5 Ways to Trek Through Time in Death Valley

Death Valley became a national park on October 31,1994 as a result of the passage of the California Desert Protection Act. But its history goes back much further: The 3.4-million acre park is a land of wonder for fans of both geological and human history.

Here in this stark desert in Southern California, the passage of time is etched into the landscape itself. It’s evident in the seemingly endless stretches of white salt flats that hint at a time when the desert was covered in water. It’s written in the petroglyphs on the golden walls of canyons. It’s whispered through the gaping mouths of long-abandoned mine shafts perched high on mountainsides.

For outdoor adventurers, Death Valley presents an opportunity to hike and camp among some of the most fascinating history in California—and the West. From the Pliocene Epoch to the modern age, here are five ways to travel through time in this unforgettable destination.

Hike to a Paleontological Wonder

Death Valley’s famous “sailing stones” may get most of the attention, but elsewhere in the park, ancient fossils can be found.

John Fowler

Geologists tout Death Valley as a dream come true, and their enthusiasm is definitely not an understatement. The mysterious sailing stones of The Racetrack may get all the hype in Death Valley, but the real wonder exists in a place few people will ever go.

In a canyon along Badwater Road (the National Park Service does not publicly disclose the name or exact location), an incredible array of fossils from the Pliocene Epoch lies untouched. Tracks from mastodons, camels, horses, cats, and ancient birds are spread across five square miles. These relics were left in the mud approximately five million years ago when Death Valley was more verdant. The mud hardened into rock and the tracks were preserved.

Individual travel into the canyon is prohibited, but once a year the park holds a paleontology tour where a ranger will lead groups of 15 on a seven-mile round-trip hike to the site. To be considered for a spot on the tour, you can enter the lottery, which typically opens in December.

Learn About Native American History

Native Americans were the first to make their way through the region, dating to 900 A.D.


Death Valley’s history is often closely linked with the daring men and women who crossed the valley in 1849 in search of gold. But long before white pioneers discovered the area, the Timbisha Shoshone, who continue to live in the park today, were already thriving in Death Valley, with a history that dates to 900 A.D. They lived along the low valley floor during the cooler winter months and migrated up to the high country during the hot summer. They sought out underground springs, hunted mule deer with bows and arrows, and harvested native vegetation.

During the Gold Rush in 1849, however, pioneers disturbed their peaceful way of life, cutting through the desert, damaging water and food supplies, and essentially pushing the Timbisha Shoshone out of their homeland. Though the U.S. would later declare peace between invading pioneers and the natives, they did not relinquish land to the tribe until 1936, when the park service gave them 40 acres of desert at Furnace Creek. Today, there are about 50 people living at the site, including elders who teach younger members of the tribe the native language.

To experience the history of the Timbisha Shoshone, you can look for petroglyphs in places like Titus Canyon or pictographs in sites like Panamint City. Keep in mind that the location of many petroglyphs is kept secret, so if you come across petroglyphs in the backcountry, do not publicize their location.

You can also learn more about the Timbisha Shoshone by visiting the village in person. For just a few dollars, the Timbisha Shoshone Taco Shack will serve you a heaping plate of ground beef, beans, lettuce, tomato, and cheese on top of traditional frybread.

Walk in the Footsteps of a Pioneer

Manly Beacon is a testament to William L. Manly, a Gold Rush pioneer who crossed the valley in 1850.

Tom Babich

Zabriskie Point is possibly the most photographed site in Death Valley, but it was catching a certain pioneer’s eye long before it was showing up on Instagram. Manly Beacon, the jagged, shark-tooth shaped rock formation that anchors the badlands, was named for William L. Manly, a Gold Rush pioneer who crossed the valley in 1850. He used the sharp peak as a waypoint on his numerous trips through the vast desert.

In addition to visiting the site that guided Manly, you can hike to the spot where Death Valley supposedly got its grim name. High above Zabriskie Point, on the other side of the valley, the Arcane Meadows sit on a ridgeline at 9,642 feet along the trail to Telescope Peak. It was in this windswept spot that a group of pioneers, having suffered death and illness on their journey across the land, looked back at the desert and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Visit a Mine

Relics that illustrate the area’s mining history, old mines are a common site throughout Death Valley.

Alisha Vargas

As a result of Death Valley not becoming a national park until 1994, mining was allowed for more than 140 years. If you’re hiking through a canyon or driving along a backcountry road in the park, it’s not uncommon to see relics from this time.

Mining began in Death Valley in 1848 with the discovery of gold, but the park’s most famous export is far less glamorous. Borax was first mined in 1883 and continued to be mined until 2005, when the Billie Mine, located on the road to Dante’s View, was closed.

Mining ruins are located throughout the park, but the easiest place to see them is at Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek. Harmony Borax Works was famous for using 20 mule teams to haul approximately three tons of borax a day from 1883 to 1888. If you’d like to hike among the ruins of a gold mine, visit the newly reopened Keane Wonder Mine. The remarkably well-preserved site dates back to 1907 and features an aerial tramway that once moved 70 tons of gold per day down the steep mountains.

Explore the Macabre Side of Death Valley

Death Valley is a treasure trove of historic spots and landmarks, some creepier than others (like this rusted Dodge truck that once belonged to Charles Manson).

Adam Haydock

The foreboding name, ominous ravens circling the valley, and deadly summer temperatures aren’t the only macabre things about Death Valley. For a brief period in the late 1960’s, Charles Manson and his so-called family called the park home.

Located deep within the western Panamint Mountains, the ruins of the Barker Ranch still remain. You’ll need a seriously rugged 4×4 high clearance vehicle if you want to drive to the site, but the journey can also be made on foot by way of a rough dirt road that cuts through the Goler Wash. Originally, the Barker Ranch was owned by ranchers who built the stone cabin in the 1930’s and sourced water from a nearby spring. They later sold the ranch to the Barker family, who rented it to Charles Manson in 1968. His cult moved in, believing that there was a secret underground cave beneath the mountains that he and his followers would hide out in after the world descended into chaos as a result of their murders.

Dubbed the “Demon of Death Valley,” by Time magazine, Manson explored the park by dune buggy and was eventually arrested for auto theft. When the police raided the Barker Ranch, he was found tucked inside a bathroom vanity on the property.

In 2009, the Barker Ranch mysteriously burned down, but ruins are still visible to those willing to make the trek. If you visit, swing by the ghost town of Ballarat on your way into the canyon, where the eerie specter of Charles Manson’s 1942 Dodge Power Wagon remains, rusting in the desert sun.

Written by Krista Diamond for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Adam Haydock

6 Days, 80 Miles: Backpacking a Wild Section of the Pacific Northwest Trail

“Has it ever snowed on your birthday before?”

My husband’s question broke the tension. We were camped near Cathedral Lake on September 1, at mile 26 of the Boundary Trail, an 80-mile, 6-day section of the larger Pacific Northwest Trail that stretches 1,200-miles from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Olympic Coast in Washington State.

Having both hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, we’d experienced a heavy wanderlust beginning to creep back into our day-to-days, so we decided to try out a section of one of the lesser known National Scenic Routes.

The section we chose is nestled in Washington's Pasayten Wilderness, just on the other side of the Cascade Range’s rainshadow and east of North Cascades National Park. We started from the official beginning of the Boundary Trail at the Iron Gate Trailhead, 20 miles northwest from Loomis, WA, before meeting up with the Pacific Northwest Trail near Horseshoe Meadow, 6.5 miles away. Over the next four days, the two trails overlapped, and we hugged the border between Washington State and Canada, often only a half mile to the north, before turning south at the Pasayten River for the final two days and 25 miles to reach our pickup location at Hart’s Pass.

Snow accumulating outside the tent.
    Laura Lancaster
Snow accumulating outside the tent.
Laura Lancaster

But Hart’s Pass was still a long way away on that second night, and with the snow coming down hard, we wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew. We were also nervous because while the first leg of the trail had been well-maintained and clearly signed, an eastbound PNT hiker had told us earlier in the day that the route would significantly deteriorate after Cathedral Lakes.

We rigged our sleeping pads and quilts together into a makeshift double bag and huddled together while looking at the maps, taking stock of our options in case we needed to bail out midway on the hike. As soon as it was dark we fell asleep to the barely perceptible sounds of snow accumulating on top of our tent.

The snow line visible above the trees along the Boundary Trail.
    Laura Lancaster
The snow line visible above the trees along the Boundary Trail.
Laura Lancaster

We got lucky on this trip: the next morning revealed that we had camped only 300 feet above the snow level. We were careful after that to plan our remaining days to end at lower elevation, and eventually finished our section hike on schedule at Hart’s Pass.

But that second night had set the tone for the rest of the trip. Basic expectations about backcountry travel were pushed to their limits on this section of the Pacific Northwest Trail: The path on the ground will match the map in my hand (spoiler: it didn’t). We aren’t the only ones out here hiking this trail (we went two full days at one point without seeing another person). September 1st is still summer (not necessarily in the North Cascades).

A trail sign along the Boundary Trail.
    Laura Lancaster
A trail sign along the Boundary Trail.
Laura Lancaster

Part of what makes this trail a special experience is how vividly it demonstrates the tug of war between man and nature to keep routes like this open at all. Sections of the Boundary Trail are freshly maintained and easy to follow while others have been almost completely swallowed back into the earth by fire, erosion, and time. We could see where blowdowns had been cut back from the trail over the years, but there were still hundreds and hundreds of fresh logs to scramble around and over during 20+ miles of trail during the third and fourth days of our hike.

Bridges were blown out at every major crossing, and others just concrete supports.

What used to be a bridge is now a gnarled carcass of wood.
    Laura Lancaster
What used to be a bridge is now a gnarled carcass of wood.
Laura Lancaster

At times, the trail became a faint shadow that we followed by feel as much as sight, with an occasional cairn to keep our spirits up.

At others, it would abruptly disappear.

A burned out section of the Boundary Trail.
    Laura Lancaster
A burned out section of the Boundary Trail.
Laura Lancaster

For some, the challenges of this hike will outweigh the rewards. But if you’re looking for something wilder, far from the grid and away from the crowds of the Olympics or Alpine Lake Wilderness area, then this might just be the trail for you.

Hike this trail for its wide open spaces, winding mountain ridges, expansive vistas, and remote stands of trees. Standing on Bunker Hill on the fourth day, the high point of the trail and the midway point of our hike, my husband and I watched a landscape that had bright blue skies and storm clouds and rain and sun and snow all at once. Fortunately for us, the clouds broke when we reached the top and the sun shone brightly down. We knew we were staring out at Canada, but this deep in the backcountry those manmade distinctions shifted to the background and we felt that we were staring out at endless, untouched wilderness. Then the weather shifted again and in a matter of minutes it was snowing. Time again to get to lower elevation.

Heading onto a 'trail-less' section of trail.
    Laura Lancaster
Heading onto a 'trail-less' section of trail.
Laura Lancaster

For my husband and I, even after hiking thousands of miles together, this was also a trail that taught us about our limits. How good our route-finding skills were. How fast we could travel in rougher terrain. Our capacity for having non-stop wet shoes and socks.

Toasting one another with hot buttered rums after we reached Hart’s Pass never felt more earned.

Plan Your Hike

  • Mileage: 80 miles
  • Permits: Self-register at the trailhead.
  • Daily average: My husband and I comfortably average 20 miles a day over average terrain, but managed only 15 miles a day on the Boundary Trail. Plan for slower days than you would normally to account for the rougher conditions.
  • Gear: This is not the trail to test out your new ultralight tent. You may go days without seeing another person on this trail, even during the high season. Bring gear you trust, and be ready for any and all weather. You will likely do some damage to your shell layer while scrambling over blowdowns in the rain (or snow), so I recommend carrying lightweight, inexpensive Frogg Toggs.
  • Maps: Maps are a must. Get Green Trails Maps 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 50. That being said, it appears to have been some years since these maps were last updated, so be aware that some manmade landmarks are no longer there. This includes the cabins along the Pasayten River, as well as a short section of trail leading south on the west side of the river, which has disappeared entirely. After the crossing, check at your maps and travel south beneath the embankment a couple hundred yards from the river and you’ll find it again within a half mile. The five miles of trail leading to the Ashnola River also appear to have been rerouted since these maps were last updated.
  • Navigation: Unless you are very comfortable with cross-country navigation, I highly recommended that you bring a GPS with you. It is possible to hike the trail without it, but this will provide considerable peace of mind.
  • Transportation: Travelling east to west seems to be most common, so as to avoid ending (and possibly having to hitch) out of the more remote Iron Gate trailhead. This means that getting to the Iron Gate trailhead will be the toughest logistical challenge of your hike. I recommend that you start currying favor with your friends and family several months in advance. Despite it’s remote location, the Hart’s Pass trailhead and campground is fairly popular, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll be able to hitch out, especially if you time your hike to end on a summer weekend. Alternately, an extra 25+ miles of relatively straightforward hiking south on the Pacific Crest Trail would allow you to exit at Rainy Pass.
  • Exit strategy: We followed the conventional wisdom on this hike and left the Boundary Trail just after the Soda Creek crossing and headed south to the medley of trails that intersect near the ranger cabins at the abandoned Pasayten Airstrip, foregoing the section of the trail that has a long history of disrepair out to Ross Lake. Another option would be to follow the Boundary Trail out to Castle Pass where it connects with the Pacific Crest Trail, which would also give you an opportunity to take a short detour (3.7 miles one-way) to the remote northern terminus of the trail.
  • Pacific Northwest Trail hikers: PNT thru-hikers are like rare birds—seeing one out in the wild is a real treat. And unlike the more popular Pacific Crest Trail, there isn’t a strong trail magic culture along the PNT. If you can, bring along a small treat to share in the event you meet a thru-hiker along the trail.

Written by Laura Lancaster for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Laura Lancaster

4 Southern California Hot Springs for Backpackers Only

Southern California is a hotbed of geothermal activity and plate tectonics, which can have the effect of creating an ever-creeping dread of the inevitable earthquake. But instead of living in perpetual fear of the “Big One”, outdoor-loving types in SoCal can take advantage of the plus side of an active geothermal region—proximity to an abundance of hot springs.

And—bonus for backpackers—several of these magical spots are only accessible via hardy hikes, which is a great way to weed out hordes of tourists, not to mention beckon a worthy reward for miles on the trail and the resulting achy muscles.

So, for a resplendent escape from the sprawl and bustle of the Los Angeles area, grab your backpack and bathing suit and hit the trail to explore these four incredible hot springs in Southern California—Mother Nature’s best day spas.

1. Sespe Hot Springs

Just two hours from Los Angeles, the Sespe Hot Springs feel worlds away.

Kara Kieffer

Located just two hours from Los Angeles, north of the vineyard town of Ojai, Sespe Hot Springs are tucked deep into the Sespe Wilderness. Despite their proximity to a major metropolitan area, these hot springs feel indefinitely wild. The Sespe Wilderness area features soaring white sandstone cliffs, long bare bluffs, and Sespe Creek cutting through the center. This area is also home to bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and some of the last remaining condors in California.

The springs themselves bubble from the rock face at several points along the valley floor. The farther you walk up valley, the hotter the springs will be—until you reach the top spring, which boasts some of the hottest water in California. (It’s been measured at 194 degrees Fahrenheit, so be sure to dip in a toe beforehand to avoid a serious scalding.) The tubs at Sespe are built into the creek with natural stones that form small pools. Find your ideal soaking spot by scouting down creek until the temperature is just right. Set up camp along the sandy valley floor near the water.

Getting into Sespe Hot Springs provides its own fun challenge. The most straightforward way is to hike 19.5 miles from the Piedra Blanca trailhead on the western side of the wilderness. This route passes by the disappointing Willet Hot Spring—a rubber cistern in the ground that’s filled with algae—as it follows the Sespe Creek. While this route is by far the longest, it has minimal elevation gain and access to water almost constantly.

An alternate (and more fun) route is to follow the Johnson Ridge Trail from the northern trailhead. This route follows an exposed ridge 9.5 miles down to the hot springs, giving hikers a commanding view of the Sepse area, a downhill approach to the springs, and nearly half the distance. However, the Johnson Ridge Trailhead must be reached by the unpaved Grade Road, which may cause some sedans to struggle (an SUV or all-wheel-drive vehicle is a better choice.). Plan your visit during the fall through spring, as the summer months can be brutally hot.

2. Iva Bell Hot Springs

A moderate hike will lead you to six pools of the Iva Belle Hot Springs, located near Mammoth Lakes.

Kara Kieffer

Sprinkled outside of Mammoth Lakes, these are perhaps some of the most well-developed backcountry hot springs, with everything needed for a great weekend retreat. Six pools are scattered around numerous flat camping areas complete with their own fire pits; a year-round creek tumbles through camp, too.

The Iva Bell springs are delightfully free of any eggy sulfuric smell, with clear water, and temperatures in the low 100s. The springs cascade down a hill in disjointed pods with the upper springs the smallest and least developed but hottes. The three lower pools are large enough to fit eight people each, with water that comes to about mid-thigh.

Plan your trip for the summer months as the road the Red’s Meadow is closed during the winter. Remember that permits are required, but there are also a handful of walkup day permits you can snag at the Mammoth Visitors Center.

From Mammoth Lakes, take the $7 Red’s Meadow shuttle and get off at the last (#10) stop at Red’s Meadow. Leaving Red’s, you will follow the Carter Creek Trail 11 miles as it first winds its way along granite hills, before dropping almost 1,000 feet into deep forest as you descend toward Fish Creek Valley. Once you’ve reached the creek, follow the trail left up the valley to reach the springs after another three miles. These springs are accessible year round, though they are easiest to access during the spring through early fall months.

3. Jordan Hot Springs

Jordan Hot Springs is serene nowadays, despite being a developed resort prior to 1990.

Kara Kieffer

Jordan Hot Springs stands unique among its backpacker-only brethren for being the only hot spring on this list that was once a developed resort. Prior to 1990 and the creation of the Golden Trout Wilderness, visitors could pay to have themselves and their stuff shuttled down to the hot springs via horseback.

But now the only way in is hiking. To access Jordan Hot Springs, start at the Black Rock ranger station on the southern end of the Golden Trout Wilderness. From the ranger station, follow signs six miles and 3,000 feet down, through pine forest that meanders along a creek. Once the trail begins to mellow you’ll come out into a clearing that has a large fire pit and several dilapidated buildings from the time the spring was a commercial venture.

From the campground, the springs are just a few hundred feet down the trail. They are made up of a seven-person pool, a warmer single-person pool, and a trough that’s perfect for washing your feet in. Spring and fall are the best times to visit, with a small crowd likely on busy weekends.

4. Kern River Hot Spring

The Kern River Hot Spring is an outdoor paradise: a single spring flowing into three pools along the shores of the Kern River, below massive towering cliffs surrounded by a thick forest of pine trees, with waters ranging from 100-115 degrees, situated along the shores of the Kern River. But it also requires some serious effort to get to. Furthermore, in researching these springs online you’ll find many people pointing to the Remington Hot Springs, which—aside from being the wrong springs—are often crowded, situated right along a road, and can attract some less-than-savory characters.

The most popular way to get to the Kern River Hot Springs is by hiking the High Sierra Trail hitting the springs along the halfway point of your trek around mile 36. However, if doing a 72-mile thru hike of the HST isn’t feasible, there is another way to approach the springs.

The shortest means of getting into the Kern River Hot Springs is via a 20-mile hike—with close to 6,00 feet of gain—departing from Mineral King Ranger station, heading over Franklyn Pass, and then descending along Rattlesnake Creek toward the Kern River and following the river to the hot springs. While getting to the Kern River Hot Springs is by no means an easy feat, the scenery alone, especially around Mineral King, is an enticing way to explore some of the lesser explored sections of Sequoia National Park.

This hike requires a permit, which can be reserved online through the National Park Service, or can be obtained as a walk-up permit. The best window for attempting this hike is late spring through early fall, when you can take advantage of the warmer temperatures and the snow-free trail.

Written by Kara Kieffer for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Tobin

4 Reasons to Hike North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell in the Winter

Thousands of years ago, when extreme cold gripped the North American continent, flora and fauna most suited to northern latitudes migrated south, covering what is now North Carolina. As the cold retreated and temperatures climbed, the trees and animals more suited to warm weather returned. Except, that is, for those living on the highest peaks in the state.

Like islands of alpine forest in a sea of temperate climate, the rounded precipices of North Carolina’s loftiest mountains still have look and feel of their Canadian counterparts—none more so than Mount Mitchell, standing 6,684 feet above sea level.

Coated in crystalline frost even while surrounding valleys are bathed in relative warmth, Mount Mitchell is among the best places in North Carolina to experience a real winter wonderland. Here we offer four reasons to brave the fickle conditions on the East’s loftiest peak during its harshest months.

1. You’ll earn serious bragging rights.

Bent trees and horizontal ice formations tell the tale of powerful winds that frequently sweep across the top of the mountain.
    North Carolina State Parks
Bent trees and horizontal ice formations tell the tale of powerful winds that frequently sweep across the top of the mountain.
North Carolina State Parks

Hiking to the top of the highest peak east of the Mississippi is a formidable goal any time of year. But in winter, when the Frasier fir trees are dusted with snow and a brutal wind forms sideways icicles, hearty hikers gaining Mitchell’s summit become part of a special club.

The Mount Mitchell Trail is the most popular summit route in the state park. This 6-mile, one-way trail begins at the Black Mountain Campground and wanders through several distinct biomes on the way up. Mountain laurel and rhododendron line lower elevation creek beds. Mountain maple, spruce, and birch trees crowd for sunlight midway up, while the last remnants of an alpine fir forest cap the final stretch.

The Black Mountain Range, a 15-mile stretch of peaks anchored by Mount Mitchell, stands high enough to affect the weather. Temperatures have dropped to minus 34 degrees while wind gusts of more than 170 mph have been recorded at the peak—and it’s important not to take a winter day here lightly. These conditions certainly add to the challenge, but also to the accomplishment.

2. It’s a different world in winter.

“Post-holing” through a heaping layer of snow can make the already challenging hike to the top of Mount Mitchell a real beast.
    North Carolina State Parks
“Post-holing” through a heaping layer of snow can make the already challenging hike to the top of Mount Mitchell a real beast.
North Carolina State Parks

During spring, multi-hued flowering bushes line babbling creeks on the mountainside. Songbirds fill the trees and lush vegetation buffers the trail in an expansive green carpet.

But winter brings an entirely different mood to Mount Mitchell. There are no songs from the forest now; just the crunch of your footsteps on frozen trail reverberating off weathered tree trunks. On a rare, still day, there is no other sound. On a typical day, however, the whistle and howl of wind overhead surrounds you.

Down low, at the beginning of your hike, branches are coated in a heavy snow. Nearer to the peak, horizontal ice formations and bowed trees are static reminders of punishing winds. Where a blue haze might limit views in the summer, clear winter days provide vistas of frosted peaks up to 80 miles away. It’s a special kind of serenity that only a winter hike affords.

3. You’ll savor plenty of solitude.

The challenge of climbing some 3,600 feet to the top of Mt. Mitchell may be substantial, but in good weather it’s a common undertaking. No surprise, then, that the Mount Mitchell trail can be heavily trafficked in summer. And at the top, where a large parking lot sits adjacent to the snack bar and museum, families and groups of motorcyclists can crowd the view.

In winter, however, the snack bar and museum are closed for business. Difficult road conditions, school schedules, and the tough climate keep many visitors at bay. The quiet of the trail continues all the way to the top. It’s a memorable outdoor adventure not possible on busy summer days, making the wind-burnt skin and cold toes well worth it.

4. You’ll find plenty of post-hike happiness nearby.

An 800-degree stone oven provides the tell-tale char on the crust at Fresh Pizza and Pasta. Don’t want it? Just let them know when you order. 
    Rob Glover
An 800-degree stone oven provides the tell-tale char on the crust at Fresh Pizza and Pasta. Don’t want it? Just let them know when you order.
Rob Glover

A winter exploration of Mount Mitchell will chill your bones and burn some serious calories. These days are made for hearty craft beer and huge, wood-fired pizza.

This perfect one-two punch awaits in the quaint town of Black Mountain, due south of Mount Mitchell. Begin with a stop at Lookout Brewing. This nano-sized brewery crafts the full range of flavors, from a crisp IPA to a soul-warming stout. There’s nothing fancy about the place, just true-to-style brews and a comfortable atmosphere to knock them back in.

When you step out of the taproom, follow your nose across the road to Fresh Wood Fired Pizza and Pasta. Settle into this cozy restaurant and watch while bubbly-crusted pizzas are pulled from an 800-degree stone oven. (The typical pie comes with a charred crust which creates a wonderful flavor, but you can ask them to leave it un-charred if you prefer.) The calzones are the size of a small RV and the beer selection is admirable. Leaving hungry, even considering your incredible effort earlier in the day, is unlikely.

If You Go:

  • Check the weather report before setting out. It changes quickly here, and being caught in a blizzard with howling winds is no joke.

  • Bring your hiking poles for this trek. They can provide a lot of support on an icy trail.

  • Check the park website for closures. The park staff works hard to clear roads, but they may shut down for a day or two after a heavy snow.

Originally written by RootsRated for OrthoCarolina.

Featured image provided by North Carolina State Parks

3 Amazing Weekend Backpacking Loops in the Smokies

Across Great Smoky Mountains National Park, miles of interconnected trails meander through lush, green valleys, hug the banks of moss-laden, rocky creeks, and climb through thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron to the blue-tinged mountain peaks.

You could spend weeks backpacking through this rich landscape, but a weekend trip will also allow you to experience the best of the Smokies. To help you plan your visit, we’ve highlighted three backpacking loops that give you the Appalachian Trail, streamside and ridgeline campsites, killer views, and enough distance and elevation to satisfy your inner weekend warrior. Don’t forget your Turtle Shell 3.0  waterproof Bluetooth speaker.

Big Creek Loop

Combining the best of frontcountry and backcountry camping, the Big Creek area on the northeastern tip of the park off I-40 offers something for every level of hiker. Tackle a 21.5-mile loop over big peaks or lower your mileage and elevation with a night at one of the sweetest creekside campsites in the park. Either way, you’ll hike the AT through some of the most scenic terrain in the Smokies.

You will be in constant awe of the beauty on Big Creek Loop.
You will be in constant awe of the beauty on Big Creek Loop.


Roll into Big Creek Friday night to enjoy campground amenities like restrooms, dinner at a picnic table, and campsites with fire rings. You’ll be up early on Saturday to climb the Chestnut Branch Trail 2 miles to the Appalachian Trail. One of the shortest AT access points, the trail passes the remains of homesteads that pre-date the national park.

Turn south on the AT and continue climbing 3.3 miles to the 0.6-mile Mt. Cammerer fire tower spur trail. At 4,928 feet, the tower overlooks the Pigeon River Gorge to the north and Mt. Sterling to the south. From the fire tower, it’s a moderate descent 2.1 miles to the Low Gap Trail. Take Low Gap 2.5 miles to campsite #37 at the Big Creek Trail junction. Right on the banks of Big Creek, you’d be hard pressed to find a more spacious backcountry site in the park.

On Sunday, you can go big or go home, as they say. Going big means a hike up the Swallow Falls Trail 4 miles to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. It’s another 1.4 miles and more climbing to an elevation of 5,842 feet on Mt. Sterling. Climb Sterling’s 60-foot steel fire tower for panoramic views of Cataloochee Valley, the Black Mountains, and the Southern Appalachians. Now, the downhill endurance test begins, with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail. If you opt to go home, you can sleep in, savor your coffee by the campfire, and still have plenty of time to hike the moderate, 5-mile descent along Big Creek back to the campground, passing two stunning waterfalls and plenty of swimming holes along the way.

Big Creek loop ends with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail.
Big Creek loop ends with a 4,000-foot elevation loss over 6 miles on the Baxter Creek Trail.


Big Creek Campground is open from April through October and makes a great base camp for groups by serving a wide variety of abilities and interests. On your way home, make sure you leave enough time to refuel at Carver’s Apple Orchard in Cosby, Tenn. At Carver’s you can shop for fresh produce at the farmers market, nab awesome treats at an old-time candy shop, and feast at a homestyle restaurant, where the apple fritters are not to be missed.

Twentymile Loop

In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find a lesser-used trailhead that leads to the AT and one of the most scenic balds in the park. From this trailhead, you’ll log 17.6 miles on the way to Gregory Bald, sleeping one night on the AT and camping the other night on the bald.

Start off Friday afternoon at the Twentymile Ranger Station off Highway 28 near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. A non-technical climb takes you 4.5 miles to meet the AT at Sassafras Gap. Campsite #113, at Birch Spring Gap, is less than 1 mile north of the trail junction. If time allows late Friday or early Saturday morning, head south on the AT for 360-degree views at sunset or sunrise from the top of Shuckstack Fire Tower. The historic lookout isn’t regularly maintained, so watch your step on the 200-foot climb to the top.

In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find the lesser-used Twentymile Loop trailhead.
In the southwest corner of the Smokies you’ll find the lesser-used Twentymile Loop trailhead.

Chris M Morris

You’ll resume your northward journey on the AT, traveling 2 miles over Doe Knob to the next trail junction. Next, take Gregory Bald Trail west a little more than 3 miles to campsite #13 on the bald. Known for spectacular flame azalea blooms each year in mid to late June, the grassy high-elevation meadow offers stunning views of Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, and Clingmans Dome.

On Sunday, make the final 6.3-mile descent to the trailhead on the wide, non-technical Wolf Ridge Trail. Refuel at Fontana Village, just over 6 miles down Highway 28, before heading home. Burgers and brews will hit the spot at Wildwood Grill, while the Mountainview Restaurant highlights seasonal produce, along with fresh, local rainbow trout.

Deep Creek Loop

Along Deep Creek loop you’ll pass Indian Creek Falls.
Along Deep Creek loop you’ll pass Indian Creek Falls.

Alan Cressler

Enjoy the streams and waterfalls of the Deep Creek area in the south-central region of the Smokies on this 28.2-mile loop. You’ll also spend a night in an AT shelter and exit on one of the longest continuously descending trails in the Smokies.

You’ve barely left the Deep Creek Ranger Station before you come across Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls. Once you pass these Instagram-worthy stops, it’s a slight uphill grade for 4 miles along the moderately rocky Deep Creek Trail to campsites 54-59. Claim a site for Friday evening (all but one are non-reservable) to enjoy the refreshing waters of Deep Creek and thickly wooded campsites.

Creek crossings and easy bushwacking are on the agenda Saturday, as you hike another 4 miles to the Fork Ridge Trail. Fork Ridge ascends 5 miles to Clingmans Dome Road and the AT. A short hike north takes you to the Mount Collins shelter, where you’ll spend the night in a high-elevation spruce-fir forest and dramatically cooler, drier conditions. Enjoy the shelter amenities, like cozy bunks and a fireplace inside.

Hike down from Clingmans Dome Road to start your final 11.4-mile descent.
Hike down from Clingmans Dome Road to start your final 11.4-mile descent.

Kevin Stewart Photography

The pre-dawn hike south to Clingmans Dome is highly recommended for 360 degrees of sunrise from the highest point in the Smokies. Hike 2 miles down Clingmans Dome Road to the Noland Divide Trailhead to start your final 11.4-mile descent. The trail slopes gently for the first 5 miles before making a steeper drop into Deep Creek, but there are few roots and rocks to slow you down. Make sure you stop to enjoy the views at Lonesome Pine Overlook along the way.

After logging all those miles, nothing’s going to taste more satisfying than a meal and craft beer at The Warehouse at Nantahala Brewing Co. Wrap up your Smokies adventure on the outdoor patio in downtown Bryson City with specialties like the slow-cooked brisket noodle bowl, apple bourbon pork chops, or Bryson City Brown Ale chicken along with a flagship or seasonal draft.

Originally written by RootsRated for OrthoCarolina.

Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart Photography

How Skiing Has Changed Over the Years

Ask Aspen local Tony Vagneur what he remembers most about skiing in the old days, and he answers immediately: “the cold.”

Circa 1949, when Gore-Tex was a long way off, layering wool was the only way to attempt to ward off the frigid temperatures. Factor in an hour-long lift line and a 30-minute ride up what was then the world’s longest chairlift—with single seats—and idle time adds up to freezing digits.

“By the end of the day, my hands would be numb and as they warmed up the pain was a killer,” Vagneur, still active on the slopes at 71, recalls. “But that was part of the game. Skiing was so much fun. We didn’t care if we were cold.”

If there’s anywhere in America that showcases how skiing has evolved from its humble origins, it’s Aspen. In 1950, it was a sleepy ranching and mining town when it hosted the first worldwide skiing competition held in the United States. Today, the four resorts that make up Aspen-Snowmass have a combined 41 lifts serving 5,500 acres of terrain.

But there’s a lot more about skiing that has changed, in Aspen and across the world, than just the size of the resorts. Here, a look back at the olden (and some might say golden) days of skiing—and how things are different now, from incredible improvements in gear and technology to the not-so-incredible price hikes, and everything in between.

The Cost

Back in the day, a solo trip up the lift was the only way to go.

Chuck Battles

On Dec. 15, Snowmass will celebrate its 50th anniversary with $6.50 lift tickets, honoring the price from 1967. Resort officials were reportedly shocked when they sold some 12,000 of them by early November, and subsequent sales required a lodging purchase.

The popularity might be in part because lift tickets in peak season can top $150 here. Of course, nothing is as cheap as it was in 1967, but the cost to hit the slopes at big resorts has risen astronomically. Nowadays, a family ski trip can easily run into the thousands of dollars (though, by choosing more old-school resorts, you can help your budget a bit; more on that below).

The Gear

Ski fashion has come a looong way over the decades.

Chuck Battles

In the old days, breaking an ankle or fracturing a leg was almost a rite of passage for skiers. That injury rate was due in part because of the gear: Skis were long, skinny, and fast, and didn’t release during a crash—which happened a lot, because they were not ideal for turning, especially in deep Colorado powder. Over the years, boots got stiffer, bindings safer, and skis shorter and wider.

At first, Vagneur and his old-timer friends considered these newfangled models skis to be cheating. “Then we skied on them and said, ‘Oh God, this is great.’”

But like many skiing innovations, there’s a downside to making it easier and more fun to ski powder. The hill gets tracked out quicker, including the trees, which used to be too dangerous for sloppy-turning skis.

“Because of these skis, everyone can ski powder pretty much, so all the good stuff gets used up in a hurry and people go looking for it out in the trees,” says Vagneur. “It’s pretty damn hard to find a stash. I’ve got one place up there nobody seems to be able to find and I’m not talking about it.”

The Technology

Cell phones have revolutionized the way skiers can document carving it up on the slopes.

Aspen Snowmass / Jeremy Swanso

In the old days—in this case, before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket, snow helmet audio, and a GoPro on their helmet—skiing offered a way to disconnect. If someone needed to find you while you were on the slopes, too bad for them, but good for you—you were essentially off the grid until the lift lines closed.

These days, even when the weather is so cold fingers turn blue trying to activate an app, the lift ride has shifted from quiet introspection among the trees or chatting with your fellow rider to nonstop connectivity: taking pictures, uploading shots of that epic powder to Facebook or Instagram, trying to track down friends (or even checking work e-mail if you’re taking a “sick” day.)

Sure, there’s an upside to all this access: You can instantly get the snow report, check what others are posting about conditions, or upload a lift selfie or GoPro video of your powder run. But something is unquestionably missing—that feeling that it’s just you and the mountain. If you lost your friends, you knew you’d meet up again for après at the bar, where an in-person account of that epic line you hit beats an Instagram post any day.

As for another noteworthy technological innovation, the automatic pass scanner, you’re not likely to find many skiers or lift attendants pining for the old days of punching tickets.

The Terrain

Many resorts, including Aspen Highlands, have expanded their terrain over the years.

Aspen Snowmass

In the old days, nobody dared to ski Highlands Bowl. “It was almost a sure bet you’d die if you went up there,” Vagneur says. “We had a lot more respect for avalanches in the old days.”

Today, it’s the crown jewel of extreme terrain of the Aspen Highlands resort, reached only by hiking, double-diamond terrain that has been called the most intense skiing in Colorado. There’s a monument to three patrollers killed in a 1984 avalanche up there.

Wider skis and adrenaline junkies chasing more extreme terrain have led many resorts to allow access to this sort of avalanche-prone terrain above timberline, the slide risk mitigated by modern avalanche control techniques.

You won’t find many skiers who lament the opening of more terrain, but Vagneur does believe it has changed the culture of skiing as the race to fresh pow becomes ever-more intense. “A lot of it is just competition—who gets the first tracks, who does the first 100,000 vertical feet,” he says. “To me, who cares? You just go up there and have fun.”

The Vibe

An off-duty cop or killer costume? You decide.

Aspen Snowmass

Just as depicted in the classic ski film Aspen Extreme, every winter a new cycle of would-be ski bums arrives in town. The cars have changed—now it’s more likely to be a Subaru stuffed with worldly possessions instead of an old Ford van—but Vagneur still sees the same types year after year: the guy with a PhD washing dishes in a restaurant by night, trust-funders living in a fantasy world, A-listers who come to Aspen to see and be seen.

(One thing he hasn’t seen much of over the years, however: clothing-optional skiing. Vagneur recalls one spring day when an attractive woman decided to ski topless, to his and his friends’ delight. With the proliferation of cell phones, stunts like this are much less common.)

The days are gone when they all knew each other or recognized each other at the bar from riding the lift together. The resorts are too big; the population too transient. And fast-moving lifts mean a conversation that might have taken 20 minutes is over in five—and that’s if you even manage to chat with someone who’s tapping away at their phone the whole way up.

But the more things change, one thing has remained for Vagneur: a love of skiing, of being out in the mountains, in the snow and crisp air, surrounded by amazing views. “When I was a kid, I’d go out there with my buddies and we skied most days in the winter,” he says. “We [still] laugh a lot and have a good time. We find runs we like. We’re in our 70s and still ski bumps.”

5 Spots Where You Can Get a Throwback Experience on the Slopes

You don’t have to look too far for a throwback experience.

Aspen Snowmass

Craving an old-school ski experience? Here are five ski resorts and towns where you can travel back in time for a nostalgic day on the slopes.

Arapahoe Basin

A true Colorado “locals” hill just down the road from the mega-resorts of Keystone and Breckenridge, A-Basin has free parking a short walk from the lifts, affordable tickets, and a fun, festive atmosphere. They also have the longest ski season in North America, usually from October to June (and sometimes July!)

Bridger Bowl, Montana

If you live in Bozeman and see the blue light atop the Baxter Hotel flashing, it might be time to take a “sick” day—because that means this nearby ski area has fresh snow. Locals are the bulk of those on the slopes, since most visitors opt for snazzier resorts in the northern Rockies, like Jackson Hole. But that’s all the more reason to book a trip, since Bozeman is mostly a summer tourist town and rooms are cheaper in winter.

Mad River Glen, Vermont

“Ski it if you can” is the well-known slogan for this rustic ski area, which has the gnarliest terrain in New England. It’s also skier-owned, which means you don’t buy a pass but a share in ownership that gives you a voice in how the area is managed. It also has one of only two still-operating single-seat chair lifts in the United States.

Homewood Mountain Resort, Lake Tahoe, California

You don’t have to drop a fortune to ski California’s crown jewel at this family-friendly resort at the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Enjoy jaw-dropping views like other Tahoe resorts—the lifts begin almost at the shores of the lake—without the steep prices of other areas. So many modern ski resorts focus on real estate as much as the skiing, but you won’t find a slopeside condo here—just lots of wide runs, a laid-back vibe, and excellent skiing.

Wolf Creek Ski Area, Colorado

You won’t find many ski areas whose owner is up the ridges with a snorkel, dropping avalanche bombs. This southern Colorado resort is known for its rustic vibe and deep powder, and with 450 inches a year, they claim to have the most snow in Colorado—130 inches more than Snowmass, for a lift ticket ($70) that’s less than half the price. Lines are unusual, and powder lingers for days for those willing to hike a bit.

Originally written by RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Aspen Snowmass