Artful Ascents

Looking Glass Rock, Heidi Nisbett

Painting is a way of preserving a moment in time. Heidi Nisbett learned this while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

An Upstate South Carolina native, Nisbett began her thru-hike in 2018 — just a few years after graduating from Winthrop University’s BFA program. Intent on expressing herself during the 2,190-mile journey, Nisbett stashed a small watercolor kit in her pack. She first used the brushes and paints on a warm, sunny afternoon in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

“I made the long climb out of Newfound Gap and took the side trail to Charlies Bunion, an overlook,” she remembers. “I sat on the rock for about two hours painting the scene in front of me, thankful for the warm sun and mild temperatures.” 

But not all painting sessions were so idyllic. At one point during the hike, Nisbett developed gnarly blisters that left her heels raw and bleeding. Eager to alleviate the pain, she got off the trail, hitched a ride to town, and bought a new pair of boots. 

Black Mountain Crest, Heidi Nisbett

“I took hours picking out the new shoes and went back to [the] trail hopeful,” she says. “However, by the time I reached camp that cold and rainy night, I had a fresh new set of blisters on my feet.” 

Defeated, Nisbett sat in her shelter and sketched her muddy footwear. 

“Feeling betrayed, I drew them crudely, nearly tearing the paper in my frustration, and layering on paint in an aggressive manner,” she says. “The painting isn’t very ‘good.’ One might not even be able to tell that they are shoes. But when I see that drawing, I am immediately reminded of the emotion I felt at that time.” 

To help other hikers immortalize their outdoor expeditions — even the ugly parts — Nisbett partners with Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville to host watercolor backpacking trips. 

Daniel Ridge Falls, Heidi Nisbett

Slated for May, her next trip will take participants on a three-day, 15-mile jaunt in Pisgah National Forest near John Rock. During the journey, hikers will learn the basics of watercolor painting — everything from brush control to layering. But more than technique, they will learn how to capture the emotion of a moment.

“Painting is a great memory tool,” says Nisbett. “After spending an hour or so scrutinizing the scene you are looking at, you ingrain its elements in your memory.”

The John Rock Watercolor Backpacking Trip is slated for May 3-5. Cost is $745 per person. For more information, visit or call 828-713-5451. To learn more about Heidi Nisbett, see

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