5 Surprising Outdoor Destinations for Holiday Hiking

If you’re like a growing portion of Americans, you might be planning to hit the road this holiday season. If that’s you, we at Trekalong applaud your perennial thirst for adventure!

If that thirst is for outdoor adventure specifically, it would be easy to assume that the best winter-time hiking destinations would be out west (or southwest), particularly in California and Arizona — where the weather is relatively constant year-round and the National Parks per capita are among the highest in the nation.

However, to assume such would blind you to a number of less-obvious but just as rewarding spots for holiday hiking. In fact, we’ve found Appalachian country (and the surrounding regions) in particular offers some of the country’s best “off-season” hiking options.

We asked a few of our friends over at Menasha Ridge Press and Wilderness Press for their favorite, “best-kept-secret-spots” to winter outdoor activity. Here are five of the most surprising outdoor destinations for holiday hiking:


Table Rock Mountain, South Carolina (cred: TiffyBeth, Wikimedia).

South Carolina Upstate

The upstate region of South Carolina is a rich and diverse landscape with a climate just as variant. While the area is not immune to winter precipitation (the Blue Ridge Mountains, for example, average nearly a foot of snowfall per season), it is just as likely to find a mild sunny day in the middle of December as it is to find a snow-covered trail. Sherry Jackson, author of Five-Star Trails: South Carolina Upstate (Menasha Ridge Press, 2013), explains: “When I first moved to the Upstate, I was amazed that it was so green… From it’s mountains and lakes to its waterfalls and trails, the Upstate is an outdoors lover’s paradise.” While the Upstate has four distinct seasons, December and January temperatures typically hover between the low 30’s and low 50’s, with roughly four inches of precipitation each month on average. This adds up to a high likelihood of finding a holiday hike for the snow-lover or the sun-lover in your bunch.


cumberland plateau

Cumberland Plateau

 Chattanooga, TN

Chattanooga offers the same average temperature range for December and January as South Carolina’s Upstate, with just a bit more precipitation (closer to 5″ per month). Johnny Molloy, renowned hiking expert and author of Five-Star Trails: Chattanooga (Menasha Ridge Press, 2013), says that, while temperatures can dip into the “frigid” range at times throughout the winter months, “a brisk hiking pace will be enough to keep you warm. You can hike year-round in Chattanooga — whether it be in the heat of summer, or in the chill of winter, when the trails of the Tennessee River Valley can still be enjoyed no matter the temperature.” In fact, year-round, Chattanooga is consistently ranked as one of the best destinations for outdoor enthusiasts, with a terrain as varied as it is awe-inspiring. Chattanooga is also centrally located between other peripheral hiking regions in Georgia and Alabama, as well as Tennessee.


Juniper Springs, Ocala National Forest (cred: Michael Messina)

Gainesville/Ocala, FL

Not only is winter hiking pleasurable, it’s preferable in this region of Northern Florida, October-April being the most recommended months to hike. While the magnificent wildflowers are best visited during spring and fall, “it’s always a joy when the first frost comes along, since it means the insects won’t trouble us for a couple of months,” say Sandra Friend and John Keatley, authors of Five-Star Trails: Gainesville & Ocala (Menasha Ridge Press, 2013). Indeed, hiking in December or January — when highs are in the low 70’s and lows are in the mid 40’s — offers striking relief from the area’s summer climate, with temperatures routinely reaching the 90’s (and that doesn’t account for humidity). Precipitation levels are also much lower in the winter months, hovering between 2.5-3.5″ per month, November having the lowest monthly average at 2.1″.


Waterfalls at South Mountain State Park (cred: Matthew Tietje)

Charlotte, NC

Not too far from South Carolina’s Upstate, the weather here is similar: low 30’s to low 50’s throughout December and January, with temperatures only rarely falling below freezing. Like neighboring regions, precipitation slows to a trickle in the winter months. Joshua Kinser, author of Five-Star Trails: Charlotte (Menasha Ridge Press, 2012), thinks the best part about hiking in Charlotte is how widespread the trail network really is. “One interesting aspect about Charlotte is that no particular area around the city stands out as the epicenter of hiking,” he said, “No matter where you live in Charlotte, or no matter where you’re staying, you’re likely to find a great trail nearby.”


Red River Gorge, Kentucky (cred: Jarek Tuszynski)

Red River Gorge, Kentucky

We had to include an option for the most adventurous among us — the Red River Gorge, located in south-central/southeastern Kentucky. Be warned: the Gorge sees its fair share of snow and ice each year, with winter temperatures frequently dropping into the 20’s. While said snow and ice can make a number of trails throughout the Gorge treacherous — and camping truly an adventure — the snow-laden vistas more than make up for the hazards. Sean Patrick Hill, author of Hiking Kentucky’s Red River Gorge (Menasha Ridge Press, 2013), agrees, saying, “Though it’s a relatively small area, the forest types, weathered rock formations, and amazing vistas seem limitless. There is always a reason to go.” Indeed, known as one of the most picturesque destinations in the continental U.S., this gorge is truly gorgeous all year round.


Intimidated by winter hiking? Check out our winter hiking checklist!


Tanya Twerdowsky
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