Long Trails of the Southeast
Eight states, over 600 miles of long-distance hiking
This article profiles over 600 varied miles of long trails, from the cypress swamps of South Florida to the high mountains of North Carolina. Each offers its own beauty and challenges. The Wild Azalea Trail, the shortest of the trails at 26 miles, is Louisiana’s longest footpath. It will surprise visitors as it rambles over pine-covered hills into lush bottomlands where clear, sand-bottomed streams flow. Wetlands abound in these creek bottoms, locally known as bayous, where the cypress trees grow tall. The 41-mile Black Creek Trail of Mississippi runs along the course of the federally designated Wild and Scenic Black Creek, amid cypress swamps, by sugar-white sandbars, and through hardwood forests with amazingly large trees.
Although the Florida Trail (FT) is incomplete (it will eventually reach 1,300 miles), I have included three of the longest sections of the trail. The first 42-mile section traverses the Big Cypress National Preserve, where you will be introduced to “swamp slogging” while crossing sawgrass prairies broken by lush tree islands of palm, cypress, and pine. There is simply no other hiking experience in the United States to match it. Farther north, a 60-mile parcel of the FT runs through the Ocala National Forest, where the world’s largest tract of sand-pine scrub forest still remains. This ecosystem offers a beauty of its own, along with large, wild lakes, vast prairies, and richly forested islands. The panhandle portion of the Florida Trail through the Apalachicola National Forest is another experience altogether. Here, the 66-mile FT travels through a longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem divided by lush forests growing along dark streams.
Florida’s neighbor, “Alabama the beautiful,” has the next long trail. Some may chuckle at such a notion, but after hiking the 104-mile Pinhoti Trail, you will be singing this tune as well. The Pinhoti follows the most southerly extension of the Appalachian Mountains as it reaches into the Heart of Dixie. To be sure, these mountains may not be as high as others, but they are rugged and offer an allure all their own. Rock-strewn ridges lead to the Cheaha Wilderness where rock outcrops allow you to see to the very end of the mountains and the plains beyond. Farther north is hill and creek country, where hardwood-cloaked slopes lead down to crystal clear streams shaded by beech trees. More views await in the Dugger Mountain Wilderness amid the pines that crown its heights.
Two of the long trails profiled are in Georgia: the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) and the Bartram Trail (BT). The 93-mile Benton MacKaye Trail begins on Springer Mountain, the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus, and heads north along the western rim of the Appalachians. Here it offers views from the Blue Ridge escarpment then descends to span the Toccoa River on an elaborate suspension footbridge. Low, unsung, and little-visited mountains lie ahead before a trek through private property. After reentering National Forest land, the BMT rambles amid some of the most remote lands in the Peach State before making Jacks River and the famed Cohutta Wilderness. The trail enters Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest and the Big Frog Wilderness. Here, the BMT reaches its high point, 4,224 feet, atop Big Frog Mountain before ending near the Ocoee River.
The 110-mile Bartram Trail, named for naturalist William Bartram, offers the longest, continuous trail in the Southeast. The BT starts along the wild and scenic Chattooga River, heading west to reach the stone tower atop Rabun Bald, Georgia’s highest foot-accessible-only point. The BT continues north to enter North Carolina and its stone-faced mountains, where views are abundant. A road walk leads across the Little Tennessee River Valley. The Bartram then resumes a path up to the old stone tower on Wayah Bald. Descend to Nantahala Lake and travel along the Nantahala River before reaching Cheoah Bald (5,062 feet).
The 85-mile Foothills Trail of South Carolina and North Carolina will stun first-time visitors. It winds through the Cherokee Foothills of the Southern Appalachians. Raise your expectations here, and the Foothills Trail will meet them. This trail has more incredible waterfalls per mile of trail than any other path I’ve ever hiked. It also travels along mountaintops, beside wild and scenic rivers, through gorges, across wildernesses, beside a large mountain lake, and into deep forests. An additional 8 miles of hiking could easily hook ambitious hikers up with the previously mentioned Bartram Trail, providing the possibility of 203 miles of uninterrupted hiking.
Article contributor:Johnny Molloy