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5 Long North Carolina Hikes To Challenge and Reward You

By Joe Miller | March 12, 2015 | Explore NC

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You started out a month ago with one of the short hikes we recommended, just to see what hiking was like. Maybe you walk in your neighborhood and wanted to see how it translated to a walk in the woods. Maybe you were burned out by the gym — the tedium of the stationary bike, the manic drive of the aerobics instructor — and wanted to try a new way of being active. Maybe you read or saw “Wild.

Whatever the reason, you liked it. And you were intrigued by the idea of going more than two or three miles, so you checked out our batch of medium-length hikes, hikes of between four and seven miles. An hour or so on the trail is one thing: Do I have what it takes to hike for an entire morning or afternoon? you wanted to know. You did one of those hikes and when you reached the end, you were of mixed feelings: you were tired, no doubt about it. But you also wanted to keep going.


That’s where we are today, with five long North Carolina hikes that live up to the name: a full day’s worth of hiking. These are hikes of 8 or more miles, hikes that will challenge, but reward you emotionally, spiritually and, as your muscles will attest when you try to get out of bed the following morning, physically. Unlike those achy reminders from the gym, though, these will make you want to get back on the trail as soon as possible and push your muscles all over again.

Once you’ve done these hikes, then what? We don’t intend to leave you hanging. The statewide GetHiking! program offers hikes on a regular basis, hikes that are lead from the rear so no one needs to worry about being left behind. The program includes a weekly e-newsletter with hiking tips and resources, a recap of our most recent adventures and details on upcoming hikes. We also offer tips and resources on hiking, as well as information on our various GetHiking! programs. You can find all this information starting here.

Pilot Mountain Loop (Grassy Ridge, Grindstone, Ledge Spring and Mountain trails)

  • 10.6 miles
  • Pilot Mountain State Park
  • Pinnacle

If you’ve ever tried to visit Pilot Mountain on a gorgeous weekend in the spring or fall, you know what an ordeal it can be dealing with the traffic and parking. Now picture having nearly the entire mountain to your lonesome no matter how nice the weather. The masses drive to the summit, you, now an accomplished hiker, can hike to the top using a series of four trails that circle this quartzite monadnock rising 1,400 feet above the surrounding countryside. The trails are challenging, but they expose you to a lesser-known and significantly more peaceful side of Pilot Mountain. And the 1.6-mile diversion on the Ledge Spring Trail near the top means you won’t miss out on the great views for which Pilot Mountain is known. Before you discovered hiking, your car earned the summit of Pilot Mountain. Now, the glory is all yours.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Pilot Mountain Loop, check out this link.


Umstead park. Image: Joe Miller

Company Mill/Sycamore Loop

  • 9.7 miles
  • Umstead State Park
  • Raleigh

This popular distance hike takes you from the most heavily hiked section of the park — the first mile of the Company Mill Trail down to Crabtree Creek — into the less-visited heart of the park. After crossing Crabtree Creek, drop the masses and head left. Hike upstream for a quarter mile, then head upland for a mile or so, crossing the bike & bridle trail and continuing through rolling Piedmont forest. Midway, a connector takes you across Sycamore Creek where you pick up the three-mile loop portion of the Sycamore Trail. The mile or so passage along Sycamore Creek is like hiking the mountains after a rain turns this normally placid creek into a rollickin’ & roilin’ river; passage over a 75-foot bluff, courtesy a long-abandoned quarry, offers a rare, for the Piedmont, sense of dizzying elevation. The trail returns via the previously unused portions of the Sycamore and Company Mill loops, with the final mile on the popular stretch you started on. The stone bridge between the Company Mill and Sycamore trails makes a nice lunch stop.

You can find more information about the Company Mill/Sycamore loop here.


Uwarries. Image: Joe Miller

Uwharrie National Recreation Trail (northern end)

  • 8.2 miles
  • Uwharrie National Forest
  • Asheboro

Live in the Piedmont and don’t want to spend the day driving to the mountains for a mountain hike? This 8.2-mile stretch in the heart of the Piedmont will convince your legs, at least, that you are in mountainous country. The Uwharrie Mountains are a relict range with peaks once topping 20,000 feet. Today., they barely top 1,000 feet, but you’ll find at least one of those peaks on this hike. Starting from the gravel lot trailhead off gravel SR 1134, hike north over terrain that lets your legs warm up before throwing climbs in your path. The ascent up, over and down Jumping-Off Rock less than two miles in is the most challenging part of the hike. After crossing Flint Hill Road, continue north through a wooded valley, then begin the climb up Little Long Mountain, which offers the best mountain-top views in the Uwharries. Catch your breath here and enjoy the view before continuing on to King Mountain, at 1,020 feet the highest spot on the Uwharrie Trail. The last two miles is mostly downhill.

More info: “Uwharrie Lakes Region Trail Guide, Second Edition” by Don Childrey (2014, Earthbound Sports)


Tanawha Trail

Tanawha Trail. Image: Joe Miller
Tanawha Trail. Image: Joe Miller
  • 13.5 miles
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Grandfather Mountain

You might think that a trail paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway would be a fairly straightforward and mellow stroll. Ha! Make that a half “Ha.” The southern portion, heading north from Beacon Heights, probes the rocky east flank of massive Grandfather Mountain. Though the trail is well marked and easy to follow in that regard, it takes on a good deal of quick ups and downs, followed by a more prolonged up at Rough Ridge, an exposed outcrop with great views. After Rough Ridge, the trail changes complexion, winding through a mature spruce and hemlock forest before entering a flat area peppered with meadows, then a walk along (and in) Boone Fork Creek before concluding at Price Park.

Download this PDF for more information.


Sam Knob Loop

  • 8.0 miles
  • Shining Rock area
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
Sam Knob. Image: Joe Miller
Sam Knob. Image: Joe Miller

Weather aside, you can all but guarantee cementing your love of hiking with this hike, which ranges from 5,000 to 6,000-plus feet of elevation. From the easy-to-access Black Balsam parking area off the Blue Ridge Parkway, pick up the trail at the gate near the latrine (which you should not go in) and head west through an open meadow. A spur trail takes you up to Sam Knob for stellar views; return and head down to Flat Laurel Creek, which you follow past several falls up to US 215. There’s a brief walk along the shoulder before picking up the Mountains-to-Sea Trail headed east through rock outcrop and a black balsam forest. Drop down through more of the same on the Little Sam Trail, which returns you to Flat Laurel Creek and its namesake trail. Return to the trailhead through wetlands, meadow and open mountain scenery.

More info: “Backpacking North Carolina,” by Joe Miller (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 14.