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Living in North Carolina, you have impressive choices when it comes to outdoor adventure. From the mountains in the west to the Atlantic beaches, it’s easy to find a beautiful place for hiking, camping, fishing, paddling, cycling, boating—or simply relaxing under the stars. 

With a whopping 41 state parks—most of which offer free admission—the real difficulty is often in narrowing down all the possibilities. So whether you want to feel the sand between your toes, hike to the top of a mountain, or enjoy some peaceful lake living, there’s a park to fit your personality. 

Here are eight of North Carolina’s best state parks that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

1. Gorges State Park

An aerial shot of the beautiful Lake Jocassee. By Stanislav Vitebskiy.

Located just over an hour’s drive southwest of Asheville, Gorges State Park is North Carolina’s newest state park (dating back to 1999) and features some of the state’s most picturesque waterfalls and scenic valleys. 

It’s also one of the more rugged state parks, with an emphasis on back-country-style recreation, with several long-distance hiking trails, including a very scenic section of the 76-mile Foothills Trail.

That’s not to say this is just a destination for those who like to get off the grid. You’ll find plenty to do in this 7,500-acre park without escaping civilization, including excellent trout fishing, boating on Lake Jocassee, and trails designated for both mountain biking and horseback riding.

The park is perhaps best known as the home of Rainbow Falls, which cascades down a nearly vertical 150-foot cliff. The 1.7-mile hiking trail to get there is of moderate difficulty and certainly one of the park’s must-do adventures.

2. Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Sunset at North Carolina’s Jockey Ridge. By a2050.
While North Carolina is rightly famous for its beaches, you’ll find something a little bit different at Jockey’s Ridge State Park—the largest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast.

Located in Nags Head on the Outer Banks, Jockey’s Ridge features a series of shifting dunes that often reach 60 feet high. You can take a short trip on a boardwalk to enjoy the views or take advantage of the trails to explore the dunes on your own. 

The word “trail” may be a bit misleading, as the shifting sand makes traditional paths untenable. But you can take a self-guided tour to various checkpoints throughout the area. 

Beyond the dunes, the 426-acre park also features part of the Roanoke Sound and a maritime forest. The consistent winds make this a popular spot for flying kites and hang gliding.

3. Goose Creek State Park

If you’re excited by paddling, Goose Creek State Park should be high on your list. Containing access to both Goose Creek and the Pamlico Sound, boaters will find lots of quiet stretches lined with live oaks dripped in Spanish moss and an abundance of water birds to observe.

About a 45-minute drive east of Greenville, the park also features an extensive boardwalk system for exploring the cypress swamp and surrounding wetlands, which are a part of 8 miles of hiking trails in the preserve. You can learn more about the ecosystem at the visitor’s center and take advantage of ranger-led activities on-site.

Sailing, boating, and fishing are all popular here, and there’s a sandy beach for swimming.

4. Jordan Lake State Recreation Area

The Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, just west of Raleigh, is one of the state’s most popular family camping destinations. 

It’s divided into nine sections that line the 14,000-acre lake, with more than 1,000 camping sites available. You’ll find both established campgrounds with RV hookups as well as primitive tent areas and group camping options.

As you’d expect, most of the recreation involves the lake, with fishing, paddling, boating, water skiing, and swimming all very popular. A commercial marina is open for rentals, and there are plenty of boat ramps where you can launch your own craft.

On land, you’ll find 14 miles of hiking trails to explore, including the 5.4-mile New Hope Trail, which is strenuous in some stretches. Keep your eyes open for bald eagles, as the lake is the summer home to one of the largest populations of the bird on the east coast.

5. Crowders Mountain State Park

The happiest hiker you’ll ever see enjoying the fall foliage at Crowders Mountain. By Charlie Cowins.
Just a half-hour drive west of Charlotte, Crowders Mountain State Park is a mecca for hikers, featuring spectacular rocky outcroppings that rise to 800 feet over the surrounding piedmont.

Those looking for a challenge can take on the twin peaks of The Pinnacle and Crowders Mountain. Both feature some steep climbs, but the beautiful trails lined with mountain laurel and wildflowers are some of the best, and the vistas at the top that offer 25-mile views of the region are stunning.

Ambitious hikers can tackle the Ridgeline Trail, which starts at the peak of The Pinnacle and follows the ridgeline to Kings Mountain State Park in South Carolina.

Rock climbing is also available in the park (with a permit), and fishing and paddling are popular on the preserve’s lake.

6. Stone Mountain State Park

The stunning granite of Stone Mountain State Park. By bobistraveling.
You can’t miss the 600-foot granite dome that dominates Stone Mountain State Park in the northwest corner of the state.

You can view the natural wonder just 200 yards from the parking lot or take advantage of the Stone Mountain Loop Trail to get to the top. This 4.5-mile trek also passes a 200-foot waterfall, another of the park’s highlights.

In all, you’ll find more than 18 miles of trails to go along with 20 miles of designated trout waters, which makes this a favorite spot for anglers as well.

Sections of the wall are open for rock climbers (with a permit), and a restored 19th-century mountain farm, called Hutchinson Homestead, gives visitors the opportunity to learn more about the history of the area.

7. Kerr Lake State Recreation Area

Campsites along the banks of Kerr Lake. By Charles Boyer.
If you’re looking for a traditional camping experience with access to one of the largest lakes in the southeast, Kerr Lake State Recreation Area checks all the boxes.

The 50,000-acre manmade reservoir stretches between the Virginia and North Carolina border, offering an incredible place for fishing, boating, sailing, waterskiing, and paddling. The recreation area features seven access areas on more than 3,000 wooded acres along the shore and more than 600 family camping spots.

Several swimming beaches complement an abundance of ramps and two private marinas where you can rent a boat. You’ll find a few short hiking trails here, but the focus here is primarily on the water.

8. Merchants Millpond State Park

Merchants Millpond State Park offers a unique environment to explore in the northeast corner of the state. It combines both hardwood forests and southern swamp, and the landscape of massive bald cypress trees is impressive indeed.

A canoe may be the best way to explore this park, allowing visitors to access tranquil, shallow waters and see the unusual landscape up close. Family campgrounds, primitive backpacking sites, and canoe-in campgrounds are all options for those who want to spend some time here. 

The fishing is excellent, and nine miles of hiking trails are available for those who prefer to stay on dry land.

Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.

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