A Conversation with Danny

A Conversation with Danny Bernstein

As historians say, “History is never just about the past. It’s about how history helps to shape today.” There are many good history books on our mountains, but I’m looking at the history of the land from a hiker’s perspective. By walking, we can understand how the landscape shapes the culture.

Hawksbill in Linville Gorge
Hawksbill in Linville Gorge

You’ve already written one hiking guidebook, Hiking the Carolina Mountains. What caused you to write a second, completely new guidebook that covers hiking in North Carolina?

When I wrote Hiking the Carolina Mountains, I found so many hikes I wanted to include, but I had a deadline and space limitations. So I kept notes on the ones that wouldn’t fit. As I traveled to book events and met readers and hikers, they asked me about areas I’d left out. They said “You need to include Linville Gorge/Blowing Rock, Highlands, Hickory Nut Gorge, Chimney Rock State Park …” and I listened. I also wanted to explore hiking areas farther east and north in the North Carolina mountains.

In your first book, you included quite a few historical anecdotes along with 57 hikes. In Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, you make history an integral part of the book. What is it about the history of the region that fascinates you?

As historians say, “History is never just about the past. It’s about how history helps to shape today.” There are many good history books on our mountains, but I’m looking at the history of the land from a hiker’s perspective. By walking, we can understand how the landscape shapes the culture.

Every hike is a heritage treasure, either by itself or as part of a larger area. I was curious about family names that are so well-known to hikers, including Art Loeb, Moses Cone, and Julian Price-who were these folks? I’ve been lucky enough to get to know descendants of the Loeb family (the namesake of the Art Loeb Trail) and the Steve Woody family (of the Woody place in Cataloochee) and hear their stories.

Let’s take a snapshot of the end of the 19th century. The Caudill family lived in a one-room cabin at the end of Basin Creek (now in Doughton Park) with 14 children. Very few people hike to that cabin.

At the same time, less than 50 miles south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Moses and Bertha Cone built Flat Top Manor, a 20-room house outside Blowing Rock. Their estate with 25 miles of carriage roads has become a major destination. In Asheville, George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore Estate and owned over 195 square miles of land.  Most of his property became the Pisgah District of Pisgah National Forest. At the same time, in the Smokies, Cataloochee was a thriving community with frame houses, schools, post offices and cemeteries. And all of this is now on public land–ours to hike on and protect. Hiking on this land means learning about who lived there.   

 How does a guidebook author decide which trails to include? What are your criteria?

First of all, the trails have to be official, maintained trails. With thousands of maintained trails on our land, there’s no need to go on private land or bushwhack. Second, the trails have to create a hike that makes sense and reaches a destination or make a loop with highlights such as a cabin or chimney, a waterfall, or great wildflowers. I’ve found hiking opportunities that haven’t had much publicity, such as Glen Falls in Highlands, or that have just opened up to the public, such as Catawba Falls close to Old Fort. And the trails off the Cherohala Skyway have been hiding in plain sight. 

In researching the trails, did you run into any surprises?

I discovered North Carolina State Parks! They have outstanding hiking. In the course of my research, I had wonderful conversations with state park rangers who filled me in on the history of their parks. Hiking Stone Mountain State Park, I met a local hiker who told me about Stone Mountain’s moonshine past and took me to a field of barrels, jerry cans, and rubber hoses (all abandoned moonshining equipment) a few feet from the trail.

Land Conservancies are becoming more relevant to hikers and have been instrumental in creating the new Chimney Rock State Park and other hiking opportunities, such as Florence Preserve in Hickory Nut Gorge. The Nature Conservancy leads hikes into Bat Cave. Thanks to the Foothills Conservancy, the public can now hike to Catawba Falls.

Much farther west, with the help of some friends, I hiked Pinnacle Park, owned by the town of Sylva, which is protected by a conservation easement agreement with the Little Tennessee Land Trust.

With the economy the way it is, many people are choosing “staycations,” spending their time off exploring closer to home. For people who live near the North Carolina Blue Ridge, can you recommend a specific hiking destination or destinations?

A hiking vacation is the cheapest vacation you can take. There are no entrance fees in parks or forests in North Carolina. So how cheap would you like to go?

Come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and put up a tent in the Cataloochee campground. You can hike for days on end and after a week’s vacation you still won’t have finished all the Cataloochee trails.

Hanging Rock State Park has family cabins that are almost like a resort. The park has boating, fishing, climbing, swimming, and easy hiking. If you run out of things to do, drive over to Pilot Mountain State Park and Mount Airy for the day.

If you want to go more upscale, get a room in Highlands, hike the many short trails in the area, and eat out in the evening. 

You’ve said that one of your biggest motivations as a guidebook author is to get people outside and hiking on the trail. At what point in your life did you start to hike, and what motivated you to start hiking?

Like many children growing up in New York City, I was sent away to camp in the summer. I loved the outdoors and the vacation was always too short. As an inner city college student, (I did my undergraduate work at Brooklyn College), I became a counselor at that same camp. At least, then, I got to stay the whole summer and took girls hiking and canoeing.

When I started working in New Jersey, I saw an announcement for a hike led by a local hiking club. I was surprised to learn that adults went hiking without children. I went on the hike, brought all the wrong gear, and barely kept up with people older than my parents. But I loved it. I have been hiking and leading hikes for various hiking clubs ever since.

For the record, I did “punch a clock” for 35 years. I was a software developer for half my career and taught computer science for the second half. But I hiked on weekends and vacations. My husband and I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in sections, and hiking is the reason we now live in the North Carolina mountains. There’s a t-shirt slogan that says it all for me: Hiking is Life – Everything else is details.

For further information or to arrange an interview with Danny Bernstein, please contact:
Mary Ellen Hammond at Milestone Press
828-488-6601 maryellenhammond@milestonepress.com