Among the many perks of winter hiking (fewer people, that certain sweet silence that a blanket of fresh snow brings to the mountains, the diamond sparkle of frost on the grass) none can compare to the bright taste of a well earned hot toddy, the rich indulgence of a hot buttered rum, or that first sip of a toasty winter ale. There’s simply no time to hibernate when there are so many trails to explore and so many cozy bars and breweries to hole up in afterwards. Here are four Western Carolina hikes, perfectly paired with a local libation. Cheers!
1. Devil’s Courthouse & MG Road’s Hot Buttered Rum
Sometimes, the winter days of frost and weak sunlight demand an indulgent activity with not a lot of effort involved. For some, this might mean ducking under the covers for a movie marathon, but for outdoor enthusiasts whose sanity depends on escaping to the wilderness regardless of the plunging temperatures and early sunsets, the hike to Devil’s Courthouse fits the bill. The trail to the top of this somewhat sinister rock outcrop on the edge of the Pisgah Ledge is only half a mile long, but the views from the top are simply decadent. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee are all visible from the 5,719-foot summit, which is as steeped in folklore as it is in raw beauty.
Such a quick and rewarding adventure should be followed by an equally satisfying cocktail. MG Road fixes the best Hot Buttered Rum in all of Asheville, quite possibly the entire Southeast. The house-made spiced butter mix is a mix of brown and powdered sugar, tempered with the earthy-sweet flavors of freshly ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Sailor Jerry’s rum and a float of homemade vanilla ice cream round out this rich winter favorite.
2. John Rock Loop & Lex 18’s Salted Caramel Hot Toddy
John Rock Loop is a Western Carolina classic that concludes with sensational views of the sprawling Pisgah Wilderness, Looking Glass Rock, and the Southern Appalachians fading into a blue haze on the horizon. At the beginning of the hike, set your sites on the rock face in the distance, as you will eventually be standing on its summit. A rugged 5.5-mile loop trail will lead you through a forest of tulip trees, white pines and hemlock, past a small waterfall sheathed in sparkling ice, and eventually to the exposed brow of John Rock.
In the evening, continue to explore the best of Carolina with a visit to Lex 18’s Southern Appalachian Supper Club & Moonshine Bar in downtown Asheville. Order the Salted Caramel Hot Toddy, made with Firefly Caramel Moonshine, fresh lemon juice and black lava salt. This classic winter cocktail (and cold remedy!) pairs remarkably well with the traditional distilled spirits of the Appalachian Mountains, and after your strenuous cliffside excursion, you’re entitled to a little extra sweetness.
3. Chimney Tops & Highland’s Black Mocha Stout
Reaching the rugged, dual-pronged summit of Chimney Tops, one of the few bare rock summits in the Smokies, is not for the faint of heart. This adventure is perfectly suited for anyone looking to spike their winter weekend with a healthy dose of adrenaline.
The trail begins with a series of freshly constructed bridges that crisscross over the cascading waters of Walker Camp Prong, before jutting upward for a steep and sustained climb to the ridge line. The journey is relatively short but it packs a punch: in two miles you will ascend 1,700 feet over an elaborate network of stone and log steps until you reach the even terrain and rewarding views of the ridge line. The final leg of the hike is a highly exposed scramble to the top of the chimney, a nearly technical section of rock that is reminiscent of Colorado's fourteeners.
Once you’ve returned to solid ground, treat yourself to a local beer that is just as bold and daring as the summit you so recently stood upon. Highland Brewing Company’s Kinsman Black Mocha Stout is part of their innovative Kinsman Project, where seasonal brews are infused with fresh and local ingredients. This warming winter ale is flavored with cacao nibs, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans and chipotle peppers for a finished product that is chocolatey-smooth with a kicky finish.
4. Biltmore Trails & Spiked Hot Chocolate
The Biltmore Estate’s exquisite blend of open space and luxe amenities is especially festive when it’s decked out for the holidays. But even when the lights and trimmings are through for the season, the 8,000 acres of meadows, forests and gardens remain a lovely landscape throughout the winter, stark and dramatic or polished with snow. Although the micro-villages within the estate’s boundaries are always a hive of activity, there is solitude to be claimed along the 22 miles of hiking trails, particularly on the Deer Pond Trail and at the Lagoon.
Late afternoon is a lovely time to explore the Biltmore, which is located so close to downtown that you’ll never have to face a long drive home, or navigate a tricky descent in darkness. Experience the peace and serenity of a winter twilight alongside the French Broad River, or stroll through the walled gardens as the sky deepens with the colors of sunset.
When you’re ready to warm up, duck into the Biltmore Inn for a Pillow Mint—a deliriously decadent hot chocolate, triple-spiked with Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, Bailey’s, and crème de menthe, and topped with a pillow of whipped cream. As you sip your minted coco next to the roaring fireplace, descending into a state of sublime relaxation, you may find yourself wishing that winter never ends.