Why Charlotte Ranks Among America’s Top Cities for Trail Running

The US Whitewater Center is just one of the great places to trail run in Charlotte.
The US Whitewater Center is just one of the great places to trail run in Charlotte. Craig Marshall
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It’s no secret to Charlotteans that their city is an amazing trail running town. It looks like the word is out. The December issue of Trail Runner magazine gave Charlotte props as one of their “8 Best Trail Cities.” We appreciate the nod—and couldn’t agree more.

In the article, the magazine makes note of a few of the ever-expanding greenway systems that continue to connect diverse sectors of town (thank you Carolina Thread Trail). It mentions the nearly 40 miles of trail at Anne Close Springs and more than 20 miles (it grows so fast it’s hard to keep up) of singletrack at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. And it includes two top trail races: Tuck Fest, the weekend-long festival of all things outdoors, and the Charlotte Running Company Trail Races, which for many kicks off another race year each January.

In celebration of the Queen City’s recognition, we spoke with a few folks deeply involved in trail running to learn why Charlotte has a singletrack mind.

The Charlotte area's trail race calendar continues to fill with a variety of events, like Mill Stone races at ASCG.
The Charlotte area's trail race calendar continues to fill with a variety of events, like Mill Stone races at ASCG. Craig Marshall

“The Charlotte area has a variety of trails with varying degrees of difficulty, something for every trail runner.” – Craig Marshall, Treasurer for the Rock Hill Striders and RD of the Mill Stone 50K at ASCG.

The trails around Charlotte are indeed diverse. There are more than 100 miles of singletrack and even more greenway. From fast and furious to a mild ride, it’s easy to find your running experience.

Up north, the trail system at Lake Norman State Park includes 30 miles of fast flowing, non-technical terrain through dense tree cover while the cross-country trail at Davidson College is a smoother path with rolling hills, the perfect morning run.

Kings Pinnacle at Crowder Mountain.
Kings Pinnacle at Crowder Mountain. Patrick Mueller

To the west, about 10 miles past the USNWC, the trails at George Poston Park are the antitheses of those that wind through LNSP. One tight turn after another leads runners–and bikers as these are multi-use trails–around multiple loops, culminating in the big climb up Spencer Mountain. And Crowders Mountain , the home field for the most elite runners in the city, offers the most challenging vertical around.

Down south of town, the bumpy and fun run through the 6-ish miles at Col. Francis Beatty park is a convenient after work stop for those traveling on the 485 loop. The sort-of-still-a-secret trail system that has sprung up around Baxter Village in Fort Mill, SC,  includes several miles of moderate track near some fantastic post run food and drink venues.

Finally, the eastern Charlotte area represents with one of the oldest trail systems in the area at Reedy Creek Park and one of the most fun runs at Sherman Branch. The 10 or so miles of foot-only trails at Reedy Creek connect rugged singletrack and wide gravel road around small lakes, past playgrounds, and near an off-leash dog park. The trails at Sherman Branch have plenty of hills to make them fun but the swooping turns and long straight-a-ways allow for a swift pace.

Group runs make even the toughest trails around Charlotte easier.
Group runs make even the toughest trails around Charlotte easier. Craig Marshall

“The community is very supportive of each other regardless of your level of experience.” – Brian Niekras, organizer with the Charlotte Trail Runner and Mountain Biker Meetup group.

It’s true. The community of trail runners, from 100-miler buckle collectors to casual 3-mile joggers, and the groups that make the sport possible, are the backbone of a great trail town.

Meetups such as the 1,700-member strong Charlotte Trail Runner and Mountain Biker group host several runs each week at the best sites around the city. Covering the routes on- and off-road, the Rock Hill Striders organize several regular group runs and races south of Charlotte.  Always willing to offer advice and encouragement, even the best runners in these groups were beginners once and are happy to help newbies.

The Ultra Running Company has become the hub for trail runners in Charlotte, holding viewing parties for significant off-road races and offering a range of brands not easily found elsewhere. Their living room-like setting is a place to chat about FKTs, DNFs, and PRs— or at least try to figure out what that means.

Of course, there would be nowhere near the running options if it weren’t for the Tarheel Trailblazers. Sure, they are a mountain bike group, but these superheroes of the singletrack are responsible for the creation and maintenance of more than 100 miles of the best trails around Charlotte.

Through volunteerism and land conservation, the Carolina Thread Trail continues to secure beautiful paths all over the central Piedmont. From paved greenways to the sweeping hills of Crowders Mountain’s Ridgeline Trail, the eight pointed star that symbolizes the CTT has sprouted up along hundreds of miles of trail.

Even through the toughest trials on the trail, Charlotte's trail runners have fun.
Even through the toughest trials on the trail, Charlotte's trail runners have fun. Anji Nussbaumer

“There is a race almost every weekend in the city or out on the trails that caters to every facet of runner there can be, from one-mile races to 50 milers, road to trail, even a race on the airport runway” – Anji Nussbaumer, elite team member for INKnBURN and top female finisher of several Carolina ultra-distance races.

It wasn’t so many years ago that trail runners in Charlotte had to wait for one of a few chances to compete in their sport. Now, those same athletes have to choose from multiple events on any given weekend.

The USNWC is home to several popular races. Anchoring the schedule at the beginning of the year on Jan. 16 is the multi-distance Charlotte Running Company Trail Race, nicknamed the “hoodie race” in honor of the popular sweatshirt provided to each participant. A color run, a winter 5K with frigid water plunge, duathlons of running and paddle boarding, and holiday themed events round out the 12 months of USNWC competitions.

Super challenging ultra-distance trail races continue to grow in number and prominence. Events at South Mountains State Park, Uwharrie National Forest, and the USNWC–all of greater-than-marathon distance–take advantage of the rolling hills, beautiful forests, and local mountains that surround the city. Just down the road from Charlotte, Anne Close Springs Greenway plays host to the Mill Stone 50K in February. The twisty course is tough enough for a challenge but the layout—the race is made up of three 10.6 mile loops—makes for a fantastic first ultra-distance attempt.

This is, of course, just a start. There are too many groups, venues, and events to list here. We hope the good folks at Trail Runner magazine will visit again soon. They’ll have plenty of ground to cover.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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