One of the things locals love about living in Charlotte is that you may be in the urban center of North Carolina, but just a couple of hours away you’ll find remote mountains, undeveloped lakes and rivers, and even old-growth coastal forest. Take a break from city life with some downtime in the wild at these backcountry gems, all within a two-hour drive of the Queen City.
South Mountains State Park
Way before you get to the Blue Ridge Mountains, you come to the rocky ridges of South Mountains State Park. Separated from their larger neighbors by the Catawba River Valley, these undeveloped peaks rise to 3,000 feet, with more than 40 miles of trails leading to 20 backcountry campsites. Hike along the densely forested banks of the Jacob’s Fork River to climb anywhere from one to 5.5 miles to backcountry campsites clustered along the park’s creeks.
Lake James State Park
Lake James State Park sits at the confluence of the Linville River, Catawba River, and Paddy’s Creek. Covering more than 6,000 acres, the lake surrounds 30 boat-in backcountry campsites on Long Arm Peninsula, with no hiking trails or vehicle access to bring in the crowds.
The sites are small but well-equipped, with picnic tables, fire rings, and enough room for a six-person tent. There are bathroom facilities nearby, but you should bring in potable water or a water filter because there’s no running water available. In summer, canoes and kayaks can be rented from park concessions.
Congaree National Park
A unique opportunity to explore the largest tract of old-growth bottomland forest in the southeast lies outside Columbia, South Carolina. The Congaree and Wateree Rivers feed Congaree National Park with nutrient-rich sediment, supporting towering national and state champion hardwoods and a diverse floodplain ecosystem.
Hike or boat into the dispersed camping area in the park’s remote interior. All that’s required is a free permit, and you must set up camp at least 100 feet from park waterways. Keep a close eye on weather conditions, because water levels can rise rapidly in this low lying region.
The time- and weather-worn mountains of the Uwharrie National Forest can seem remarkably remote and unpopulated, considering their close proximity to the Charlotte metro area. Another surprise is the challenging climbs and descents you’ll find tucked into these rolling hills. For an easily accessible one- or two-night trek through the backcountry, take the 11-mile loop that begins at the Dutchman's Creek trailhead.
Low elevation makes this backpacking loop a four-season journey, with late fall to early spring offering the best views and temperatures. A large, creekside group campsite, only a gently descending 1.5 miles from the trailhead, is a perfect spot to set up camp on night one. Dispersed camping is allowed throughout the national forest, so feel free to extend your distance on the 20-mile Uwharrie National Recreation Trail.
Grandfather Mountain State Park
The stony profile of Grandfather Mountain State Park hangs nearly one vertical mile above the North Carolina Piedmont, an enticing challenge for backcountry campers seeking peak-bagging vistas and alpine landscapes. More than 70 rare, threatened, and endangered species of flora and fauna make Grandfather a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve.
Any hike to the park’s 13 backcountry sites starts with a climb from either the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Profile trailhead since hikers aren’t allowed to leave vehicles overnight inside the park. Several factors add to the challenge: lack of consistent water sources mean you need to pack water in, black bears frequent the environs, and changeable weather at high elevations requires extra vigilance and caution. Only one campsite is reservable, and backpackers must register at the trailhead kiosk before hiking in to claim a campsite.
Stone Mountain State Park
An iconic, 600-foot granite wall, just the tip of a 25-square-mile underground rock formation called a pluton, is the focal point of Stone Mountain State Park north of Charlotte in rural Roaring Gap. Take in the massive rock face, typically dotted with climbers who come from all over the southeast for the quality friction climbing, before driving to the backpack parking area at Widow Creek Falls.
It’s a 1.5- to 3-mile hike along Widow’s Creek Trail to six backcountry campsites. Register at the trailhead kiosk for the required backpack permit and bring along a rod to fish Widow’s Creek, designated as Wild Trout Waters along with other lower elevation streams in the park.
Pilot Mountain State Park
Plan ahead to reserve one of the popular paddle-in backcountry campsites at Pilot Mountain State Park. The park’s distinctive quartzite monadnock is a remnant of the ancient Saura Mountains that rise abruptly from the rolling hills near High Point and Winston-Salem. The park’s unique topography is organized into two distinct and separate areas, the mountain section and the river section, which are joined together by a corridor hiking trail.
Backcountry sites are located in the park’s river section on the Horne Creek and Ivy Bluff Trails. They’re also accessible from the Yadkin Pee Dee River Trail, an easy Class I-II paddle that begins at the W. Scott Kerr Reservoir. There are multiple public access points for half- and full-day paddle trips to backcountry sites within the park. End your journey the next day 6.9 miles downriver at the Donnaha Access before the dam portage above Lewisville.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with OrthoCarolina.