North Carolina is home to famed landscapes ranging from craggy peaks in the west – popular with advanced hikers – to coastal plains in the east – a popular destination for families. But no matter your skill level, the Tar Heel state is filled with pathways, marshes and densely packed forests to tramp.   

Whether you’re going out for the afternoon hike and finishing the day with a pint or spending months in the wild, one thing is certain in North Carolina – you’re never far from the great outdoors. Here’s our guide to the best hikes in the state. 

1. The Appalachian Trail is the best hike for hardcore trekkers

96.4 miles, time varies

There’s a reason this 2000-mile trail from Georgia to Maine is the most famous in the country. But you don’t have to commit to a multimonth expedition to experience the Appalachian Trail (AT)

North Carolina has a number of section hikes in the trail's nearly 100 miles within the state, running from the Blue Ridge Mountains north to the Virginia border. One of the most approachable sections is from outside of Hot Springs to Max Patch Bald. 

Other sections reach Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the trail, and the Nantahala River Gorge. The AT’s terrain is largely mountainous with incredibly rocky sections and some bodies of water to cross. 

A long boardwalk through marshland disappearing into the horizon
Fort Fisher's mile-long Basin Trail is a stunning coastal hike on wooden platforms across the marsh © JWButler / Shutterstock

2. Basin Trail at Fort Fisher Recreation Area is the best hike for beach bums

1.1 miles one way, around 1½ hours

Leaving from near the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher in Kure Beach, the mile-long Basin Trail is a stunning coastal hike on wooden platforms across the marsh. Some sections are sandy so step carefully. 

Don’t miss the World War II–era bunker, where a self-described hermit named Robert Harrill lived and welcomed visitors from 1955 until his mysterious death in 1972. The beach also offers driving access with a permit and access to a ferry to Southport. 

Fort Fisher is about 35 minutes from Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 3½ hours from Charlotte

North Carolina's best beaches 

A golden fall sunrise over the Blue Ridge Mountains, from atop Black Balsam Knob in the Pisgah National Forest
Black Balsam Knob opens up onto one of western North Carolina’s most stunning views, especially for sunrise and sunset © Anthony Heflin / Shutterstock

3. Black Balsam Knob is the best hike for views

1.5 miles round trip, around 1 hour

Don’t let the 1.5-mile distance fool you. Nearly an hour from Asheville, the Black Balsam Knob hike on the Art Loeb Trail is difficult, with plenty of rocks, but it opens up onto one of western North Carolina’s most stunning views, especially for sunrise and sunset. 

The trailhead is located off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Because of its location at over 6000ft, wind and rain can be a concern, so check conditions before you venture out. The trail is also pet and kid friendly. There’s camping nearby.

4. Company Mill Trail at William B Umstead State Park is the best hike for solitude

5.8 miles round trip, around 3½ hours

One of the best hikes near the capital city of Raleigh is in Umstead State Park, among North Carolina’s most visited parks. Umstead encompasses more than 5000 acres of forest and lakes, with 22 miles of hiking trails for all experience levels ranging from under one mile of flat terrain to over seven miles. The Company Mill Trail is a moderate option that roams through the site of former mills along the banks of a creek.

Sliding Rock Recreation Area at Flat Rock, North Carolina
Near Looking Glass Rock Trail is Sliding Rock, a popular spot in the summertime © UniversalImagesGroup / Getty

5. Looking Glass Rock Trail is the best hike for chasing waterfalls

6.2 miles round trip, around 4 hours

If you’re looking for a day hike near Asheville, the views from Looking Glass Rock are worth the climb. It’s right off the Blue Ridge Parkway and features incredible plant life such as mountain laurel.

The hike itself has a number of switchbacks and gains over 1700ft in elevation at a moderate incline. But don’t worry, it’s well marked. While you’re here, check out the nearby waterfalls, including Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock, a popular spot in the summertime.

6. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is the best hike for charming small towns

1175 miles one-way, time varies

The most scenic of North Carolina's long hikes is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), which runs from the Great Smoky Mountains to the west to the Outer Banks to the east. 

As with the AT, the trail can be hiked in its entirety (1175 miles) or broken up into sections, depending on how much time you have to set aside. MST is North Carolina’s longest marked footpath and showcases North Carolina’s diverse landscape – hikers can enjoy everything from coastal swamps to towering mountains to small farms in Piedmont.  

It’s still a work in progress, but there are 725 miles to choose from. One of the more interesting sections is the 66-mile Segment 11, which starts outside of Raleigh and passes through the town of Smithfield (birthplace of Ava Gardner). It’s paved and multiuse, so you can see it by foot or bike, and has an easy grade as it cuts through the forest.

From there, the path east becomes a paddle trail for kayakers, winding along the Neuse River to the communities of Goldsboro, Kinston and New Bern (home of Pepsi) before entering the Pamlico Sound. 

7. Whitewater Center Lake Loop is the best hike for those short on time

2.8 miles one way, 1 hour

Charlotte’s US National Whitewater Center is known for the artificial rafting course where Olympians train for the games. But it’s also a sprawling site with a zipline course, multiple restaurants and 50 miles of trails of varying length. 

The appropriately named lake loop rounds one of the waterways of the park and is popular with four-legged friends, who can cool off in the water. Some trails are multiuse, so keep an eye out for mountain bikers as you make your way across the red-clay soil. Best of all, you can end your hike with a local craft beer at the center’s beer garden.

This article was first published Jun 12, 2022 and updated Sep 26, 2023.

Explore related stories