Charlotte, North Carolina, certainly fits the bill as a major urban city, with a population just shy of one million. But while hiking may seem like an unlikely pastime, residents and visitors can easily trade the concrete jungle for happy trails.
Pockets of natural spaces abound inside the city limits, providing an opportunity for outdoor adventures. And, with its location in the state’s central Piedmont region, Charlotte offers easy access to some of the state’s most beautiful hiking locations.
The Piedmont’s rolling hills are the gateway to mountainous territory and more secluded open spaces. So lace up the hiking boots, grab the sunscreen and get to exploring. Here are eight of the area’s best hikes.
Little Sugar Creek Greenway: 7th St to Morehead St
Best easy urban hike
2.64 miles round trip, 1-2 hours, easy
As the name implies, this pedestrian walking path winds along a waterway through the heart of the city. For the past decade, the area has been the focus of massive beautification and restoration efforts, and the greenway is the result of that ongoing project.
This short portion is paved and relatively flat, making it accessible to people of all ages and abilities. It’s also part of the Carolina Thread Trail and the Trail of History.
Public parking is available, and the segment passes through four parks. Thanks to a now healthy and thriving natural habitat, an array of birds, grasses and wildflowers can be seen along the creek.
US Whitewater Center: Channel Loop
Best hike for groups/families
0.8 miles one-way, 30 mins to 1 hour, easy
Combining your hike with a visit to this sprawling recreational facility (about a half-hour drive from Charlotte) is loads of fun – even more so if you’re with a group. Parking is $6 for the whole day, but all of the trails are free.
The Channel Loop is one of the shortest, but it has the potential to be action-packed. On its own, it’s a nice 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 with other activities like the Deep Water Solo climbing complex or the ropes course.
The best time to visit Charlotte
McDowell Nature Preserve: Kingfisher Trail
Best hike for bird watching
1.1 miles one-way, easy
Nature-lovers will appreciate the McDowell Nature Preserve (18 miles southwest of Charlotte) for its abundant wildlife and unspoiled scenery around Lake Wylie. Loons, ospreys, salamanders and snakes – this hike will keep you busy with all there is to observe and identify in its natural environment.
The Kingfisher follows the coastline, offering waterfront stops where you can bring out the binoculars or grab a snack.
It’s free to enter the preserve, although there are associated fees with RV and tent camping and certain programs at the nature center.
Morrow Mountain: Bridle Trail (Long Loop)
Best hike for a weekend getaway
9.3 miles, 4-5 hours, moderate
Among the various hiking spots at Morrow Mountain in Albemarle (just over 40 miles from Charlotte), there are a few horse trails, and the Bridle is one of them.
It’s broken up into three loops: Short, Middle 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 path is flat gravel, though there are some water crossings along the way.
If you want to make a weekend out of it, there are multiple options for lodging, from rustic cabins to primitive backpack camping. An attraction worth checking out is the historic Kron house. Francis Kron was one of the first doctors in the county 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 hard
Four-legged trail buddies will enjoy the chance to leap and bound at Crowders in Kings Mountain, about 33 miles west of Charlotte. On leash, pets are allowed on all trails and in the campgrounds.
The Rocktop is well-managed and easy to navigate, with its clearly marked “red square” trail blaze. However, the terrain on this aptly-named trail can be formidable in places and may be better suited for more experienced hikers.
Crowders is a popular park for weekend hikers and climbers, so be prepared for fellow foot traffic and potentially crowded parking lots.
The 7 best Charlotte neighborhoods
Lake Norman: Itusi Trail
Best moderate hike
30.5 miles, multi-day, moderate to hard
This massive “inland sea” was constructed in the late 1950s as part of a larger dam project. The Itusi Trail lies to its 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 journey at once.
Parking is free, and there are other amenities – including swimming and fishing – to enjoy before or after your trek. Cabins, tent and trailer camps are also available for rent.
Linville Gorge: Mountains-To-Sea Trail
Best strenuous hike
75.2 miles one-way, multi-day, difficult
The 1,000-mile Mountains-To-Sea Trail spans the length of North Carolina, and a hike-through takes months to complete. Segment 4 (of 18) runs through the Linville Gorge Wilderness which lies two hours northwest of Charlotte in the Pisgah National Forest.
The area was named after William Linville, uncle to famous explorer Daniel Boone, but the Cherokee called it Eeseeoh or “river of the cliffs.”
The rocky terrain, blanketed with pine forests and rhododendrons, 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.
The 9 best city parks in Charlotte
Uwharrie National Forest: Dickey Bell
Best hike for off-roaders
3.5 miles one-way, hours, difficult
If you’re the kind of person who wants to mix in some 4×4 time with your hike, then Dickey Bell (about 49 miles east of Charlotte) is the answer. Part of a larger system known as the Badin Lake Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Trail Complex, dirt bikes, ATVs and basically any kind of trail vehicle are welcome. There are 16 miles of trails accessible via six trailheads.
Keep in mind, though, that while hikers don’t need a permit, riders 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 heading out.