Winter weather got you down? Already dreaming of being out on the trail when spring arrives? Just because you might be hiding inside from the negative wind chills or buried under several feet of snow doesn't mean you can't still enjoy backpacking elsewhere in the country. There are plenty of places in the southern states that are still, if not more, enjoyable to hike in the middle of winter. Read on for some inspiration to beat those winter blues!
Featured Photo: Sipsey Wilderness (Photo by Michael Hicks)
Located near the southern edge of Tennessee near the city of Chattanooga lies the southern terminus of the work-in-progress Cumberland Trail. Once completed, it will run a total of 300 miles between its southern starting point on Signal Mountain to its northern trailhead in Cumberland Gap National Park. You don't need to wait until its completion to enjoy some time on this path, though. Plenty of sections are already open to day-use and backpackers, including the Tennessee River Gorge section, which offers 35 miles of interesting rock formations, gorges, waterfalls, and water sources. Various shelters and campsites are available along the route. You can find more detailed information on this and all of the other sections on the Cumberland Trails Conference website.
Sheltowee Trace Trail
Whether you're looking for a long-distance trail or another section hike along one, the 319-mile Sheltowee Trace National Rec Trail offers both for year-round adventures. Running mostly through Kentucky, this trail can still see its fair share of colder temps and even some snow, but it could be the perfect place to try out a winter backpacking trip for the first time. From quiet forests to narrow ridgetops, deep gorges to river walks, the Sheltowee gives you a taste for all of the backwoods beauty the Kentucky countryside has to offer. We recommend checking out section 28, also known as the Moonbow Trail, to check out several of the state's prettiest waterfalls, including Cumberland Falls, the second largest falls east of the Mississippi.
Citrus Hiking Trail
Finding multi-day backpacking loop trails in Florida can be tricky, but the Citrus Hiking Trail is a favorite amongst native Floridians. This 47-mile trek actually consists of four loop trails, making it possible to change the itinerary to your liking and ability. Don't let the relatively flat nature of the Sunshine State fool you, though. This trail is said to be the most rugged in the state, ranging from climbs up and down sandhills to sharp drops to numerous sinkholes. On top of that, water sources are scarce, so plan accordingly for this 4-day journey through the surprisingly diverse terrain of the Withlacoochee State Forest.
If you're longing for something a bit less strenuous, look into the much flatter, but equally beautiful, Myakka Hiking Trail located in the identically named state park.
Sipsey Wilderness Loop Trail
For a moderate loop trail suitable for backpackers of all skill levels, check out the 22-mile Sipsey Wilderness Trail in northwest Alabama. This route is noted for visiting some of the best sites in the Sipsey Wilderness, including great views of Sipsey Canyon, East Branch Falls, Ship Rock, and Falls Creek Falls. Lots of campsites can be found along Sipsey River and access is easy with multiple parking areas and connecting trails. (The latter also comes in handy if you wish to extend your trip, especially since it's easy to cover the miles.) Though the terrain is relatively flat for much of the trail, be sure to have a good map, GPS, or navigational skills as the trails are not well-marked. Winter is a great time to visit, though, because the views are unobstructed and the humidity of summer can be brutal!
Lake Ouachita Vista Trail
Being one of the cleanest lakes in the U.S. and largest in Arkansas, you won't have to worry about finding clean water along this scenic trail skirting the edge of Lake Ouachita. This 36-mile point-to-point route offers even better views of the lake and surrounding mountains during the off-season and you get to avoid the noise from all of the summertime water activities. Temperatures stay bearable here in the central part of the state, rarely dipping into the 30s or lower. The trail is rated as easy to moderate, but there are several ascents up Hickory Nut Mountain, Bear Mountain, and Brady Mountain, which mixes things up and offers even more breathtaking views of the lake. Head over to our full write-up on the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail for more useful information.
Wild Azalea Trail
Not many lengthy trails can be found in Louisiana. In fact, the Wild Azalea Trail comes in at the longest contiguous trail in the state at 24 miles! Located in the Kisatchie National Forest, this route is also designated as a national recreation trail and is rated as moderate. The Wild Azalea Trail is perfect for beginner and intermediate backpackers with its easy-to-follow path and relatively easy terrain. Rolling hills await you along with meandering creeks, Boggy Bayou, and a variety of plants and wildlife, including the occasional wild horse, boar, and bald eagle. You can find more information on this trail here.
Art Loeb Trail
We've mentioned this trail on our Best Backpacking Trips in the Eastern U.S. round-up, but it's definitely worth mentioning again. Georgia has pleasant winter hiking weather due to its mild temps and usual lack of snow. Located in the beautiful Pisgah National Forest, this 30-mile point-to-point trail will take you along ridgelines for much of the route, affording you even better views of the surrounding Appalachians in the bare wintertime. Plenty of campsites can be found along the trail, but water sources are another story, so plan accordingly for this rugged trail. Some of the highlights include Black Balsam Knob, Tennent Mountain, Pilot Mountain, and the option of extending your trip another day by taking the side trail to Cold Mountain.
Big Piney Trail
The Forest Service page for this trail pretty much says it all: None to few water sources, few trail markings, bridgeless stream crossings, and rough trail. In other words, if you're looking for some true solitude in the Ozark Mountain wilderness, you're sure to find it and enjoy it if you're adequately prepared for this Mark Twain NF trail located in Missouri. At 17 miles in length, this moderately rated loop is perfect for a quick weekend getaway. Some of the highlights include lookouts over Big Piney River, rocky outcroppings, and some small waterfalls if you're lucky (which can be after snowmelt or rain in winter). Click here for a more in-depth trail description.
Outer Mountain Loop
Located in Big Bend NP in southern Texas, the Outer Mountain Loop is arguably one of the best backpacking hikes you can take in the park. Even better? Winter is actually the suggested time of year to embark on this extremely strenuous 30-mile loop. It offers an amazingly diverse array of terrain, traveling through canyons, grasslands, juniper woodlands, and, of course, the desert. You're also in for a treat if you enjoy bird watching on your hikes! Water, not surprisingly, is sparse along the route, but there are several areas convenient to caching water ahead of time. You can read more about this and other desert hikes that might be good winter options in our Southwest round-up.
What are your favorite winter backpacking routes? Tell us about them in the comments below!