Day Trippers - The Carolinas
Continuing series – GoApe guides imagine a weekend in two states, and plan 48 hours outdoor lovers would never forget.
Sure, it’s pointless trying to identify the most beautiful states in America. It’d be like picking a favorite child.
All the same, if you had to, you might manage to do it. If you’d ever seen the Carolinas, that is.
Few states pack so much breathtaking scenery into a reasonably sized package. In the west, they offer the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains, where you’ll find forests untouched since before Europeans reached these shores, and glorious granite cliffs that let you take them in from above. In the center, the unique ecosystem of blackwater rivers means the chance to observe flora and fauna you won’t see anywhere else.
And to the east, a barrier islands absorb the brunt of the Atlantic’s waves, leaving a channel behind them that thrives with lush vegetation, fertile salt marshes, and a playground for wildlife where ocean waters meet fresh. You’ll find beautiful white sand beaches to the east of the Outer Banks, and behind them, calmer waters filled with shrimp, egrets, and playful porpoises.
We’re fortunate enough to spend time outdoors in both gorgeous states – we have Treetop Adventure Courses in Raleigh’s Blue Jay Point County Park in the north, and North Myrtle Beach in the south. But our staff have spent time all over the Carolinas, and know the secret spots for the deepest adventures.
A weekend in the Carolinas can mean spectacular hikes, paddling through otherworldly waters, and sleeping amidst the magic of fireflies.
It takes a bit of planning, and a few phone calls to reserve boats and cabins. But in about 48 hours in the Carolinas, you can have a lifetime’s worth of outdoor experiences.
Here’s how we’d do it.
First Day, Morning – Hike Nantahala National Forest
We’d start our weekend in the west, early in the morning, in North Carolina’s lush Nantahala National Forest.
This is one of the largest remaining stands of old growth forest in North America.
The southwestern corner of the state holds one of the east coast’s greatest treasures. Nantahala National Forest is home to one of the largest stands of old growth forest left on the continent, unchanged for centuries. The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness here is home to some of the oldest trees on the east coast – sugar maples, hemlocks, oaks and poplars from pre-Columbian times.
You can even take a zipline canopy tour of the beautiful Nantahala River Gorge. We don’t operate it ourselves, but we’ll happily point you that way, because it gives you views unlike anything else in the country.
If you’re coming in from the west, you can even detour through the Tail of the Dragon on your way in. America’s most exciting road, this stretch of U.S. highway 129 offers 318 turns in just 11 miles. You’ll want to drive it carefully and look out for the motorcyclists who flock to it like Mecca, but it’s a terrifically fun half hour of driving.
First Day, Afternoon – Paddle the Edisto River
As stunning as the gorge is, you’ll want to leave it before noon. It’s nearly a five-hour drive to pick up the canoe that will take you to your treehouse for the night. Yeah, we said that.
You’re headed to a blackwater river. A unique form of ecosystem, it’s a slow-moving, wide and shallow river through forested swamps. Blackwater rivers take their name from the tannins that leach into the tea-dark water from fallen leaves. This means water dense with nutrients and full of wildlife, but often, shallow enough to step out and stand in. The Edisto is lined with sandy beaches, making for an easy paddle and a billion spots to pull out, stretch, and photograph the deer and egrets that will be your companions.
Carolina Heritage Outfitters in Canadys, South Carolina is the place to make your reservations, because they own a network of treehouses built right into the cypress trees that grow out of the water.
It’s camping. There’s no electricity or running water. But it’s camping above the river itself, with hammocks slung out over the water and sturdy porches with rocking chairs to read in. You’ll probably never want to leave.
Second Day, Morning – Paddle with Dolphins at Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge
But you will leave, because there are bottlenose dolphins waiting for you just an hour and a half east.
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is the place to find them. About 20 miles north of Charleston, the refuge encompasses more than 66,000 acres of barrier islands, fecund salt marshes and coastal waterways where salt water blends with fresh.
It’s teeming with wildlife, but the ones you’ll want to see most are the bottlenose dolphins that call it home. And they’re not hard to find. We’d plan a paddle around Bull Island (It’s Bull Island on maps, but Bulls Island to locals), one of the largest protected barrier islands.
But pay careful attention to posted signs. This is loggerhead turtle nesting ground, and rangers routinely block off large sections of beach from human contact to protect the threatened species.
Second Day, Afternoon – Hang Glide at Kitty Hawk
We’d finish our weekend in the air.
There’s a reason the first human-powered flight took place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Steady Atlantic winds and tall sand dunes make it easy to leave the ground there. Dozens do it every day, with hang gliding lessons at Jockey Ridge State Park.
Give Kitty Hawk Kites three hours, and they’ll get you off the ground for five flights. The sand below is soft, so your landing needn’t be skilled.
The more adventurous can sign up for a tandem flight, soaring 2,000 feet over the beautiful marsh islands of Currituck sound.
If you book the late Sunday afternoon lesson, your adventure will wrap up with just enough time to catch the sunset from the beaches of Nags Head.
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