Kauai Activities

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Stunning cliff trail to Waipoo Falls

While the Kalalau trail was a major priority and highlight for our trip, there were many other equally amazing adventures to be had on Kauai. Here are few more of our favorites. Most of the headings have links to more information and/or the exact company we used for a specific activity.

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Waimea Canyon

Western Kauai

Waimea Canyon– This place is unreal. People call it the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and it is pretty mind blowing. We did a couple small runs here too and would have loved to explore more.

Na Pali Coast Overlook- Amazing views of the coast and what looked to be some pretty sweet campgrounds along the way. This was an especially magical place at sunset. When we got there, almost no one was around. There were huge wild hydrangea bushes in full bloom and locals were hiking down past the fence to reach more views. It’s probably a little more dangerous than just taking things in from the overlook, but we couldn’t resist following just a little ways to check it out.

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Just below the Na Pali coast overlook

The Saddle Room – Delicious burger place in Waimea. Fun atmosphere and really good food. It is pretty low key, but it’s attached to Wrangler’s, a fancier steak house.

Little Fish Coffee– This was a really fun coffee spot in Hanapepe. We had wonderful affogatos here.

Na Pali Coast Kayak Trip– The most intense kayaking trip I’ve ever done. The company we went with calls it the Mount Everest of kayaking and awards you a certificate upon completion of the excursion while National Geographic has named it one of the top 40  Best American adventures. It’s around 17 miles of guided sea kayaking. You get to see the entire Na Pali coast up close in one day as well as spinner dolphins, sea turtles, waterfalls,  awesome beaches and much more. The trip includes lunch and guides (which we were SO grateful for).

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Na Pali Coast paddling trip

After doing the trip, I had no desire to ever try it unassisted. The conditions felt a little crazy to me and apparently it was a very average day in regards to ocean swell, wind, etc. When you look at the ocean from a distance it looks relatively smooth, but when you are actually out on the ocean you can get on these massive swells and backwash off the cliffs that make your neighbors disappear and send you soaring.  It’s very cool, but it is no joke. We fell out once or twice, as did most of the group, and it really wasn’t a big deal since we had an easy system for getting back in, we were wearing pfds and everything we brought was in waterproof bags lashed to the boat; however, it was a bit scary initially and it definitely cemented my healthy respect for the ocean. The guides give you great safety training and directions and they are especially helpful during the beach landings where you can get pummeled if you’re not careful.  I had the misfortune of feeling seasick for about half the trip, so I would highly recommend bringing a remedy for that if you have ever had any semblance of motion sickness.  I never actually got sick, but other people did and it takes away from a really exciting and amazing experience. It is very cool to propel yourself through the ocean along one of the most beautiful places in the world–absolutely unforgettable!

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Polihale Beach, the gorgeous finale of the trip

North Shore Kauai

Kealia Farm Market- This small market was our favorite by far! We got INCREDIBLE fresh sashimi grade tuna for a really reasonable price, as well as some beautiful vegetables. The guy who sold the fish also served a couple of cooked dinner items ($7-10). They were amazing as well. 3-7pm Mondays and Fridays, bring Cash

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Kealia Farm Dinner- grilled pesto fish with local greens

 

Ke’e Beach– The “end of the road” northernmost beach at the base of the Kalalau trail. This spot was beautiful–cliffs plunging into the Pacific Ocean–and we had our best snorkeling here.

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Ke’e Beach from the water

Kamokila Hawaiian Village–  This was a really neat spot near Kapaa. We toured the village, rented kayaks for a very reasonable price and did a short paddle on Wailua River + a hike to a waterfall. Great shaved ice in a food truck on site!

“Tourist” Lumahai Beach – Gorgeous beach, local favorite, not great for swimming depending on the season. It was calm while we were there (in early June) and lots of people were jumping off the lava shelf into the ocean, but apparently it can be very treacherous at times.

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Tourist Lumahai

South/East Kaui

Wailua Shave Ice– This was probably my favorite shaved ice spot. It was the last one we went to and it was really great. They make all their ices with local fruit–so delcious–and they had a yelp coupon the day we went!

The Greenery– Amazing restaurant in Lihue featuring local, organic soul food fare. This is where we landed, jet-lagged and starving after leaving the airport. It was incredible. They were about to close for the day, but with true Hawaiian hospitality they served us some absolutely delicious food.

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The stunning local fruit

Huli Chicken– This is an easy-to-miss roadside stand in Anahola. They slowly grill whole chickens over hot coals and it is outrageously moist and flavorful. They have limited hours and do sell out so get there early if you can. We also got mountain apples at their farm stand.

 

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Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

 

 

Kalalau Trail Run

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Kalalau Trail, Na Pali Coast of Kauai

One of our top priorities in Kauai was doing a long run on the Kalalau trail along the Na Pali coast. You absolutely have to check out this trail if you go to Kauai. Even if you just hike the first mile or two, you will see so much beauty and catch absolutely epic views of dramatic cliffs and sparkling little beaches. The tropical plants, flowers and birds are surreal and if you can get past the more crowded beginning of the trail it really starts to feel prehistoric out there–quiet and beautiful like the world was just created. This place is stunning and totally draws you in, but we had a rather difficult time sorting out what was possible for us to legally do in a day trip. If you go to the Hawaii State Parks website  you will see all the rules and warnings about how far you can go with and without a camping permit. As of March 1, 2015, you have to get an overnight camping permit to hike/run beyond Hanakapi’ai Beach (2 miles in), even if you’re not camping. The goal of this is to prevent overcrowding, reduce trash, and increase safety on the trail which is obviously great; however, we were super disappointed when we saw that because the permits were completely gone for the time frame we were traveling. Thankfully, we emailed the park and got permission to run 6 miles in. So, if you don’t get an overnight permit and you’re truly planning to run in and out on the same day over the course of a few hours, an email may be worth a try.

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Hanakapi’ai Beach: 2 miles in, usually a little rough for swimming

It is important to note that the trail is pretty intense, with water crossings, sheer drop offs and loose rocks in some places (especially after the first two miles). In the 6 mile section that we tackled, it never got to the really tricky, edge-along-on-your tiptoes, total palm sweat areas that we saw on some You Tube videos, but it is good to be careful and more aware the further you go. The trail is also extremely hilly and potentially very hot with a lot of direct sun on the exposed ridges. Within our 12 mile round trip jaunt on the trail, we gained nearly 10,000 feet of elevation. It was crazy. The views are so distracting and the whole thing feels like such a massive adventure you don’t realize how much you’re doing until the exhaustion starts setting in. That’s why you will see many warnings on the internet, in guidebooks, and even at the trail head. It is kind of wild out there and depending on the weather, it can get pretty sketchy.  You absolutely have to be careful and know your limits, but if you can manage that, it really is an adventure of a lifetime.

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The View

My biggest piece of advice based on our experience is to bring plenty of snacks, water and some kind of water treatment in case you run out. We are experienced trail runners, but we still underestimated the time it would take us to do this run and used 3 liters of water between the two of us before running out with a mile or two to go in the blazing sun. Thankfully, it worked out and some angelic person was selling coconut water straight from the coconut at the bottom of the trail, but it was sobering to us to realize how close we cut it. Multiple times we have looked back and decided it was a miracle our water lasted as long as it did. So, pack carefully and try not to over do it even though it is very tempting to just keep going!

Note: Parking at the trail head is limited and can fill up pretty early in the day. We ending up parking at Tunnels Beach and starting the run on the road. This is not ideal as it added 3 miles to the run, but it is an option if there is no parking. Also, bring along plenty of snacks/food for after the run too. My memory is that there were not tons of places out there to grab dinner.

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Deep in the Na Pali Coast

 

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Views down the coast

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!!

Kauai

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Shaka on the Kalalau trail

So typically I post about places within easy striking distance of Greenville, SC, but today I wanted to share about an amazing place we had the opportunity to visit that is basically the opposite of easy striking distance. This past June, my husband and I got to go to Kauai, Hawaii. We were planning to do something fun for our five year anniversary and when airfare to Hawaii dropped hundreds of dollars lower than I had ever seen it, our choice became easy. Apparently last year and even 2016 are proving to be better years for travel due to lower fuel prices, so if you’re considering the trip, now might be a good time to jump on it.

I would recommend that anyone considering Kauai for a vacation take the opportunity. Hawaii is every bit as beautiful and unique as people claim. I’ve been to multiple Caribbean islands (St. John, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel- all incredible places!), but Hawaii, particularly Kauai, still felt special and worth the lengthy flight and subsequent jet lag.  In many places, the air is infused with exotic bird songs and literally smells like flowers and fruit . The water is dramatically blue and speckled with spinner dolphins, giant sea turtles and neon fish that hardly seemed real. You get the contrasting beauty of dramatic volcanic mountains and multi-hued beaches. Then, there are the sunsets–soft golden light making a haze over the jagged  hills with fiery orange and pink finishes or the flourish of a rainbow. It really is magical.

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Sunset hike below the Nepali Overlook, West Kauai

Each island has its charms, but for us, Kauai was a great fit. We love to do outdoorsy things and prefer a less touristy more natural environment. Some blogs and travel forums talked about it lacking some of the restaurants and tourist options that other islands have, but we did not find this to be a problem. There was only one night we had trouble finding a place to eat because it got a little late on a weeknight and everything seemed to be shutting down. Even then, the problem wasn’t a complete lack of options. We were just being picky and looking for something amazing, relatively cheap, and also casual. Our take away was that you need to plan, but if you do, there are plenty of great places to get food. As far as activities go, we had a full week in Kauai and did not even come close to getting bored.

There are so many things I could recommend in Kauai, from tiny honor-system fruit stands and stunning snorkeling with giant sea turtles to the famous farmer’s markets and paddle boarding in Hanalei Bay. However, I will try to limit this list to a few highlights (more to come in the next post):

To Stay:

If you’re looking for the lush, green tropical feel, I would definitely recommend the North Eastern side of Kaui as a home base for your trip. We picked two spots in that part of the island and as much as we loved the whole island, that area continued to feel the prettiest. At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong staying anywhere, but we loved these spots.

Princeville– We stayed at  Hale ‘O Imi Loa , a VRBO rental that we were very happy with. It was very comfortable, clean, and pretty. The location worked really well as it was close to Hanalei, not far from the Kalalau trail, and a reasonable distance from everything else we wanted to check out

Kilauea– We had an amazing experience at the  Kauai Retreat Center with our Airbnb host, Hilary. This place was lovely and the breakfast was so fun! Delicious fresh fruit and flowers were out everyday and the whole place was super clean. It is very airy and bright. You can hear people out in the common areas because all the windows stay open to keep the temperature comfortable; however, the beauty and cleanliness of the spot outweighed that little inconvenience.

                                                                                         Eat and Explore:

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Queen’s Bath

The Queen’s Bath- A hotly debated spot, I found. Many people shared horror stories about the dangers of this place and others described a beautiful, peaceful must-do excursion.  For us, it was a cool hike to a gorgeous turquoise pool; however, we could totally see where the potential danger comes in. The waves really crash in and if it’s a particularly wild day, you can get swept out of the pool or off the rock wall that creates it. If you go, definitely be careful and don’t underestimate the ocean. We heard that locals will watch any swimming spot for at least a little while before getting in, just to get a feel for how the water seems to be acting on a given day.

Hanalei Bay– Gorgeous bay, perfect for SUPs and catching sunsets. We rented paddle boards from the place that hosts Napali Kayak tours and Kauai’s North Shore Surfing School. This location is in Hanalei and the price was reasonable. They even helped us strap them on the rental car.

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Paddle boarding on Hanalei Bay

Hanalei Farmer’s Market-  Top notch market with a great view.

Lei Petite Bakery and Coffee– Great little Princeville breakfast spot. We loved the Acai bowls and the eggs Benedict dish was good too.

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Acai bowl at Lei Petite

Pink’s Creamery– smoothies, ice cream and Hawaiian grilled cheese

The Dolphin – Great market for fresh local fish! Not the crazy deals of the farm markets, but reliably delicious.

Trucking Delicious– gourmet grilled cheese food truck

Puka Dog– Funny name, but these are actually tasty Hawaiian hot dogs.

 

 

 

 

 

Jones Gap Trail

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Several months ago, I mentioned Jones Gap State Park as a must-see nook in the Upstate’s park scene. At that time, we were working on completing an out-and-back route on one of the main trails, Jones Gap Trail. We have since completed it twice, run large chunks of it many times and started counting it as an all-time favorite. It is between 10 and 11 miles long, depending on whether you start/end at the parking lot and which fork you take at the end of the run, and it is a perfect run for easing into more distance on the trail. It is one of those trails that climbs so gradually, you hardly notice it visually. If you are like David and me, you feel a slight persistent burning that gets chalked up to “warming up” or a “rough start” and it’s not until you come flying down on the return journey, feeling like a million bucks and thinking about how great your endurance is that you begin to suspect, “Oh, maybe this whole run was uphill until I turned around. That’s why I felt slightly terrible at the beginning and now, I feel awesome!

IMG_2626This scenario played out multiple times, but ironically, by the end of every run on this trail, we would always forget that the first half was somewhat challenging and log the run away as basically flat and pretty easy. Then we would come back to it months later and wonder how we ever arrived at that conclusion–until the massive gradual downhill hit again, boosted our energy, and supplied so many endorphins that once again we forgot that we climbed uphill for more than 4-5 miles.

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Finally, sometime last year we conquered this run in it’s entirety and it was such a good feeling. We had almost finished so many times, but something always prevented it–lack of snacks, lack of time, early trail closing etc. This continues to be one of our favorite long run locations. It is always beautiful and exciting to look forward to our favorite creek crossings and waterfalls along the way.

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Getting there: Jones Gap State Park is located about 45 minutes from Greenville and only 25 minutes from Travelers Rest.  We typically take 25 N, make a left onto Gap Creek Road and follow it back to the park, but there may be quicker routes depending on where you are coming from.  Once you park in the main lot, follow the small spur trail (a nice mulched path) into the woods, cross the foot bridge over the bubbling mountain stream and make your way left down the sidewalk toward the ranger station (on your right) and another bridge which you will cross. The trail and trail map are on your right. Take Jones Gap Trail all the way to its conclusion and turn around to return the way you came.

What to eat: We love hitting Sidewall Pizza or Tandem Creperie in TR on the way home. Both places are amazing and we enjoy both regularly as we come and go from this run.

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Zoe on the dog-friendly porch at Tandem post-run

Good to know: Cell service on Gap Creek Rd. and in the park are very spotty. There are nice bathrooms in the park on the way from the parking lot to the main trail. Near the end of the trail, you will have the option of taking a foot bridge that leads to the right or continuing straight. Going right, over the bridge, takes you to the end of Jones Gap trail. Continuing straight takes you up one more sizable hill to another parking area. Both routes are great, but the straight route is definitely more difficult.

Appalachian Trail Run : Newfound Gap to the Jump Off and Beyond

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Elk spotting in the park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The name sounds as grand and imposing as the mountains it encompasses. Surprisingly close to the glaring lights and endless man-made entertainments of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, sits this pristine beacon of natural beauty and real adventure. The first time I visited, my husband and I were on a couple’s retreat with friends from church in the Pigeon Forge area. We were banking on getting some running in and knew the park was not far away, so we decided to check it out.  Little did I know how truly spectacular this place is, how intense the trails can be, and how common it is for spring snows to linger at those elevations. We got a couple runs in on that trip, one of which was extremely icy, and another that has become a particular favorite. The Appalachian trail section from Newfound Gap to the Jump Off is a moderate but steady climb that challenges and awes us every time we go. I still vividly remember the woodsy perfume of the pines that surrounded us as we passed into the higher elevations that first day. This, combined with plummeting views on both sides as we reached the apex of the Jump Off, created a stunning impression; even so, nearly four years passed before we managed to make it back to the Smoky Mountains and more specifically that trail.

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Ironically, we were returning from another couple’s retreat with church friends when we came within range of the park again. On a whim, we decided to detour in and re-attempt the Newfound Gap run. As we climbed the section of Appalachian trail leading to the Jump Off we quickly began to encounter a good bit of snow and ice. It was magical, but slow going and we ended up turning back before reaching the summit we had hoped for.

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Nevertheless, the bug to run in the Smokies had taken hold and a couple weekends ago we managed to return.  With cool, sunny weather we plowed through the 3+ miles to the Jump Off much more quickly and enjoyed absolutely spectacular views. Though the drifts of several weeks earlier were melted away at the base of the trail, this ridge line still boasted fantastic snow-capped trees that looked as if they were perfectly coated with thick glistening icing.

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The wind was whipping through them ferociously creating a refrigerator effect that was kind of incredible, but also intensely cold. It was an exhilarating experience that reiterated the way in which each visit to an area can feel unique. So much can change the landscape and allow for different beauty, sights, and sensations.

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We returned from the spur trail that led to the Jump Off and kept plunging forward on the main trail to get in a bit of extra mileage. Signs pointed to Mount LeConte and we discussed the possibility of returning for a long run up and back to that famous peak, but for that day we just added a couple of extra miles before returning to the Newfound Gap parking lot.

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This run is so much fun. You are rewarded with great views along the way, the intoxicating smell of firs as you gain elevation, and a panoramic view on the Jump Off that is quite an epic finale (or intermission).

Getting Here:  This place is relatively easy to find. Just follow directions to Newfound Gap parking lot and take the Appalachian trail heading east toward Boulevard Trail and Mount Leconte. There is a sign for the Jump Off shortly past the Boulevard Trail. The trail climbs pretty steadily over the first half of the run, but you can enjoy a nice downhill on your return since this is an out-and-back route.

What to Eat: You have several options depending on your preferred route home and where you call home. If you’re heading back to the Upstate area, you can come through Asheville and hit any number of wonderful spots or if you get detoured off the Blue Ridge Parkway and end up in Rosman, NC (like we did) you can take your starving self over to La Casita. This was a delicious hidden jewel of a place in our book. We got the “special” guacamole, delightful endless chips and salsa, and split a trio of different enchiladas (chicken mole and verde) and a steak taco with a stuffed poblano instead of rice and beans. Everything was so good!

Good to Know: Cell service (at least for Verizon) is very spotty in this area. Make sure you have your directions pulled up and figured out before you enter the park. There are bathrooms here which is always a nice perk. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on this trail. It seems like that is pretty common knowledge, but we didn’t know until this trip that it is actually illegal and carries a hefty fine if you’re caught. Yikes!

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh! Even when your smile is frozen😉

Lake Robinson

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When we need a quick escape on the water, there is nothing like a sunset paddle on Lake Robinson. It’s only 25 minutes away from our house, the view is lovely, and it usually boasts very smooth calm waters.  If you visit on a clear day, there are gently sloping foothills and sharper angled mountains piling up at the base of the lake, but on any day you are treated to a heavily tree lined, very clean body of water that is quite pleasant and quiet. Motors over 10 HP are forbidden, so there is not much wake or high speed traffic to worry about, and with the exception of the odd fishing boat or pontoon, we have often found the whole 800 acre lake essentially unoccupied. Though Robinson is bordered by homes, they are well-spaced and Greer Commission of Public Works maintains strict guidelines about cutting down trees and building within the 50 foot margin they control along the shore. I’m sure this gets trying for the home owners at times, but it has kept the lake looking very peaceful and natural.

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For some amount of time, I had very little interest in Lake Robinson because of what felt like so many rules and regulations. I am not a rule breaker. I don’t like getting in trouble. Maybe it’s because I’m a firstborn, maybe it’s just being a people pleaser in general (something I’m trying to work on); whatever the case may be, it made me feel nervous to have so many do’s and don’ts, like it would be easy to mess up by accident and get scolded. Paddle boards are off limits ( a posted sign now states this specifically) and online there is a whole list of motorized and non-motorized water sports that are likewise forbidden. Swimming is also off limits in these enticing, pristine waters, and for awhile, I felt like half the fun of kayaking was being able to jump in if you wanted to! All together, I had the impression of Lake Robinson being a stuffy, somewhat stifling place, but I really hadn’t given it much of a chance.

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No rules against selfie sticks!

When I actually began to visit the lake and go paddling there more regularly, I found a lot to like. We had some very friendly interactions with the wardens (no scolding :)), and I decided that touring kayaks are not super conducive to getting in and out for a quick dip in the middle of a lake anyway. It’s doable, but not super tempting to me.  I also learned to appreciate Lake Robinson for what it is instead of being disappointed and intimidated by what it is not. If you want a spot where you can swim, roll your kayak, try out your new paddle boards, go camping or beach your boats for a picnic in a hidden cove–this is not it. (See instead, Lake Jocassee) However, if you live in or around Greenville and want to crank out up to 9ish miles of paddling in a lovely, peaceful setting before breakfast or after work, this is a very convenient spot. You can get to it quickly and the access area is very convenient, well kept and inexpensive (only $3/kayak * Update: The day pass price went up to $20 this year (2015), while the year pass remains $30. I think it’s safe to say they are encouraging the yearly pass. We found this change super frustrating, but the lake is still an amazing spot. ). There are many nice spots to just sit and soak in the beauty or eat a lunch. Nice bathrooms are available and supposedly there is some decent fishing to boot.

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After realizing this and getting more excited about paddling as an adventure-workout that is possible during all of our relatively mild seasons, I came to appreciate Lake Robinson much more. We have visited numerous times over the last few months and the convenience combined with its natural beauty have me fully sold on this spot. If you haven’t been, you should go, even if it’s just for a picnic.*

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Photo Credit: David Nigh

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

*Note: Kayaks can be rented at Half Moon Outfitters in Greenville, Rock’s Country Store across from the park entrance, and Sunrift Adventures in Travelers Rest. If you do kayak, make sure to bring a life vest and a whistle. Free whistles can be obtained from the warden, but you could be warned/or fined without these items. Passes are obtained from the warden’s office.

Nature’s Stair Master and a Cabin in the Woods

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This past weekend, we celebrated my husband’s birthday by making our way up to Bakersville, NC.  A friend mentioned Roan Mountain as a beautiful place we should explore, and since Bakersville is the “gateway to Roan Mountain”, it was the perfect jumping off point.  We discovered a lovely little cabin on VRBO called Birdtown Guesthouse which was situated about 25 minutes from the mountain and nestled amidst plenty of smaller peaks in its own right. The property is comprised of 60 acres including nearly 4 miles of trails. These trails were crazy–beautiful and fun, but crazy!

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The “easier” trail behind the cabin

As soon as we got there Saturday, we decided to strike out for a quick jog. The property owner warned us that one trail was somewhat steep and the other was VERY steep. We started on the “easier” trail and quickly decided that we might have gotten mixed up and landed on the steeper one. The trail climbed almost immediately crossing frozen streams and weaving through snow-specked leaf piles. It was intense and straight up for the most part until we reached an amazing ridge line with stellar views.

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View from the cabin

We retraced our steps and headed up the opposite trail only to realize it actually was the harder trail. It felt like a stair-stepper exercise machine that would not end. Our calves were burning, our glutes and thighs were on fire, and if something in our legs didn’t hurt on the way up, it got jostled and shaken until it did on the way down. We were kind of cracking up, between heaving gasps for air, about how we thought the other one was tough. Thankfully, the payoff in views was well worth the push up those hills. The second trail opened up into a meadow on top of the ridge and again we got to soak in waves of mountains basking in the chilly setting sun.We could not get over how cool it was that this cabin had such incredible trails right out the back door. Though the mileage was not particularly extensive, the workout was more than enough.

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Jane Bald in the distance

The next day we headed up toward Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail at Carver’s Gap. This area is right on the Tennessee/North Carolina line. After all the hype we had built up in our minds about Roan, we actually  ended up running North on the Appalchian trail (the opposite direction) towards some other balds.

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From the ascent of Jane Bald

Round Bald (5826′), Jane Bald (5807′), and Grassy Ridge Bald (6139′) comprised the majority of our run, and they did not disappoint. The views were absolutely incredible. Summiting these three balds and coming back was a distance of about 5 miles. In spite of gray skies and a very blustery wind, we had a wonderful run and cannot wait to go back.

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Grassy Ridge Bald

Getting There:  To get to Roan Mountain or this section of the Appalachian trail, type Carver’s Gap, Pisgah National Forest, Fork Mountain-Little Rock Creek, NC 28705 into your GPS or google maps. To check out the awesome cabin  and access those trails, look on their website or find it on Airbnb, VRBO, or Homeaway under Bakersville, NC vacation rentals.

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Coffee on the back porch of the cabin

What to Eat: Food is always a consideration, but if you plan on going up here, especially in an off season (like January), you really need to plan well. There are not many places to begin with and in winter many are closed or have limited hours. Bakersville has a Dollar General where I imagine you can get some snack things and basic groceries. Spruce Pine is probably 30-40 minutes away from Carver’s Gap and they have a very good pizza place called The Pizza Shop at Dry County Brewing. Knife and Fork is also very good as well as their bar, Spoon. Both places have excellent farm to table fare. In Bakersville, there were a few restaurants that looked fun, but nothing was open over the time that we were there. Again, I think a lot of this had to do with it being off-season. One other cool stop in Bakersville is Oak Moon Dairy and Cheese shop. This place was so cool! The goat cheese is incredible.

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Good to Know: This may be obvious, but it is colder at those higher elevations than it is in town. Make sure you pack good layers. Also, phone service is VERY spotty. It’s decent in Bakersville, but pretty bad on the trails and at the cabin.

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Look for adventure far and nigh!

A Christmas Tree Expedition and Foothills Trail Run

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This year everything seemed to fly by and the holiday season is proving no exception. Thanksgiving came and went and suddenly we were a week into December with no Christmas tree.  Every year since we got married, David and I have gone somewhere special to pick out a Christmas tree and chop it down.  It’s unnecessary and sometimes overpriced, but it’s also a really fun tradition. I highly recommend just going for it, at least once. The last two years we have gone to a place called Zeigler’s in Brevard, North Carolina. It’s family run, beautiful, isolated in the middle of Pisgah National Forest, and very reasonably priced.

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We were headed there this year with the intention of snagging a tree and catching a run in the mountains on our way home, but daylight was fading quickly. As we were sorting through our options, we stumbled upon another smaller farm right along the road and decided to check it out. The trees looked so perfect and they were advertised as the highly desirable Fraser firs. We decided it couldn’t hurt to do a price check and ended up getting a gorgeous 10-11 foot tree for $45!  It was such a cool Christmas blessing, and since it was 45 minutes closer than the other spot we had enough daylight for a quick run on the Foothills trail. 

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The Foothills trail is a legendary spot to us. We have heard several crazy stories about it–friends thru-hiking it over a weekend ending in tears of relief, others attempting it only to be thwarted by exhaustion induced illness etc. There have also been some amazing photos posted of it, vistas overlooking Lake Joccassee, plummeting waterfalls and winding single track trails.  This past weekend, we finally got our first taste of this spot and it was kind of by accident. We were headed up to get the Christmas tree when we decided to follow a large wooden sign that pointed to the Foothills Trail just to see where it took us and what it was like.

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In the parking area at the top of a winding dirt road, we found this weathered sign which pointed to Laurel Falls 8.1 miles away. We knew from some earlier research that this falls pours into the stunning expanse of Lake Joccassee. It was amazing to us that one of our favorite destinations was only 8 miles away down the Foothills trail. Since we only had about 30 minutes of daylight left after getting our giant Griswoldian tree hoisted onto the car, we did not make it to the lake; however, we did get a little taste of an awesome new trail that is just over an hour from Greenville. Now we are plotting a mild winter day excursion run to the lake and back. Who’s with us?

Getting There: Head up 178 N (Pickens Highway) toward Brevard.  A large wooden sign denotes the Foothills Trail on the left. The small Christmas tree farm is on your left about 10 minutes past this sign. If you reach signs for The Wilds camp (also on the left), you’ve gone too far by about a mile.

Running the Trail: Proceed up the winding dirt road past the wooden sign for about half a mile. It will lead you to a gravel parking area or the road continues (we did not explore beyond the parking area by car). On foot, head towards the continuing gravel/dirt road and almost immediately you will see signs for the Foothills Trail on the right and steep steps leading up from the road into the woods. Run out and back as far as you like following the white blazes.

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Look for adventure far and nigh!

Art Loeb Trail Run- Black Balsam to Shining Rock Loop

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Location: This is an amazing trail with stunning panoramic views of the mountains, Shining Rock Wilderness, and Pisgah National Forest. The section of the Art Loeb Trail beginning at Black Balsam Knob, is beautiful and challenging.  There are ups and downs, technical footing, and a lovely variety of sceneries.  It is great for hiking or running. We completed a roughly 9 mile loop that included one section of out and back running. The exact route we took is detailed below.

Getting There: Black Balsam Knob is about 1 hour 45 minutes away from the Greenville area. If you’re leaving Greenville, take 25 N towards Hendersonville to 26 W. Get off at Exit 37, turn left NC-146 W. Take a right on Clayton road. Continue 1.3 miles. Slight right onto NC-191 N. Continue 1.2 miles. Turn left onto the Blue Ridge Pkwy. Continue 26.8 miles. Then, turn right onto Black Balsam Knob Rd. Continue to the end parking lot or park in one of the designated spots along the road. The Art Loeb trail begins on the right side of Black Balsam Knob Rd. as you’re driving in towards the parking lot. There are parking spaces beside the trail head and it is well-marked.

What to Bring: Running shoes- preferably trail shoes, lots of layers- It is always colder here than in the valleys and the weather can be very changeable at this altitude (around 6,000 ft), water/snacks (for during or after since you’re a bit isolated from restaurants and stores), change of clothes if you run it and don’t want to feel sweaty or chilled all the way home

Where to Eat: We love having a fun meal to look forward to after a big run. Farm Burger in Asheville, NC is one of our current favorites and an easy detour on the way back from Black Balsam (roughly an hour from Black Balsam). West First Pizza in Hendersonville, NC is another awesome post-run stop (also roughly an hour). We’ve enjoyed Mayberry’s Soups and Sandwiches in Brevard on several occasions too (around 45 mins away).

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The secret garden

What an enchanting run this is. David and I have run and hiked parts of this loop on multiple occasions, but until this day, we had never delved very far into the Shining Rock Wilderness. We needed a longer run since we were training for a trail half marathon and we always like having a goal destination to run to, so we decided to try to find Shining Rock. Until planning this run, I didn’t know that there was in fact a “shining rock” which gave the wilderness area its name. As it turns out, there is snow white quartz at the top of a mountain in the wilderness area which is rather eye catching amidst the other more common rock features in the area.

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View from the top of Shining Rock including some of the unusual snow quartz.

We parked at the trail head for the Art Loeb Trail which is found on Black Balsam Knob road. Our run took us up and over Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, through a large gap-like clearing area with signage pointing towards Ivestor Gap and then through Ivestor Gap itself where we were welcomed to the Shining Rock Wilderness. Here we decided to stay to the right on the Art Loeb trail instead of taking the left fork onto Ivestor Gap trail. We tried to stay on the Art Loeb for our entire outward journey just to keep it simple and avoid getting lost.

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This led us around and over another mountain which I believe was Flower Knob. It was kind of hard to tell because once you’re in the wilderness area nothing is signed. We got to a smallish grassy clearing eventually where there was a piece of orange/pink tape dangling. This seemed to mark the spot where Ivestor Gap trail emerged from our left, but we weren’t positive about that either. We kept going along a bit of a ridge line until we started climbing once more. We had begun to wonder if we were still headed the right direction when we hit over 4 miles with no sign of the white quartz that would mark Shining Rock, but at last it started to appear scattered along the path. We hit the top around 4.5 miles which was what we had hoped would be the case based on our research of this route. After some pictures, we turned back retracing our steps exactly until we came to the clearing at the base of Tennent Mountain. Instead of ascending on the trail to the left, we took the lower trail to the right which circumvents Tennent and Black Balsam returning you to the parking lot at the end of Black Balsam Knob road. This path is pretty wide and flat, however there are a ton of loose rocks, and if it’s rained lately the whole thing can be somewhat flooded. This does not make it impassable, but it can slow you down if you don’t want wet feet.

The only bummer about looping back like this is that you have nearly half a mile on the road once you reach the parking lot if you parked at the Art Loeb Trail head. We always dislike ending on pavement after longer runs. It just hurts, but finishing the loop is satisfying and at least the footing was super easy! If you need a great day hike, trail run, picnic or backpacking spot, this one is hard to beat. You could go out for a much shorter distance and still enjoy stunning views and wild beauty. Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

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Sam’s Gap to Big Bald Trail Run

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Big Bald in the distance

What is it? This is an awesome trail run or hike. The views from the top are outrageously stunning. Follow the white rectangular blazes to stay on the AT. The hike is 6.5 miles out and 13 miles round trip. There are a couple of springs along the way which are nice for rehydrating your canine friends. We carried hydration packs, but I guess you could also treat the spring water and carry less in. The run took us about 3 hours and 20 minutes. That included a decent number of photo stops along the way, but not our time at the top. More details about the run can be found below.

Getting here: Head north out of Asheville on I-26 N until you get to the Wold Laurel ski lodge exit. Take a right off of the exit. Go over the bridge and take a left on 23. You will pass Little Creek Cafe and continue a couple of miles until you see a parking area on either side of the road right before it passes under an overpass of I-26. We parked in the parking section on the right and jumped on the gravel walking path that led to the AT. Across the road (on the left side), the AT heads south to Hogback shelter. If you end up there, then you have gone the wrong direction.

Where to eat: Treat yourself to Farm Burger or any of the other amazing Asheville restaurants that you will pass on your return journey.

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View from the top

Today, I want to talk about a run from this past weekend that is definitely one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring excursions we have ever done. As previously mentioned, my husband and I absolutely love trail running. It is exhilarating, interesting, challenging, and satisfying in different ways each time we go; however, some runs really reinvigorate your whole perspective on the sport and get you excited about exploring and pushing yourself to new limits. Our run to Big Bald, one of many stunning spots along the famous Appalachian Trail, did exactly that. We first heard about it as a running destination through an awesome blog called iRunfar.com. Here it is listed as a moderate run about 30 minutes outside of Asheville. One picture was enough to make us drool and instantly decide we had to find this place. Once found, it did not disappoint.

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Running off the edge

The trail to Big Bald from Sam’s Gap is around 6.5 miles long one way, 13 miles round trip. It is replete with the characteristic ups and downs that the AT is known for and sprinkled with different terrain and teasers of the big views ahead. A couple sections are particularly steep, one about a mile in and the other about 5.5 miles in, but much of the trail is just rolling or gradual incline.
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Though our goal was to run the entire thing, some power walking had to happen in places. We have learned to embrace that part of mountain running instead of feeling defeated by it. Sometimes walking is more efficient and sometimes it is all you can do to keep moving forward. It’s a killer workout any way you slice it. Power hiking a mountain doesn’t exactly make it a cake walk…unfortunately.

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When we hit the last steep section before the bald, we began to wonder if we would ever arrive at our destination and if it could really be worth all this effort. We had gotten a kindly tip from a descending hiker that we were “close”, but obviously that means different things to different people. So when we had continued another quarter mile without evidence of Big Bald, we started to feel our burning legs more keenly and lose some momentum. As so often happens, this low point hit as we were finally nearing the goal. Just a few minutes later we emerged from the forest into bright sunshine, waves of mountains, and a grassy slope that disappeared into the bluest sky dotted with cottony clouds. It took my breath away and made me want to cry it was so beautiful. The fact that we had been running for over 90 minutes, just heaved up one final hill and been on a small emotional roller coaster (thinking it was just around the corner only to find out it was not) might have been playing into my feelings a bit, but even as I sit here remembering that moment, I am moved. The whole scene was magnificent, unbounded and for several minutes, we were the only ones in the world experiencing it.

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Throughout the whole hike we passed only a handful of hikers and one group of people camping about 2 miles in. After reaching the top, we were joined by a solo backpacker and two other day hikers. Since it was Saturday and the weather could not have been more perfect, I’m assuming that was a busy day and it was still very peaceful. If you are in the Upstate or western North Carolina, this is a must run and/or hike. It is so worth the effort.

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

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Summit: 360 degrees of this