Lookout Tower Challenge Offers Great Winter Hiking
Last updated 1/11/2021 at 4:24pm
One of the fun parts of Winter is getting way up in the mountains and gazing down through all the leafless sections of forest that normally block views during the warm months. With Appalachian winters proving to be as wild as ever, with lows in the teens and highs in the mid 60s the same week, it can be hard to predict whether or not sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway or other high-altitude vistas will be open to provide access to these views. Well, fear not because the Carolina Mountain Club has a Hiking challenge that may provide some relief.
The Lookout Tower Challenge (LTC) is a series of 22 hikes that end atop many of North Carolina's old and abandoned fire towers. There are requirements in the challenge discerning which towers to visit and a minimum 1-mile round-trip length for each hike, but the real reward comes from summiting the mountaintops where these towers often lie hundreds of feet above the other surrounding peaks gazing on the Blue Ridge Mountains below. Climbing the towers themselves is not a requirement of the challenge, so for those whose stomachs sink at the thought of standing over the mountains atop these historic towers, you are invited to join as well.
The challenge is broken into five areas, the Nantahala National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains, the Central Carolina Highlands, the Blue Ridge and Black Mountains and Northwestern N.C. The list of towers has changed slightly over the years with private investors acquiring certain towers and others being torn down due to neglect, so an annually-updated list is posted on the Carolina Mountain Clubs website, CarolinaMountainClub.org.
Along with the list of towers is a list of suggested hikes to meet the mileage criteria, photos of each tower and each tower's respective access roads. Wintery conditions means the widest scope of view from the mountaintops as leafless trees reveal tons of interconnected trails and old logging roads below, but they also mean frigidly low temps and snow, so take weather and terrain into account, both for your comfort while Hiking and for getting your vehicle to the trailheads.
Where they once stood as beacons to signal in case of roaring wildfires, modern equipment and fire-tracking methods have rendered these towers functionally obsolete. While they may not be needed to warn us of fires anymore, these towers serve as historical and cultural markers of our establishment in Southern Appalachia, as well as living icons of our commitment to conserving these wonderful places. Years of neglect and vandalism has forced the removal of over a third of North Carolina's lookout towers, according to the Carolina Mountain Club, and one of the LTC's goals is not only to provide amazing, breathtaking panoramic views of Appalachia but to give these towers new life by directing hikers towards them.
The Carolina Mountain Club hopes to build a group of volunteers who routinely work on conserving these towers, so that they may continue to stand as cultural and historical monuments for generations to come.
Those who complete the challenge, like most of the Carolina Mountain Club's challenges, will receive a completion patch, a certificate of completion and recognition at the club's annual dinner banquet. The real reward, as far as the Carolina Mountain Club is concerned, is the amazing views and the memories made while tackling the LTC. Blank tower checklists can be found under the LTC's page on the Carolina Mountain Club's website, and completed tower checklists can be emailed to [email protected], with the subject line reading "LTC Completion" for review and recognition.
(Myers is an Appalachian-based adventure enthusiast and writer. He is an avid storyteller, and rarely does her or his fellow hikers step into the woods and return without something interesting to share. Most of his current writing is displayed on his blogger's page on The Trek's website.)