A unique combination of geology and history—multiple rocky monadnocks rising 1,500 feet above the surrounding Piedmont and a longstanding community-wide commitment to natural preservation—earns Gaston County its reputation as a regional hiking destination. Check out these trails to understand what makes Gaston the go-to training ground for runners, hikers, backpackers, and weekend warriors throughout the southeast.
Crowders Mountain State Park
Plant your hiking boot atop the rocky outcroppings on Crowders Mountain and scan the horizon for a bird’s eye view of the Charlotte skyline to savor Gaston County’s premier hiking spot, a semi-urban park that is currently ranked as the third most visited state park in North Carolina. Crowders 25-plus mile looping trail network makes it possible to tackle strenuous climbs and rocky scrambles for as much distance as you can take.
Start at the Linwood Access to connect the Backside, Rocktop, and Tower Trails and summit Crowders Mountain. Or start at the Sparrow Springs Access for a two-mile climb to The Pinnacle, with the option to extend your distance up to 12+ miles out and back on the Ridgeline Trail. For a less challenging excursion, take the gently rolling parked dirt Crowders Trail from the visitors center to the Linwood Access, or connect Crowders, Fern, Lake, and Turnback Trails for five to seven miles of easy to moderate hiking.
Whatever your pace and distance, you’re in for a flora and fauna display unparalleled this close to Charlotte. The hardwood forest of red maple, American beech, dogwood, and oak gives way to rhododendron, fern, and Virginia pine at higher elevations. Hawks are frequently visible circling the park’s two peaks and the boggy soil on the lake trail is home to crayfish, frogs, salamanders, muskrat, raccoon, and Virginia opossum. Keep an eye out for turtles and snakes, mostly harmless except for an occasional copperhead or timber rattler.
Ranger Intel: Plan Ahead
Most weekdays parking and solitude aren’t hard to find at Crowders, but weekends and holidays can be a different story. Crowds at peak times have delayed emergency response for injured visitors and created gridlock on park roads, so rangers close parking lots when full and keep them closed for up to 90 minutes to relieve congestion. Arrive before 9 a.m. and check the park website and Facebook page before leaving home to keep your plans on track.
Gaston Mountain Biking Trails
Two more spots to immerse yourself in the Gaston hiking experience are the U.S. National Whitewater Center and George Poston Park. On these trails, hikers share singletrack with mountain bikers, so understand that mountain bike riders have the right-of-way. Best to stay alert and hug trail shoulders around tight turns and blind spots to yield access in a hurry.
The USNWC’s 37-mile trail network is pretty equally divided between novice, moderate, and strenuous trails. The easy Lake Loop opens up for water views while the Channel Loop circumvents the man-made whitewater rivers for a front-row view of the class I-IV whitewater action. Moderate South Main and North Main Trails parallel the Catawba River, so keep an eye out for the great blue heron and osprey nesting along the riverbank. Expert loops like Carpet, Figure 8, and Goat Hill will keep you so busy with heart-pounding climbs and descents that you probably won’t notice the view, but you’ll love the workout.
On weekends, holidays, and festival days, the USNWC parking lot can fill up early. Check the online calendar to see what’s going on that day and plan accordingly. Great news for the future—there’s talk of expanding the USNWC trail network to 50 miles by 2018 and 100 miles within a few years. Nothing’s for certain but you gotta love where they’re going with this.
George Poston Park
Nestled against yet another Gaston County monadnock, Spencer Mountain, George Poston Park’s five interconnected loops cover more than 10 miles and get increasingly more challenging the deeper you hike into the heavily forested trail system. Start out from the Lake Loop trailhead and work your way to the tougher climbs of the Big Leaf and Spencer Mountain Loops for as much distance and elevation as you’d like.
Hiking through History
The Carolina Thread Trail’s growing footprint in Gaston County includes two forest strolls that will take you back to a time when the landscape was dotted with trade footpaths and rural villages. The four mile out-and-back South Fork River Trail was first used by the Native Americans and winds its way along the protected banks of the South Fork River. Ferguson and Pinhook textile mills were located on the river in the 1800s so keep an eye out for remnants still visible from the trail.
The Seven Oaks Preserve Trail covers over five out-and-back miles along the shores of Lake Wylie. The lowland swamp habitat makes for particularly interesting flora amidst swamp chestnut oaks, tulip poplars, paw paws, and persimmon trees. You may catch sight of an osprey, eagle, or kingfisher circling overhead. Past inhabitants of the area used marsh grasses to weave sweetgrass baskets, still a signature craft in the region today.
In the mood for a dirt-under-your-fingernails, knee-to-chin scramble? Gaston’s got that. Feeling more like a meditative stroll through the forest? Gaston’s got that, too. Stock your day pack and get to the trailhead early to make the most of your day on Gaston County’s trails.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated in partnership with Gaston County Gov.