10 Toughest Adventures in North Carolina

DuPont State Forest.
DuPont State Forest. Jeff Bartlett
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Home of majestic mountains, immense national forests, and seemingly infinite stretches of pristine coastline, North Carolina is not only laden with stunning natural landscape, it is also full of gritty and grueling outdoors adventures. Take your pick: churning whitewater, storm swollen Atlantic swells, high peaks of the southern Appalachians—if you can dream it, you can do it in North Carolina. These are just a few of the Tar Heel State’s most thrilling outdoor adventures.

1. Thru-Hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

The 1,150-mile Mountains to Sea Trail offers stunning vistas throughout the state. Joe Giordano

Stretching 1,150-miles from the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains to the sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks, North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail is nearly half the length of the Appalachian Trail. Winding past rolling blue-tinged peaks, tannin-stained swamps, and mixed hardwood forests all the way to the coast, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is also arguably one of the country’s most unique thru-hikes, rambling over both the loftiest peak (Mount Mitchell 6,684 feet), the highest sand dunes on the East Coast, and past the country’s tallest lighthouse (Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, 207 feet).

2. Paddle the Intracoastal Waterway

The Intracoastal Waterway offers a wide variety of paddling options in North Carolina. US Army/Pamela Spaugy

Running 3,000-miles along the Atlantic coast, the Intracoastal Waterway was once a major trade artery, offering vessels a sheltered route protected from the perils of the open ocean. Today, the extensive thoroughfare offers excellent recreational paddling, especially along North Carolina’s coast. Sometimes offering up vast stretches of open water, in other places reduced to a narrow channel fringed by tracts of maritime forest, the Intracoastal Waterway passes everything from biodiversity-rich wildlife refuges to historic coastal towns like Beaufort, the 17th-century haunt of the pirate Blackbeard.

3. Navigate the Narrows

Whitewater on the Green River will challenge any paddler. Angela Greenwell

Featuring rapids with names like “Pincushion,” “Nutcracker,” and “Go Left and Die,” the Narrows section of the Green River is no float trip. The Class V run’s most notorious stretch is undoubtedly a section known as “The Gorilla.” This segment requires paddlers to thread a narrow, 4-foot-wide slot called The Notch before taking on not one but two waterfalls, including the 18-foot Flume and the 10-foot Scream Machine. The churning, whitewater obstacle course is celebrated every November as gutsy paddlers from all over the globe make the annual pilgrimage for the Green River Race, one of the most treacherous and technical kayak races in the country.

4. Cycle 100 Miles in the Piedmont

Savor the stunning landscapes of North Carolina’s Piedmont with an extensive ride in one the state’s most eclectic regions. Cycle past groves of towering pines, sprawling horse farms, historic tobacco towns, culture-loaded colleges, and some of the country’s most legendary fairways. Cover some serious mileage on the nearly 200-mile Piedmont Spur, stretching from the edge of the Blue Ridge to the outskirts of Charlotte. Concoct an iconic century loop linking Southern Pines and Pinehurst, known as the home of golf in America, or cycle a circuit on the 30-miles of bike-able roadway in the 7,000-acre Duke Forest.

5. Climb the Biggest, Baddest Cliff on the East Coast

Whiteside Mountain is one of the East Coast's most difficult climbs. Thomson20192

Rising 4,930 feet above the massive Nantahala National Forest, Whiteside Mountain is one of North Carolina’s most iconic summits—and one of the East Coast’s gnarliest climbs. Streaked with shimmering slivers of quartz and feldspar, the stunning slab of rock is also laced with formidable climbs, from the long routes on the southeast face to the less frequented approaches of the northwest face. If the mountain’s sheer cliffs are a little too foreboding, hit the two-mile hiking trail leading to the summit and admire the weather-warped tangle of red oak trunks crowning the summit.

6. Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon

The Black Mountain Range is home to one of the toughest races in the U.S. Kolin Toney

Tackle some of the toughest terrain in in the Tar Heel State with western North Carolina’s most arduous duo of adventure races. The Black Mountain Marathon and Mount Mitchell Challenge both begin together, in the mountain-framed town of Black Mountain. For a stretch, both races follow the same route, but while the marathoners turn around at Black Mountain Gap overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the challengers continue to the 6,684-foot summit of Mount Mitchell, covering a total of 40-miles with a staggering 4,324-foot elevation gain in the first half of the race.

7. Blowing Rock Fall Classic

Cyclists can choose from three races—or do them all—in the Triple Crown of Carolina. Brampton Cyclist

Featuring a 72-mile loop circling the massive Pisgah National Forest—and 6,000-feet of elevation gain—the Blowing Rock Fall Classic is no Sunday afternoon ride in the park. The late September bike race is a part of the Triple Crown of Carolina cycling, which in addition to the Blowing Rock Fall Classic, includes the 90-mile Blood, Sweat, and Gears loop in late June, beginning just outside Boone, and the Beech Mountain Metric in May, which features 8,000-feet of climbing, culminating at the summit of Beech Mountain.

8. Surf a Stormy Swell

Surfing at North Carolina's Outer Banks. Heidi

North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a slender string of nearshore barrier islands, offer not only seemingly endless stretches of pristine Atlantic beaches, but they also serve up some of the premier swells on the East Coast. The combination of exposure and location, and merging forces like the chilly Labrador Current and warm Gulf Stream, make the Outer Banks, and especially Hatteras Island, consistently surf-able any time of year (wetsuits sometimes required). Even better, with an off-road (4X4) vehicle and a little wanderlust, it’s legal to drive along the Hatteras Island National Seashore until you find your own secret surf spot.

9. Slickrock Singletrack

Fall is a great time for mountain biking in North Carolina. Jeff Bartlett

Ride the rugged, view-laden ridgelines of the sprawling, 10,400-acre DuPont State Forest. Aside from the quad-burning climbs and technical, white-knuckle descents, both the Big Rock and Cedar trails include expansive stretches of granite slickrock dappled with plenty of dips, divots, drop offs, and sweeping Blue Ridge vistas. Craft your ideal singletrack expedition on the forest’s 80-plus miles of rideable roads and trails.

10. Bag a Brag-Worthy Day Hike

The Slickrock Creek Trail in the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness is one of the toughest day hikes in the state. Chris M Morris

Take on one of the most challenging hikes in North America, the 13-mile Slickrock Creek Trail in the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness, spread between North Carolina and Tennessee. Fondly nicknamed “The Ballbuster” by intrepid locals, the trail includes more than a dozen stream crossings and a total of 3,700-feet of elevation gain. Besides earning bragging rights, hardy hikers are rewarding with stunning vistas of untouched wilderness.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated in partnership with Visit North Carolina and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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