Google “best urban forests,” and you’ll find the Queen City at or near the top of any list. It’s no surprise when you consider that Charlotte is home to several excellent city parks, the Whitewater Center, and the Carolina Thread Trail. Plus, Crowders Mountain and the South Mountains are nearby. The fall is probably the ideal time to explore the area’s trails. The forest canopy boasts brilliant reds and golds, and the hot, humid summer gives way dry, comfortable conditions, making autumn prime time for trail running.
Whether you’re following the Lake Norman shoreline or sprinting up the trails at Crowders, you’ll want to adjust your technique for the season. Prevent tripping and falling by scanning the path ahead for roots and rocks hidden under the falling leaves. Wear layers to adjust to cooler temperatures, especially when you hit the trail early or late in the day. Stay hydrated, even on cool and overcast days, and carry a headlamp in case dusk descends before you make it back to the trailhead. Get outside and enjoy the changing seasons on these leaf-tastic Queen City trails.
1. Lakeshore Trail
Follow the coves and contours of a peninsula bordered by Lake Norman on one side and Hicks Creek on the other. The white-blazed, 6.3-mile Lakeshore Trail in Lake Norman State Park is a smooth and gently rolling path through thick groves of hickory, sweetgum, dogwood, oak, and red maple. As you run, you’ll enjoy consistent views of the lake’s narrow and less-developed northern end. Take the red-blazed shortcut trail to cut your running distance in half.
2. Crowders Trail & Backside Trail
One of the best views of the Charlotte skyline, nestled in the autumn-colored Piedmont, is earned by hiking through a chestnut oak forest on the Crowders Trail at Crowders Mountain State Park. The smooth, mostly flat path gives way to roots and rocks as you approach a trail junction a little less than three miles in. Turn right for a quick and challenging half-mile ascent to the peak on the Backside Trail, where your final push takes you up a 336-step wooden staircase. Retrace your steps back to the trailhead for a total of 6.6 miles.
3. Ridgeline Trail
Start on the Pinnacle Trail at the Crowders Mountain State Park Visitor Center to run one of the most scenic long-distance forest trails in the region. About a mile in, you’ll make a slight left to pick up the Ridgeline Trail and continue 6.2 miles to cross the South Carolina line and enter Kings Mountain State Park. A car drop makes this a point-to-point run of 7.2 miles, while the full out-and-back route totals 14.4 miles.
4. High Shoals Falls Loop
You’ll cross bridges, scramble over rocks, and climb a seemingly never-ending staircase beside the cascading waters of the Jacob Fork River in the first 1.5 miles of the 2.7-mile High Shoals Falls Loop in South Mountains State Park. The second half of your run—a slow and non-technical descent through pine, hickory, and oak forest—is your easy reward for the push to the top of the falls. Extend your run on miles of backcountry trails, or add a one-mile climb to a stunning view of the gorge on the Chestnut Knob Trail.
5. North Main/South Main Trails
The 5.5-mile North and South trails at the U.S. National Whitewater Center combine peaceful views of autumn colors reflected in the Catawba River and twisty climbs and descents on technical singletrack. Start at the river center for a warm-up jog around the whitewater channels. Then, head toward the flatwater dock to take the two loops in any order you choose. You’ll share these paths with mountain bikers, so be ready to hop off the trail to let riders pass.
6. Seven Oaks Preserve, Persimmon & Worrell Trails
Fall is the best time to run the Carolina Thread Trail through the wetlands bordering Lake Wylie. An easy, flat, and non-technical loop starts on the Seven Oaks Preserve Trail under swamp chestnut oaks, tulip poplars, and pawpaw trees. Connect with the Persimmon Trail, which leads to Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. Then, pick up the Worrell Trail to complete the five-mile loop.
7. Big Oak, Sassafras & Dragonfly Pond Trails
Start at the Reedy Creek Preserve Nature Center for a three-mile run on singletrack trails reserved solely for hikers and trail runners. Interconnecting loops take you through a hardwood forest where you’ll cross creeks and visit Dragonfly Pond on mostly flat, non-technical paths, making this an ideal route for first-time trail runners.
8. Cove, Hill & Split Rock Trails
Start at the trailhead at the end of North Canoe Access Road in Latta Plantation Nature Preserve for a six-mile run along Mountain Island Lake. A 0.3-mile warm-up on the Piedmont Prairie Trail leads to the more technical Split Rock Trail. From here, you’ll follow loops along the flat shoreline and rocky, rooty forest trails to criss-cross a peninsula. Watch for equestrians sharing the path with you.
9. Kingfisher, Chestnut, Cove & Shady Hollow Trails
If you want to run trails in the Uptown area, the closest options are the hike-only paths at McDowell Nature Preserve. These trails are also a second option for novice runners. Start at the nature center on the Shady Hollow Trail for a four-mile route along the shore of Lake Wylie. Extend your distance with more than two miles of rolling trails and creek crossings on the east side of the preserve.
Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.
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