Here in the Carolinas, we may feel a twinge of envy when the flakes fly up north, but it passes quickly when crisp, clear weather and a surprising number of mountain and lakeside campsites close to Charlotte make it so easy to enjoy winter camping. In fact, with warm-weather crowds in hibernation, winter is arguably the best time of year to savor the backcountry solitude, as many campsites sites are booked months in advance the rest of the year.
To help you plan the perfect winter escape, we’ve highlighted six of the best camping spots in or near Charlotte, including car camping sites and backcountry destinations.
McDowell Nature Preserve & Copperhead Island
So close to downtown that it actually has a Charlotte address, the 1,132-acre McDowell Nature Preserve is an urban camping jewel in the Queen City’s crown. Roughing it doesn’t get any easier than a night or two at one of McDowell’s rent-a-tent sites. Perfect for beginners who lack gear, these tents sleep up to six people, and each includes a picnic table, fire ring and grill, a nearby water source, and even an electric hook-up.
For the more seasoned camper, McDowell offers 26 tent sites and 10 primitive campsites. If you have a large group, reserve Copperhead Island, which sports six tent sites, a volleyball court, horseshoe pits, a fishing pier, grills, restrooms, and a covered picnic shelter. During your stay, you can spend your days hiking or running the park’s seven miles of trails, fishing and paddling on Lake Wylie, or participating in a ranger-led environmental education program.
Crowders Mountain State Park
Drive 40-minutes southwest of downtown for Charlotte’s one and only peak-bagging challenge, with the best city skyline views in the region. A 1-mile hike from the Crowders Mountain visitor center leads to 10 individual campsites and nine group backcountry campsites. But, take the "backcountry" moniker with a grain of salt—in camp you’ll find amenities like grills, picnic tables, tent pads, drinking water, and vault toilets. Nearby, miles of interconnecting hiking trails lead to King’s Pinnacle and a longer and more technical 5-mile loop over Crowders Mountain. Or, you can climb the mountain’s quartzite walls. With more than 100 routes, Crowders is a favorite destination for beginner and intermediate climbers throughout the Southeast.
Kings Mountain State Park
Just over the South Carolina state line, hiking and history come together at Kings Mountain State Park. Here you can backpack into one of several backcountry sites along the 16-mile Kings Mountain loop. Or, you can enjoy the hot showers and amenities at the park campground and do a 12-mile out-and-back day hike on the Ridgeline Trail. In the campground there’s a primitive group site that can accommodate up to 30 people. During your park visit, you can also visit a living history farm to experience 19th Century yeoman farming life. Also, be aware that on certain weekends the adjacent Kings Mountain National Military Park hosts Revolutionary War reenactments where you can learn about one of the lesser-known turning points in America’s battle for independence.
Lake Norman State Park
Pack your boat, bike, and trail-running shoes for a multisport weekend at Lake Norman State Park. In under an hour you can put the city lights behind you and wind up on the shores of North Carolina’s largest manmade lake. The park’s 33-site campground only allows tents and pop-ups, so you can enjoy the quiet along with your clear views of the night sky.
The fast and flowy Itusi Mountain Biking Trail cuts through hardwood forest for 30 miles and allows frequent lake views. The Alder, Dragonfly, and Lake Shore Trails are bike-free and ideal for a 7.5-mile hike or trail run. Launch your kayak or SUP board from the south end of Boat Launch Drive to paddle the creeks and coves of the narrow, northern portion of Lake Norman. What little motorized boat traffic there is on this portion of the lake is almost non-existent during the cooler months of the year, giving you the best chance of spying the many species of waterfowl that migrate through the region.
Lake Wateree State Park
Winter is the best time to snag one of 15 lakefront campsites at this 72-site campground. Boating and fishing are favorite pastimes at 13,800-acre Lake Wateree State Park, just an hour’s drive south of Charlotte. Easy water access along the shore or at the boat dock opens up miles of kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding to the north and south ends of the lake. Large creek-fed tributaries are ideal spots to see great blue heron, woodpeckers, egrets, and bald eagles. Back at camp, fish for bream, catfish, crappie, and bass from the shore.
South Mountain State Park
Ninety minutes west of Charlotte lies some of the most rugged terrain in the state and the most remote backcountry experience on our list. South Mountains State Park covers 100,000 acres, with steep mountains rising up to 3,000 feet above the surrounding valley. In the park you can enjoy riverside camping on the Jacob’s Fork and the spectacular High Shoals Falls, which flows 80 feet over exposed rock to create a cascade of natural ice sculptures in winter.
If you can, reserve a spot in the 18-site riverfront campground, which has showers, restrooms, and drinking water close by and serves as the ideal jumping-off point for the park’s 17-mile mountain biking loop. What really draws campers to South Mountains, however, is the rugged backcountry experience within a mile or two of the trailhead. Twenty backpacking campsites require anywhere from a 1-mile to a 5.5-mile hike in, all starting with a climb from the valley parking area. Once you’ve established camp, explore the park’s 40 miles of trails, including the grueling stone staircase at High Shoals Falls and the steep, 2-mile climb to Chestnut Knob for panoramic views of the Jacob Fork Gorge.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated in partnership with OrthoCarolina.