5 Best Beginner Hikes in Charlotte

A view of Pilot Mountain from Little Pinnacle.
A view of Pilot Mountain from Little Pinnacle. Susan Sharpless Smith
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Study after study has proven the physical and mental benefits of hiking, and anyone who has spent a couple hours on the trail knows that exercising the body and focusing the mind can recharge a weary soul. Thankfully for Charlotteans, the rolling hills and plentiful waterways of the Carolina Piedmont offer a wide range of hiking experiences to do just that. While the area has plenty of challenge for the hardcore hiker, there is no shortage of options for those who are just getting into trekking or who are looking for a more moderate experience on the trail.

Here are five unique hikes that will take you through groves of giant cypress, through dense hardwood forests, along the shores of glistening lakes, and to the top of an iconic Carolina peak. Each experience was chosen with the beginner hiker in mind.

1. McDowell Nature Preserve

Although just a short drive from Charlotte’s city center, hiking through the lush, densely forested grounds of McDowell Nature Preserve feels like a far off escape. Seven miles of rambling trails ride gentle undulations under the tree canopy, passing spring wildflowers and brilliant autumn colors along the way. Built on a peninsula that extends into Lake Wylie, the trails at McDowell offer serene water views and close encounters all kinds of waterfowl.

The trails are generally easy to follow at McDowell but it’s a great idea to bring a map on your first visit. Start your hike at the centrally located Nature center and explore as many miles as your day allows.

2. Congaree National Park Boardwalk

The Congaree boardwalk is an easy way to get in some exercise and see some of the biodiversity at the park.
    Rob Glover
The Congaree boardwalk is an easy way to get in some exercise and see some of the biodiversity at the park. Rob Glover

Congaree National Park is a unique hiking experience for several reasons. First, it is South Carolina’s only national park. Second, the swamp-like, low lying wetlands are a biome typically seen further east. Finally, the park is home to an incredible biodiversity which includes several national and state champion trees and a huge host of bird and amphibian inhabitants.

The trail system is centered on a 2.4-mile boardwalk which offers an excellent intro to the park. From there, easy-to-maneuver hiking trails spread throughout the forest, ranging from 1.3 to 10 miles. Begin your day at the interpretive center where exhibits explain the history and significance of this place.

3. Badin Lake Trails

An often overlooked epicenter of outdoor recreation lies less than an hour east of uptown Charlotte. The Uwharrie National Forest and its surrounding areas are crisscrossed with dozens of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Bordered by rivers and lakes, this part of the state is an adventurous home a huge menu of experiences.

One of the most pleasant walks among the list is the 5.6-mile Badin Lake Trail. Edging along its namesake lake for about half its distance, this trail offers plenty of serene water vistas before diving into the hardwood forest this area is known for. The thick forest and healthy lake are a perfect home to bald eagles. Keep your eyes on the skies for glimpse of these magnificent raptors.

Begin your hike at the any of the campgrounds that sit along the trail. Note that the Badin Lake Trail, like many in the area, is not well marked at times. Have your trail map and keep a lookout for those white blazes.

4. Pilot Mountain State Park

The view from Pilot Mountain goes on for miles and miles on a clear day.
The view from Pilot Mountain goes on for miles and miles on a clear day. Patrick Mueller

One common downside of the more gentle walks in the woods is a lack of sweeping vistas. Gaining the high ground needed for the best views is often tough work for a beginner hiker. Thankfully, there’s Pilot Mountain State Park. There are plenty of trails running through the park for all levels of experiences, but for the effort to payoff ratio, you can’t beat the Jomeokee Trail.

The 0.8-mile Jomeokee Trail is shaped like a lasso. Its loop runs around the base of Pilot Mountain’s signature feature—a huge, cylindrical monadnock that seems to have erupted from the mountain like a rocky Push-Up Pop. From this vantage point, you’ll get an expansive view of the Sauratown Mountains and the rolling piedmont below.

As expected, an ultra-accessible trail with so much to offer gets busy. Ideally, this is a trip for a late afternoon on a weekday in fall when the mountains are decorated in their multi-hued best and the crowds are still waiting for the weekend. Parking for the Jomeokee Trail is located at the top of the mountain. For a little extra adventure, take the Grindstone and Ledge Spring Loop (about 6.2 miles).

5. Crowders Mountain State Park

Despite its "crowded" reputation, Crowders Mountain has easy trails that are more off the beaten path.
    Rob Glover
Despite its "crowded" reputation, Crowders Mountain has easy trails that are more off the beaten path. Rob Glover

Crowders Mountain State Park is a popular location for family hikers and trail runners alike. So popular, in fact, that it often earns its nickname "Crowded Mountain". But there is an alternative to the often packed parking lots and steep trails in the northern end of the park. A few miles further south, off of exit 5 on highway 85, the Boulders Access provides a gentler, more peaceful Crowders Experience.

The Boulders Access Area sits roughly halfway along the Ridgeline trail. This roughly 12-mile trail rides a hilly topography that is nowhere near as steep as other mountain paths in the park. There is no loop to be made so every hike is out and back, but you can choose north or south and have a different experience in each direction.

There are tons of trails near North Carolina’s largest city, but these five are solid options to get you started. And who knows? Maybe the next thing you’ll be looking up will be the gnarliest hikes around Charlotte.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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