Interview: Johnny Molloy on Hiking North Carolina’s National Forests

Johnny Molloy, author of Hiking North Carolina’s National Forests: 50 Can’t-Miss Trail Adventures in the Pisgah, Nantahala, Uwharrie, and Croatan National Forests, discusses his hiking experiences and gives some advice for hikers

Q: You’ve been known to say that “The wilderness is my office,” and have over 50 books focusing on hiking and outdoor adventures to your credit. What started you on this path?

Johnny Molloy
Johnny Molloy

A: I was lucky enough to go to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which is next door to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I met an avid hiker in college; he took me one time, and I was hooked on the outdoors.

Q: How has your approach to guidebook writing and your style evolved over the years?

A: If it is possible, I take my job more seriously than ever, yet try to make sure to have fun doing it. In everything I do I keep the reader in mind and want to have them make the most of their precious time after they had spent some of their precious money purchasing my guidebooks. After writing over 50 books I have improved both the product and my efficiency. Working with acquisitions personnel and editors as well as input from readers has allowed me to pinpoint exactly what guidebook readers are after.

Q: Many hikers set forth on trails without knowing what lies ahead. What do you think of this approach?

A: There is a certain romance to not knowing what’s around the corner, and certainly some adventure there as well. However, most people these days are very busy and when they have the opportunity to get out on a hike they want to make the most of their precious time. That is where this book comes into play. I will steer you on a suitable hike, get you to the trailhead, and let you know what lies ahead. That way, there will be no bad surprises and you can relax and enjoy the natural beauty around you without worrying about finding the trailhead, getting lost on the trail, or other issues.

Q: This book focuses on hiking in the four North Carolina national forests: Croatan, Nantahala, Pisgah, and Uwharrie. Could you tell us a little more about each national forest, and how they are similar and different?

A: North Carolina’s national forests cover three distinct parts of the state—the mountains, the Piedmont, and the coastal plain. The Nantahala and Pisgah cover the Western mountain area and are more alike than not. They simply are located in different areas of the mountains. The Pisgah is in the northwest part of North Carolina and contains some of the highest terrain in the state, while the Nantahala covers primarily southwestern mountains. These mountains are divided by a vein-like network of streams. Elevations range from just over 1000 feet to over 6600 feet, resulting in a wide variety of plant and animal life.

The Uwharrie National Forest is located in the Piedmont. It does offer hilly terrain but elevation changes are much less than in the Appalachian range. Covering a mix of creeks, lakes, and woodlands, the Uwharrie protects an increasingly developed part of the state. Interestingly, fewer areas in the Piedmont are protected lands.The same goes for the Croatan National Forest. Much of this coastal plain area is either farmland or being developed, and having the wildlands of the Croatan ensures future generations that the ecosystem’s of the coastal plain will be preserved. This area includes tidal streams, coastal maritime woodlands, and interior pinelands.

Q: What makes the trails in national forests special, and what, specifically, makes hiking in North Carolina different?

A: North Carolina’s national forests present a wide range of hiking opportunities from well marked and maintained nature trails to primitive wilderness tracks that can barely be discerned. And that is the beauty of hiking and North Carolina—you can trek along remote mountaintops, along quiet secluded streams, or deep in evergreen forests, where not only do you have a variety of landscapes through which to walk but you also have a wide variety of trail conditions that suit the needs of hikers from the novice to an experienced professional.

Q: You offer a variety of hike levels, such as moderate, difficult, and easy, so all hikers can find appropriate options. How did you categorize each trail?

A: After spending 30 years hiking and writing over two dozen hiking guidebooks, I have developed an innate sense of judging hike difficulties. It is simply a matter of hiking thousands of trails and comparing them all to one another to come up with a difficulty rating. In the book I sought to include hikes of all difficulties in order to appeal to the widest range of trail enthusiasts.

Q: You document fifty trails in Hiking North Carolina. Did you personally hike all of them?

A: Yes, I hiked all fifty plus many more in the course of working on the book. The reason I write is so I can do what I love. I love to hike and over the course of three decades I have walked many a mile throughout the Tar Heel State. So I consider it a privilege to have spent as much time hiking in North Carolina’s national forest as I have. I tried to put that experience to good use in choosing the hikes, hiking the hikes, making maps, taking photographs, and writing about the hikes.

Q: Some of the hikes in your book are popular and widely known while others are considered hidden gems. What is your favorite “secret” hike or experience in North Carolina? Did you discover new highlights while researching this book?

A: The falls of Snowbird Creek immediately come to mind. It is an extremely beautiful yet rugged area. It is not a designated wilderness and, therefore, hasn’t been explored as much. The trails are as rough as they are scenic. Secondly, the Fires Creek Rim jumps out. You can make a 25-mile ridge top loop around Fires Creek that is simply gorgeous and offers solitude aplenty. The Bartram Trail is another underutilized long distance gem of a trail.

Q: You call the fifty hikes in this book “can’t miss” and “trail adventures.” What makes these hikes stand apart from the many others in North Carolina?

A: With literally thousands of miles of pathways to choose from in North Carolina’s national forests, very few people will be able to hike them all. Therefore, I condensed the possibilities into a grouping of hikes that present a mosaic of natural and human history encompassed within the national forests. As far as trail adventures I think any time you set foot on a pathway in North Carolina’s national forests an adventure awaits.

Hiking North Carolina's National ForestsQ: You talk about the cultural and natural history of each area in addition to practical information about the hikes. How does learning about the history add to the hiking experience?

A: We weren’t the first people to explore in what are now North Carolina’s national forests. Understanding the historic overlay of an area gives you an added appreciation for the natural beauty as well as the human history.

Q: For each hike you include data such as highlights, GPS coordinates, and best seasons. How did you gather this information?

A: I use a digital voice recorder to take notes while hiking, a GPS to create and develop maps, and a digital camera to record video of the hike as well as take photographs. Using these gadgets I gather ample information about the hike to create a narrative, which is eventually enhanced with further research back at home.

Q: You took most of the photos in the book. Do you have any advice for other trail photographers hoping to capture the characteristics of their hike?

A: Be patient. Let the pictures come to you. Be on the lookout for something that catches your eye, and when it does, go ahead and take the picture—don’t wait for a better scenario to come along. Don’t just randomly photograph the next thing that comes along. Finally, take pictures with different light settings in order to get the best photograph.

Q: What are some of the can’t-miss sights and vistas hikers can enjoy in North Carolina?

A: The views from the Cedar Point Tidelands Trail come to mind. These days, coastal areas are being developed fast and having a preserved ecosystem really gives you a view of the natural beauty held on the coastal plain. Also, some of the vistas can’t be missed, such as Badin Lake, Whiteside Mountain, Wesser Bald Tower, and John Rock. There are many amazing waterfalls to be seen as well—Glen Falls, Harper Creek Falls, Douglas Falls, and Frolictown Falls.

Q: How do you envision people using your book? Is it a guide to take on the trail with you, an educational book for people who want to learn more about North Carolina’s trails, or something else entirely?

A: Over the years, I have run into more than a few people using my books on the trail and on the waterways. It is very flattering and I realize they are investing their time and money banking on Johnny Molloy to show them where to enjoy the outdoors. This particular book is a guide with which to enjoy the highlights contained within the North Carolina national forest system. Hopefully, they will learn something from the hike narratives as well as from their time on the trail. Then, I hope they will be inspired enough to do more research on their own.

Q: Who is this book for? First time hikers, experienced hikers, families, solo hikers, or everyone in between?

A: North Carolina’s national forests are for all the residents of the Tar Heel State and beyond. I wrote this book for anyone who might be interested in the national forests and and hiking, from the first time novice to the grizzled veteran. And as an ultra experienced hiker I can tell you all hikes can be rewarding, from a short nature trail stroll with an elderly person to a rugged wilderness hike where I am on the edge of getting lost. I enjoy the wide range of experiences and so do most other hikers.

Q: Do you have any final words of advice for those about to hit the trail?

A: As we continue to bind ourselves to the electronic universe it is more important than ever to reconnect with nature, and North Carolina’s national forests are an ideal destination to enjoy the the scenic splendor included within. So make some time to get back to nature on nature’s terms. Not only will it refresh your mind and exercise your body, it is a spiritually renewing experience to see the unimproved works of God laid out before us. Now get out there and hit the trail!


Johnny Molloy is an outdoor writer and author of over 50 books. He is based in Johnson City, Tennessee. His new book Hiking North Carolina’s National Forests: 50 Can’t-Miss Trail Adventures in the Pisgah, Nantahala, Uwharrie, and Croatan National Forests is available now.