On a whim, my husband and I once spent New Year’s Eve camping in nearby Jones Gap State Park (more on camping later) and planned to take a refreshing hike the next day. After a torpid, indulgent holiday season, we were completely unprepared for the 10-mile, nearly vertical flogging we experienced on Hospital Rock Trail. Thick tree roots and bulky boulders called for careful footwork, heavy breathing, and plain old strength.
At the same time, the tricky switchbacks opened up to inspiring new views, and refreshment eventually came in the form of a rushing waterfall at the trail’s end. Then, we spent a slow, albeit treacherous descent catching our breath in the crisp air. On that New Year’s Day, we emerged from the woods exhausted and sore, yet amazed at what we could handle. It turns out there’s something about fighting post-holiday lethargy to push your body up and down a mountainside that makes whatever else you want to achieve next seem undoubtedly possible.
Our New Year’s Day tradition was born.
Several years later, we’ve learned to let each first day of the year unfold in its own way. The chosen trail might be impassable due to winter storm damage. Or, a warm and sunny New Year’s Day might force a more leisurely pace on crowded trails. January hikes offer big payoffs as reduced foliage allows for longer, wider, and more complex views—unless there’s fog.
Or, it might be raining. That was the case last year when we set out to the Chestnut Ridge Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area in Landrum. Less popular than state parks, wildlife management areas’ trails often feel less worn and more remote. The day was chilly, drizzly, and gray, so I wore a bright orange silk scarf with dancing red figures to coax myself into a hiking mood. As the only two hikers, my husband and I hustled along the 5.5-mile hike trying to outpace the coming deluge. Heavy raindrops began to fall just as we rounded the last bend a hundred yards or so from our parked car, but we got our true sense of accomplishment just from sticking to our goal on a crummy day. It became a helpful memory on busy but uninspiring days throughout the year.
If you can camp on New Year’s Eve, do. Parks that are normally booked throughout summer and fall are wide open to the determined winter camper. You might enter the new year under a roof of bright stars. (This year, January begins and ends with full moons, which should put any disco ball to shame). You can also leave your watch and phone in the tent: in the Upcountry, the distant sounds of gunshots from several directions literally ring in the new year quite effectively.
A winter hike offers physical and mental benefits, and less obstructed views. For more information on great hikes in the area, visit southcarolinaparks.com.
Hospital Rock at Jones Gap State Park
45 minutes from Greenville
9 miles round-trip
Chestnut Ridge Heritage Preserve
45 minutes from Greenville
6 miles round-trip
Panthertown Valley Loop
Nantahala National Forest
1hr, 45 minutes from Greenville 9 miles round-trip