10 Triathlon Tips

Triathlon season is in full swing. With a number of great races coming up around Birmingham, including the beginner-friendly Buster Britton Triathlon on July 12th at Oak Mountain State Park, RootsRated asked local professional triathlete Hallie Blunck to share a few tips for a smooth, fast race. Here’s what she said:

1. Pick a local race.
This makes it easier to train on the course before the big day, making you feel more comfortable on race day and less stressed over logistical details. Focus on your race!

2. Join the local triathlon club.
In Birmingham it's the Vulcan Triathletes . With many active dedicated members means you will have access to great knowledge and resources from those who've been in the sport for a while. Training can be mentally and physically challenging. The camaraderie of a group ride can help you overcome those worries. The group is also a great local resource to find  local coaches that fit your lifestyle, goals and fitness level.

3. Borrow gear.
Triathlon can quickly turn into an expensive sport if you try to go "all in" up front and buy everything you need for your first race. It's completely fine to borrow a bike, bike shoes, a helmet, or a wetsuit (or all of the above) for your first race.

4. When you do buy gear, quality matters.
Splurge on a good pair of bike shorts to train in and triathlon shorts or tri suit to race in. Your training will be more enjoyable, sustainable and your delicate parts will thank you.

5. Practice the transitions.
Three segments, two transitions: swim to bike, bike to run. Your legs will feel like Jell-O after the bike, but that feeling goes away. Vulcan Tri offers beginner clinics that teach about race transitions in detail, so you can practice them again and again. On the other hand, don’t fret too much about transitions. If you are just starting, focus on being comfortable first. No need to add stress about forgetting your cycling gloves to shave a few seconds off the overall time. For professionals every second matters. For age group competitors don’t stress out. Transition performance will improve with more experience.

6. Practice open-water swimming.
It’s very different from swimming in a pool. There is no black line on the bottom to follow. Practice sighting for buoys and swimming with a wetsuit, which changes your position in the water and can chafe the skin of your neck. You want to know what those hotspots might be beforehand. (I use SkinSake Athletic to protect my skin.) Practice with a group too. Some newcomers get rattled by all the bumping that happens on the swim leg.

7. Ask a lot of questions.
Triathletes are very welcoming family and happy to give advice and help you out, even if it's on race morning.

8. Know the rules.
Regarding your helmet (it needs to be buckled before you mount your bike), drafting on the bike (illegal in most races), the mount/dismount line (don’t ride across it), accepting outside assistance (often grounds for DQ), and rescue boats (you are allowed to stop and hold onto a buoy or rescue kayak to rest, as long as you don’t use it for forward progress). Most events offer a detailed athlete guide that outlines all the rules and regulations.

9. Follow the same nutrition habits for training and racing.

Your stomach will thank you. One of the key rules of a successful triathlon experience is don’t try anything new on race day.

10. Invite friends and family to watch and cheer.
It goes a long way. Share the experience and inspire someone to join you for the next triathlon.

 

Written by Eddie Freyer for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Team Magic Photography

Pair Your Outdoor Adventure with a Craft Beer in Helena

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Montana ranks second in the nation for breweries per capita, and the state’s capital city is home to many of them. Located in Central Montana near where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, Helena is a community that enjoys the great outdoors and a great craft beer. This combination often translates into a leisurely, scenic afternoon hike followed by a friendly rendezvous at a local brewery. Whether your tastes lean more toward an intensely citrus IPA or a full-bodied ale, Helena’s breweries will quench your thirst after a day of adventuring. Here are a few favorite ways to enjoy the outdoors and take advantage of the creative beer-making that Helena has to offer.

Mount Ascension/Ten Mile Creek Brewing

The 5,262-foot Mount Ascension is a Helena landmark, and getting to its peak is one of the area’s top adventures. The 3.2-mile loop is rated as moderate and offers stunning views of Helena and the surrounding area. The dog-friendly trail is popular with hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers, and it is the perfect place to work up a sweat before retreating to Ten Mile Creek Brewing, which is only three miles away from the trailhead. Beers are brewed using water from nearby Ten Mile Creek — so when you take a sip, you’re truly tasting Montana. With a variety of home-crafted brews on tap, from Bullwhacker Brown Ale to Queen City IPA, Ten Mile Creek offers a relaxed brewery experience with a rotating event schedule.

Spring Meadow Lake State Park/Lewis & Clark Brewing

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After your activity of choice, stop by Lewis & Clark Brewing Company.

Helena CVB

Located on the western edge of Helena, Spring Meadow Lake State Park features a 30-acre, spring-fed lake, and it’s a popular spot for fishing, swimming, hiking, and biking. A .8-mile trail circles the lake for hikers and runners, while the 4.6-mile rails-to-trails path connects the park to the Centennial Trail and downtown Helena. After your activity of choice, stop by Lewis & Clark BrewingCompany, which serves up hand-crafted, unpasteurized beers made on site. The brewery is housed in a historic building downtown and hosts a steady stream of activities and special events on its indoor and outdoor stages. Beer connoisseurs will appreciate the local ingredients used in many brews, and some of the spent grain from brewing is used in the food, such as bratwurst buns and pizza crust.

LeGrande Cannon Boulevard/Brewhouse Pub & Grille

The LeGrande Cannon Boulevard Trail is a 6.3-mile out-and-back that winds through Mount Helena City Park. A popular route with mountain bikers, the trail is also a relaxed hike with stunning views of the Helena Valley. Take the time to explore some of the many side trails to see where they lead. Just a mile down the road is Helena’s Brewhouse Pub & Grille, which is often brimming with people — and for good reason. The pub features excellent food offerings, a variety of local and mainstream brews, and a relaxed, inviting atmosphere. Downstairs at the Brewhouse, open from 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, features its own menu and mellow atmosphere.

Dry Gulch Short Loop/Blackfoot River Brewing Company**

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Just a mile from the trail, you’ll find the Blackfoot River Brewing Company.

Helena CVB

Just south of Helena between Mount Ascension and Rodney Ridge, the 3.7-mile Dry Gulch Short Loop is a moderate-rated hiking and mountain biking trail that features plenty of switchbacks and good tree cover that offers shade and a solid workout. Mountain bikers in particular like the singletrack here. Just a mile from the trail, you’ll find the Blackfoot River Brewing Company. The cozy taproom produces a variety of local favorites, including Tartanic, a Scottish-style ale, the Smooth Cream Ale, and the American Strong Ale. All are hearty post-adventure favorites. Each week a new beer rotates through the "beer engine" — often an eclectic choice such as Orange IPA or Bloody Mary ESB.

Backside Trail/Gulch Distillers

In the Mount Helena City Park, the Backside Trail is a lightly trafficked three-mile loop that’s popular with hikers and trail runners. The trail is moderate in difficulty and offers a quad-burning climb, as well as a section through some grassy woodlands filled with ponderosa pine. Just 1.1 miles from the trail, Gulch Distillers is a good option for those looking for something more than beer. Helena’s only micro-distillery is tucked into a historic gulch. Spirits are fermented, distilled, and bottled on the premises, using only Montana-grown grains. The historic location is just downstream from one of Helena’s first gold strikes, and the spirits’ names reflect the historic weight of the area. Flintlock Bourbon Cask Spiced Rum, Guardian Gin, Triple Divide Vodka and Burrone Fernet tempt palates of all preferences.

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Helena’s breweries will quench your thirst after a day of adventuring.

Helena CVB

Bonus Option

Want your adventure and alcohol in one stop? Head to BroadwaterHotSprings and Tap Room, home to a series of natural hot springs and pools filled from an artesian well and cooled with natural cold springs water. The outdoor pools are open year-round and beautifully crafted, offering a respite for road-weary travel warriors. After your soak, take advantage of the Springs Taproom & Grille. The restaurant uses local ingredients wherever possible, and a wide variety of beers and wines are available. If you’re more in the mood for recovery, this adventure may be right up your alley.

Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Helena CVB.

Featured image provided by Helena CVB

10 Must-Do Hikes in the Mountain West

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From Montana’s Livingston Range to the Lechuguilla Desert of southern Arizona, the U.S. region known as the Mountain West is brimming with top-caliber hiking destinations. Narrowing down a list of 10 standouts is no small feat, but we took a stab at it anyway, choosing from the eight states that make up the U.S. Census Bureau’s Mountain West zone.

Take note: These aren’t the 10 best hidden hikes in the Mountain West; none of these routes are particularly obscure. In fact, several rank among the most celebrated trails in the country—and for good reason. A journey into the maw of one of the world’s most sublime canyons, backcountry skylines gloriously rock-torn, adventures in wide-open heights and close-hemmed halls of stone: These destinations highlight the scenic punch and variety characteristic of this outdoor playground and its seemingly infinite opportunities for adventure.

1. The Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana

As you might expect from a mighty watershed frontier, the Continental Divide in North America comes mantled in some pretty heady scenery along most of its length. And one of its most dramatic expressions comes in the heart of one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex of northwestern Montana. Deep within the "Bob"—named for an early champion of the federal wilderness area and a hardcore long-distance hiker—about a dozen miles of the Divide between Larch Hill Pass and Haystack Mountain separates the Flathead and Sun basins in the guise of a slanted, east-facing limestone ledge 1,000 feet high: the famous Chinese Wall.

Hike in the lee of this great pale escarpment via the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail from the Benchmark Trailhead, or climb to its spine at Haystack Mountain. Whichever way you go, be sure to keep an eye out for grizzly bears, a suitably majestic beast to go along with the big terrain.

2. The Thorofare, Greater Yellowstone, Wyoming

You’ll also be walking in the shadow of the grizzly on this legendary backpacking route into the roadless wilds of far southeastern Yellowstone National Park and the adjoining Teton Wilderness. You’ll tramp down the eastern shores of Yellowstone Lake—the largest above 7,000 feet in the U.S.—to its southeast arm and the willow-clad delta of the Yellowstone River, then upstream along the meandering channel between the Two Ocean Plateau and the Absaroka Range. Somewhere on the National Forest land beyond the park’s southeastern boundary is the anonymous chunk of turf farthest from a road in the Lower 48 states. But the entire high-elevation valley is deliciously remote and charged with the presence of the silvertip bear, equally cantankerous moose, and those aforementioned grizzlies.

3. Big Sandy Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming

This heavily used trail to the iconic Cirque of the Towers in the southern Wind Rivers serves as a classic gateway to Wyoming’s vast uncrowded high-country wilderness. Like the similarly breathtaking Titcomb Basin to the north, the gray battlements of the Cirque—one of the emblematic mountain vistas in the West—are worth seeing even if you’ll likely have company.

Reached by a long-slog blacktop-to-dirt drive from U.S. 191 near Pinedale, the Big Sandy Trail, an old American Indian route, follows the Big Sandy River to Big Sandy Lake, then on a steepening track past North and Arrowhead lakes to 10,800-foot Jackass Pass. Here you’ll gain your introductory prospect of the Cirque of the Towers, which cradles Lonesome Lake (which is not particularly lonesome in summer and fall) in its hard granite embrace. These prongs, spires, and prows—which include Warbonnet, Wolf’s Head, Pylon Peak, Warrior, Shark’s Nose, Lizard Head (at 12,842 feet, the high point of the Cirque of the Towers), and gloriously standoffish Pingora—create some of the most esteemed climbing walls in the Rockies.

Keep soaking in the granite garden by trekking farther to Shadow Lake on the "back side" of the Cirque of the Towers.

4. Alice Lake, Sawtooth Range, Idaho

The jags, towers, and cliffy brows of the Sawtooths represent a pinnacle (so to speak) of Idaho’s prodigious mountain scenery, and Alice Lake—one of 300-plus tarns chiseled by glaciers into this snarled-up range—makes a fabulous introduction. Set at about 8,600 feet, Alice Lake reflects the west face of 9,902-foot El Capitan and a ripsaw rampart southward.

Reach this rockery tarn via the Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake. The trail muscles some 5.5 miles upslope through mixed conifer woods and high glades, making multiple stream crossings en route. Alice Lake is a popular day hiking or overnighter destination, but can also serve as a springboard for longer adventures in the southeastern Sawtooth high country. You can undertake a memorable 19-mile loop by journeying on to Twin Lakes, up and over a high pass, and dropping down to big Toxaway Lake.

5. Highline Trail, Uinta Mountains, Utah

The Uintas are geographic trivia—one of the only west-east-trending mountain ranges in the Western Hemisphere—and also one of the country’s conterminous grandest alpine expanses, rivaling Colorado’s San Juans, the burliest range in the Southern Rockies, for sheer extent of alpine territory. The Highline Trail shows off the storm-licked splendor of the High Uintas Wilderness on a week-plus, nearly 100-mile trek between Hayden Pass and U.S. Route 191, much of it above the 10,000-foot contour.

Lonesome tarns, rusty Precambrian pyramids and fins, windswept tundra passes, staggered canyons—oh, and did we mention the thunderstorms? This is a Rocky Mountain roof-of-the-world traverse of the highest order.

6. The Maroon Bells, Elk Mountains, Colorado

Geographically speaking, the Elk Mountains lie close to the heart of the Southern Rockies, and two of their half-dozen fourteeners—the Maroon Bells—form arguably that skyscraping region’s scenic culmination. Given the paired loom of 14,156-foot Maroon Peak and 14,014-foot North Maroon, plus the eye-catching red of their capping Maroon Formation sedimentary layers, and it’s no surprise they’re said to be the most photographed summits in Colorado.

They’re also plenty well-loved, so don’t come here seeking solitude; treat it as a pilgrimage to one of the great landmarks of the American Rockies. The hike to Crater Lake puts you at the very foot of the Maroon Bells, but the views just keep expanding if you trek up to Buckskin Pass, which can also be strung together with West Maroon, Frigid Air, and Trailrides passes in a roughly 30-mile backpacking loop.

7. Wheeler Peak, Snake Range, Nevada

The crown of relatively little-visited Great Basin National Park, of the Snake Range and essentially of Nevada (though Boundary Peak in the White Mountains on the California line modestly outranks it), 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak is a special mountain. The Snakes are their own sky-island range, loftiest in the eastern Great Basin, and rising from the sagebrush sea of that cold desert to subalpine aspen forests and wizened bristlecone-pine groves. (In 1964, a bristlecone 4,844 years old was chopped down on a Wheeler Peak moraine.) Wheeler Peak is also known for its small glacier, one of the southernmost in the U.S.

An 8.6-mile round-trip hike from the trailhead above Wheeler Peak Campground takes you to the rubbled summit with its head-spinning Basin-and-Range panorama. It’s not a demanding hike, but well worth doing.

8. The Narrows, Zion Canyon, Utah

North Fork Virgin River’s world-famous gorge and its domeland surrounds are so knock-you-over-the-head scenic that any trail in Zion National Park verges on the unreal. Two, though, attract the lion’s share of attention: Angel’s Rest—the up-top, vista-rich one (strictly for non-acrophobes)—and the Narrows, the shadowy, amphibious, down-low one through the twisty, high-walled slot forming the head of Zion Canyon.

You can join the masses wading upstream into the Narrows from the end of the popular Riverside Trail at the Temple of Sinawava, or drop down from Chamberlain’s Ranch on a more adventurous 16-mile trek. The latter requires a permit; from the Temple of Sinawava, you don’t need one as far upstream as Big Spring.

There are countless quieter slot canyons in the Colorado Plateau, but the Narrows is legitimately wondrous, and if you combine it with remoter adventures (including those farther up its course), you might even enjoy the oohing-and-aahing camaraderie of it all. It’s a communal National Park experience on par with watching Old Faithful erupt or staggering all scenery-drunk around Yosemite Valley.

Accessible and well-visited though the lower portion of the Narrows may be, it’s also dangerous given the potential for flash floods. Check in at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center for the most up-to-date forecast and flood hazard rating, and don’t play the odds.

9. North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Hike from montane woods to hot desert in one 14.2-mile swoop on the North Kaibab Trail, the only maintained route connecting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. It’s popular but not as much as its South Rim counterparts (the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails), and given the "Big Ditch’s" one-of-a-kind topographical breadth, it serves up mega-scale scenery not many hiking trails can match.

The North Kaibab Trail drops from the Kaibab Plateau’s conifers at 8,241 feet to the Colorado nearly 6,000 feet below. From Coconino Overlook less than a mile down-trail, it descends southeastward to Supai Tunnel and Redwall Bridge in Roaring Springs Canyon—named for a weeping limestone cliff reachable by a 0.3-mile spur—then cants southwestward into Bright Angel Canyon (Cottonwood Campground, 6.5 miles and 4,200 feet down from the trailhead, offers a good first-night stopover). A mile past that, a side trail leads to Ribbon Falls. Near its end, the North Kaibab Trail traverses the tight Vishnu Schist confines of the Box before attaining Phantom Ranch and the bridge to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon.

After a night or three down here, you can retrace your steps back to the North Rim or add a "Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim" feather to your cap by climbing the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.

10. Bull Pasture/Estes Canyon Loop, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Braving grizzlies at the Chinese Wall, you’re within easy reach of the Canadian border. On the very opposite side of the country, this short but mesmerizing walkabout in the heart of the Sonoran Desert shows off rugged scenery that is, ecologically speaking, more Mexico than the U.S. Remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument lies in an awesome, sparsely settled expanse of the Sonoran that also includes the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Mexico’s desolate Pinacate backlands.

This 3.5-mile loop links the Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon trails on the western flanks of the Ajo Mountains. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to admire the eccentric namesake cactus, which barely makes it north of the border, as well as the Sonoran Desert’s defining species, the monolithic saguaro, plus a whole slew of other desert plants. The impressive stature of both the organ pipe and saguaro cacti complements the burliness of the Ajos’ craggy bosses. And the views from the Bull Pasture leg unfurl far south across the Sonoyta Valley into Sonora, Mexico.
Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by John Strother

Is Spring Here? Here’s How to Tell from Nature’s Cues and Clues

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No season in North America packs a punch like winter, which means no season inspires such verging-on-religious gratitude like spring. As the equinox approaches, outdoor lovers can savor the vernal unfolding by spotlighting a few noteworthy natural harbingers.

Of course, some of the best-known signs of the season include deafening spring-peeper choruses out East, desert superblooms in the Southwest, and early-flowering trilliums all over, to name a few. But what about some of the lesser-known phenomena those hitting the spring trails or waterways might come across—the swarthy swamp-cabbage, for example, or even a snake or two? Here, nature’s extra-special ways of signaling that spring is on the way.

The Magic of Snowmelt

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How cold would you guess that water is?

Anita Ritenour

So snowmelt may seem an overly obvious sign of spring, but many outdoor enthusiasts don’t really pay it much mind, focusing instead on flashier symptoms of the season like flower petals and singing birds. But melting snow creates its own beautiful spectacles—and stark hazards—so backcountry ramblers should keep a respectful eye on the snowmelt.

Wandering a thawing-out snowscape is tough and wet work, but it’s cool to see up-close: meltwater channels among (and within) the drifts; frigid pools and rills at snowfield rims; gleaming firnspiegel ("snow mirror") expanses where an icy lid overlays a melting subsurface. Snowmelt also behaves differently around trees, with those iconic “thaw circles” of bare ground around their bases. They’re formed because tree trunks absorb more solar radiation than the reflective snowpack and cause the snow around them to change directly to water vapor, or sublimate, which creates pits and then thaw circles. (In deciduous woods, they may be important green-up sites for early spring ephemeral wildflowers.)

There’s peril, too, amid this ongoing, often stop-and-start thaw. Statistically speaking, this is the most dangerous avalanche season, given springtime’s lengthening days, freeze-thaw cycles, and percolating, destabilizing meltwater—not to mention the burgeoning numbers of backcountry users. Of course, snowmelt time also means high-volume, supercharged rivers that are hazardous—often impossible—to cross. But as long you’re steering clear of them via sensible safety practices, you can appreciate the temporary scars of those wet slab avalanches on the slopes and the roar of the barreling meltwater rivers as evidence of a landscape waking up.

The Buzz of Bumblebees

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It’s not all about chirping birds: Buzzing bees make themselves heard in spring, too.

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Their large size, heavy coat of bristles, and ability to shiver to warm up flight muscles mean bumblebees kick off the pollinating season early—you may even spot them careening around on a warm late winter’s day. In leafless woods that are still mostly clad in winter gray or brown, a big bumblebee makes a highly conspicuous harbinger of spring on its noisy, drunken-looking flightpath.

The Curious Skunk Cabbage in Bloom

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It’s not quite as cheerful as wildflowers, but the flowering of the skunk-cabbage is nevertheless a harbinger of spring.

Aaron Carlson

Whether in a sodden hollow in the eastern backwoods or a red cedar swamp in the Pacific Northwest, spring comes early, bold, and almost unsettling with the flowering of the giant wetland herb called skunk cabbage. A bit of botanical background on this stinky plant: The eastern and western versions aren’t closely related, though both brandish huge, tropical-style leaves. In addition, the flower structures that often precede the glossy foliage—some of the first blooms of spring—differ. Eastern skunk cabbage shields its flower stalk within an infernal-looking hood—technically speaking, a spathe—of mottled purple; the western skunk cabbage’s spathe is a comparatively cheerful banana-yellow.

The namesake skunky odor of these plants when blooming attracts flies and beetles, adding a distinct seasonal scent to the bottomlands.

The Flutter of Spring Wings

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Once you know how to spot an osprey, you’ll be able to see them much more easily—especially during the springtime.

Stephanie Pluscht

Birds epitomize springtime like nothing else for many people: the pulses of migrants large and small through backyards and local wetlands, the riotous symphonies of love-crazy songbirds. Birders, naturally, love this time of year.

But even outdoorsy types who don’t know a wren from a warbler can key into the vernal onset by watching for some of the big high-flying raptors clocking back to their breeding grounds. A slew of hawks appear in the Lower 48 this time of year, including a handful of relatively easily distinguishable species just about anybody can learn to recognize—two of them found across most of the conterminous U.S. and an exotic third one outdoors folks in the Southeast may luck out and see.

Keep your eyes out for ospreys, those hook-footed "fish hawks" (or “seahawks,” for all you 12s out there) that winter in the Neotropics and far southern U.S. but start returning to North American waterways in spring to reoccupy or build their massive stick nests. Ospreys are easy to identify with a little practice: They’re big and slender, boldly black-and-white plumaged, and flap a lot in a jouncy, almost bat-like sort of flight. Watch one long enough and you’ll probably see its steep fishing dive.

One unexpected winged sign of spring is that dark, tottering, low-angled V up in the sky made by a recently returned turkey vulture. These sharp-nosed "buzzards"—which evacuate much of the central and northern U.S. in winter, but often return on the early end of things—get a bad rap. But in addition to performing essential scavenger duties across their vast range, they give daily master classes in the art of soaring with minimal effort.

Meanwhile, if you’re down in the Everglades or elsewhere in the Florida wilds in February and March, you may luck out with a glimpse of arguably the handsomest raptor in the Americas, if not the world: the swallow-tailed kite. These impossibly graceful black-and-white tropical birds, named for their extravagant scissored tailfeathers, return to the Sunshine State from South America this time of year to nest, and it’s always a thrill to see one looping over the jungle hammocks and pinelands.

Serpent Emergence

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Watch where you sss-tep.

Brian Greer

Many species of snakes in middle and higher latitudes spend the winter in communal hibernacula, which are essentially snake dens. It’s not unusual for overwintering membership to run into the hundreds, and for multiple species of snakes—garter snakes, bullsnakes, racers, rattlesnakes—to share the same hibernaculum. In spring, snakes gradually emerge from these winter refuges, often situated in outcrops, talus, rock piles, or caves, and spend a few days or weeks basking on sunny warm afternoons before retreating back inside at night. While you’re out on an early spring hike, you might spot such lethargic serpents, possibly in intimidating quantity. Appreciate them from a distance, leave them alone, and they’ll do the same.

Emergence from hibernacula tends to roll right into romance. You may also see "breeding balls" of snakes this time of year, made up of multiple males coiled around an impressively stoic female.

Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Bureau of Land Management Califo

Climb Spain’s Highest Peak and Other Adventures on Tenerife

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Summit fever has swept through the bunks of Altavista Refuge, a modest stone hut perched at 10,700 feet on the volcanic flanks of Mount Teide. Rustling bodies wake me at 4:30 am after a fitful night’s sleep disrupted by squeaky beds, thin air, and anticipation of an alpine start. Adventure trumps beauty sleep. I toss aside the blanket, lace my shoes, grab my pack, and we’re off, hiking the steep trail of sharp black lava rocks that climbs 1,500 feet from the hut to the top of Mount Teide, Spain’s highest peak. The sky is dark as ink, yet lit by a gazillion twinkling stars.

At 12,198 feet, Mount Teide juts up from the Atlantic Ocean on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Claimed by Spain since 1821, the Canaries are a cluster of seven volcanic islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Tenerife is the largest and tallest, a rugged landscape rimmed by 250 miles of coastline and 70 beaches. It’s a magnet for sun worshippers, a concept that seems foreign from where I stand high on a mountain in the dark with cold wind whipping my face.

The beam of my headlamp leads me to the summit, where I huddle among rocks and wait for the sun to rise. I warm my hands in the steam of fumaroles—volcanic vents that seep hot sulfurous gas, a reminder that Teide is still an active volcano. As dawn’s glow slowly lights up the sky with brushes of blue and pink, the island fans out below, displaying deep gorges and dreamy beaches, desert dunes and cloud forest, vineyards and goat ranches.

I came to Tenerife for Mount Teide, but I went home having discovered so much more on this island, whose 785 square miles—nearly half in protected nature areas—is brimming with unique landscapes and the adventures that go with them. Here are eight ways to explore.

1. Climb Mount Teide

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The trail up 12,198-foot Mount Teide ascends through a lunar-like lava landscape.

Terry Stonich

Teide's volcanic tip rises straight from sea level to 12,198 feet in the middle of Tenerife. Trails traverse the lunar-like lava fields of Teide National Park, which cradles the mountain and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For first dibs on the summit and the chance to bask on the peak in dawn's light, hike to Altavista Refuge to spend the night. Day trippers who want to save the sweat can take a cable car to 650 feet below the peak but need a permit to hike to the top.

2. Kayak in the Shadow of Los Gigantes

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With a backdrop of crystalline waters and colorful cliffs, kayaking along Los Gigantes is a can’t-miss.

Terry Stonich

The eastern edge of Tenerife plummets to the sea in Teno Rural Park, where "Acantilados de los Gigantes" (cliffs of the giants) tower some 2,000 feet, their sheer rock faces notched with ledges and alcoves where birds nest. The best way to take it all in is from the seat of a kayak, with stops for snorkeling in the crystalline waters. Outfitter Teno Activo is a solid choice for an operator to lead the way.

3. Go Underground at La Cueva del Viento

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The underground world at Cueva del Viento makes it easy to picture how this lava tube formed 27,000 years ago.

Terry Stonich

You don’t have to dig deep to get a sense for Tenerife’s volcanic roots—Earth’s fire has left behind lava at nearly every turn on the island. But venture below the upper crust and you’ll start to understand the intricacies of how molten rock flows. The perfect way to do just that is by wandering through the underworld at La Cueva del Viento, a cave that formed 27,000 years ago and is part of a 10.5-mile system of lava tubes. Don’t forget the flashlight and headlamps, especially if you’re afraid of the dark.

4. Get Misty in the Anaga Mountains

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Hiking trails abound in the Anaga Mountains, where mist-shrouded laurel forests nudge up against arid landscapes, creating astounding biodiversity.

Avery Stonich

At Tenerife’s northeastern tip, Anaga Rural Park protects the Anaga Mountains, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Drive along the spine of the mountains on TF-12 to see "horizontal rain," a weather phenomenon that occurs when prevailing wind hits steep slopes and creates dripping mist. Laurel trees suck this moisture from the air, growing into a blanket of lush cloud forest, while a completely different landscape—complete with cacti—cloaks dry hillsides. Explore it all via trails traversing scenic ridges and descending to rocky shores. Stop at the visitor center in Cruz del Carmen to discover the best hiking spots, or hook up with Anaga Experience for a guided trek.

5. Drink Wine and Make Mojo Sauce

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Mash garlic and peppers into mojo sauce while sipping fine wines at Bodegas Monje.

Avery Stonich

A visit to Bodegas Monje is the perfect way to while away an afternoon while soaking up some of the Canary Islands’ culinary and wine culture. On the property’s 42 acres of steep hillside overlooking the sea, the fifth generation of the Monje family grows seven varieties of grapes, including six unique to the Canary Islands. Take a winery tour followed by a leisurely lunch on the outdoor patio. Or sign up for a mojo workshop to learn how to make wrinkly potatoes and mojo sauce—signatures of Canarian cuisine.

6. Lose Yourself in La Laguna

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A stroll through the colonial streets of La Laguna offers a trip back in time through this 15th-century town.

Avery Stonich

As if Tenerife didn’t have enough reasons to brag, it also charms with La Laguna, a colorful colonial town established in the 15th century that is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wander the narrow streets of the old quarter, explore the historic churches and other religious buildings, and stop for tapas at a street-side café.

7. Go Whale Watching

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Chances are high that you’ll come across pilot whales; hundreds of them live in Tenerife’s waters year-round. These snub-nosed cuties can grow up to 16 feet long.

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Twenty-one species of whales and dolphins frolic in the waters around Tenerife, making it one of the world’s top spots for cetacean viewing. Year-round residents include bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales, while sperm whales, orcas, and sei whales are some of the bigger beasts you might see. Whale watching tours depart from southern harbors on excursions that last from two to five hours.

8. See Shepherds Pole Vaulting

Faced with tending goat herds in rugged terrain, Canarian shepherds adopted a unique form of travel: pole vaulting up and down steep hillsides and across ravines. "Salto del Pastor," or shepherd jumping, is no longer a common practice, but some energetic locals carry on the tradition for fun or sport. To see it in action, check out El Cardón’s Secrets of Punta de Teno tour, which includes a demonstration.

Written by Avery Stonich for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Avery Stonich

How to Make Your Life Adventure Ready

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Some epic adventures are worth quitting your life for. We're talking about the months-long bike tours, the overland trips, and the long distance backpacking trips. In between the epics, though, are a thousand tiny ways to get into the woods, from impromptu paddles to single-night backpacking trips.

It’s not always easy, and there are plenty of reasons to stay on the couch: assembling gear takes time and effort, adventure buddies can be hard to find on short notice, and weather turns on a dime. But if you use these simple, weeknight-tested techniques to keep your life adventure prepped, you'll be able to get out the door with minimal fuss, keep your backcountry skills on point, and stay ready for the next big trip.

1. Assemble an Adventure Kit

If all your cookware is packed beforehand, you'll be able to get out of the house (and into the backcountry) with minimal fuss.
If all your cookware is packed beforehand, you'll be able to get out of the house (and into the backcountry) with minimal fuss.

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When you hear the call of the wild, don’t waste half an hour looking for your headlamp. Keep camping equipment stashed in bags to throw in the back of the car, then stuff into a kayak, bike pannier, or backpack.

The basics: Packing for a full wilderness expedition takes a bit more thought, but the bare necessities for an overnight outing can live in a duffel bag. On the list: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, headlamp with extra batteries, water bottles, and a tent.

Mess kit: Stuff a gym bag with all the things you’d hate to forget—basics include a camping stove, pot, silicone bowls and cups, a coffee cone with filter, utensils, salt, oil, and a water treatment system. It’s worth throwing in some imperishable foods, too, so you don’t have to think about dinner: a packet of Tasty Bites, a bag of couscous, granola, and dried milk might not be gourmet camping fare, but that’s not the point.

First-aid plus: Make a dedicated bag and keep it on hand for every outing. In addition to the usual first aid kit items—bandages, blister treatment, ibuprofen, antibacterial cream, ACE bandage—keep it stocked with the small things that fall through the cracks when you’re packing. Include parachute cord for bear hangs, more extra batteries, duct tape, a multi tool, compass, an emergency blanket, backup water treatment like iodine or Aquamira, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, lighter, sunscreen, and cash.

2. Keep your Gear in Working Order

It’s easy to throw punctured bike tubes into dark corners, repack your soot-clogged camping stove, and put off repairing a leaky sleeping pad. But making a discipline of keeping your kit trail, road- or woods-ready means you won’t be fixing flats and scrambling while your friends wait in the driveway.

3. Write A Wish List

When the trail beckons, it's important to be prepped.
When the trail beckons, it's important to be prepped.

Andy Spearing

An evening of clear weather and free time can make your mind go blank, leaving you scratching your head and scanning maps. Having a standing list of tiny adventure goals will let you skip this time-wasting step, and keeping it tacked to your bedroom wall serves as a reminder to leave the Netflix queue for a rainy day. Divide your list by season, so when you think of the ultimate kayak camping trip in the middle of January, you won’t forget about it when the weather warms up.

4. Roll Call

Not all your besties will be ready to hit the trails at a moment’s notice, but you probably know somebody who is. Start spreading the word about overnight trips and mini-expeditions, and you’ll see would be tiny-adventurists perk up their ears—put them on a list of partners-to-be. Send out a text blast to the likely candidates when inspiration strikes, and find out who bites.

Of course, it might not work. If you’re coming up empty handed (or just want to cast a wider net), there are a zillion outdoors-oriented MeetUp groups, or you can join a volunteer trail crew, help out at an adaptive program, and join the adventure-focused social networking site Gociety. The key point? Don’t be shy—when you spot a friendly-looking person sending a boulder problem, paddling your favorite river, or cruising the camping section of your local outdoors store, snag their contact info and make an adventure buddy.

5. Learn to Love the Woods by Yourself

Solo camping in the wilderness.
Solo camping in the wilderness.

Petrified Forest

On some days, though, all your friends are working and you’ve got to hit the trail alone. Being open to camping on your own means far more opportunities to make it happen, with nothing to distract you from counting stars and practicing bird calls at sunrise.

If you’ve been aspiring to make some solo trips, but are intimidated by the thought of making it happen, a micro adventure is a good way to ease into the experience of exploring alone. With a solid kit and a little practice, you might just find your solitude groove, throw out your address book, and never go back.

Hopefully, these tips will allow you be prepared next time adventure calls. Once you're out there, be sure to share your adventures with us by tagging #RootsRated.

Written by Jen Rose Smith for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Ville Koivisto

Why Charlotte Ranks Among America’s Top Cities for Trail Running

The US Whitewater Center is just one of the great places to trail run in Charlotte.

It’s no secret to Charlotteans that their city is an amazing trail running town. It looks like the word is out. The December issue of Trail Runner magazine gave Charlotte props as one of their “8 Best Trail Cities.” We appreciate the nod—and couldn’t agree more.

In the article, the magazine makes note of a few of the ever-expanding greenway systems that continue to connect diverse sectors of town (thank you Carolina Thread Trail). It mentions the nearly 40 miles of trail at Anne Close Springs and more than 20 miles (it grows so fast it’s hard to keep up) of singletrack at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. And it includes two top trail races: Tuck Fest, the weekend-long festival of all things outdoors, and the Charlotte Running Company Trail Races, which for many kicks off another race year each January.

In celebration of the Queen City’s recognition, we spoke with a few folks deeply involved in trail running to learn why Charlotte has a singletrack mind.

The Charlotte area's trail race calendar continues to fill with a variety of events, like Mill Stone races at ASCG.
The Charlotte area's trail race calendar continues to fill with a variety of events, like Mill Stone races at ASCG.

Craig Marshall

“The Charlotte area has a variety of trails with varying degrees of difficulty, something for every trail runner.” – Craig Marshall, Treasurer for the Rock Hill Striders and RD of the Mill Stone 50K at ASCG.

The trails around Charlotte are indeed diverse. There are more than 100 miles of singletrack and even more greenway. From fast and furious to a mild ride, it’s easy to find your running experience.

Up north, the trail system at Lake Norman State Park includes 30 miles of fast flowing, non-technical terrain through dense tree cover while the cross-country trail at Davidson College is a smoother path with rolling hills, the perfect morning run.

Kings Pinnacle at Crowder Mountain.
Kings Pinnacle at Crowder Mountain.

Patrick Mueller

To the west, about 10 miles past the USNWC, the trails at George Poston Park are the antitheses of those that wind through LNSP. One tight turn after another leads runners–and bikers as these are multi-use trails–around multiple loops, culminating in the big climb up Spencer Mountain. And Crowders Mountain , the home field for the most elite runners in the city, offers the most challenging vertical around.

Down south of town, the bumpy and fun run through the 6-ish miles at Col. Francis Beatty park is a convenient after work stop for those traveling on the 485 loop. The sort-of-still-a-secret trail system that has sprung up around Baxter Village in Fort Mill, SC,  includes several miles of moderate track near some fantastic post run food and drink venues.

Finally, the eastern Charlotte area represents with one of the oldest trail systems in the area at Reedy Creek Park and one of the most fun runs at Sherman Branch. The 10 or so miles of foot-only trails at Reedy Creek connect rugged singletrack and wide gravel road around small lakes, past playgrounds, and near an off-leash dog park. The trails at Sherman Branch have plenty of hills to make them fun but the swooping turns and long straight-a-ways allow for a swift pace.

Group runs make even the toughest trails around Charlotte easier.
Group runs make even the toughest trails around Charlotte easier.

Craig Marshall

“The community is very supportive of each other regardless of your level of experience.” – Brian Niekras, organizer with the Charlotte Trail Runner and Mountain Biker Meetup group.

It’s true. The community of trail runners, from 100-miler buckle collectors to casual 3-mile joggers, and the groups that make the sport possible, are the backbone of a great trail town.

Meetups such as the 1,700-member strong Charlotte Trail Runner and Mountain Biker group host several runs each week at the best sites around the city. Covering the routes on- and off-road, the Rock Hill Striders organize several regular group runs and races south of Charlotte.  Always willing to offer advice and encouragement, even the best runners in these groups were beginners once and are happy to help newbies.

The Ultra Running Company has become the hub for trail runners in Charlotte, holding viewing parties for significant off-road races and offering a range of brands not easily found elsewhere. Their living room-like setting is a place to chat about FKTs, DNFs, and PRs— or at least try to figure out what that means.

Of course, there would be nowhere near the running options if it weren’t for the Tarheel Trailblazers. Sure, they are a mountain bike group, but these superheroes of the singletrack are responsible for the creation and maintenance of more than 100 miles of the best trails around Charlotte.

Through volunteerism and land conservation, the Carolina Thread Trail continues to secure beautiful paths all over the central Piedmont. From paved greenways to the sweeping hills of Crowders Mountain’s Ridgeline Trail, the eight pointed star that symbolizes the CTT has sprouted up along hundreds of miles of trail.

Even through the toughest trials on the trail, Charlotte's trail runners have fun.
Even through the toughest trials on the trail, Charlotte's trail runners have fun.

Anji Nussbaumer

“There is a race almost every weekend in the city or out on the trails that caters to every facet of runner there can be, from one-mile races to 50 milers, road to trail, even a race on the airport runway” – Anji Nussbaumer, elite team member for INKnBURN and top female finisher of several Carolina ultra-distance races.

It wasn’t so many years ago that trail runners in Charlotte had to wait for one of a few chances to compete in their sport. Now, those same athletes have to choose from multiple events on any given weekend.

The USNWC is home to several popular races. Anchoring the schedule at the beginning of the year on Jan. 16 is the multi-distance Charlotte Running Company Trail Race, nicknamed the “hoodie race” in honor of the popular sweatshirt provided to each participant. A color run, a winter 5K with frigid water plunge, duathlons of running and paddle boarding, and holiday themed events round out the 12 months of USNWC competitions.

Super challenging ultra-distance trail races continue to grow in number and prominence. Events at South Mountains State Park, Uwharrie National Forest, and the USNWC–all of greater-than-marathon distance–take advantage of the rolling hills, beautiful forests, and local mountains that surround the city. Just down the road from Charlotte, Anne Close Springs Greenway plays host to the Mill Stone 50K in February. The twisty course is tough enough for a challenge but the layout—the race is made up of three 10.6 mile loops—makes for a fantastic first ultra-distance attempt.

This is, of course, just a start. There are too many groups, venues, and events to list here. We hope the good folks at Trail Runner magazine will visit again soon. They’ll have plenty of ground to cover.

Written by Rob Glover for RootsRated in partnership with OrthoCarolina.

Featured image provided by Craig Marshall

Motorcycle Adventures in Southwest Virginia

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Sturgis, South Dakota, is what pops into most people’s minds when they think of motorcycle adventures. While this rip roaring party of a motorcycle rally is perhaps the most iconic, it hardly speaks for the lot of ‘em—there are a variety of places and ways to embark on a motorcycle adventure across our grand country.

If you’re on the hunt for a spot steeped in natural beauty with options from serene rides to blood-pumping dirt road adventures, look no further than Southwest Virginia. Housing key sections of the increasingly well-known Dragon Motorcycle Series and offering some of the most customizable motorcycle touring you can get, zooming through Southwest Virginia on two wheels is a trip to remember.

Two Slices of the Dragon Motorcycle Series

A taste of what you can see along the Back of the Dragon.
A taste of what you can see along the Back of the Dragon.

Virginia State Parks

Occupying central Southwest Virginia including Smyth, Tazewell, and Wythe counties is a twisty and turny motorcycle ride that’s unlike any other. The Back of the Dragon begins in Marion and terminates in Tazewell. This middle section is part of the larger Dragon Series that includes the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina and Tennessee, the Head of the Dragon in West Virginia, and the Claw of the Dragon also in Virginia.

The Back of the Dragon is located smack in the middle of the five loops that compose the Claw of the Dragon which means an almost unthinkable amount of ride options couched in the secluded, tree-filled scenery of Southwest Virginia. Ranging from 62 to 224 miles in length, there’s plenty to explore, but the Back of the Dragon is particularly beautiful. The route meanders along a cliff through its entirety, offering stunning and far-reaching views of the land below between eyefuls of luscious trees dotting a barely trafficked road. For the best experience, tackle it at sunrise or sunset—the area really lights up and it feels almost other-worldly.

Once you tackle this part of the Dragon, it’s going to be almost impossible to stop you from wanting to see the rest. You’ve been warned.

Custom Tours for Any Traveler

GearHead will provide visitors guided motorcycle tours of the area.
    Renee Sklarew
GearHead will provide visitors guided motorcycle tours of the area.
Renee Sklarew

Whether it’s the Dragon that’s got you hooked or something else, GearHead Moto Tours in Pearisburg (which spun out of motorcycle repair shop of the same name) offers all-inclusive motorcycle tours to enthusiasts of all stripes. In talking to Terry Rafferty, the owner of the whole shebang, about his business, his passion for what he does is practically palpable. He explains that when it comes to the kinds of tours people can book, "Nothing is impossible. That’s kind of the motto here. I’m here for the people, to give them the best time possible and show them Giles county. There are so many beautiful areas."

Rafferty went on to explain that the team, which includes his other guide Derek Snider, is really energetic about what they do because it’s their passion. "I’m so fortunate to be able to do what I do every day," he adds.

When it comes to what he does, the sky's the limit. GearHead serves everyone from solo travelers to corporate staff members looking for a fun team building experience. While their tours work best in pods of four or so, soloists can take advantage of the events GearHead advertises on its Facebook page and snag a single spot. The best is that Rafferty totally gets solo travel, explaining that they’ll pair people in a party of one with others on a trip, but that you’ll still get your own room and bathroom accommodations to stay in. "None of that awkward dual occupancy stuff," he notes.

GearHead can outfit you with a motorcycle as well.
    Renee Sklarew
GearHead can outfit you with a motorcycle as well.
Renee Sklarew

GearHead tours can be hard to define because they’re so customizable. The company recently took a couple on a romantic retreat tour, putting them up in a nice cabin and bringing in chefs to cook for them. On the other end of the spectrum, another recent tour included camping and the GearHead team cooked for the guests. On other outings, Rafferty will take guests to sample local restaurants. "What we’re trying to do is give the flavor of the place to our customers," he says. “There’s everything from nice dining spots to mom and pop places. When people come here they’re trying to get away from having Starbucks every morning.”

The terrain you cover and how you cover it is just as much up to you as where you stay and what you eat. They’ve got dirt roads for riders looking for technical challenges, two-lane paved routes for those trying to relax a bit, and access to trails on private property to ensure that you have an experience unlike any other. The key to offering such a variety of adventures are the dual sport motorcycles they use—essentially street-legal dirt bikes that can traverse diverse terrain.

One of Rafferty’s favorite spots to take his guests is Butt Mountain Fire Tower Overlook where visitors can see three states at once. "It’s also where Dirty Dancing was filmed," Rafferty adds as an aside.

All you need to participate is a motorcycle endorsement on your license and proof of motorcycle insurance if you plan to drive. They provide you with everything else—all the riding and safety gear you could possibly need to have a great time in Southwest Virginia.

Written by Cinnamon Janzer for RootsRated in partnership with Southwest Virginia.

Featured image provided by Virginia State Parks

How to Beat the Crowds at America’s Most Visited National Park

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According to National Park Service stats, Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosted over 11 million visitors last year. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on that backcountry trek or fly fishing expedition and turn on Survivor reruns—we’ve got a few tips and tricks that experienced outdoor trekkers use to find solitude on the trail.

According to Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and Tennessee-based Rock/Creek Outfitters Founder Dawson Wheeler, visitors equate the Smokies almost exclusively with a couple of well-known landmarks. "When people think of the Smoky Mountains, they think of going to Gatlinburg and going to Cades Cove," says Wheeler. “Both spectacular, but that’s all people know of the park.”

NPS statistics back this up: last year, traffic counts at the Gatlinburg entrance to the park were anywhere from two to nine times higher than all other park entry points. Cades Cove Campground visitation exceeded stays at all other campgrounds combined. While there are ways to experience these tourism hot spots—and we’ll get to that later—over 500,000 acres of pristine park land and 850 miles of lesser-used trails await the savvy outdoor adventurer in the Smokies.

Take the Road Less Traveled

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Get away from the main drags and you’ll have the Smokies all to yourself.

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Literally. Though they may not top your Google search, the lesser-known sections of the park are often just as scenic and more pristine. The Greenbrier area, off Hwy 321 east of Gatlinburg, is a top destination for wildflower viewing in the spring. Visit year round for a 4-mile hike to the tallest waterfall in the park, Ramsey Cascades. You’ll gain 2,000 feet of elevation on the way, so pack in food to enjoy a picnic by the falls.

Continue west past Gatlinburg to another hidden gem on the northern side of the park. Hike the Tremont area’s lush, streamside trails to waterfalls, ridgeline vistas, and fly fishing that rivals anything else in the Smokies. Trek through history on the Middle Prong Trail, an 8-mile former railroad bed for the Little River Lumber Company. Catch a glimpse of reminders of industry and pioneer life that prospered when this area was known as Walker Valley.

The Great Smoky Mountains Institute offers educational hikes and workshops out of Tremont and the extensive trail network leads to Panther Creek and Elkmont, the Appalachian Trail, or back to the trailhead via numerous multi-day backpacking loops.

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The Smokemont Loop in the southern part of the park is less-traveled than some of the other trails.

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Make the Cosby or Big Creek Campgrounds your base camp for exploring the stunning views, misty creeks, and gushing waterfalls in the northeast corner of the park. Access the Appalachian Trail, day hike to some of the park’s highest peaks, and backpack epic loops along the AT to Mt. Cammerer, Cosby Knob, Mt. Guyot, and Mt. Sterling. Another alternative out of Cosby is the low elevation, non-technical Old Settlers Trail, one of the original footpaths through the region. The remains of homesteads, along with numerous creek crossings and biologically diverse habitat, make this quiet trail a stand out for valley treks. Spend a week hiking from Davenport Gap to Newfound Gap (crossing Mt. LeConte toward the finish) for solitude, bragging rights, and an unforgettable Smokies experience.

Enter the park through Cherokee to explore the trails out of Smokemont. This southern entry offers endless moderate hiking options, and is the best spot to learn about the region’s first inhabitants: the Cherokee Indians. Farther west, the Twentymile Ranger Station is your back door access to Gregory Bald, a high-altitude grassy meadow with 360-degree views over the often-congested Cades Cove area.

Right Place, Right Time

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Seventy-two miles of the Appalachian Trail run through GSMNP.

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According to Wheeler, peak congestion in the park is just like rush hour in any major city. "If you’re driving in Atlanta at 5 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, it’s crowded," he says. “You’ve got to be willing to go middle of the week, early morning, and you’ve got to be willing to stay in the park late.” To avoid congested roads and have the best chance to see wildlife, drive in at dawn and stay until dusk. In the summer, make sure to take in ridgeline vistas by noon before afternoon thunderstorms roll in. Time your visit around the peak months of mid-June through mid-August and October to spend your time on the trail, not in a traffic jam.

An overwhelming percentage of visitors are motor touring, so simply hiking a mile or two up most trails will put the crowds behind you. And it goes without saying: the worse the weather, the fewer the crowds. "Bad" weather is all in your perspective—rain, fog, ice, and snow can lend a magic to the Smokies. Precipitation casts a dewy, muffled quiet to valley trails, a frosty shimmer of ice to the mountainsides, and the bright warmth of sunshine to the peaks that rise above the cloud cover.

Back to Those Landmarks…

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Cades Cove is beautiful and worth a visit if you have time.

Kevin Stewart Photography

Mt. LeConte, Clingmans Dome, and Cades Cove are crowded for a reason. It can be worth braving the crowds to witness their iconic beauty, even in peak season. Just go in prepared, armed with food and drink and an excess of patience. Be aware that the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through September for biking, walking, and running. Book a campsite ahead to savor this time in the valley, because traffic stacks up for miles by the time the road reopens at 10 a.m.

The climb to hike-in only LeConte Lodge is strenuous, but the soft bed, warm cabins, and trail-savvy camaraderie is a bucket list experience. Booking a cabin through the lottery reservation system is challenging, but flexibility to jump on a cancellation on short notice usually gets you in. Hike lesser-used Rainbow Falls or Trillium Gap, or go ahead and take the spectacular—and therefore crowded—Alum Cave Trail to the lodge. You may be surprised how much you enjoy the company.

Written by RootsRated for BCBS of Tennessee.

Featured image provided by Kevin Stewart

A Look at Chattanooga’s Newest Hot Spots for Food and Drink

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Chattanooga has seen significant growth in the past decade. The Scenic City attracts a steady crowd of visitors and recent transplants, and with them come fresh new spots to grab food and drinks. Try a burger, local brew, or a cappuccino at one of Chattanooga’s newest establishments that have opened since the beginning of 2017.

Frothy Monkey

Oh, yeah. 📷: @westchesternewyork

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Frothy Monkey has become a cornerstone of Southside’s historic Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. From breakfast to brunch, lunch, and dinner, Frothy Monkey can satisfy your culinary cravings every day of the week. The 4,500-square-foot, full-service restaurant has been carefully designed to accommodate any type of diner: at the bar, at a booth or table, or at a community table. Try the farm breakfast, an assortment of sandwiches from the Royale to the Crab Cake Sandwich, or stop by for dinner: tortellini, trout, or the quesadilla. Late-night food options are available from 9 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Pair your food with coffeehouse standards or craft beer, wine, and cocktails. Frothy Monkey not only offers delicious cuisine in an impeccably designed environment, but it has also become a Southside staple within the first year of business. ## Moe’s Original Bar B Que

Wing-a-ding! Thursdays are 50-cent wing days at Moe's Original BBQ! 🍗

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Another recent establishment offers authentic southern cuisine just steps from the Tennessee Aquarium. Moe’s Original Bar B Que was the brainchild of three Alabama boys with a love of all things southern: BBQ, blues, college football, and whiskey. Moe’s pairs mouth-watering smoked barbecue with authentic southern-style side dishes and desserts from recipes passed down for generations. Choose irresistible options like the pulled pork sandwich meal, the smoked chicken platter, southern fried catfish, or smoked chicken wings.

Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint

Thanks for the recommendation @r_snagy 🔥🔥🔥#jackbrowns #jackonpiggyback

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If you need to wash down the barbecue with a beer, stop by Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint in the revitalized Tomorrow Building. Recently named the 11th best burger joint in America by Business Insider, Jack Brown’s pairs more than 100 craft beers from around the world with an award-winning selection of burgers. The Virginia-based restaurant chain specializes in burgers prepared with Wagyu beef and embraces creative variations of classic flavors. Try The Elvis, topped with peanut butter, mayo, Applewood smoked bacon, and cheese, or The Greg Brady, topped with house made mac n’ cheese and Martin’s barbecue potato chips. Sample the vast variety of burger and beer combinations any time you choose, as Jack Brown’s features a burger special every day of the week.

The Tap House

Located at the base of Lookout Mountain, The Tap House** **brought 30 new beer taps to the St. Elmo neighborhood when it opened its doors. Located just down the street from 1885 Grill, The Tap House features a rotating selection of local and international beers as well as light food options such as paninis, sandwiches, hummus, and meat and cheese plates. Meet up with friends and family and bring the kids. The Tap House has a selection of board games and offers trivia on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Bingo on Thursdays at 7 p.m.

Chatter Box Cafe

The Chatter Box Cafe is the fruit of Brandon Ellis’ labor. A transplant from Kentucky, Brandon created Chatter Box Cafe out of a passion for food and community. The menu is constantly evolving in order to always include fresh, in-season ingredients, but rest assured that Brandon’s meals always feature meats smoked for hours on his hardwood smoker. Come to Chatter Box to enjoy brisket, ribs, chicken wings, and more—all cooked tender and seasoned to perfection. The cafe is open on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the corner of 19th and Market Street. You can also find its pop-up food truck around town by following them on Facebook and Instagram. As the folks at Chatter Box Cafe say, you just need to "follow the smoke."

TAPTOUR

Follow your tastebuds on Chattanooga’s brand new TAPTOUR. As the name implies, this is a self-guided tour through Chattanooga’s craft beer culture. Navigate Chattanooga’s best breweries and beer drinking communities with the help of a little yellow book. This free Brew Guide is a place to record which establishments you’ve enjoyed and which are still on your list. Enjoy a local brew to receive a stamp at each participating location. Once you have 4 stamps, pick up a free pint glass at Imbibe. Collect 13 stamps and pick up a free growler and a discount on a local brewery fill. You can pick up a Brew Guide at any participating locations listed on the TAPTOUR website.

It is easy to see why Chattanooga continues to attract new residents and visitors. The variety of food and drink options evolves as the city grows. Step out next weekend and enjoy one of Chattanooga’s newest hot spots for food and drink. Whether you favor burgers, barbecue, or local craft beer, you’ll find plenty of options to satisfy your cravings.

Written by Alexandra Marie Pitzer for RootsRated Media in partnership with Chattanooga CVB.

Featured image provided by Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint