Walking the North Carolina Woods

A few days in the Shining Rock Wilderness

I started traveling with my feet, walking out the front door as a kid to go exploring. There was a tract of vacant land not far from my house I would walk to in the early days. It had a cluster of Eucalyptus trees that offered shade in the summer, and from mid way up, a view of the sea.

I started going farther and farther afield as I got older, until I was sneaking off to catch the southbound PCH bus, carefully horded change heavy in my pocket, often ending up twenty or more miles from home at the age of twelve1.

Later I spent a lot of time on the trails of the Sierra Nevada, the White Mountains, the Trinity Alps, the Arizona desert, the western slope of Colorado, and the canyon lands of Utah. And then one day, I stopped walking around.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, stopping. I just didn’t make the time for walking anymore. What you don’t make time for, doesn’t happen. And it didn’t for over a decade, until I decided it was time to plan a walk. It just popped into my head one day, you should go for a walk.

So I pulled up a map and plotted a trip to the mountain trails of North Carolina, a place called Shining Rock Wilderness. I’d intended to go alone, but my kids got wind of my plan and wanted in. It took some scrambling to find enough gear for us all, but I managed. I’m glad I did, walking with my kids made it better in every way.

It wasn’t a long walk, but it was our kind of walk. We followed a river side trail a few miles up a thickly forested valley, under a canopy of yellow birch, oak, and beach, with buckeye and tulip poplar beneath. The forest was decked out in autumn colors. Red, orange, yellow, and brown leaves rained down with every shuddering breeze.

We set up camp in the fading light the first evening, and there we stayed. We played by the river, exploring upstream the first morning to see where another river cut in and the valley opened up some. Mainly though we spent our time in our little neighborhood of river valley.

It was a fine river, babbling calmly in some places, but turning to a tumbling cataract in others. It had the perfect clarity of western rivers. Even in pools six feet deep, we could see the rocky, leaf-strewn bottom below. In the shallows thin ribbons of clear water slid over the black granite rocks, shimmering like heat waves on a desert horizon. You wanted to lay down and drink it right off the rocks.

We didn’t of course, but there is something tremendously calming about laying down by the water. It was cold, but not unbearable. We tossed our clothes on the rocks and went swimming one afternoon, laying afterward on the black granite shore, letting the warmth of the afternoon sun on the rocks chase away the chill.

In the evenings we would cook dinner down by the river on our tiny stove. We made all our own food in the dehydrator ahead of time and rehydrated it in camp. Mac and cheese, a chicken curry we named Shiny Rock Curry. Rehydrated canned chicken is better than it sounds. And everything is better when you eat it in the wild, next to a river.

Every night after dinner we walked a little way up the river and stashed our bear canister well away from the tent. On the way back we’d lie down on our backs and watch the pink sunset through the yellow leaves of the trees. Then the bats would dart overhead, silhouetted against the twilight sky.

The kids didn’t seem to mind the deep darkness of the forest at night. Although, for once I didn’t encounter any resistance to going to bed. They may not have been afraid of the dark forest, but they weren’t terribly eager to remain out in it either. A campfire would likely have helped, but sadly, there are no fires allowed in the Shiny Rock Wilderness right now.

One night I got up in the early morning darkness and unzipped the tent to a panorama of stars, with Orion perfectly framed in the one treeless spot of sky. It was cold, but I sat out on a log, watching the clouds drift past the glow of the moon, hidden somewhere behind the ridge. I couldn’t help wondering how many problems might be solved if we all had a chance to more regularly see the stars. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when the stars are always there to remind you what’s real and what’s theatre.

Early mornings on the river are magical. Get up when the light of the world is still soft and gray and stand and listen to the water. There is nothing better than morning twilight beside a river.

We were up early every morning. The kids would play on the rocks while I made coffee in the close company of a trio of rock wrens that were our only real visitors the whole trip. They seemed genuinely curious about what we were doing. They studied us with cocked heads, watching as we ate our breakfast burritos. They left when I made hot chocolate, though even later, when we were racing leaf boats in the eddies, I heard them chattering somewhere in the thicket of mountain laurel across the river.

The last morning we packed up our gear and headed home. None of us wanted to though. I was kicking myself for not taking more time off, I had plenty to spare. I just hadn’t anticipated how much we would all want to stay. The kids spent much of the hike back plotting ways to come back, times to come back, what would it be like in spring? Was it hot in summer? As I listened to them talk about it I found myself wondering how long it would be before they were counting their change and looking up bus schedules.

  1. Kids don’t do this any more. I’m not sure I’d want mine to, but it was a different time. And my parents were never, so far as I know, aware that I did this. The bus riding was mostly done in the company of a friend or two, mutual support was needed to travel far at that age. 


Richard November 14, 2020 at 8:41 p.m.

I love this post so much. The colors of the photos, the quiet moments that you capture so well.

I haven’t made as much time for walking myself, lately. I should do that.

Thank you!

Scott November 15, 2020 at 2:51 p.m.


Thanks so much, that’s very kind. Glad you enjoyed the post. I highly recommend this area if you’re ever nearby.


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