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5 North Carolina Hikes with the biggest payoffs

By Joe Miller | February 8, 2020 | 30 min read | Explore NC, Healthy Lifestyle

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You know that walking is good for you, possibly the easiest and most accessible thing you can do to improve your health. Walking regularly can lower your blood pressure, increase your bone density, lessen your risk of heart disease — the list goes on. But, again, you know that. 

Still, sometimes you need added incentive, a little extra oomph to propel you to action. A carrot of some kind. High on the list for most people: great scenery. 

In North Carolina, when we think of great scenery our thoughts typically turn to the high country, to the mountaintop vistas, the waterfalls, the grassy meadows. In fact, theres a good chance you can find those same Wow!” moments not far from where you live. Here are five of our favorites.  

Little Long Mountain, Uwharrie National Forest 

  • Location: Asheboro
  • Distance:1.6 miles roundtrip on the Uwharrie Trail
  • Payoff: Best mountaintop view in the central Piedmont 

In North Carolinas Piedmont, you typically dont think of great mountaintop views. But in the Uwharrie National Forest southwest of Asheboro, theres one that stands out. The Uwharrie Trail (a k a the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail) runs about 40 miles through the 50,000-acre forest, the majority of which is healthy Piedmont hardwood forest, both in the lowlands and atop the ridges. But on the northern end of the forest, the trail goes over Little Long Mountain, where a clearing offers unobstructed views of the Uwharries to the east, south, and west. At an elevation of 920 feet, its lofty as the Uwharries go (they top out at just under 1,200 feet). Take a picnic lunch — theres even a shelter up top — and enjoy the view. 

Access: From the Joe Moffitt Trailhead on the gravel Thayer Road, its a 0.8-mile climb south on the Uwharrie Trail. Mellow climbing for the first half, a more challenging climb on the second half. Find a map here. 

Stone Mountain State Park 

  • Location: Roaring Gap 
  • Distance: About 2 miles roundtrip on the Stone Mountain Loop Trail 
  • Payoff: Mountaintop view, a 200-foot waterfall 

From the Upper Trailhead Parking Lot, theres a two-fer payoff on this hike. Hike the short spur to the Stone Mountain Loop Trail and go right, and in a mile or so youre on the formidable granite face of this 600-foot dome. Bring a blanket, grab a seat on the rock surface and enjoy the view south across the green valley to Wolf Rock, Cedar Rock, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The hike up has some climbing, but nothing most cant handle at a measured pace. Another option: also from the Upper Trailhead Parking Lot spur trail go left on the Stone Mountain Loop Trail and within a few hundred feet youll come to the to of 200-foot Stone Mountain Falls. Theres not a lot of water volume on this drop, but a staircase lets you get close to the action safely.  

Access: The Upper Trailhead Parking Lot is just across from the campground entrance about a quarter mile after passing the Visitor Center on your drive-in.  More info here. 

 Pilot Mountain State Park 

  • Location: Pinnacle 
  • Distance: About 1-2 miles, on either the Jomeokee or Ledge Spring trails 
  • Payoff: Views of the Blue Ridge mountains, rub shoulders with rock climbers 

Your car does most of the work at Pilot Mountain, whisking you to a mountain-top parking lot from which you have two main options. The Jomeokee Trail is just 0.8 miles and takes you across a narrow ridge out to the base of 2,420-foot Pilot Mountain. There, you can circumnavigate the pinnacle, which rises another 200 feet, straight up. Note: there are some rocky stretches on this trail, with some quick ascents. If youre feeling frisky after Jomeokee, or are looking for something more challenging, try the Ledge Spring Trail. From end to end, its a mile long: our recommendation is to pick it up from the Jomeokee Trail and hike west. At first, youll enjoy views of the Blue Ridge Escarpment; a half-mile in youll encounter rock climbers scaling the popular one-pitch cliff faces on your right. Return the way you came (as opposed to returning via the grueling Grindstone Trail). A good hike with good scenery and entertainment to boot. 

Access: From the Upper Trailhead Parking Lot, pick up both trails to the left of the restrooms. More info here. 

South Mountains State Park 

  • Location: Connelly Springs 
  • Distance: 2.7 miles, on the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail (see text for shorter option) 
  • Payoff: Variety of views of an 80-foot waterfall 

This hike begins with a mellow half-mile hike on an old roadbed paralleling Jacob Fork River, what you picture when you picture a mountain trout stream. The mellow trail soon gives it up for the rocky climb along a much rockier Jacob Fork. This jumble of rock and boulders creates a series of intriguing pools before you reach the wood stairway that crosses Jacob Fork just below the main falls. If youve met your match at this point, you still get a great look at the falls before reversing course. If not, continue on to a stairway that parallels the falls, with an observation deck. The staircase continues up to the top, where a bridge crosses Jacob Fork, then picks up old roadbeds for the return trip. The entire loop is rated strenuous; if you cut it short at the bridge near the base, its a moderate hike of about 2 miles. 

Access: High Shoals Loop Trail begins at the far end of the Jacob Fork parking lot at the end of South Mountain Park Avenue.  More info here. 

 Fort Fisher State Recreation Area 

  • Location: Kure Beach 
  • Distance: 2.2 miles roundtrip on the Basin Trail 
  • Payoff: Beach habitat, dune habitat, estuary, World War II bunker 

This is a physically easy hike — it may not even gain a foot of total elevation — and its a must for anyone who loves the coastal environment. Its an especially good option for anyone who spends a lot of time at the beach but only at the beach. This hike starts at the beach, then passes through some dunes and a small maritime forest, disappearing into a vast marsh. The trail is easy to follow and includes a boardwalk over the wetter stretches. Youll be surprised by how far you can see. Youll also be surprised at the midpoint when you come upon a concrete bunker that housed munitions in World War II, the Fort Fisher Hermit for much of the 1960s into the 70s. Just over a mile in the trail ends at a deck overlooking The Basin and Zekes Island beyond. You might even see the ferry making its run between Fort Fisher and Southport. More info here.