Charlotte, North Carolina certainly fits the bill as a major urban city, with a population of just under a million. But while hiking might seem like an unlikely pastime, residents and visitors alike can easily swap the concrete jungle for happy trails.
Pockets of natural space abound within the city limits, providing an opportunity for outdoor adventures. And, thanks to its location in the central Piedmont region of the state, Charlotte offers easy access to some of the state’s most beautiful hiking spots.
The hills of Piedmont are the gateway to mountainous territory and more isolated open spaces. So put on your hiking boots, grab your sunscreen and head out to explore. Here are eight of the best hikes in the area.
Little Sugar Creek Greenway: 7th Street to Morehead Street
Best Easy Urban Hike
2.64 miles round trip, 1-2 hours, easy
As the name suggests, this walking path meanders along a waterway through the heart of the city. Over the past decade, the area has undergone massive beautification and restoration efforts, and the greenway is the result of this ongoing project.
This short stretch is paved and relatively flat, making it accessible to people of all ages and abilities. It is also part of the Carolina Thread Trail and the Trail of History.
Public parking is available and the segment passes through four parks. With a now healthy and thriving natural habitat, an array of birds, grasses and wildflowers can be seen along the creek.
Whitewater Center of the United States: Canal Loop
Best hike for groups/families
0.8 miles one way, 30 minutes to 1 hour, easy
Combining your hike with a visit to this expansive recreational facility (about a half-hour drive from Charlotte) is great fun, especially if you’re in a group. Parking is $6 for the whole day, but all trails are free.
The Channel Loop is one of the shortest, but it has the potential to be action-packed. This in itself is a good way to get a feel for what the US Whitewater Center has to offer. But the best way to spend the day is to purchase a pass (starting at $64 for adults) to incorporate mountain bikes into other activities like the Deep Water Solo climbing complex or the strings.
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McDowell Nature Preserve: Kingfisher Trail
Best hike for bird watching
1.8 km one way, easy
Nature lovers will appreciate the McDowell Nature Preserve (18 miles southwest of Charlotte) for its abundant wildlife and unspoilt scenery around Lake Wylie. Loons, ospreys, salamanders and snakes, this hike will keep you busy with everything there is to observe and identify in its natural environment.
The Kingfisher follows the coastline, offering waterside stops where you can get out the binoculars or grab a snack.
Admission to the reserve is free, although there are fees associated with RV and tent camping and some nature center programs.
Morrow Mountain: Bridle Trail (Long Loop)
Best hike for a weekend getaway
9.3 miles, 4-5 hours, moderate
Among the various hiking spots from Morrow Mountain to Albemarle (just over 40 miles from Charlotte), there are a few horse trails, and the Bridle is one of them.
It is divided into three loops: short, medium and long. If you’re on foot (horses are optional, of course), the starting point is an easy walk from the main entrance, and much of the way is flat gravel, although there are a few crossings. water along the way.
If you want to make a weekend of it, there are several accommodation options, from rustic cabins to primitive backpacking camping. One attraction worth seeing is the historic Kron House. Francis Kron was one of the county’s first physicians and lived in the area in the 1800s.
Crowders Mountain State Park: Rocktop Trail
Best Pet-Friendly Hike
5.9 miles one way, 2-4 hours, moderate to difficult
Four-legged trail buddies will appreciate the chance to jump and hop at Crowders at Kings Mountain, about 33 miles west of Charlotte. On a leash, pets are allowed on all trails and in campgrounds.
The Rocktop is well managed and easy to navigate, with its clearly marked “red square” trail. However, the terrain on this aptly named trail can be daunting in places and may be better suited to more experienced hikers.
Crowders is a popular park for weekend hikers and climbers, so be prepared for foot traffic and potentially crowded parking lots.
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Lake Norman: Itusi Trail
Best Moderate Hike
30.5 miles, multiple days, moderate to difficult
This huge “inland sea” was built in the late 1950s as part of a larger dam project. The Itusi Trail is to the north, inside Lake Norman State Park (40 miles north of Charlotte). This 30-mile trail is divided into eight smaller loops, so you can customize your hike. Take your time and spread the love over several days, or do the whole trip in one go.
Parking is free and there are other amenities including swimming and fishing that you can enjoy before or after your hike. Chalets, tents and caravans are also available for rent.
Linville Gorge: mountain to sea trail
Best strenuous hike
75.2 miles one way, multi-day, difficult
The 1,000-mile Mountains-To-Sea Trail stretches the length of North Carolina, and a hike takes months. Segment 4 (of 18) passes through the Linville Gorge Wilderness which is two hours northwest of Charlotte in the Pisgah National Forest.
The area was named after William Linville, uncle of famous explorer Daniel Boone, but the Cherokee called it Eeseeoh or “river of the cliffs”.
The rocky terrain, covered in pine and rhododendron forests, is steep and challenging, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views. The MST also intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway and the main Linville Gorge Trail, which leads to the popular Linville Falls.
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Uwharrie National Forest: Dickey Bell
Best hike for off-roaders
3.5 miles one way, hours, difficult
If you’re the type of person who wants to mix some 4×4 time with your hiking, then Dickey Bell (about 49 miles east of Charlotte) is the answer. Part of a larger network known as the Lake Badin Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Trail Complex, dirt bikes, ATVs, and virtually any type of trail vehicle are welcome. There are 16 miles of trails accessible via six trailheads.
Keep in mind, however, that while hikers don’t need a permit, cyclists do. There are currently eight trails ranging from easy to extremely difficult.
Passes are $5 for the day. This is a seasonal trail closed during the winter months, so be sure to check the park’s website before you go.