The North Carolina state parks system was established in the early 1900s when the logging industry had nearly stripped the Black Mountains of trees. Citizens began to voice their alarm about the destruction of the forest, and in 1915, the state parks system came into being. Their mission is to preserve nature for citizens to enjoy the natural beauty and resources that North Carolina is so known for.
Today there are 41 North Carolina state parks throughout three different regions – the coast, the Piedmont (plains), and the mountains – offering opportunities for a host of activities for the outdoor enthusiast, including hiking, climbing, camping, boating, fishing, nature study, and environmental education. There's something out there for everyone to enjoy and experience. Across the state, you'll find beaches, lakes, swamps, sand dunes, rock formations, rivers, streams, and waterfalls.
Many of the 15 state parks in the mountain region are in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can't go wrong visiting any of them. Here are my picks for some of the most fabulous state parks in the North Carolina mountains.
1. Mount Mitchell State Park, Burnsville
Mount Mitchell State Park has the distinction of being North Carolina's first state park. Located in the Black Mountains, 30 miles northeast of Asheville, its 6,684-foot summit is the highest point east of the Mississippi.
One of the best features of this park is that visitors can drive to the summit. The observation deck is about a 10-minute walk from the parking lot. Once there, the 360-degree view is breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see for 85 miles. Also at the summit is a museum, gift shop, restrooms, and seasonal restaurant.
As with most of North Carolina's mountain state parks, hiking and backpacking are plentiful at Mount Mitchell. Entry onto the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail is in this park. Trails near the summit include an easy trail (0.75 miles) through the fir-tree forest and a more strenuous hike (2.1 miles roundtrip) over to Mount Craig’s summit (6,647 feet).
If you prefer to hike to the tallest summit, the “Old Mitchell Trial” (2.2 miles one way) follows the 1800s trail to get to the top. Allow at least three hours for this hike.
2. Stone Mountain, Roaring Gap
You won't have to wonder how Stone Mountain State Park earned its name. Once you see the 600-foot granite dome, you'll know you're in the right spot. The park's other features include cascading waterfalls, cool mountain streams, quiet forests abundant with wildlife, and a historic mountain homestead.
An angler's dream, Stone Mountain has more than 20 miles of designated trout fishing waters. Five creeks have native wild trout. The river has two accessible fishing piers with designated parking.
There are more than 18 miles of hiking and bridle trails, as well as a 90-site tent and RV campground, some with utility hookups. Backpacking campsites are within a 3-mile hike. Rock climbing is allowed by permit on the towering face of the landmark mountain.
A restored mid-19th century homestead stands at the foot of the mountain. Expansive picnic grounds near the visitor center have grills, drinking water, and restrooms.
3. Chimney Rock State Park, Rutherford
Some of North Carolina’s most dramatic mountain scenery is found at Chimney Rock State Park, 25 miles southeast of Asheville. As one of the state’s newest state parks, the privately-owned Chimney Rock Park was acquired by the state and is the focal point of the otherwise undeveloped 6,800 acres.
Visiting Chimney Rock offers opportunities for fishing, picnicking, biking, and hiking on trails that range from child-friendly to moderately strenuous. Rock climbing and repelling are also available with permits.
Visitors can hike to the top of the 315-foot spire overlooking Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure. They can also take an elevator halfway; from there, it takes about 25 minutes to walk up the 499-step trail to reach the summit. At the elevator landing are views, concessions, and a gift shop.
Note: Admission is charged at the Chimney Rock Access. The nearby Rumbling Bald Climbing Access is currently the only admission-free area of the state park. It offers one of the park’s six trails. Accessibility includes an upper parking lot, an elevator (when operational), and concessions at the landing.
4. Pilot Mountain State Park, Pinnacle
Located 20 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, Pilot Mountain State Park offers outdoor enthusiasts a wide array of activities in two distinct sections of the park -- the mountain section and the river section.
The park focal point is the 200-foot-high “knob.” Visitors can drive up to the summit or take a shuttle from the visitor center for a small fee. As the park reaches capacity on weekends, it is recommended to buy shuttle tickets in advance. For weekend and shuttle ticket information, head here (PDF).
In the mountain section of Pilot Mountain, there are 14 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail. Rock climbing and rappelling are popular activities on the park's steep cliffs. Forty-two tent and trailer camping sites are open May through November.
The river section boasts two of the most scenic miles of the Yadkin River State Trail. There are 14 miles of hiking trails and nine miles of horseback riding trails along the corridor connecting the mountain and river sections. Two paddle-in campsites for nights along the river are available for advance reservation. Fishing is a favorite sport on the Yadkin River.
Accessibility includes a visitor center, parking at the summit, a shuttle to the summit, and a picnic area.
5. Gorges State Park, Sapphire
If you like chasing waterfalls, Gorges State Park is the park for you. Its rugged terrain offers outdoor enthusiasts 26 waterfalls, a temperate rain forest, rugged river gorges, and sheer rock walls. The 8,000-acre park is near the point where North Carolina meets South Carolina and Georgia on the north side of Lake Jocassee.
Backcountry-style recreation is a hallmark of Gorges, with distance hiking, backpack camping, trout fishing, mountain biking, and horseback riding being popular park activities. Gorges is a favorite among adventures who are looking to get away from it all.
Nearly 125 rare plant and animal species are found in the park, in addition to 12 endangered or threatened plant and animal species, placing the park on the North Carolina registry of Natural Heritage Areas.
The visitor center offers expansive views of the park and is fully accessible, as are the restrooms and some picnic areas.
6. Lake James State Park, Nebo
Lake James State Park has two recreation access areas on the shores of Lake James. It’s 50 miles northeast of Asheville, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
At this mountain state park, it's all about the water -- boating, swimming, and fishing. Watercraft of all kinds have plenty of room to enjoy the water. There are two public boat launching ramps in the park. Nearby are private marinas with boats to rent and all your boating needs. Canoes and kayaks are rented at the Paddy's Creek Area in the park.
Paddy's Creek also offers a swim beach for the whole family. A concession stand, restrooms, and picnic tables are nearby. A small fee is charged for swimming.
Opportunities to catch the big one are limitless on Lake James. Prized game fish include largemouth bass and walleye, along with a host of other species.
There are a host of non-aquatic activities as well, including hiking, biking, camping, picnicking, and day-use areas. There are over 25 miles of trails, 15 of which are open to mountain biking. The park's three campgrounds include walk-in campsites with lake views and a remote boat-in campground for a true outdoor adventure.
7. Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury
From the standpoint of outdoor recreation, Hanging Rock State Park has it all. Located in the Sauratown Mountains, 30 miles north of Winston-Salem, the park boasts picturesque mountain views, rock outcrops, a lake, streams, waterfalls, and even a mountain cave.
Hanging Rock has more than 20 miles of trails that take hikers past waterfalls and to mountaintop outcrops with 360-degree views. The most popular, and the park's namesake, is the Hanging Rock Trail. The moderate 1.3-mile trail begins at the visitor center parking lot and takes about one hour to reach the pinnacle.
A center of activity, Park Lake is perfect for paddling (seasonal rental only), swimming, and fishing. The Dan River Access on the north side of the park also provides parking and a ramp for fishing, paddling and tubing. Bring your own equipment or rent.
The park has a 73-site campground, camping cabins, picnic grounds, 8.4 miles of mountain biking trails, and rock climbing by permit.
During the winter months, there are often road and park closures due to weather. Be sure to check with the National Park Service before heading to the North Carolina mountains. Be prepared for weather changes while in the mountains, and dress appropriately.
These North Carolina state parks do not charge for admission (with the exception of Chimney Rock Access as noted above). Fees for camp sites, picnic shelter reservations, and equipment rentals are kept as reasonable as possible and may vary from park to park.
You can find all the North Carolina state parks on their user-friendly website. Here you will find the information you need to plan your visit to all state parks, including fees, hours, maps, amenities, accessibility, and reservation information. Check the website for last minute information that might affect your visit.
If you will be spending more time in the state, make sure to check out these fantastic North Carolina State Parks in the Piedmont Region as well as these great state parks along North Carolina's coast!
Not done exploring North Carolina? Here’s some further reading: