Throughout the South, many hiking trails that shine in summer and fall downright sparkle in winter. Trees drop their leaves and open up views for miles. Crisp temperatures keep crowds (and undesirable critters) at bay. And yes, sometimes it snows. These seven parks are particularly magical destinations for a wintertime hike.
Sylva, North Carolina
Escape to the town of Sylva, North Carolina, for an idyllic hike through Fraser firs and red spruce trees. The Pinnacle Trail will present a workout as you ascend over two thousand feet in three and a half miles one way, but the 360-degree view of Appalachian peaks in clear winter air makes the climb well worth it. Another option is the relaxing half-mile Lower Loop trail; it’s the only certified Forest Therapy Trail in North Carolina (and one of just twenty in the world). Listen to the online audio guide as you connect with nature at your own pace—then drop into town for a hot chocolate at White Moon Cafe.
Tucker County, West Virginia
At an elevation of about 3,500 feet, Blackwater Falls State Park receives some of the most snowfall in West Virginia, and there are plenty of frost-framed cascades to discover here. Follow the boardwalk down to the namesake Blackwater Falls, or see the amber-hued waters of Elakala Falls, stained by hemlock and red spruce needles. But don’t leave until you’ve hiked to Lindy Point, a popular overlook with a breathtaking view of Blackwater Canyon. Visitors can also cross-country ski or take a ride on the longest sled run on the East Coast. And when it’s time to warm up, stop by TipTop in the nearby town of Thomas for coffee and a pastry.
Less crowded than most parks in proximity to Atlanta, Chattahoochee Bend offers views of granite outcrops as you hike through a riverside forest, where, in the winter, skeletal trees provide a clear sight of the glittering Chattahoochee River. Keep an eye out for the bright colors of winter berries and woodpeckers, and after your hike, swing by Leaf & Bean in Newnan for a coffee or their renowned lavender lemonade.
Virginia’s Hungry Mother State Park has trails for all skill levels, but if you’re up for a challenge, hit the Molly’s Knob Trail for expansive views of a mountain winter wonderland (trekking poles recommended). For a more laid-back walk through hemlocks and rhododendrons, choose the Lake Trail, which winds around the edge of a 108-acre lake; while the whole loop is 5.7 miles, you can make it an out-and-back hike at your desired length. Thaw out in the nearby town of Marion with a hot drink and donut at Better Coffee Co.
The fourteen miles of trails in Mount Nebo State Park are worth trekking all year round, but when the leaves drop, some of the best views in Arkansas open up. Hike the popular Rim Trail and be rewarded with a vista of Lake Dardanelle and over one hundred miles of the Arkansas River Valley; take the three-and-half-mile loop in a clockwise direction for a less taxing route. Afterward, swing by Midtown Coffee in Dardanelle to ward off the chill. (Note: If the area is getting inclement weather, check ahead of your visit to make sure the roads aren’t closed. Once the roads are clear, you’ll still have beautiful snowy paths to hike, as the park’s high elevation means the white stuff sticks around for longer.)
When snow falls in Kentucky’s Natural Bridge State Resort Park, the colors of the rock formations pop, and vibrant blue jays and cardinals can be spotted against the white backdrop; it’s quite possibly the best time to hike this park’s enchanting trails. The Natural Bridge, a massive sandstone arch, is awesome to behold from any angle, but the real magic happens when you hike to the top of it and observe a real-life snow globe of a landscape. Break for lunch at the iconic Miguel’s Pizza—it’s just down the road from the park.
Without lush summer vegetation blocking your views, winter is one of the best times to hike to Lookout Mountain’s Sunset Rock. A moderately challenging three-mile, out-and-back adventure starts at the Visitor Center in Point Park and follows the trail to the Ochs Museum, outside of which await breathtaking vistas. From there, you’ll connect to the Bluff Trail and enjoy glimpses of the Lookout Valley through barren trees. Follow the signs to Sunset Rock, where you’ll soak in views of the Tennessee River Gorge, Prentice Cooper State Forest, and the city of Chattanooga itself. After enjoying the scenery, head to the historic St. Elmo neighborhood for a warming beverage at Goodman Coffee Roasters.