5 Short North Carolina Hikes You Need to Take This Year
Remember that old resolution? Maybe you joined a gym — which was fun for about a week. Or perhaps you’re in a Warrior Tai Chi Zumba class that’s a great workout but the adrenaline-enhanced, head-phone-screaming drill instructor terrifies you and it’s not something you see yourself doing for more than the eight-week course anyway, let alone for the rest of your life.
What you need, what you long for is just that: a healthy activity that you can enjoy for years, not weeks, to come. Hiking, for instance. In 2012, the Outdoor Foundation reported that 34.5 million Americans took at least one hike, ranking it the fifth most popular form of outdoor recreation in the country. Further, based on frequency of participation hiking also ranked fifth, with the typical hiker getting out 18 times during the year.
Intrigued? The best way to see if hiking is for you is to take a trial trail run. Nothing big, just a short hike, to see if you and hiking are compatible. Below, I have five short North Carolina hikes — three miles or less — across the state that I’m pretty sure you’ll be smitten by. Take one (or more) and if you’re ready for more I’ll be back in two weeks with recommendations on five slightly longer trails (three to five miles). Two more recommendations will follow: in the five- to seven-mile range and between seven and 10.
And because we wouldn’t think of sending you out unprepared, check out this GetHiking! guide with tips on gear, the health benefits of hiking, and more.
1.) Sugarloaf Trail
- 3 miles
- Carolina Beach State Park
- Carolina Beach
Three miles may seem like a lot for the novice hiker, but one of the joys of this hike is the ever-changing terrain, which will make the hike go by in a flash. Starting from the marina and hiking this loop trail counterclockwise you’ll have a pleasant stroll along the Cape Fear River shortly before it pours into the Atlantic. The trail heads inland through a pine savannah, then encounters it’s namesake attraction, the forested, 50-foot Sugarloaf Dune. Descend Sugarloaf into an open area carpeted with white sand, then pass a stretch known for its carnivorous plants (worry not; flies are about as much as they can handle). Before you’re ready, you’re back to the marina trailhead.
2.) Sal’s Branch Trail
- 2.7 miles
- Umstead State Park
This is one user-friendly trail, starting from, and ending at the Visitor Center on the Glenwood Avenue/US 70 side of the park. (The big advantage to the Visitor Center: access to modern, indoor bathrooms.) This is a gently-rolling trail that has no big climbs, no dicy descents, and in a 5,700-acre urban park that is loved to death by more than 1.2 million visitors a year, the trail is in good condition. Another perk: at the mid-point you come upon Big Lake; in the summer, you can rent a canoe, year-round you get up-close-and-personal with a mountainlike lake. Another plus: Though the trail isn’t crowded, you’ll rarely be out-of-sight of other hikers, a big plus for folks nervous about being in the woods alone.
3.) Ledge Spring Trail
- 1.6 miles
- Pilot Mountain State Park
- Pinnacle (Triad area)
Don’t let the distance deceive: there’s a bit of climbing on this hike, which begins from Pilot’s mountaintop parking area, drops a bit, evens out, then makes up for that earlier drop. The highlight of this hike is the three-quarter-mile passage along the base of cliffs that offers some of the best rock climbing in the Piedmont. Watch as climbers puzzle out Three Bears, Middle Walls and some of the other routes that make Pilot a popular climbing destination. And be sure to turn away from the rock wall on occasion for the great views west, to the Blue Ridge. Likely, when you return to the top you’ll be enticed by the 0.8-mile Jomeokee Trail, a relatively flat lap around the Pilot Mountain pinnacle. Make that 2.4 miles, in all.
4.) Ridgeline Trail (from Boulders Access)
- 2.5 miles (roughly)
- Crowders Mountain State Park
- Kings Mountain (Charlotte area)
Especially on the kind of weekends you want to be on the trail, Crowders Mountain has become known for its crowds: the park’s home page offers this warning in red: “Expect Parking Delays on Pretty Weekends.” That applies to the park’s two main access points: Linwood Road and Sparrow Springs. Head to the Boulders Access at the far southwest end of this linear park and it’s another story. Though popular with boulderers (climbers on low rocks who don’t need ropes), the Boulders offers quick access to a quiet stretch of the Ridgeline Trail, which links Crowders Mountain with Kings Mountain State Park in South Carolina. Hike 30 minutes out, 30 minutes back for a good one hour hike (about 2.5 miles at a beginner’s pace).
5.) Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Folk Art Center)
- 2.5 miles (roughly)
- MST at the Folk Art Center, Milepost 382
One way to get excited about hiking is to start on a trail that can take you so much farther. To Clingman’s Dome atop the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance. Or to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Atlantic. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a work in progress that one day will stretch more than 1,000 miles across the state. Today, about 620 miles of the trail are down, including a 300-mile run that passes the Folk Art Center. This is a good spot to try the MST, before it begins its 30-mile, 4,500-foot vertical climb to Mount Mitchell. You’ll find friendly hiking in either direction from the Folk Art Center. For 2.5 miles, hike 30 minutes out, 30 minutes back.
Photos: inset photos courtesy N.C. State Parks
Top image via Shutterstock.