Find the 10 Best Outdoor Trails in North Carolina
North Carolina, also known as the Great Trail State, has a plethora of amazing places to explore and discover outdoors. The region is rich in natural beauty, with its vast wilderness areas, majestic mountain views, serene rivers, coastal ecosystems and the Piedmont region. Plus, hiking in North Carolina is one of the best ways to celebrate the region’s treasured outdoors, including Appalachia and the scenic Atlantic Coast.
While many of North Carolina’s best hiking trails show off the state’s stunning scenery, others, like the strenuous hike up Mount Mitchell or a moderate hike up Grandfather Mountain, are better suited to seasoned hikers who love meet challenges. Indeed, the toughest yet most rewarding trails in North Carolina are for experienced outdoor enthusiasts. however, this list of the best North Carolina great outdoors trails has something for everyone, whether you’re an experienced hiker looking for a challenge or a novice just looking for views.
Related: North Carolina is Home to the East Coast’s Tallest Waterfall
10 Gary Shell Intercity Trail
The Cross-City Trail, a 15-mile off-road multi-use trail, traverses various recreational gems along the Wilmington Coast. It connects Wade Park to the Heide-Trask drawbridge via Halyburton Park and Empire Park. The trail attracts cyclists as it is a well-paved path with beautiful surroundings. It is an easy trail that offers a variety of opportunities for entertainment, recreation, bird watching, and nature appreciation.
Difficulty: Easy Elevation: 45 m Length: 22.2 km (point to point) Where: Wilmington
This trail is a good choice for those who enjoy outdoor excursions but need wheelchairs, mobility aids, or strollers.
9 Cape Fear River Trail
On the north side of Fayetteville, the moderate Cape Fear River Trail offers a spectacular sight of the Cape Fear River winding through a mix of marsh and forest. The trail crosses numerous bridges, boardwalks, and waterfalls and is mostly flat, with some hilly sections. It is ideal for biking, wildlife watching, bird watching and enjoying the best that nature has to offer. This 22.7 km trail is on the East Coast Greenway, a network of urban greenways stretching from Maine to Key West, Florida.
Difficulty: Moderate Elevation: 189 m Length: 22.7 km (return) Where: Cumberland County Park
Hikers looking for a true wilderness retreat without big amenities can camp at the Clark Park Nature Center.
8 Mirror Rock Trail
The 9.2 mile round-trip trail to Looking Glass Rock in the Pisgah National Forest is one of North Carolina’s most popular trails for hikers looking for breathtaking views. It is a moderately difficult route which is a favored destination among climbers and runners. This beautiful hike climbs through switchbacks and wildflower meadows, following a rippling river, before reaching the breathtaking summit of a massive granite outcrop surrounding a hardwood forest. Stunning 360 degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains make hiking the Looking Glass Rock Trail interesting, allowing hikers to understand why the rock is so named.
Difficulty: Moderate Elevation: 511 m Length: 9.2 km (there and back) Where: Pisgah National Forest
A trip to Looking Glass Falls after the hike is both rewarding and rejuvenating.
Related: Here’s How Long It Will Take To Hike To The Glass Falls
7 Grandfather Mountain Trail
Grandfather Mountain offers trails for hikers of all abilities that take them through lush meadows and woods or up to challenging peak ridges, offering unspoiled wilderness in all its glory. While there are family-friendly trails in this area, such as the Bridge Trail and Black Rock Trail, the 2.4-mile Grandfather Trail is only suitable for experienced hikers. This strenuous grandfather trail covers the peaks of three peaks – MacRae, Attic Window and Calloway – requiring hikers to use ladders and cables while traversing very steep sections. The famous Mile High Swing Bridge, the highest suspension bridge in the country, is a short trail that offers breathtaking views as well as an adrenaline rush.
Difficulty: Easy, Moderate and Hard Where: Grandfather Mountain Park
Winter hiking on Grandfather Mountain is absolutely magical, but hikers should be especially careful due to the extremely harsh weather.
6 Grassy Ridge Bald Trail
Grassy Ridge, the longest grassy bald section of verdant Appalachia, is a rewarding hike that hugs the east side of Roan Mountain. The trail begins at Carvers Gap and ascends three peaks: Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald, rewarding hikers with rhododendrons, golden grass, and wildflowers along the way. Panoramic views from the peaks of nearby valleys and mountains, such as Grandfather and Mount Michelle, amuse hikers, while the beauty of the rising or setting sun soothes their mind and soul.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate Elevation gain: 329m Length: 8km (return) Where: Roan Highlands
Bringing an extra windproof layer is highly recommended if one chooses to hike Grassy Ridge for the majestic sunrise panorama.
5 Lakeside Trail
The longest of six trails in Lake Waccamaw State Park, this 13.7-mile round-trip route takes hikers through a variety of landscapes and revitalizing landscapes. Hikers can stop at various viewpoints along the trail, such as the lookout, bathing pier, dam, and bridge, while passing through cypresses and pines. They can relax on the sandy beaches or cross the bridge over the lake to live extraordinary experiences.
Difficulty: Easy Elevation: 4 m Length: 13.7 km (return) Where: Lake Waccamaw State Park
In addition to hiking, outdoor enthusiasts can camp in the park to swim, fish, and observe a variety of birds and aquatic creatures.
Related: 8 North Carolina Beachside Hiking Trails With Views
4 Mount Mitchell Trail
The Mount Mitchell Trail is a moderate to slightly difficult trail leading to the highest peak of the Black Mountain Range. From Black Mountain Campground, the trail winds through thick forest and gradually climbs
a paved path to the circular viewing platform. Views from the summit and vantage point of Mount Mitchell are spectacular, with hikers able to see Table Rock and Grandfather Mountain in the distance on a clear day.
Difficulty: Moderate Elevation: 1,127 m Length: 17.9 km (return) Where: Mount Mitchell State Park
The trail is covered in fog and snow for most of the year, making spring and summer the best seasons for hiking expeditions.
3 Loeb Art Trail
This 50.2 mile trail, one of the longest and most challenging trails in the state, is a backpacker favorite for the incredible campsites along the way. The trail winds through peaks and ridges along the western edge of the Davidson River Valley, over some of the highest peaks in the Black Balsam region, and down Cold Mountain to reach Scout Camp Daniel Boone. Art Leob Trail has some of the most breathtaking Pisgah mountains and scenery in the region.
Difficulty: Difficult Elevation: 2,423 m Length: 50.2 km (point to point) Where: Pisgah National Forest
Although most hikers prefer the trail as an extended backpacking trip with at least 3-4 overnight camping stops, hikers may choose a shorter section for an extremely rewarding day hike.
2 Profile trail
This challenging North Carolina trail passes through seven distinct natural communities as it steadily gains 659 feet in elevation before combining with the Grandfather Trail, one of North Carolina’s most scenic hiking trails. This trail takes a scenic trail teeming with seasonal wildflowers before crossing the Watauga River. The Profile Trail passes through rhododendron thickets, creeks, hardwood forest, red spruce and Fraser fir forest, and Shanty Spring, and ends in Calloway Gap at the Grandfather Trail intersection.
Hikers with a sense of adventure can continue hiking the Profile Trail to Calloway Peak or the Mile High Swinging Bridge for additional experiences.
Related: How to Hike to Lost Cove: North Carolina’s Lawless Ghost Town
1 Alum Cave Trail
The challenging Alum Cave Trail is one of North Carolina’s most popular trails that offers the best Smoky Mountain scenery. As one of the best hikes in the Smoky Mountains, it’s no surprise that it includes well-maintained trails, as well as a cave. The route begins with a climb along Alum Cave Creek and heads towards the Styx Branch, Arch Rock, Inspiration Point and Alum Cave Bluff, ending at the summit of Mount LeConte. Hikers can stay in one of the rustic cabins or multi-room lodges on the mountain and admire the breathtaking nighttime panorama and morning sunrise.
Difficulty: Difficult Elevation: 933 m Length: 17.7 km (there and back) Where: Great Smoky Mountains State Park
Since there are no formal accommodations other than cabins in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reservations should be made well in advance.