Once home to the Catawba Nation, a Native-American tribe 5,000-strong, the thickly forested hills of Lake Norman State Park are now known for some of the best mountain biking, trail running, kayaking, hiking, and camping in the region. The park has miles of shoreline on North Carolina’s largest manmade lake, with a boat launch and swimming beach for easy access to the water. In just 40 minutes, you can be on the trails and in the water with time to spare for the local restaurants, breweries, and wineries on the way back to Charlotte.
Ancient pottery chips, remains of burial mounds, and other artifacts found along the shores of the Catawba River tell the story of pre-European settlement within the boundaries of Lake Norman State Park. Conflicts during the Revolutionary and French and Indian wars brought legends like Lord Cornwallis and Daniel Boone here, but it wasn’t until Cowans Ford Dam was completed in the early 1960s that the area really began to grow. The dam that brought electricity and industrialization to Charlotte also created a mecca for outdoor recreation when, in 1962, Duke Power Company donated land for the formation of the 1,328-acre park.
On the Land
More than 30 miles of trails flow through the park, climbing up and down the hills surrounding the lake, passing mountain laurel, hickory, dogwood, oak, and stands of pine trees closer to the water. The constant and moderate elevation changes make for challenging trail running and fast, flowy mountain biking best suited to beginner to intermediate riders. The 7-mile Lake Shore Trail is reserved for foot traffic only and offers almost continuous views across Lake Norman. Eight looping trails make up the 30-mile Itusi Trail shared by bikers and hikers. One of the most beginner-friendly mountain biking trails in the area, the Itusi is a rollercoaster of quick ups and downs, occasional root jumbles, fun jumps and berms, and plenty of tight switchbacks. There’s also just over a mile of greenway trail near the visitor center that is perfect for families with strollers and small children.
A 33-site campground tucked away from the more crowded beach and boat launch areas has a private, backcountry feel. Sites have tent pads, picnic tables, and grills with shared bath houses and water. There are also five group sites on the water farther down the road.
On the Water
If you have your own kayak or stand-up paddleboard (SUP), you can launch from the park shoreline to paddle through the park on the quiet nooks and crannies of Hicks Creek. The creek is ideal for beginners, families, and SUPers who are looking for a leisurely paddle away from the motorized traffic on the main channel. You can also launch at the park boat ramp to cross the main channel and paddle up several tributaries that empty into the lake. The launch is crowded in summer, so the best time to paddle in the warmer months is early morning or late afternoon.
For even more distance, round the tip of the park to paddle several miles toward the more narrow northern end of Lake Norman. You’ll travel past the outer edge of the park, and then start to notice breaks in the wooded shoreline as lakefront homes and manicured lawns pop up on both sides of the channel. First-time paddlers and families with small children can rent kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, and pedal boats at the visitor center. Launch on Park Lake, a tributary of Lake Norman separated from other boat traffic by a small dam. The water is shallow, calm, and ideal for building confidence on the water.
Anglers can cast a line just about anywhere along the shore or from a boat to hook the crappie, bluegill, perch, catfish, and striped, largemouth, and spotted bass that are plentiful in these waters. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, you can go for a swim at the sandy park beach, with lifeguards, restrooms, showers, and a snack bar. Little kids will love splashing around in the shallow water.
On Your Way Home
Wrap up your day on the lake at one of the locally-owned pubs and restaurants in nearby Troutman and Mooresville. At Daveste Vineyards you can sample a flight of North Carolina wines. If you stop by on a Thursday you can enjoy live music, and on Saturday mornings you can do outdoor yoga (first glass of wine included). Just outside the park, Randy’s Barbecue serves classic NC-style BBQ sandwiches and platters, with the traditional slaw, hush puppies, baked beans, and Brunswick stew on the side. Specialty pizzas, strombolis, and calzones are on the menu at Pellegrino’s Trattoria
Just down the road in Mooresville, Ghostface Brewing specializes in high-gravity beers, with over a dozen beers on tap and a selection of meads and ciders on the menu as well. They always have a gluten-reduced offering available, and pizzas and wings round out the hearty menu. Choose from a lengthy list of margaritas and Mexican favorites like guac fresco, carne asada, and enchiladas at Prickly Pear, or dim sum, steamed buns, rice bowls, and ramen a gazillion ways at Ramen Soul.
A little farther south, you can sip cocktails on the lake in Cornelius at Hello Sailor, just named one of the best restaurants in the country by GQ Magazine. Or go happy hour brewery-hopping at Huntersville’s five craft breweries, D9, Ass Clown, Primal, Bayne, and Eleven Lakes, and still make it back home by sundown.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with OrthoCarolina.