows its namesake along its entire length, with plenty of great views of the river and waterfalls, accompanied by the constant sound of water flowing. The trail goes through Ellicott Rock Wilderness, a historic wild area named after the surveyor who Thomas Jefferson sent to map the location where North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia meet. The 8-mile out-and-back trek is moderately difficult, with plenty of camping spots. The river offers lots of places to cool off or do some fly fishing. Rhododendrons line many parts of the trial, making it a great place to visit during the summer blooms.

Shenandoah Mountain, (©Aneta Kalzuna)

Shenandoah Mountain, George Washington National Forest, VA

If you want a short, relatively easy hike with an amazing payoff, this trek to High Knob Fire Tower is for you. This one-and-a-half mile hike on Shenandoah Mountain brings you to the historic fire detection tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and World War I veterans, and renovated in 2003. It is the only stone fire tower in Virginia, and it offers unmatched 360-degree views of forested mountains in Virginia and West Virginia. The tower can also be reached via a trail from the Brandywine Campground — but that is a far steeper and more difficult hike. For more information, click here.

Old Rag Mountain

Old Rag Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, VA

The Old Rag Mountain hike isn’t for everyone. Though it is an extremely popular hike in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, this 9-mile loop is extremely steep and challenging and includes a lengthy rock and boulder scramble. Rescues of injured or dehydrated hikers are not uncommon. It’s very important to make sure that you are well-prepared and physically fit enough to make it to the summit. The hike can take eight hours or more, so make sure you have a headlamp unless you get a very early start. From the summit, you’ll have a wonderful view of Shenandoah National Park, a portion of which is protected wilderness. On the way down, you’ll pass Post Office Junction, where the village of Old Rag and its post office were located before Shenandoah National Park was established.

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