North Carolina’s parks showcase the state’s diverse landscapes

Hiking & Nature
Tuesday, February 18, 2020

North Carolina is truly blessed with a fantastic and diverse system of state parks and nature preserves, stretching from the mountains to the coast.

I’ve visited 19 of these in my 38 years, and I’m already making plans to see some of the ones I’ve missed. Below are some of my favorite experiences at some of our state’s great parks and natural areas, and suggestions for which to visit depending on what you’re in the mood for.

Best mountain hike

In the mountains, I’ve been to Grandfather Mountain, Elk Knob, Mount Jefferson and New River state parks. My favorite place for backpacking would have to be Grandfather Mountain. 

I had my very first backpacking trip there before it was a state park, back in 2008. I remember rushing to get into Boone in time to get a permit from Mast General Store to camp at Grandfather that night. I didn’t realize that most of the trails at Grandfather are “extremely difficult” and “very strenuous,” and the 7-pound army sleeping bag I was carrying with all my other gear made for a difficult sojourn, to say the least. 

However, it was still an amazing experience. Starting at a pull-off on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I remember going by Calloway Peak at 5,946 feet, then hiking all the way to the famous Swinging Bridge. Ladders ropes and cables help you navigate the terrain in difficult places. I spent one night on a camping platform, and early the next morning an ethereal mist had settled in the valleys, making them look otherworldly. The views from the various peaks and outcrops were stunning, and we also saw a couple of peregrine falcons on that trip.

I first visited Mount Jefferson and New River State Parks two summers ago, when I went up there to help park officials with hellbender surveys. There are a few fairly short hiking trails at Mount Jefferson, and the views from several pull-off locations along the main road are phenomenal. You can see Virginia and Tennessee. The New River is always a treat to spend time in, as there are several nice locations along the river that make it an easy place to take a paddle trip.

Another view from Grandfather Mountain. Photo: Crystal Cockman

Special Piedmont places to visit

I’ve visited a few more parks in the Piedmont, including Lake Norman, Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock, Haw River, Morrow Mountain, Weymouth Woods, Occoneechee Mountain, Eno River, Falls Lake, Raven Rock and Jordan Lake. 

Morrow Mountain and Weymouth Woods are close enough that I frequent those often. They offer different experiences, from climbing the rocky Uwharrie Mountains to traveling the much flatter Sandhills and longleaf pine-dominated woods of Weymouth. 

A special park for me is Hanging Rock, which offers a variety of hiking experiences, from waterfalls to precipices. The first time I went to Hanging Rock was a number of years ago, when myself and a friend hiked most of the trails and saw a number of waterfalls. We even hiked up to the “Hanging Rock” – and peered over the precipice at the expansive woodlands below. This past year I took my mother there to see her first ever waterfall in person, the Lower Cascades.

Enjoying the coastal wetlands

If there’s any section of the state where I haven’t visited enough parks, it’s the coast. I’ve only been to four: Jones Lake, Lake Waccamaw, Carolina Beach and Fort Fisher. 

The parks in this part of the state offer a very different experience from the mountains and the Piedmont. I’ve visited Carolina Beach State Park a few times, mostly for fishing. While in that area I also like to visit Fort Fisher, where you can swim and spend time at the beach, as well as tour the historic remnants of the fort. I usually also like to stop by the aquarium there at Fort Fisher – it’s another great North Carolina amenity.

These bald cypress wetlands along the Waccamaw River are another interesting wetland habitat home to a variety of unique wildlife.

The Waccamaw River. Photo: Crystal Cockman

Crystal Cockman is director of conservation at Three Rivers Land Trust.