Charlotteans take pride in their sunny, warm winters and easy access to the outdoors almost 365 days a year. But short-sleeve and jacket weather in Charlotte doesn’t mean snow sports are out of reach. A day trip to the mountains of western North Carolina is all it takes to find the white stuff.
The peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Smoky Mountains usually get their first dusting of snow before Thanksgiving. Wintry precipitation picks up in December, with consistent snowpack blanketing the balds and forest trails from the holidays through spring thaw in March. This three-month window is prime time to pull out the snowshoes or cross-country skis and hit the High Country trails.
Seasoned snow lovers know to tune up their gear in late fall and have provisions on standby for big snow events. At the highest elevations where snow lingers even on warmer days, there’s no need to wait. You can play in the snow all day and return to the Queen City by sunset for a pint of beer on the patio outside your favorite craft brewery. And, if you don’t have your own snowshoes or skis, there’s plenty of mountain outfitters ready to set you up. Choose one of these top Southern destinations for your next snowshoeing or cross-country skiing adventure.
By offering free snowshoe rentals, the town of Beech Mountain has inspired more people to use its famous Emerald Outback mountain bike trail system year-round. There are more than 30 miles of trails, and a good portion of them are above 5,000 feet of elevation, so you’ll enjoy reliably snowy conditions. Pick up your equipment at the Buckeye Recreation Center, and then warm up with a beginner to intermediate 1.5-mile loop on the Red Fox/Arrowhead Trails. Cover more distance on the beginner-friendly Oz Forest Run to Wizard’s Way, and when you’re ready to push your limits tackle the Southern Ridge Trail to enjoy stunning views over the Elk River Valley.
Just outside the Town of Banner Elk, Sugar Mountain Ski Resort offers one-hour, guided snowshoe tours. Adult tours for ages 12 and up and kids tours for ages 8-11 are an ideal way to try the sport for the first time. Plus, equipment rental is included.
Elk Knob State Park
One of North Carolina’s newest parks is also one of the highest, making for some of the best snowsports conditions in the state. Elk Knob State Park keeps the gates open when storms hit just so snowshoers and cross-country skiers can access the trail network. Loop and out-and-back trails of one to four miles are short enough for beginners and can be combined to challenge experienced athletes.
The Appalachian Trail straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border along a stretch of treeless balds, opening up views across both states in every direction. Due to the elevation and dramatic exposure, expect low temperatures and high winds. Start at Carvers Gap for a 5.1-mile out and back trek across Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge Balds. For a bigger challenge, keep going to Little Mountain and Big Hump Mountain for continuous climbs and descents over 19 miles.
Other equally scenic but easier options beginning in Carvers Gap start out in thick spruce forest. It’s a 2.4-mile journey on the Cloudland Trail to Roan High Bluff and another two miles to Roan High Knob. Along the way, stop to take in the haunting remains of the Cloudland Hotel, a 19th-century resort built by a Union general.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway, the nation’s longest linear park, is an ideal place to make tracks when the snow falls. One of the best sections for cross-country skiing, near Grandfather Mountain, closes to vehicle traffic when snow covers the road. Jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway outside Blowing Rock at milepost 305.1 and ski or snowshoe toward the Linn Cove Viaduct for spectacular views across the valley. Closer to Blowing Rock Moses Cone Memorial Park has 25 miles of carriage trails that are perfect for beginners and families with young children, and Bass Lake in downtown Blowing Rock is an easy 0.8-mile loop along the frozen pond.
A flat, three-mile loop trail around the Parkway’s largest lake, Price Lake, is another easy option that’s close to Blowing Rock. In nearby Boone, a paved greenway runs from one end of town to the other for just under four miles of uninterrupted skiing and snowshoeing. For one of the most challenging climbs in the area, exit the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 349.9 to climb to Mount Mitchell. Reaching an elevation of 6,684 feet, it’s the highest peak east of the Mississippi.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
When a rainy mist shrouds the lowest elevations of the Smokies, deep snow is typically falling 6,000 feet up at Newfound Gap. Take Highway 441, which bisects the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, and climb to Clingmans Dome Road (closed from December through March), for a 15-mile out and back snowshoe or ski trek on the unplowed roadway.
Farther north on the Appalachian Trail into Virginia, one of the most dramatic winter landscapes awaits hearty cross-country skiers and snowshoers at Grayson Highlands State Park. The park’s unique microclimate dumps up to six feet of snow on 500 miles of trails that run across the landscape, providing a new adventure every time you visit.
Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.