The city of Charlotte has not earned the best reputation as far as hiking goes. Much more famous for its NASCAR fan base than its outdoor enthusiasts, Outside Magazine rated it as one of America’s least outdoorsy cities in 2014, mostly due to its lack of urban green spaces. While the city may not boast many parks, its residents are certainly not at a loss for green spaces if they’re willing to drive just a little bit outside of town. In fact, the Appalachian Mountains are less than two hours away, offering a near infinite number of hiking opportunities. These three hikes near Charlotte are even closer than the famed mountains, and are sure to dispel the stereotype that the city has nothing to offer for outdoorsy types.
Lake Shore Trail at Lake Norman State Park
Let’s start off with something short and not too challenging. Lake Norman State Park, which centers on the state’s largest manmade lake, is only 45 minutes from the city. Most of the park’s trails are open to horseback riders and mountain bikers, but the Lake Shore Trail was set aside just for hikers.
Park your vehicle at the Lake Shore Trailhead on the north side of the lake to access this hike. From here, you’ll follow the white blazes for 3.5 miles in a counter-clockwise loop around the peninsula. While roads cross the interior of the park, you’ll be largely shielded from them on the trail, which offers nearly constant views of the tranquil blue waters of Lake Norman. The trail takes a route through some undulating terrain, so while you’ll never have much steepness to contend with, it can still be a bit of a workout. If you don’t end up having the time or the energy to complete the whole loop, you can shave a mile off of it by taking the Short Turn Trail that’s marked with red blazes.
Kings Pinnacle in Crowders Mountain State Park
Crowders Mountain State Park is only half an hour from Charlotte, which makes it one of the most popular places in the state for hiking. Most visitors to the park choose to climb Crowders Mountain, which has earned it the not-so-creative nickname of “Crowded Mountain.” However, the equally beautiful Kings Pinnacle is just a couple miles to the west, and because it has a slightly longer trail to the summit, fewer visitors choose to hike it.
Start this hike by leaving your vehicle at the Sparrow Springs Visitors Center, and follow a trail for a short distance to a split: the right branch goes towards Crowders Mountain, while the left will take you on the Pinnacle Trail. For the next two miles, you’ll push you way up some moderately steep terrain, surrounded by the magnificent hardwood trees that define the region. The hike has less than 1,000 feet of elevation gain, so it will be a little challenging, but not grueling. If it’s a clear day, you’ll be treated to some great views of the city from the summit. The return trip follows the same trail, but be cautious in descending the steeper sections, especially if it’s wet. In the past few years, trail crews has taken out some of the steepest sections of the trail and lengthened it, to provide a more gradual ascent, which helps with erosion and also makes the trail suitable for a wider range of hikers.
This hike in Stone Mountain State Park passes through three of the best sights in the area: Stone Mountain Summit, the Hutchinson Homestead, and Stone Mountain Falls. At 4.5 miles and with 905 feet of elevation gain, it’s not the easiest hike in the area. But no section of the trail is ever too steep, so if you’re willing to sweat a bit, you’ll eventually get there.
This hike starts at the upper parking lot across the road from a campground, a couple miles from the park’s entrance. From the lot, a short trail connects to the loop, at the fork marked by an old chimney - head right to make an easier loop. The first of the three sights occurs fairly quickly as the enormity of Stone Mountain comes into view. Using a series of switchbacks, it’s easier to summit than it initially appears. The trail descends down the other side of the peak, using concrete steps in sections that would be too steep otherwise. After another couple of miles, you’ll reach the Hutchinson Homestead, where the park has set up educational signs explaining the purpose of the different structures. Several buildings are still standing, including the home, outhouse, and a few storage buildings. Another mile after the homestead comes the final point of interest: the 90-foot-tall Stone Mountain Falls. This is a great place to stop, cool off, and relax after a relatively challenging hike. The descent around the falls is quite steep, so be extra cautious in this section. A short walk from the falls will return you to your vehicle.
While Charlotte may not have many green spaces to go for a run or let your children play, there are certainly enough of them once you go beyond the city limits. In a half hour, you can reach some great trails that deliver both exercise space and great views. The trails closest to the city have enough hikers that you’ll probably even be able to make some friends – you’ve already got something in common. But if you prefer solitude on the trail, driving an hour or so farther will give you the sort of quiet environment where you can contemplate life’s biggest questions.