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It was cold, but I was prepared. Leggings and Underarmour, sweatpants and sweatshirt, parka and hiking pants, an array of hats, gloves and scarves — it was safe to say I’d dressed for the forecasted high of 27 degrees.

I’d spent much of the past week indoors, wrapped in blankets against the single-digit chill that assaulted my apartment and dreaming of warmer days. But as the weekend drew near, a realization dawned — all this cold had surely created some beauty out of Western North Carolina’s abundant waterways. I made a decision: I would brave the cold, and I would go find a frozen waterfall.

When people praise the Smokies, it’s often the area’s status as a four-season bonanza of beauty that spurs the discussion. From snow-blanketed winters to vibrant-leafed autumns, these mountains dress to impress year-round.

At 34, Jennifer Pharr Davis has conquered her fair share of long-distance hikes, and then some. Her 2011 hike of the Appalachian Trail set a speed record that stood until 2015. She’s completed the Pacific Crest Trail, the Bartram Trail, the Colorado Trail and a seemingly endless list of other trails scattered across six continents.

But in some ways, her 2017 hike of the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail was the most challenging — and most rewarding — of all the routes she’s walked.

The Smoky Mountain Field School was only a couple years old when Joel Zachary came on as an instructor in 1980. Kathy Zachary — then his girlfriend, now his wife — joined him in 1983, and the field school has been part of their lives ever since.

“We like to say that the success of the program is due to the instructors we have that are so enthusiastic about their topics,” Kathy said. “They have a passion for teaching and sharing, so the person who signs up to take a course really gets that contagious enthusiasm that the instructor shares.”

High-elevation overlooks are one of our finest natural resources. These vantage points allow us to rise above our everyday humdrum existence and see the world with fresh eyes. Many of the finest overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the Great Smokies, and elsewhere can be reached directly via motor vehicles.

Once Jay Ruebel started seeing the billboard, which advertised the 28.3-mile Trailblaze Challenge hike, it seemed like he couldn’t stop seeing it.

Jay likes challenges, and he knew who he wanted to conquer this one with — his 16-year-old daughter, Gracie. Jay’s wife and other daughter both enjoy short hikes, but Gracie’s the one who’s into long excursions and multi-day treks. It’s how they hang out.

Heading up Hemphill Road, just outside of Maggie Valley, the lush fields and bungalow homes of Jonathan Creek fade into the rearview mirror. Pulling up to a large metal gate, it opens slowly and you soon find yourself meandering a dirt road, pushing ever so carefully toward the top of the 5,000-foot ridge.

White dots will soon pepper the sidewalks of downtown Sylva as the town sets out to claim its identity as a trail town and mark the official route of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which runs through Sylva on its way from Clingmans Dome to the Outer Banks.

The trail traverses the state of North Carolina, offering a walking route 1,175 miles long that, true to its name, takes hikers from the state’s highest mountains to its interface with the sea. And a section of the trail travels right through downtown Sylva, something that Sylva attorney and Friends of the MST board member Jay Coward is urging town leaders to capitalize on. He also has plans to speak to the Dillsboro Board of Aldermen.

Hiking is one of the best ways to get out and commune with nature. With a quiet step you stand a great chance of seeing some of the multitude of wildlife Western North Carolina has to offer.

It’s just a short walk from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Fryingpan Tower — 1.5 miles roundtrip — but in a season when wildflowers abound and the ecological intricacies of mountain life are on full display, a curious person could spend hours exploring. 

Especially when accompanied by someone who’s full of the knowledge and stories to explain it all. Someone like a Blue Ridge Parkway ranger, two of whom were out last week to lead a group of 25 locals and tourists on a summertime ramble.

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