Now, however, I've found that I can use the information from a trail book to better enjoy an area, and also to get there more easily. At the same time, I soon found that putting all my faith in a trail book was foolish at best. Nothing substitutes for good, old-fashioned common sense or practical experience, so keep that in mind when using these books. They can be very helpful and very entertaining when sitting on a high mountain in the warm summer sun, though, so read on.
Hiking Trails of Joyce-Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wilderness Areas
I guess this is probably my favorite trail book. Of course, it covers, in detail, my favorite wilderness, so I may be a bit biased! It has a map of these wildernesses just south of the Smokies, on the TN/NC state lines, but the map is not very detailed, so it's good to use it in conjunction with the map of this area printed by the Forest Service. Homan gives detailed descriptions of ALL the trails in this area, including major portions of the book dedicated to the wildflowers you will see along each trail. He gives directions to the trailheads, and lists the elevation gain, high point, low point, length, and a subjective difficulty rating. He also gives practical information about wildlife along each trail, and experiences he had on the trails. This was a very interesting point when I was at Hangover point one fall afternoon. I was sitting on the high rocks, surrounded only by sky, and I was reading his description of the trail I had just hiked. As I was reading, I heard a strange croaking noise, and saw a bird circling below me. I didn't know what kind of bird it was, because I had never heard the noise before. Then as I continued reading his description, he wrote that if you stay at Hangover long enough, you will hear an odd croaking noise and look up to see a black bird circling. This, he said, will be the rare raven. I was impressed.
By the same token, his description of the Slickrock Creek trail promises 10 river crossings before becoming a dry trail and approaching the intersection I needed. Faithfully following this, I thought I was lost when the trail crossed the river 13 times. The same thing happened when the Wolf Laurel Trail was described as being .7 miles, and the connecting stretch of Stratton Bald trail as being .6 miles. Neither of those distances was remotely correct. WL was MAYBE .4 miles, and SB was at LEAST 1.5 miles.
All in all, though, this book gives a lot of helpful info, including history of the area that each trail goes through. As mentioned, don't use its directions as a substitute for the good old-fashioned map, but use it in conjuction.
P.S. There is a new edition (the 2nd) to this book which corrects most, if not all, of the errors I found in the first edition.
This book covers trails in NE Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and SW Virginia. It's very hard to find trails in these areas that are worth hiking, or, more accurately, are not just way too hard for day hikes. That's where this books comes in handy: it gives you a description of the trails, telling you, basically, what you can expect to see along the trail. This guy is a photographer, so that's this book's slant. It has maps in the back, but they're just about useless. They're broken up into little sections on different pages, and each map doesn't necessarily have an entire trail on it, and all the maps don't fit together. It's mostly annoying. And it's terribly difficult to use them with other maps, but it is possible. His directions to trailheads are even more annoying. I was trying to find a trail once, and his directions were something like this: The state line is 4.6 miles past the last intersection. The AT crosses the road 1.3 miles past the state line. The road to turn off is 2.6 miles past the AT. This isn't EXACTLY how the directions read, I cut out all the OTHER useless details! Now YOU try to figure out how many times you have to look at your odometer!
The organization of the book is also very confusing. You certainly can't just pick it up after a few weeks, and expect to know how to use it. Trails are grouped in some sort of logical order that I have yet to figure out.
It does have some good pictures, though, even though they're in black-and-white. But we can understand budget constraints on that one. What it does do really well, though, is list all the trails in an area where it is not always easy to find the good hikes, so you get an idea where to start.
P.S. There is also a new edition of this book, which at least fixes most of the confusion from the maps. It also has more color pictures, I believe.
If you need to know ALL the trails in the Cherokee National Forest, then this book is for you. It begins with extensive information on the forest and its history, which I find it pretty intriguing when I'm hiking a trail and I can connect some sort of past with it. It then gives a logically organized, detailed description of pretty much every trail in the mountains of east Tennessee. It gives trail distances, trailheads, directions, elevation changes, and even has small maps and pictures. For total information, this book is head and shoulders above the others. Of course, keep in mind that it only covers Cherokee, and most people hike both sides of the state line...this means buying other books, too. Also, if you only hike on one end of the state, then this book is overkill. Homan covers trails on both sides of the line in just the southern end. Murray covers three states in just the northern end. This book covers both the south and the north ends, but on just the TN side.
But this book is very information intensive. Also, I mean, one has to limit the scope of a book somehow, and this limitation works fine. The biggest drawback about all this information is that the book seems impersonal. It was written by several people and then run through an editor. The result is a kind of journalistic blandness. It gives a lot of accurate information, but I've never felt like the book was talking to me, personally. I know this sounds petty, but I enjoy reading my trail books when I'm on the trail, and this book makes me feel like I'm reading an encyclopedia...and I don't enjoy reading an encyclopedia on a mountain top. Basically, this means that I use this book at home when I'm first trying to pick a trail to hike...and home is where it stays. Then I take one of the other books along with me. For pure information, though, this book can't be beat.
The first essential is Delorme's Atlas & Gazeteer. They have one for TN, NC and VA, along with a bunch of other states. These maps are simply invaluable. They have roads, trails, contours and descriptions of major hikes, sites, wildernesses and other outdoor activities. For $20, this is an amazing purchase. And you can order it straight from their web site, or you can usually find them at large retailers or outdoors stores.
Another wise purchase is topographical maps of a particular area. These are available from TVA and some local map and outdoors stores. These maps aren't for everyone. They're very detailed, and cover a very small area (7.5 minutes). I mean, they have my house mapped! These are good, though, for finding geographic features that might otherwise go unnoticed, such as cliffs and streams.
It's now becoming even easier to get maps of an area in which you are hiking. National Geographic sells some great Computer-based maps that you can easily print at home. Delorme also sells electronic maps. And another option is to access maps straight from the web at such sites as TopoZone and Maptech. These sites are really helpful for locating features and trails without having to spend the money to buy a paper map.
Other than that, you're also going to need specific maps of a trail. You can check Trails Illustrated or Amazon. They can also be found (for a price) at the ranger station in the area. They're happy to help, but they're usually not open on weekends. There are way too many maps for me to discuss, but it's usually a good idea to get one in color with a big scale (1 inch=1/2 mile). Be wary of hand drawn maps that are often given out by ranger stations. Also, steer away from maps that have the trails added to them. This is easy to recognize, because you can tell the map existed before the trails, and the trails were just added to the map. These are terribly inaccurate, and the area around them is usually drastically changed. One map I have even maps railroads on a trail that hasn't seen the rail in over 30 years...and the map's STILL being distributed by the Forest Service!
Great Outdoors Recreation Pages - Everything Outdoors
Peak to Peak - Hiking Trails galore
Hiking the Carolinas - Trail Descriptions and Online guides for the Southern Appalachians
Zen's Western North Carolina Nature Notebook - Info for Outdoor activities in western North Carolina
Pete and Ed Books - Lots of Web Links and Book resources