Fall is Backpacking Season!

by NOLI instructor Minta Ray

As temperatures drop and colors change from the lush green of summer to the patchwork quilt of fall, it’s almost as if all the folks in the Appalachian Highlands are drawn outdoors. Local parks are filled with neighbors inhaling the crisp air, dogs rolling in crunchy leaves, and children donning their warm coats with the approach of the silvery tendrils of winter. The region’s rivers empty of summer’s swimsuit-clad tubers but are still playgrounds for boaters and fishermen who know the magic of cool water and breezy afternoons. Trailheads often left empty on the muggiest days of summer burst with locals taking to the trail for a chance to walk amongst the golden canopy of fall. The message is clear, we must go outside.

An avid lover of the outdoors in all forms, there is truly no season or condition that will keep me from making my way to the mountains, the river, the lake or the trail. However, fall invites the opportunity to share one of my favorite ways to enjoy the Appalachian Highlands: overnight backpacking. I started backpacking in my early teens with a childhood best friend and her dad, learning to shoulder everything I needed to explore the ridges, gaps, and coves of Appalachia on my small frame. This love for self-sufficient adventures has evolved into thousands of miles spent on the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and countless others. However, not unlike Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I hold closely to the notion that there truly is no place like home: the mountains and valleys surrounding Johnson City and the entire Appalachian Highlands Region.

In this season, I’ll stay right where I am. Spend a morning listening to the wind zip across the ridge in the Roan Highlands. Enjoy a walk in the Grayson Highlands that I’ll almost definitely share with wild ponies. Stroll along the banks of Watauga Lake and watch the water become a glossy mirror for the golden shoulders of Pond Mountain above. Steal away to the trails of Buffalo Mountain Park after work and feel overwhelmed with gratitude for this haven just minutes from Johnson City. Make my bed in the leaves under a blanket of stars, joined only by a golden harvest moon.

Taking up a new activity like backpacking and venturing into the unknown can be a bit overwhelming as you learn about gear, techniques, planning, locations and safety considerations. You can minimize the stress though by going with someone experienced enough to show you the ropes, keeping everyone safe and healthy while leading you to places you may have only heard about or seen in pictures. Go out with a trusted friend or become one of mine as I share my love for backpacking through my work with the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI). Join us on an upcoming Backpacking Overnight Adventure on October 22-23—a one-night overnight trip with gear and instruction provided along one of my favorite parts of the Appalachian Trail traversing Unaka Mountain in Northeast Tennessee. We'll include topics such as trip planning considerations, safety considerations, what to pack, gear selection considerations, organizing and packing your gear, choosing routes and campsites, meal planning and camp cooking suggestions and Leave No Trace practices. Our route will take us approximately 12 miles over two days to Beauty Spot near Erwin, Tennessee, offering stunning long-range vistas on clear days.

So, if you have ever looked up at the mountains and wondered what it might be like to journey across each one, sleeping by a mountain stream under a crisp autumn sky and carrying everything you need in a backpack I hope you'll join us Oct 22-23? This is an excellent opportunity for both those who are new to backpacking and looking for a supportive environment to venture out for the first time as well as experienced hikers who want to learn new tips and tricks or just enjoy the companionship of a small-group adventure. For more information go to https://bookeo.com/nolilearn?devent=41568XXYFPC1835B30AFEC_2022-10-22_SqZFDHE3K3up or www.nolilearn.org/calendar.

Minta Ray is an avid outdoors enthusiast and instructor and has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

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