15 Must-Do Adventures Within 3 Hours of Charlotte

Graham Hodge
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Spring is in the air in the Southeast. The urge to get out of the house and explore is directly proportional to the temperature outside. With so many adventures to undertake, it helps to have a plan. So we’ve taken this opportunity to bring you a Charlotte area to-do list for 2015. While it is in no way inclusive it's impossible to cram all of Carolina’s greatness into one list we humbly suggest this as a strong starting point.

1. See the Rhododendrens on Roan

The Appalachian Trail section hike that traverses the Roan Mountain Highlands finds its way on many lists like this one and for good reason. The balds along this 14 mile stretch of AT that teeters between Tennessee and North Carolina offer stunning 360 degree views of the valleys below. But visiting during early June is a special treat as over-your-head rhododendron tunnels turn bright orange and aptly named flame azaleas set hillsides ablaze in brilliant red.

When to go: On June 20-21 the annual Rhododendron Festival offers visitors a peek into the past and present of this impressive area.

2. Go for a Moonlight Paddle on the Catawba River

There are few moments more subtly exhilarating than paddling your kayak in and out of wooded coves under the silver-white light of a full moon. With several lakes and rivers in the immediate area, Charlotte offers plenty of easy-to-access launches. This is a great activity for a group and is among the most romantic dates ever. Try the Mountain Island launch on Neck Rd or the put in on the Catawba River in Mt. Holly.

When to go: Warmer weather makes for a great night on the water. Look for full a moon on: May 3, June 2, July 1 and 31, and Aug 29.

3. Try a whole pile of activities at the U.S. National White Water Center

U.S. National White Water Center

After witnessing capacity crowds at the USNWC’s most popular events, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone within 50 miles of North Carolina’s premier outdoor adventure park hasn’t yet been there. So whether you’re a visitor to the Queen City, a new transplant, or one of the few who were born and raised here, make 2015 the year you get immersed in all that the center has to offer. A one-day pass gains the holder access to: Biking/hiking trails, flat-water kayaking or SUP-ing (boat provided), whitewater rafting with a guide, zip-lines and canopy tours, and one of the largest outdoor climbing walls in the South.

When to go: Held on April 17-19, Tuckfest is a weekend long festival of running and bike races, spectator events, beer, food, and music.

4. Climb a 600 foot Granite Wall

Alex Ford

Unlike the quartzite walls at Crowders and Pilot Mountains, the 600-foot edifice erupting from its forested surrounds at Stone Mountain State Park is all granite. The most famous and photographed feature of Stone is The Great Arch. Unlike elsewhere on the typically featureless face, the Arch has a well-defined crack and is well protected. Stone Mountain is a gem for exhilarating friction climbs.

When to go: Great for cooler months the exposed south facing granite gets plenty of sun.

5. Paddle Among the Cypress Trees at Congaree National Park

Rob Glover

When you ask a Charlottean why they like living here they will, inevitably, mention it’s proximity to mountains and ocean.  Indeed, the QC is ideally located for variety seeking outdoor lovers. Among the many environs easily accessible to Charlotte is the amazingly biodiverse floodplain of Congaree National Park . Twenty-five miles of trail wind through the park, but the best way to get personal with the park is from your canoe or kayak. Navigate the largest stand of bottomland hardwoods in the US, surrounded by trees that rank among the tallest in the U.S., and lose yourself in the diverse and distinct calls of the many avian and amphibian residents that call the park home.

When to go: Dates for Congaree Swampfest 2015 haven’t been announced, but the two-day fall festival, a surprising mix of great music and food, typically takes place in October.

6. Ride the Creeper Trail

Rob Glover

A great option for a family adventure or group getaway, riding the Virginia Creeper Trail can be an easy 17 mile downhill coast or a 64 mile out and back complete with a long, quad-burning climb. Most start the trail at its highpoint at Whitetop and cruise down to the AT thru-hiker mecca of Damascas, Va., finishing in Abingdon. As one of the most popular rail-to-trail projects in the southeast, you can expect plenty of company on the trail and support from a plethora of bike rental and shuttle services.

When to go: May for either the annual Ramp Festival in Waynesville, Va., or Trail Days in Damascus, Va.

7. Volunteer

Bike Luck

Make 2015 the year you give back to the trails that sustain you. You can hand out snacks and water during a charity event like Bike Luck , man an aid station at an ultra-race like Leatherwood, or help build and maintain trails with the Tarheel Trailblazers and the Carolina Thread Trail .

When to go: Anytime, giving back is a four season activity.

8. Join a Beer Running Club

NoDa Brewing

There are only two good reasons to run away from brewery: 1) It’s closing time and the brewery next door just made last call, or 2) You’re going to turn around and run right back.

To the great benefit of Charlotte residents, a new brewery seems to pop up around the QC every few months and several of them offer weekly group running events. NoDa and Triple-C are among the best attended, often times swelling the ranks of participants into the hundreds.

When to go:  Most brewery run clubs meet weekly, rain or shine, throughout the year.

9. Have a Multisport Adventure

Load up your bike, kayak, hiking shoes, tent, and let your outdoor ADHD shine. North Carolina is rife with locations that harbor amenities for riding, hiking, paddling, and camping in close proximity to each other. Cade’s Cove in Smoky Mountain National Park and Lake Keowee would be two top choices for adventurers not willing to settle for a one-sport weekend.

When: Summer months are great since a quick paddle or swim after a sweat-inducing day-hike or bike is just about the best way to spend a day. Plus longer daylight gives plenty of time to fit it all in.

10. Backpack Gorges State Park

Teresa Burton

With competition coming from places like the Smoky Mountains and Pisgah National Forest, newer and lesser-known Gorges State Park doesn’t get much press. But packing into the rugged and rare (for this area) temperate rainforest of Jocassee Gorge is worthy of space on this list. Beginning at the Frozen Creek Trailhead, a comfortable two night, nearly 17-mile backpack follows three trails: Canebrake, Foothills, and Auger Hole. The first night’s camping offers easy access to the northern shore of Lake Jocassee. The second night’s spot is at Bear Gap, nestled into the gorge surrounded by dense stands of hemlock, beech, and azalea.

When to go: Late spring is the time for most flowers to bloom and for favorable swimming weather.

11. Ride a Truly Epic Trail


Every trail given the “Epic” designation by the International Mountain Bike Association must be “true backcountry riding experiences that are technically and physically challenging, more than 80 percent single-track and at least 20 miles in length.” The three super flowing, berm-filled, roller coaster trail systems at Kerr Scott Reservoir have more than earned the IMBA designation. On-site campgrounds make for easy ride in options.

When to go: Or, when not to go. Trail closings for bad weather are announced on the Brushy Mountain Cycle Club’s Twitter Feed.

12. Visit the Carolinas’ Newest Biking Epicenter

Ride Rock Hill

Rock Hill, S.C., Charlotte’s industrious southern neighbor, is making their claim as a true outdoor sports destination. At the heart of this bid is the Rock Hill Outdoor Center . The Olympic-sized, 250-meter Giordana Velodromecycling’s version of a superspeedwayanchors the facility. Since its opening in 2012, the Center as added a 2.25-mile paved path, mountain bike trails, and a world class BMX course. Soon a full scale cyclocross track and criterium-style road course will fill out the list of first-class amenities. Built along the banks of the Catawba, the Outdoor center provides a canoe/kayak river access. All facilities are open for public use and will be home to an increasingly busy calendar of race events.

When to go: All facilities have events and public access year-round. The Friday Night Race Series, most weeks from May through July, offers spectator-friendly local racing.

13. Capture One of the Most Photogenic Locations in the Southeastern U.S.

Rob Glover

Grayson Highlands State Park , and the adjacent Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, are a true photog’s dream. Barren, rocky plateaus lay open sweeping vistas of the valleys and farms that surround them. Wild ponies pose with windblown manes for unlikely glamour shots. And stunning patches of wildflowers stand in bright contrast to rolling, grassy hills. It’s difficult to frame a bad shot anywhere in these two parks.

When to go: Each September, the Grayson Highlands Festival brings all the best of mountain culture–food, music, etc. to the park.

14. Pub and Grub as Seen on TV


The explosive growth in Charlotte’s food and beer scene has made it difficult to choose where to get refueled after a good day on the trail. So why not start with the local spots featured on national TV? Prices Chicken Coop is a no-frills, cash-only, fried chicken take-away standard of the Queen City. Throw a few pieces of the fried goodness, featured on Man Vs. Food , in your daypack and make your hiking partners jealous as they muddle through their PB&J. Diners, Dives, and Drive-ins introduced us to Jakes Good Eats . Low-key meets high-quality at Jakesan easy stop after biking at Shermans Branch. VBGB’s dedication to all things craft beer earned a segment on Dinking Made Easy . With German themed pub grub like hot pretzels and sausages, you’ll have plenty of soakage food after sampling their extensive beer list.

When to go? It’s food and beer…there’s no bad time for food and beer.

15. Get 24 Full Hours of Booty

Since its humble beginnings of around 100 riders, the 24 Hours of Booty has become one of the pre-eminent participant events in Charlotte. Each year 1,200 cyclists ride round after round of the scenic 1.5-mile “Booty Loop.” The event, along with spin-offs in several other cities, have raised over $11 million in the fight against cancer. Inspirational messages permeate the pack of riders. Some are reminders of the day they became cancer-free and some memorials to friends lost to the disease. Everyone leaves the event moved in one way or the other.

When to go: 2015’s ride takes place on July 24-25 with several supporting events all over town.


Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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