I have been on a quest to find the perfect mountain hiking area for extended weekends ever since I moved to Baton Rouge about a year ago. Trips to quality mountains used to take days to make from my former home in Philadelphia, but now, though considerably further south from great parks like Glacier or Yellowstone, I am generally a timezone closer to the great mountain ranges of the west while being about equidistant from the best parts of the Appalachians. Surely, trips that I used to do just once a year for the need to find a week off from work for the laborious drive could now be done more frequently in three or four-day weekends. I generally have found the quality of the experience to be roughly proportional to the distance travelled.
1. The closest "mountains" to Baton Rouge are the Ozarks. I hurried up there one weekend and found some nice hills, but nothing quite like what I was looking for: sweeping vistas of craggy mountain peaks, spectacular waterfalls, or awe-inspiring bluffs. I did not really expect any of that and of course might not have been looking in the right places, but if all I am going to get out of a trip is an up-and-down hikes through the woods, there are plenty of options closer to home than 500 miles.
2. For just a couple hours more of driving (650 miles), I can reach the completely unique nearly-rainforest environment of the Great Smoky Mountains. Here, the mountains actually reach over a mile high, and the frequent rainfall creates a wonderfully lush forest. Moreover, as the highest mountains on the eastern seaboard, the Smokies have flora found nowhere else in the world and is recognized internationally for its extraordinary biodiversity. Having grown up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I visited the Smokies several times in high school and am reminded of home when I go there. However, not a trip has gone by without at least some rainfall if not outright downpours, as the ever-present mist that gives the mountains their name must come from somewhere. The rain and the fog, though they can add a mystical quality to any trip to the Smokies, enshroud any views at the end of hikes and "dampen" the overall hiking experience. Therefore, some of the features I look forward to the most at the end of a rigorous hike are lost.
3. The Guadalupe and Chisos Mountains (in Big Bend National Park) on the other side of Texas offer 8,000 foot peaks in dry, desert-born climates and, both about 950 miles away, are just on the cusp of sanity for a long-weekend trip from Baton Rouge. Both parks offer interesting intersections of multiple ecological zones, particularly the Chihuahuan Desert adjacent to wooded alpine terrain, as well as fascinating geological features, including canyons and incredible rock formations. Big Bend of course is bound by the Rio Grande, which has created the shape of the land over millions of years and today waters a beautiful oasis on its banks. The Guadalupe Mountains used to lie under a sea in the Permian Era, and thus have driven to the surface fossils of sea creatures from millions of years ago. Although considerably farther than the Smokies, both parks are preferable to me and worth the trip from Baton Rouge.
4. The Rockies, whether by way of Denver or southwestern Colorado (both ~1300 miles), offer the spectacular scenery I love, with peaks over 12,000 everywhere, and a relatively dry climate to enjoy the outdoors. However, they are so far that a three or four day weekend would be almost entirely wasted on driving.
While the Rockies seem too far for a long-weekend jaunt and the Ozarks simply not "satisfying" enough to make the trip, albeit short, I certainly have little problem making repeated journeys to the Smoky, Guadalupe, and Chisos Mountains when the road trip/hiking bug hits me. However, all this has changed in the past week, because I have stumbled upon an option that trumps them all, "only" 750 miles away. While I love all three mountain ranges, I am not entirely sure when any of the three will be preferable to this new option from my vantage in Baton Rouge.