We have friends who live near the Outer Banks in North Carolina, tucked away in the far northeastern corner of the state. We discussed finding a place to vacation together that was halfway between their home in North Carolina and our home in Saint Louis. We settled on Murphy, North Carolina. Yes, there’s a spot halfway between their house and our house that is still in the state of North Carolina. Saint Louis to Murphy is 528 miles, and Camden, North Carolina, to Murphy is 524 miles.
That’s probably the best way to describe North Carolina to someone who has never been. The state extends far to the east and the west. You get beaches and mountains, all in one state. It’s a little bit South Carolina, a little bit West Virginia, and a little bit Tennessee. One end of the state lines up with Philadelphia and the other end lines up with Lansing, Michigan.
With a state that diverse, there must be some great hikes, right? Oh, there definitely are. Here are my favorites.
1. Green River Cove Trail, Green River Gameland
This is my pick for the best hike in North Carolina. Check out TravelAwaits’ picks for the best hikes in all 50 states here. If you’ve ever entered the Green River Valley from the west, you know what I’m about to say. It’s one of the craziest roads I’ve been on in the United States. You drive for 300 feet, go around a 180-degree hairpin turn, and then drive back the other direction for 300 feet before the next switchback. You do this 18 times as you descend to the valley floor.
The views on the drive are amazing, but the views along the river are even better. The river is very popular for whitewater kayaking as well as casual kayaking and canoe float trips. And a great way to see all of that is to take the Green River Cove Trail.
This is not a flat trail — you climb approximately 1,000 feet — but the views are just incredible. You’re following the river as you go, so if you want to cool off, find a shallow pool and jump in! (Just don’t jump in near any of the rapids.) It’s an out-and-back trail that takes you approximately 3 miles from the bridge to the end of the trail, so take that number times two and then hike whatever distance you want. Cutting it in half (1.5 miles out and 1.5 miles back) is still a great hike.
2. Rough Fork Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
My wife and I took our three boys on this hike when they were younger. The oldest was getting into fly-fishing at the time, and he brought his rod and reel along, since we’d be passing several trout streams. Our middle son was playing with the rod and reel and accidentally hooked my wife’s finger with the fishing hook. It was a tiny hook and fairly easy to remove, but we refer to this trail as the one where our oldest caught two trout and our middle son caught his mom’s finger.
The Rough Fork Trail is 6 miles long, so it would be 12 miles to take it out and back from Heintooga Ridge Road to Cataloochee Road. We were camping on Balsam Mountain, so we drove a few miles down to the Heintooga Road trailhead and walked in that way. The hike was mostly downhill from there for a while, so we knew what we’d be facing as we headed back. We hiked down to the streams, the boys did some fishing, and then we hiked our way back up and out. It was steep, but worth it.
Pro Tip: A one-way road down the backside of Balsam Mountain takes you to the town of Cherokee. It’s a 28-mile road and it’s unpaved, so you’re probably going to average 15 miles per hour. But it’s such a great way to experience the park. You feel like you’re on a hike — stopping to look at waterfalls, coming around corners to overlooks — but with zero exertion. Just know that it’s not going to be fast. A sign at the beginning warns you of this and tells you that there’s nowhere to turn around — once you commit, it’s 28 miles to Cherokee. But if you have a free afternoon (and it’s not the winter when the road is closed), it’s a fun experience.
3. Elliot Coues Trail, Fort Macon State Park
On another trip, my wife and I were staying in Morehead City and drove across to Atlantic Beach. On the eastern tip of Atlantic Beach is Fort Macon State Park. We were looking forward to a hike on the ocean.
Fort Macon has a lot of history. The fort was built to protect Beaufort Inlet from naval attacks. You’ll want to take a lot of time here to explore the old fort and the surrounding state park.
The Elliot Coues Trail is a really nice way to see the area. It will take you both to the ocean side and to the sound side, so you’ll get to see all kinds of different views. There are little spurs that will take you down to the beach, or you can just stay on the main trail (mostly under tree canopy). This is a very flat trail, so the only real difficulty will be the sandy portions.
4. Panther Top Trail, Nantahala National Forest
Many hikes in North Carolina involve hiking up to see something, and then hiking back down. That’s what you’ll get when you hike the Panther Top Trail in Nantahala National Forest. Hike up to see some incredible views, and then hike back down to your car.
At the top of this trail is a lookout tower. The observation deck on the tower is usually closed, but you can still get a great view from the stairs. And even if the tower isn’t open, you can still get a great view. Climbing the stairs simply improves the view.
This trail follows an old road, so it’s very easy hiking (you’re not climbing over rocks or anything). It’s not flat — you’re climbing 600 feet to the top — but it’s short.
5. Rock Head Trail
The city name here is a combination of “mountain” and “retreat.” It’s perhaps best known as the home of Billy Graham. His original home in town can be rented overnight, and his long-time home sits nestled in the hills high above the town. The Montreat Conference Center is known for hosting church retreats and other large events. And the trails in the area are all amazing.
When I drove through Montreat with some friends, we decided to go for a hike. There are 21 trails to choose from, so we created a loop trail out of the Rock Head and Graybeard Trails. It was 0.7 miles straight up the Rock Head Trail, about a mile along the Old Trestle Road Trail, and then 1.5 miles back down the Graybeard Trail to the campground where we started. It was a workout on our way up, but the area, filled with rhododendrons, was just gorgeous. It was like something out of a movie.
6. Hanging Rock Trail, Hanging Rock State Park
Hanging Rock State Park is one of the best-known parks in northern North Carolina. Located only 10 miles from the Virginia border, this state park gets its name from the famous Hanging Rock.
This is another climb-up, climb-down trail. It’s 600 feet of vertical climb over about 1.25 miles to get up to the hanging rocks, or rock cliffs that jut out into the landscape. People love to climb out and sit on the end of the big Hanging Rock, but I didn’t want to go anywhere near that. I was there for the view, not for the thrills.
All in all, this is a very simple trail (with a bit of a workout) that gets you to some incredible views. It’s well worth the climb, which is quite gradual and nice for the most part.
7. Pine Island Audubon Center Nature Trail
We have friends who rent out their condo in Corolla during the summer months; they use the home the other nine months of the year. The area’s Pine Island Audubon Center Nature Trail is the perfect spot to hike. This trail is an old unpaved road that once connected the towns of Corolla and Duck. And it’s a great way to escape from the hustle and bustle of the Outer Banks, especially during the summer.
You can start the trail at the Pine Island Audubon Center and walk to the south from there. It’s 2.25 miles to the end, so if you walk all the way to the end and back, you’ll get in a 4.5-mile hike. And if you’ve been reading about these trails and thinking that they all sound difficult, be assured that this one is simple. You’ll be hiking along the Outer Banks looking at the Currituck Sound — I doubt there’s even 10 feet of elevation change along the entire trail.
8. Looking Glass Rock Trail, Pisgah National Forest
The Looking Glass Rock Trail in Pisgah National Forest takes you on a long climb up nearly 2,000 vertical feet. If you’re looking for exercise, this is the trail for you. You’ll be walking uphill for approximately 3 miles.
But the climb is worth it. The views from the cliffs at the top are simply spectacular. As you make the climb, you’ll probably be wondering why there are so many people on the trail. Why would they put themselves through 3 miles of climbing? Well, when you reach the top, you’ll understand.
9. Sycamore Trail, William B. Umstead State Park
On one trip to North Carolina, my wife and I sat in a long traffic jam in the Raleigh-Durham area not long after leaving the airport. A week later, when heading to the airport for our flight back, we gave ourselves 3 hours of extra time just in case we ran into the same traffic. We didn’t — it was perfectly clear through the construction zone — so we got to the Raleigh-Durham airport with 3 hours to kill. What to do? Well, we found a trail to hike near the airport.
William B. Umstead State Park is right next to the airport — the western edge of the park is up against the airport’s land. So it didn’t take long to get there, and then we found a very enjoyable hike to pass the time. We chose the Sycamore Trail, a 7-mile loop. We hiked past a few lakes, followed a few streams, returned to our car after about 2.5 hours of hiking, and then headed to the airport. The next time we fly into Raleigh-Durham, we’ll be sure to add another hike there to the end of our trip.
10. Cragway Trail To Flat Rock View, Grandfather Mountain State Park
I saved perhaps the best for last. According to a friend who lived in North Carolina for a long time, the Cragway Trail to Flat Rock View is probably the most famous hike in the state.
This trail is in Grandfather Mountain State Park in the northwestern corner of North Carolina near Johnson City, Tennessee. Many trails in the area take you to Flat Rock, but perhaps the best-known route is to follow the Nuwati Trail up to the Cragway Trail all the way to Flat Rock View. There’s a trailhead right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, so if you’re ever taking a trip along the parkway, this is a great place to stop for a hike.
Please note that this isn’t easy hiking. Cragway Trail is every bit as craggy as it sounds. This is rocky terrain, not a smooth, graded trail. But if you’re up for a hike like that, this is one of the best. Grab a trail map, because from the top, there are several different loops back down, all with incredible views of the unique North Carolina wilderness.
This article is presented by KEEN Footwear. I basically spend the entire summer in my KEEN Newports. Because of the toe cage, and because I can get them wet, I pretty much wear them everywhere I go. On a hike, I zip the strap tight and they’re just as good as my hiking boots. Shop KEEN’s Newports and other hiking shoes here.