The 8 Best Hiking Trails in North Carolina

When people think of North Carolina, there are a few immediate images that come to mind: Michael Jordan, Dean Smith and the intense legacy that is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tarheel basketball team. Pulling outside the gymnasium culture, the tobacco fields and its southern cultivation are one of America’s infamous cash crops and the deep knowledge and pride of local history that sings in each corner of the state. Beyond its past, we now see the rising growth of Charlotte, its modern banking sector and its developing downtown scene. And of course, you can’t think of cities in the state without Asheville, the cool and kooky cousin tucked alongside the gorgeous mountains and fir forests. When you include the state capital Raleigh and the breadth of academic air that’s produced in the research triangle, it’s clear this state offers anything from academia, economic and adventurous angles. 

North Carolina’s beautiful scenery combines several spheres of flora and fauna to create an unmistakable scent and sense of beauty. The cool fog rolling in atop the smoky mountains, the flowing streams, rivers, and waterfalls that bank and sing across the state. There’s a constant rhythm of beauty that runs throughout the year. The springtime blooms, hazy summer songs, and vibrant fall colors and foliage as the students return to campus. And then of course anytime we can sit alongside the Appalachian trail on the state’s western edge and even sink out toes in the strips of sandy beach along our eastern seaboard. 

And with so much scenery to discover, it’s really hard to crystallize which hikes, trails and paths to accentuate. Of course, there are few wrong choices in a state with so much to offer, but we thought we’d highlight a few options for you, depending on your skills and expectations. In the following few paragraphs we’ve highlighted trails for families, solo extraordinaire and something for people who just want to get away for a bit and see some nice views. Whatever your hiking niche, you’ll be able to find it among the greenery of North Carolina.

 

Green leafed tree during daytime photo.

Grandfather Mountain is one of the state’s most famous trails, and it’s easy to see why.

 

1. Grandfather Mountain Trail

No summation of best hikes in the tar heel state would be complete without mentioning Grandfather Mountain. What’s nice about this area is that it offers several different hikes to satisfy a variety of hiker experiences, though most stay within family-friendly confines. The mountain has some beautiful views and the Black Rock Trail offers a panoramic view from various mountain peaks in the area.

One of the more fun routes you can do (of the 11 total miles of trails on-site) is the Mile High Swinging Bridge, which moves across an 80-foot gap above Linville Peak. Or, if you’re an acrobat extraordinaire or even just a fan of heights, ladders, and cables, check out the 2-mile Grandfather Trail. You’ll see two of the states most popular trees, spruce, and fir, and feel like a giant among saplings as you walk alongside their green crowns.

If you can’t decide from our three recommended or the several others available, know that there’s a free Backcountry Trail Guide you can pick up with your admission ticket from the forest service. This also offers additional history about the area and some helpful information regarding bathrooms, and parking area.

 

2. The Art Loeb Trail

The Art Loeb Trail, aptly named after the state’s hiking and conversation pioneer, links along the nature trail in the Pisgah National Forest. This trail we recommend for an experienced intermediate long-weekend excursion. The 30-mile hike shows some of the state’s top regional specs, including Neil Gap, Pilot Mountain, and the Deep Gap TrailAnd if you want to keen on truckin’ once the Monday blues roll around, you can keep on going! The train is part of the near 1,000 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail which goes from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks.  

 

3. Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock State Park was initially bought as protected land from one of the state’s more notable families, the Morse clan. Eventually, in 2007 the state park came into fruition and we’re thankful it has. The area offers six hiking trails, one of which is the gorgeous Hickory Nut falls known for its 404-foot plunge. And if you’re a film buff, you may also recognize the drop as the background of Daniel Day-Lewis’ 1991 movie The Last of the Mohicans, and it has been featured in a few others as well.

One of the more strenuous climbs available here is the Outcroppings Trail, which packs nearly 500 steps, is well worth it. 360-degree views are yours for the taking once you’ve reached the summit, and your killer calves will thank you in the coming days.

 

Woman standing on a cliff with mountains in the background.

Gorgeous views are a given on the North Carolina mountain ranges.

 

4. Roan Mountain

For the naturalists and botany lovers of the state, no state-wide visit is complete until you can come to Roan Mountain. For more than two centuries it’s been a hotspot for flora and fauna study, perhaps highlighted by the rhododendron gardens, which bloom between mid-June and early July each year. The Roan Mountain Gardens Trail is an easy one-mile loop but there are three total on the site, suitable for a range of skill sets. For families with young ones and parents, we recommend the first, a paved and handicap-accessible interactive trail with 16 stations providing helpful information in a clever format. The free brochure also extrapolates on the exotic and rare plants found on the mountain, and why it’s such a well-preserved treasure in the state’s lore

 

5. The Craggy Pinnacle Hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway

This is a great short mile hike with huge rewards. It’s a simple 1.4-mile round-trip hike to the Craggy Pinnacle summit but you’ll be stepping at a pretty steep incline. The 360-degree views at the top are pretty fantastic, and you may think that to arrive at the 5,892-foot summit would require a bit more willpower than your neighborhood stroll could muster. Not so fast. The parking lot just below already sits at 5,640-foot elevation, so all you have to do is push up a 252-foot climb over the course of the 1.4-mile loop.  

This is one of our favorite hikes because it’s free, and a great spot to watch a sunrise or sunset. Of course, we’d recommend packing a flashlight or powerful phone flash because you wouldn’t want to get lost in the dark coming back down. Also even though the trail is only 24 miles from Asheville, it can be noticeably cooler, even plummeting 15-20 degrees below the sunshine-laden city we’ve learned to love. And as it’s up in the mountains, a slow-rolling fog can come through and just as quickly dissipate, so be sure to pack in layers and maybe even bring sunscreen just in case. 

This hike, just outside of Asheville in western North Carolina, is a featured point of the Blue Ridge Mountain ridge, one of the state’s finest outdoor tourism spots. And with good reason; the hiking trail passes through rhododendron, gnarled birch trees, and wildflowers. And if you frequent the area, you don’t have to worry about falling into the doldrums upon reaching the top, as there are several side trails to explore as well. When you’re at the peak, you can see Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina, to the north. To the west is the I-26 as it crosses into Tennessee. And if facing south, you can see the visitor center for Grappy Gardens and Asheville’s water reservoir, North Fork. 

 

6. Linville Gorge Wilderness Loop

This is a really challenging, 21.9-mile round-trip loop also known as the Grand South Loop trail offers beautiful returns. What we like about this trail is that while it requires a permit, that permit is free from May to October, and is necessary for holidays and weekends. Let us warn you now that the backcountry terrain around the gorge is rugged and rigid, so you may have to do some basic route-finding to follow along the steep paths. 

This weekend excursion can be broken down into a few different steps. Starting from the southernmost corner, you head north on the Shortoff Mountain Trail. This section is easy and navigable and offers several camping spots, as well as the Big Flat Rock,  overlook with some sweet, stunning views over the gorge. 

From that overlook, you eventually climb the table rock summit trail to the Table Rock Summit which offers another pristine panoramic of the area. After you will continue north along the trail for an approximately 1,000-foot descent, leading forward the Linville Gorge Trail. 

This is a really fun weekend spot, but don’t say we didn’t warn you. Be sure to pack accordingly for the weather and terrain, and don’t underestimate the terrain out here. Especially when walking by slippery walks, your safety is our top concern and be sure to tread lightly and stay communicative with your group. That being said, you’re in for a really fun backpacking trip out on these trails towards the Linville falls

 

Person wearing black backpack while walking on a green grass field photo.

Max Path provides sweet 360 degree views of mountain tops.

 

7. Max Patch Trail 

Find your sliver of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina at Max Patch. This is one of the state’s most popular Appalachian mountain hikes, and it’s easy to see why. Emphasis on easy, as this moderate two-mile loop with 360-degree views provides seemingly endless sunshine throughout the year. 

We love this area for its expansive, grassy summit and gorgeous viewpoints. When you’re 4629 feet up at this spot, you can see the surrounding mountain summits of North Carolina and Tennessee, leaving you with an indescribable top-of-the-world sensation. With expansive skies abound and a near-infinite image of mountain peaks adjoining the clouds, you’ll feel like you’ve found yours live of heaven right here in the tar heel state. 

It’s probably the most popular entry point to the Appalachian trail in the state and offers several chances to split off to catch other views. Specifically, you can hike the route from Lemon Gap to Max Patch, where you’ll explore a creek-filled valley and find the Roaring Fork Shelter along the way. 

Around a quarter of a mile into the hike, you step into a young forest and appreciate the immediate cover the trees provide. Wild ferns line the sides of the trail and lovely stream trickles through a grassy meadow just past, providing the essential soundtrack for an afternoon excursion. 

Once the route turns right and starts heading southbound, you know you’re geared towards the green summit. You first come across wildflowers and grasses along a rolling expanse that ends abruptly once you’re back in a now densely packed forest of trees. On the horizon, you’ll be able to see the other mountains of the Pisgah National Forest, including Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig as well. If you’re looking for an idyllic afternoon walk, with perfect views to boot, look no further than this route.

 

8. Looking Glass Rock

The Looking Glass Rock Trail is a moderate climbing trail that demands about four to five hours of your time to complete the 6.5-mile round-trip travel. The climb can be a bit arduous, moving upwards of 1,700 feet throughout the expedition, so be prepared for lots of switchbacks and uphill grades. If you’re a really strong hiker, you could make it to the top in as little as 90 minutes and could probably pencil in another hour for the descent, but I know it takes my friends and me much longer for this kind of day-hike

While it is a moderate, intermediate hike, know that it’s well worth it when considering all the fantastic beauty you see along the way. First of all, the trail starts off following a tranquil stream with some small cascades along the way, before hitting those several switchbacks we mentioned earlier.  Two miles in you’ll eventually reach a flat rock area, which is used as a helicopter pad by the local rescue squad whenever an injured climber needs serious help. Hopefully, this area will draw warmer memories than waiting for medical aid at a helipad, because it doubles as a gorgeous lookout point and resting spot. In this area, there’s a spur trail that heads off to the left behind the helipad and offers some great views from the Lower Looking Glass Cliffs. 

From the helipad, you continue on the main hiking trail, and you’ll soon arrive, after the lower looking glass cliffs, to the aptly-titled upper looking glass cliffs, offering even better and prettier views. There’s no safety rail, and it’d be a shame to have to call in the helipad safety squad, so promise us you won’t get too close to the edge. It’s a great spot where you can plop down, take out those sandwiches or provisions you brought, put them down with some water and go to the bathroom. Up here is where the nearest restrooms are available, and there’s vending machine over by the Centre by Wildlife Education. Feel free to pick up a helpful and informative free brochure over there, and the local officers can give you advice on where to go next and whatever questions you may have about the area. They’re both super knowledgeable and friendly, so be sure to use that great resource.  

  

Final Verdict:

Alright folks, it’s time we wind down this article do you can finally get out there and start exploring. And without further adieu, we will leave you with our top picks for trails in North Carolina.

For the intense hiker backpacker extraordinaire, the Linville Gorge wilderness Loop is just such an awesome weekend hike to do with a couple friends. Sure it requires packing some supplies, planning and organising but with the right group of guys there’s not a more fun stretch of the state to hit for a long weekend.

Of course, for the lazier type who still enjoy the outdoors, and maybe just enjoy sleeping in their bed and having a warm shower before to wipe off the grime, go ahead and try the Max Patch trail. You’ll be able to say you’ve hiked part of the Appalachian Trail<span style=”font-weight: 400;”>, you’ll be able to post a really cool picture to instagram, and you won’t have to pack anything extra to keep you equipped.  

In general, we just want to say that North Carolina is a beautiful state with countless streams, steep cliffs, and stunning scenery. You can’t go wrong as long as you step outside and into the highlands and see where it takes you. So grab a friend or two, lace up the hiking boots and see what all the fuss is about regarding one of the most gorgeous states on this side of the Mississippi can offer you.

 

Bonus tip: Check out this video on Looking Glass Falls, where you can even go swimming on a nice Summer day!

 

 

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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.