When I moved to North Carolina, I expected to become a fan of barbecue, college basketball and sweet tea. I didn’t expect to fall in love with hiking.
But I did, and I’ve since roamed farther and farther in search of the best hiking and backpacking spots. Fortunately, Charlotte is an easy drive from some of the top hiking in the U.S.
So once you’ve exhausted the nearby state parks—like the ever-popular Crowders Mountain—and want bigger challenges, better views and longer trips, try these. Each offers the opportunity to camp or enjoy the trail as a day hike.
Calloway Peak to Grandfather Mountain
For my money, it’s the best in the state park system. Hit the steep Daniel Boone Scout Trail to Calloway Peak, see a plane crash site from the 1970s, hike the narrow ridge to Grandfather Mountain, walk the Mile High Swinging Bridge and scramble up and down ladders in this rugged park.
Need to know: As for those ladders, this hike isn’t a great option for novices, with sections far more difficult than a simple walk-up that veer into technical territory. Camping is allowed only at designated sites on a first-come, first-serve basis, with a free permit.
Where to start: Access this state park via the Blue Ridge Parkway (Boone Fork parking area) or the main park entrance.
Mt. Rogers via Grayson Highlands State Park
A hiker’s heaven, this area in Virginia has dozens of possible loops—and abundant campsites—as the Appalachian Trail’s curving path intersects with numerous other trails. The landscape feels almost Scottish, as highland vistas alternate with rolling clouds. Also, there are herds of wild ponies. WILD PONIES.
Need to know: Mt. Rogers is Virginia’s highest point, and the weather changes rapidly. Warm, weatherproof clothes are a necessity, even if it’s a sweltering 95 degrees in Charlotte.
Where to start: Park at Massie Gap for a small fee in the overnight hiker’s lot, or use one of the numerous other nearby road access points nearby to set up a shuttle hike.
Overshadowed by the Appalachian Trail and other, better-known long-distance trails, this path along the North Carolina/South Carolina border offers surprisingly challenging, diverse and rewarding hikes. Tag Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest point, and see waterfalls, lakes, rivers and deep gorges. Another option: connect with Gorges State Park in North Carolina for a multi-day shuttle hike.
Need to know: Because the trail is at a lower elevation than some of these other area hikes, temperatures can be hotter. But don’t be deceived by the lower elevation when it comes to difficulty: Sections of this hike smoked me with hard, steep climbs.
Where to start: You can access the trail’s eastern terminus at Table Rock State Park in South Carolina.
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Most people just drive up to North Carolina’s highest point (also the highest peak east of the Mississippi), but if you start from bottom, you’re in for a butt-kicking. This hike gains nearly 3,700 feet to reach Mt. Mitchell’s 6,683-foot summit. But when the weather’s clear, the view is stunning. You can extend your hike along the Black Mountain Crest Trail and other trails from the top.
Need to know: Lightning and sudden weather changes are a hazard on the summit of Mt. Mitchell and the exposed Black Mountain Crest. Check the weather, dress appropriately and keep an eye on the clouds.
Where to start: Park at the Black Mountain Campground, and camp at Higgins Bald on the way down.
Roan High Knob along the Appalachian Trail
The treeless, rolling balds offer views that are tough to beat. This is considered one of the premier sections of the Appalachian Trail, and if you go in late March or April, you can swap stories with northbound through-hikers—people hiking the A.T. from its Southern tip in Georgia to its Northern tip in Maine. You may even get a little “trail magic,” as hiking enthusiasts known as “trail angels” hand out hot, free food to long-distance hikers.
Need to know: As with any high-elevation hike, weather can change quickly. When I went in March, we sweated the climb up to Roan High Knob hill and faced icy winds a few minutes later.
Where to start: Park at Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast and have them shuttle you to Carver’s Gap for an overnight trip, or park at Carver’s Gap and hit the balds for a day hike.
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This wilderness hike feels like nowhere else you’ll see in North Carolina. The gorge’s terrain is deceptively simple on a map — a trail running parallel to a river, with access roads and trails along the rim. But it’s the most rugged of these hikes, with a relentless, Stairmaster-style descent into the gorge; rough, narrow, un-blazed trails; and plenty of log-jumping and rock scrambling. The gorgeous views and splendid isolation, though, are a worthy payoff.
Need to know: While you don’t need a permit for day hikes, permits required for weekend and holiday camping, May to October. They’re free, but limited to 50 each weekend. Call the Grandfather Ranger District at 828-652-2144 to apply for one. I camped in March to avoid the permitting, and while the hike was great, I shivered all night in my 20-degree-rated sleeping bag.
Where to start: Park on the west rim to descend to the riverside trail at the gorge’s bottom.
Photos by Ely Portillo