Thursday, November 03, 2016

Adventures in North Carolina: Ziplines, Foot Golf, Hiking and Mountain Biking

Yesterday I shared my experiences while fly fishing in North Carolina last weekend, and while that was a fantastic part of the trip, it wasn't the only thing I did while I was there. On the contrary, the visit was brief – just three days – but filled with some fantastic outdoor activities, including hiking and mountain biking in various parts of Jackson County, the setting for my trip. And while there, I discovered plenty of outdoor adventures to keep me occupied, but also found that the region has a lot to offer in terms of culinary delights as well.

One of the first things on the agenda upon arriving and checking into the hotel was a visit to the Sapphire Valley Resort. During the summer months, Sapphire Valley offers visitors a host of activities, including a full 18-hole golf course set in the tranquil mountains of western North Carolina. In the winter, the resort switches over to skiing, offering a great place for beginners to cut pick up the skills need to hit the slopes, while keeping more advanced skiers occupied too.

While fall is definitely in the air in North Carolina, we were along way off from anyone shredding on the ski slopes. So instead, we climbed high into the trees to try out the on-site zipline experience. The Sapphire Valley zipline was first built back in 2014, and has since been expanded to 14 different platforms to fly off of. And while the activity will certainly give you an adrenaline rush, it isn't so intense that you can't bring the whole family along for the fun.

The team at Sapphire Valley helped us to gear up and get on the lines as quickly as possible, providing a nice introduction to zipping, as well as providing some handy safety tips too. After climbing into our harnesses, putting on our helmets, and learning the ropes so to speak, we soon found ourselves flying through the trees at breakneck speed. The course is shorter than some that I've done in the past, but the setting was great and it was a lot of fun to be so high up in the trees as the leaves were changing color. I'm told the course is open in the winter too, which means anyone ziplining at that time is soaring above the skiers passing below.

After we completed the zipline course, I was introduced to a completely new sport that I had never seen before. In addition to its traditional golf course, Sapphire Valley happens to be home to a "foot golf" course as well. What's foot golf you ask? Well, it's a new activity growing in popularity in which you try to kick a soccer ball into a suitably sized hole. You keep score just as you would in regular golf, with each hole being rated for par and given a handicap as well. Best of all, the foot golf course runs parallel to the standard golf course, meaning some family members can play one sport, while some play the other.


I only had time to play four or five holes of foot golf, but I can tell you that it was a lot of fun. I'm not much of a soccer player, but after a bit of practice we were starting to get the hang of it. Before long, we were even flirting with par on a regular basis as we picked up the nuances of the sport. In reality though, it was just another great excuse to spend some time outdoors in the beautiful North Carolina setting.

Ziplining and foot golf are fun of course, but anyone who knows me knows that I also enjoy more active pursuits when I travel. That's why I was so happy to see some hiking and mountain biking on the agenda too. For those two items on our agenda we traveled out to Panthertown Valley, a wonderful wilderness setting that is perfect for all of our favorite outdoor activities, including camping, fishing, horseback riding, climbing, and more.

Once at Panthertown we were joined by a guide from Play On Adventures who took us on a short hike along the School House Falls Loop. The trail is only about two miles in length – we extended it with another hike to a nearby beach – but it is incredibly scenic and ends at a the wonderful School House Falls.

Once again, walking in the Carolina woods during autumn made for the perfect setting, as the colors of the leaves helped to set the perfect tone. The warm sun shining brightly through the crimson, orange, and gold foliage made it an ideal place for a walk, and while we only got a brief taste of what Panthertown has to offer, it was evident that it is a spectacular outdoor playground for anyone who lives or visits Jackson County.

Fortunately for us, we had the chance to explore the area a bit further from the back of a mountain bike too. Most of Panthertown's trails are mixed-use, which means you can hike, trail run, mountain bike, and go horseback riding on them too. So, after our hike was ended, we climbed aboard some full-suspension mountain bikes – also courtesy of Play On Adventures – and rode some of the trails that we had also just hiked. Covering that ground again quickly however, we also had the chance to press on into some new areas we hadn't yet seen.

The fall leaves made mountain biking a trickier affair than it would have otherwise been. While covering the ground, the leaves brought a level of slickness to the trail that wasn't quite so evident when walking it. They also covered hidden obstacles from time to time too, although it didn't tend to slow us down too much.

The trail we rode began as mostly downhill, which provided a nice sense of speed at the beginning. But, in order to test our legs some, we did ride up to a stunning ridge that gave us a nice view over the entire Panthertown Valley. From that vantage point – along the Devil's Elbow route – we could see how far this wilderness setting stretched. Once again, it was incredibly intriguing, and provided good incentive for me to want to return and explore it further.

Our long descent at the start of the ride provided a good workout as we made our return trip to the parking lot. As with the hike, the mountain bike ride was far to short, but it as already time to start thinking about heading home. As is often the case on these kinds of trips, I only got a taste of everything that a destination has to offer. Now, I simply want to go back to Jackson County to experience more of it at my own pace.

When it comes to outdoor adventure, the western states in the U.S. seem to get the bulk the attention. Those places are wonderful of course, and are deserving of the accolades that they receive. But, the eastern part of the country has plenty to offer too, with North Carolina being right up there with the best spots for outdoor enthusiasts.

If you're looking for a new destination to add to your bucket list, I think you'll find Jackson County is a great option. There are so many things to see and do there that you'll likely be overwhelmed with the possibilities. Whether you want to go hiking, camping, mountain biking, climbing, or fly fishing, you'll find some utterly spectacular places to pursue those passions. You'll also find plenty of wonderful and outgoing people that are extremely accommodating, as well as a host of declines restaurants, wonderful brew pubs, and eclectic shops to visit too. It is a great mix of mountain lifestyle and urban sophistication. I think you'll find that you'll enjoy it just as much as I did. I can't wait to go back.

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