The Toughest Trail Runs Around Charlotte

North Carolina Crowders Summit.
North Carolina Crowders Summit. Charlie Cowins
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Trail racing has become kind of a big deal in Charlotte. And why not? There are hundreds of miles of beautiful singletrack, logging roads, and bridle paths weaving through forests of pine and hardwoods all around the central Carolina piedmont.

Luckily, when it’s time to train, Charlotte trail runners don’t have to travel far for an intense workout. Whether you're in for a heart-pounding incline, technical downhill, or a long Sunday run, here are some of the best spots for getting in trail race shape.

Best for non-technical incline

Crowders Mountain might not be the steepest around, but you'll definitely feel the gradual incline.
Crowders Mountain might not be the steepest around, but you'll definitely feel the gradual incline. Robert Nunnally

Most hikes at Crowders Mountain State Park begin at the Sparrow Springs Access, often simply referred to as the "main ranger station." For the ultimate in hill repeats; however, park instead at the Lynwood Road Access near the northern end of the park. From here, the Tower Trail climbs some 800 feet in around 2 miles.

The trail is a wide, gravel access road lined on either side with dense tree cover. It’s not the steepest trail in the park, but the gradual incline becomes pretty intense near the top and the lack of technical terrain makes for a quick descent before heading back up for round two. There is water and bathrooms at the trailhead for a convenient break between trips.

Best for ultra-distance training

The recent addition of the Ridgeline Trail—which runs for nearly nine miles, crosses a state line, and connects two parks—created a contiguous section of diverse trail nearly 40 miles long. On the SC side, Ridgeline links to a 16-mile loop trail in Kings Mountain State Park, and in the north it is part of the Crowders Mountain SP trail system.

Throw in more than 2,000 feet of vertical gain, and there’s enough challenge for even the strongest trail runner. Begin your feat of strength at the Sparrow Springs Access at Crowders Mountain State Park and climb the Pinnacle Trail for two miles to its junction with Ridgeline. There is both water and bathrooms at the start and about six miles down Ridgeline near the NC/SC border.

Best for fast-paced hill repeats

Locals have a love/hate relationship with Goat Hill.
    Rob Glover
Locals have a love/hate relationship with Goat Hill. Rob Glover

Mention "Goat Hill repeats" to a Charlotte runner and you’ll likely receive a slight groan and a grimace. There’s a love/hate relationship with the steep, 0.75-mile loop at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Much like the rest of the singletrack system here, Goat Hill is well-shaded and well-groomed. But the double climbs of this short loop add up to around 200 feet, so multiple rotations on the trail reduce strong quads to a burning, quivering mess. Access this wonderfully terrible loop after a mile-long warm up on the South Main Trail.

Best for a Sunday long run

North Carolina Latta Plantation.
North Carolina Latta Plantation. Charlie Cowins

There are 13 named trails at Latta Plantation and Nature Preserve totaling more than 16 miles. So while you won’t find much elevation here, you’ll still need your A game and a good map to complete the course. For runners, however, getting lost on these paths is not such a bad thing. The trail system runs through a heavily wooded peninsula on the picturesque Mountain Island Lake.

Never boring, the diverse terrain includes singletrack, gravel road, and bridle path. And without the worry of contact with cyclists, most trails are foot traffic only, so there’s less stopping to let bikes pass. You do want to keep your eye out for horses and the prizes they leave behind, though. Begin at the first parking lot on the right as you enter the park. There are water and bathroom facilities here.

Best for a vertical mile challenge

In direct contrast to the long miles of smoothly rolling grade at Latta, the trail system at Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area is short and steep. Just five miles of groomed trail traverse the park, but after climbing the granite dome that rises roughly 600 feet from the surrounding topography, it's enough.

For the ultimate test in the park, take on the Vertical Mile Challenge. As the name suggests, completing the challenge means a total ascent and descent, of 5,280 feet (one mile). The official course is a 2.2-mile loop, completed 8 times, for a total of 17.6 miles of running. In case that’s not enough, there is a "5 Vertical Mile Challenge" using the same loop trail.

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