You can never have enough hiking guidebooks. They're like children. Each one is cherished for the nuances it as an individual brings to your world. And just as every child is unique, so is each and every guidebook.
Some authors like to focus more on history of an area than the landscape, others on the landscape than on history, still others emphasize natural history. Writers bring different eyes to their work. And really, it's impractical to have one guidebook to a region that includes each and every hike in that region. It would be huge!
In Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage, Danny Bernstein (Full disclosure: Danny is a contributing writer for the Traveler) comes to her task with a keen eye for details in general, but a specific eye for wildflowers. For example, take this introduction to the Little Cataloochee Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
Little Cataloochee Trail is a wide jeep road which starts downhill at the gate. You might see deer, generally an unusual sight at higher elevations. The wide road is lined with mountain laurel and Robin's plantain, also known as daisy fleabane (the flower was used to get rid of fleas in mattresses).
At 1.1 miles, turn on Long Bunk Trail, where in late spring you'll see an abundance of yellow star grass and toothwort under a tunnel of mountain laurel. You'll reach Hannah Cemetery in another 0.2 miles. Yucca plants cover the sidehill in front of the cemetery, which is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. You can go in, but remember to close the gate behind you. You'll see old graves, some with elaborate headstones and some marked only with rock stumps. Visitors always note children's graves, particularly with the same birth and death date. People have been buried here recently. If a person can prove descent from a former resident and the cemetery still has room, he or she can be buried in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Return to Little Cataloochee Trail. At 1.6 miles, turn right to Hannah Cabin. This cabin is typical of many that stood in the Cataloochee community. Built in 1864, two generations of Hannahs lived here before it was turned over to the park. Blackberry canes crowd the trail to the cabin and a small cleared garden area remains. You can walk in and go up the stairs to the sleeping area. Go out the back door to see the creek.
How many guidebook authors do you know who know Robin's plantain is also known as daisy fleabane, and that it once was used to rid fleas from mattresses?
Hike North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage also is handy in that it doesn't focus entirely on Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but takes you through various parts of the area, such as the Pisgah National Forest, Stone Mountain State Park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and up onto the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. For folks traveling through the area, say from South Carolina up towards Great Smoky and then on north along the Blue Ridge Parkway, having one book that covers this expanse of territory is handier than having three or four guidebooks to keep track of.
Ms. Bernstein approaches her task efficiently. There's a two-page map in early on to show you the region and how she breaks down her hikes by area. Then a handful of pages to give you a feel for each of the areas (ie. Defining North Carolina's Blue Ridge, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, National Parks, National Forests, Wilderness Areas, and Land Conservancies), she also mixes in some geology and some history of the area, and provides a section on "How to Use This Guide."
Each hike opens with an intro that says whether the hike is a loop or an out-and-back, how long the hike is, your total ascent if you make it to the end, highlights you'll enjoy along the way, pertinent topo and trail maps, and, of course, how to get to the trailhead. Snippets of history of the region -- such as The Legacy of Moses H. Cone, who today is honored with a memorial park along the Blue Ridge Parkway -- also are sprinkled throughout the book.
A nice organizational touch is that such ubiquitous material as hiking safety, gear for hikers, and "resources" (addresses, phone numbers, and websites of overseeing agencies), is tucked away in the back of the book, not blocking your way to the hiking material in the front of the book.
Another nice touch is the information Ms. Bernstein provides on additional books and movies that were set or filmed in the areas she covers.
Finally, for those who cherish checklists, there's a Heritage Hiking Challenge on page 368 that entices you to complete 30 specific hikes, ranging from Grandfather Mountain, Catawba Falls, and the Boogerman Loop to the Little Tennessee Greenway and Roundtop Ridge. Complete the list, with dates of when you completed the hike, send it in to the publisher, and Ms. Bernstein will reward you with a certificate recognizing your accomplishment.
Living on the other side of the country, one change I'd suggest for future editions is sorting the hikes by management entity, such as Great Smoky Hikes, Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes, Appalachian Trail Hikes, etc., so as to make it easier to hone in on one of those specific areas.
But then, as with different children, sometimes it's best simply to sit down with them and come to understand them better. In this case, sit down with the book, let your fingers drift through it, and find a hike that appeals to you first, then worry about how to get there.
And by all means, stop and smell the flowers Ms. Bernstein points out.