What a weird spring, right? Coronavirus forced state and national parks to close in order to “flatten the curve” in Charlotte and the U.S. as a whole. These restrictions and the general gloom kept a lot of us indoors, or at least on our own porches — missing out on some of the best hiking weather of the year.
But there’s good news: Starting May 9, state parks can reopen, assuming social distancing continues. (Note: Several hikes are on the Appalachian Trail or on national forests, which remain partially closed. Closures and access rules vary from place to place and are changing rapidly, so check for the latest before you go. Trails that were closed at the time of writing are marked with an asterisk*.)
Let’s get outside and make up for lost miles. Let’s lace up our boots, lather up with some bug spray and sunscreen, and hit the trails. Some of our hiking picks are standard Charlotte jaunts (yes, Crowders is on the list) while others are places that take a little more commitment, both in drive time and trail time.
Here are the 16 best hikes within a three-hour radius of Charlotte, ranked easiest to hardest, along with who they might suit best.
Best for: People going crazy with cabin fever
Big chunks of the national forests in western North Carolina have been closed this spring, cutting off some prime hiking spots, but east of Charlotte, you’ll find the Uwharrie National Forest.
At basically the same elevation as Charlotte, the weather is similar — which makes it brutal on many summer days, but much milder than the mountains in the winter. Many weekends, you can hit the well-marked Uwharrie National Recreation Trail and find winter solitude without freezing your butt off. There are numerous campsites, and you can do as much or as little of the 20-mile trail as you want in one go, thanks to several loop options.
Getting there: 1 hour and 15 minutes from Charlotte. Start at the Uwharrie Recreation Trailhead off Highway 24.
Best for: Not worrying about your kids falling off the top
Seeing kids run around atop cliffs is scary, no matter how closely you watch them. If you want to hike with your toddlers or young children without worrying about a fall, head east to Morrow Mountain. You’ll find several loop hikes of two to four miles, including to the top of Morrow Mountain and several of the modest, surrounding peaks. There are broad, wide-open spaces for kids to roam (especially atop Morrow) and enjoy the view without edging near any cliffs.
Getting there: 1 hour and 15 minutes from Charlotte. Located at 49104 Morrow Mountain Road in Albemarle.
(3) Roan Highlands*
Best for: A romantic hike to set the mood
There are few places on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina more famous than the Roan Highlands. Straddling the Tennessee border, you’re treated to a feast of 360-degree views within a mile of parking. You can do this as a day hike (be warned, parking can be tough on the weekends) and watch the sun setting with a special someone behind the mountains, bathing the rolling sea of hills in golden light. If you want to hike farther and camp overnight, there are bountiful campsites along the Appalachian Trail.
Getting there: 2 hours and 45 minutes from Charlotte. Program Google Maps or your GPS to Carvers Gap to start.
(4) Crowders Mountain State Park (Boulders Access)
Best for: Hiking and scrambling on rocks in solitude
Did you know there’s another way to get to Crowders, a magical place where the parking is never full and you might not see another hiker? There is, and it’s called the Boulders Access. South of the main access points, this lot is big and quiet. Yes, you’ll be several miles from Crowders or Kings Pinnacle, but you won’t hate yourself. You can skip the main attractions and hike to the boulders the area is named after. Climb on them, if that’s your thing, or enjoy the slightly-more-modest views from these rocky outcroppings.
Getting there: 1 hour from Charlotte. The Boulder access area is located at 108 Vandyke Road.
Best for: Pony lovers, Outlander fans
Grayson is just north of the Virginia border, but you’ll feel like you’re in Scotland. Wild ponies graze the rocky, wind-swept highlands, while bears amble furtively through the deep pine woods below. Criss-crossed by the Appalachian Trail and a half-dozen well-maintained, easy-to-follow connecting trails, the area is a hiker’s paradise, with ample backcountry and developed campsites for overnight stays as well.
Getting there: 2 hours and 30 minutes from Charlotte. Start at Massey Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park.
(6) Mount Mitchell (from the top)
Best for: People who want nothing to do with Iron Man races
One of the worst parts of hiking Mitchell from the bottom is getting to the top and seeing hordes of people who simply drove up. And one of the best parts of driving up is seeing the sweaty, heaving-chested hikers who fought their way from the bottom. Driving to the top gets you straight to the great views.
You can also hike several short loops around the top, or hit the Black Mountain Crest Trail. This rugged trail will take you over several other 6,000-foot peaks on challenging terrain. You can hike over a few of the peaks, enjoy a bit more solitude than on Mitchell, and head back to your car for a satisfying and somewhat-challenging day.
Getting there: 2 hours and 45 minutes from Charlotte. Program to Mount Mitchell in Google Maps.
(7) Crowders Mountain State Park (Crowders or Kings Pinnacle)
Best for: Seeing what Charlotte people you know look like very, very sweaty
Yes, no matter how much parking the state adds at Crowders, we keep filling it. As the only real mountainous hiking within 45 minutes of the state’s largest city, that makes sense. So if you want to see people you know from the office sweating their faces off, this is where you should go. True story: One time I went hiking here and casually passed then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts. We both looked like tomatoes.
Bonus: Play hooky and go on a weekday if you want to avoid fighting people for a parking spot.
Getting there: 45 minutes from Charlotte. The exact location is 522 Park Office Lane.
(8) Stone Mountain State Park loop
Best for: Impressing your out-of-state parents
Rising like an otherworldly meteorite dropped into the landscape around it, Stone Mountain’s massive granite dome is an impressive site. The 4.5-mile loop trail takes you to the top of the dome, past a 200-foot waterfall and across a 19th-century homestead with sweeping views of the mountain. Your out-of-state parents will totally understand why you’re living in North Carolina now.
Getting there: 1 hour and 30 minutes from Charlotte. Park in the Upper Trail Lot at Stone Mountain to begin your hike.
(9) South Mountains State Park, High Shoals Falls loop
Best for: Looking cute with bae on Instagram
It’s hard to beat waterfall views, and South Mountains State Park has plenty. The High Shoal Falls Loop Trail will take you past increasingly large cascades over it’s 2.5-mile course, offering plenty of places to stop and pose for the perfect pic.
Getting there: 1 hour and 30 minutes from Charlotte. Located at the end of South Mountain Park road here.
(10) Gorges State Park and the Foothills Trail
Best for: Lakeside love (or just great lakeside camping)
Gorges State Park is one of the newer and lesser-known North Carolina attractions, but that should change soon. Park there and walk about five miles through increasingly rugged terrain to Lake Jocassee, where you’ll intersect the Foothills Trail and find pristine backcountry campsites. Build a fire and settle in. If you want to go longer, the Foothills Trail runs 77 miles through North Carolina and South Carolina, so you can make this a multi-day trip.
Bonus: You can also start at Devil’s Fork State Park in South Carolina and load up a canoe or kayak, then boat over to the backcountry campsites (if you’re confident on the water).
Getting there: 3 hours from Charlotte. Start at the Frozen Creek Access Road outside of Brevard.
Best for: Punishing your hangover
A little more than an hour northwest of Charlotte is a former quarry that’s been redeveloped into a hiking and rock climbing hotspot, and the perfect place to make up for a rough Saturday night. Rocky Face is a small mountain with face quarriers that were chopped and partly blasted away. Rock climbers have since installed bolted routes on the shorn face, and hiking trails lead to the top. The hiking is surprisingly steep and hard, and the bare cliffs are home to surprising plants, including bright yellow-flowered cacti.
Bonus: If you hike the 2-mile loop trail 8 times (for a total of 16 miles), you will have done a “vertical mile,” climbing 5,280 feet.
Getting there: 1 hour and 15 minutes from Charlotte. Exact address is 3451 Rocky Face Church Road in Hiddenite.
(12) Big Bald*
Best for: A weekday getaway when you’re just not feeling it
It’s Friday. You have PTO to burn. You’re desperate to get away, but going to Crowders just won’t cut it. Head to Big Bald, off I-26 just north of Asheville. You can get there in about 2 hours, the parking lot is right off the interstate and you’ll be swallowed by the quiet woods as soon as you’re out of sight of your car. The Appalachian Trail runs just north of the Wolf Ridge Ski Resort to Big Bald, a huge, open expanse with 360-degree views. You can look across the Black Mountains to Mt. Mitchell and watch the mountains swirl around you like waves. The 13-mile round trip to the bald and back isn’t too rigorous on the well-marked Appalachian Trail, with the only difficult section being the ascent of the bald itself. If you want to make it an overnight trip, there are plenty of campsite options along the way to pitch your tent.
Getting there: 2 hours and 30 minutes from Charlotte. Inside Pisgah National Forest, drive to 4460 Flag Pond Road.
(13) Grandfather Mountain/Calloway Peak
Best for: People who aren’t afraid of heights
Park near the start of the Daniel Boone Scout Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway and start heading up toward Grandfather Mountain. Before too long, you’ll come across some unusual sights, at least for North Carolina hiking: ladders. As you get near the top of Calloway Peak, you’ll find wooden ladders scaling several 20-foot or more outcrops that you would otherwise probably want a rope to climb hand-over-hand.
If you keep going all the way to Grandfather proper, you’ll cross a thin section of trail along a ridge connecting the peaks. It’s all enough to make your hands sweat. The rewards are some of the most stunning views in the state and the most rugged, exciting state park (in my opinion anyway).
Bonus: You’ll pass a single-engine plane that crashed into the mountain decades ago. Keep your eyes peeled as you near Calloway and you can catch a glimpse.
Getting there: 2 hours from Charlotte. Park at 100 Blue Ridge Parkway in Blowing Rock to begin your ascent.
(14) Mount Mitchell (from the bottom)
Best for: An aspiring Iron Man competitor
It’s the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, and you’ll feel every inch of the 6,683-foot height if you start at the Black Mountain campground. Your actual elevation gain will be about 3,700 feet, and the trail is moderately rugged. It evens out a bit near the top, providing welcome relief. Enjoy the views then turn around for an 11.5-mile, one-day smoker.
Getting there: 2 hours and 30 minutes from Charlotte. Start at the base of Mount Mitchell at its trailhead.
(15) Linville Gorge (Western side)
Best for: Making you question your sanity
“Why did I do this?” might be one of the first questions you ask yourself as you descend into Linville Gorge from the western rim. Unlike the eastern side of the rugged gorge, with bombshell views from epic places like Table Rock and a rimside trail that runs for miles, the western side is mostly about going down into the gorge.
After descending 1,500 feet or more, you’ll pick your way along the Linville River on lightly-used trails, scrambling over fallen trees and (hopefully) not losing the trail. Be warned: The trails are rough, you’ll make very slow progress, and the gorge is notorious for people getting lost. But you’ll be rewarded with amazing solitude and river vistas you can’t get anywhere else.
Getting there: 2 hours and 15 minutes from Charlotte. Program Google Maps to the Babel Tower Trail.
Best for: The Crossfit guy who wants a real challenge
There are two ways to hike this North Carolina classic all the way through — north or south. Either way is a punishing 30 miles, but if you start at the southern trailhead near Brevard and head north, you’ll be going uphill more of the way. Long climbs of several thousand feet will test you multiple times, but by going northbound, you’ll save the best views and wide-open, rolling balds for the end.
Bonus: You can take a 3-mile diversion and climb Cold Mountain (yes, that Cold Mountain) for more great views and to do your best Jude Law impression. Give yourself three days and be familiar with wilderness travel.
Getting there: 2 hours and 30 minutes from Charlotte. Directions here.