The Best Of North Carolina State Parks
Plan an outdoor adventure in North Carolina’s beautiful state parks. Test your endurance on a breath-taking peak or sit in a comfy chair, staring at a peaceful lake. Whether you're looking for fun in the sun or an evening under the stars, North Carolina offers it all. Most of the state’s 32 parks and recreation areas do not charge admission, and fees for camping, renting a canoe or stabling a horse are set at reasonable rates.
The Visitor's Choice
Fort Macon State Park, Atlantic Beach
Built between 1826 and 1834 to guard the entrance to Beaufort Harbor, this five-sided fort was seized by Confederate troops in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. Today, Fort Macon is the state’s most popular park, offering sandy beaches and one of the finest surviving examples of 19th century military architecture and fortification. Stand beside a cannon and peer out over the water like a young Confederate soldier on watch, keeping eyes peeled for approaching ships. Civil War reenactments occur during summer months; call for the dates. After touring the fort, go hiking, picnicking, swimming, and fishing.
Travel tip: Visit the nearby Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, a must-see stop for kids and adults.
A Beach Like No Other
Jockey's Ridge State Park, Nags Head
Rising 110 feet, Jockey's Ridge is the tallest active sand dune on the East Coast. Here, private instructors teach hang gliding lessons and rent gear to adventurous first-timers and experienced gliders alike. Kite flying, sail-boarding, sand-boarding, and wind-surfing are additional activities you won’t find in other state parks. Visitors can also hike or kayak along the “sound side” of the park to catch a glimpse of ospreys. There’s no camping or overnight accommodations here, but don’t miss it while exploring the Outer Banks. (NOTE: Foot traffic from the dune area to the sound side is possible, but a difficult trek for most visitors. It’s an easy, quick drive and parking is available sound side.)
Travel tips: Bring your kite or buy one from a store across the street. It’s a great way to relax and enjoy the day. Also, visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial nearby to see the site of Orville and Wilbur’s famed first flight.
Experience The Mystery Of The Swamp
Goose Creek State Park, Washington
Boardwalks cross over freshwater and brackish water wetlands and lead to an elevated observation deck at this park along the borders of the Pamlico River and Goose Creek, east of Greenville. Canoe the unhurried creeks, camp and fish on the shores of the Pamlico River or learn more about wetlands. This is a BYOB park, meaning bring your own boat since you won’t find rentals here. However, there’s plenty to do if you don’t boat. Birders and hikers love this spot, too.
Travel tips: The nearby The Atlantic Coastline Railroad dates back to about 1904; it’s one of the largest and best-preserved railroad stations in eastern North Carolina. The depot currently serves as headquarters for the Beaufort County Arts Council and the freight warehouse is home to the Washington Civic Center and art gallery. Just 10 miles from the park you’ll also find historic Bath, home to Blackbeard the Pirate and the state’s oldest church.
Merchants Millpond State Park, Gatesville
There’s one other great swamp experience; it’s a lesser-known park in the far Northeast corner of the state, 30 miles northwest of Elizabeth City and 30 miles south of Suffolk, Virginia. Here, you can rent canoes or bring your own, gently gliding among the cypress trees and hanging Spanish moss. You can also canoe in to some of the campsites.
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, Apex
With 1000 campsites, this park turns into a small town in the summer. The almost 14,000 acres of water make it a favorite RV site filled with boaters, skiers and anglers, too. Imagine relaxing by a cove, listening to the sounds of rippling water. Picture the surface of the lake glistening, water spraying as skiers test themselves. Hear the laughter of children, smell charcoal drifting through the air, and feel the breeze blowing over the campground. It’s located less than an hour south of Chapel Hill and Durham.
Travel tips: You can “rough it” at the park and then clean up at the hot showers offered in four different camping areas. Then, head into nearby Pittsboro to enjoy winery and brewery tours, shopping, dining and more. Or, splurge on a day of culture and shopping in the Research Triangle. Shop Triangle Town Center, the exclusive Cameron Village or the antique shops, boutiques and home décor stores at North Hills Mall.
Rugged And Wonderful
Crowders Mountain State Park, Kings Mountain
Visitors can climb peaks rising 800 feet above the surrounding countryside and watch raptors soar in the wind currents. The park's 5,054 acres include 1,625-foot Crowders Mountain (with a view of 20 miles) and 1,705-foot Kings Pinnacle. Rock climb, canoe or fish in the lake; or backpack into camping areas.
Travel tips: After a day or two at the park, unwind at one of Charlotte’s fine hotels. Enjoy a Swedish massage at The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge's award-winning spa or swing a golf club on the five-star course.
Best Traditional Park Experience
Morrow Mountain State Park, Albemarle
Built in the 1930s, this is one of the state’s oldest parks with a pool and cabins. It’s known to be a more traditional state park experience. Mountains up to 936 feet, a peaceful lake, boat ramp, lake fishing, canoe and rowboat rentals make this the perfect site for a family vacation. Three picnic shelters and 16 miles of hiking trails (plus 15 miles of bridle trails) invite visitors. Located along the Pee Dee River and Lake Tillery, Morrow Mountain is about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte.
Travel tips: Stony Mountain Vineyards is located next to the Morrow Mountain State Park. Take a tour and sip some wine. Also plan a day trip to shop at North Carolina’s largest shopping mall, Concord Mills, located at Exit 49 off Highway I-85 in Concord.
A Waterfall Worth The Hike
South Mountains State Park, Connelly Springs
At High Shoals Falls on the Jacob's Fork River, a torrent of water falls approximately 80 feet over a cliff of bare rock. While it’s a spectacular sight, it’s not an easy climb and there are some steep areas. The waterfall is a part of the 17,000 acres that make up the state’s largest park. The park is heavily stocked with trout, but make sure to get a fishing license first. Mountain bikers and hikers relish the strenuous 18-mile loop here. Equestrians can bring in horse trailers and camp in designated areas, then hit the trail the next day.
A Secret Gem
Stone Mountain State Park, Roaring Gap
Tucked in the Northwestern part of the state bordering Alleghany and Wilkes Counties, the sheer rock face of Stone Mountain has taunted climbers and hikers for centuries. While the gray-white 600-foot granite dome offers a challenging experience for hikers and climbers, a rewarding view of the face is only about 200 yards from the parking area. Visitors can also check out the restored mountain homestead exhibit in the same area. The trout fishing here is super, too.
Travel tips: Tour the Old Wilkes Jail Museum and learn of its legendary inmate, Tom Dula, pronounced “Tom Dooley.” Then, see the outdoor drama chronicling the passionate murder of Laura Foster and Tom’s two-year trial and hanging.
Yep, It's Mayberry's Landmark
Pilot Mountain State Park, Pinnacle
While some viewers thought Andy Griffith’s “Mount Pilot” was a fictional place, Pilot Mountain is indeed real. The Saura Indians gave the place its name meaning “pilot” or “guide.” The park has two pinnacles. Big Pinnacle, a 1400-foot wall of bare rock covered by vegetation on top is connected to Little Pinnacle by a narrow saddle. Little Pinnacle is a short hike from the parking area; from there, visitors on a clear day can see for hundreds of miles. Camping, canoeing, rock climbing, fishing and hiking are all available here.
Travel tips: The charming town of Pilot Mountain and local bed and breakfasts are close to the park. Also see Mount Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith and the model for TV’s Mayberry. Come hungry for a tasty Snappy Lunch pork chop sandwich served all the way. This local lunchtime favorite was featured in Gourmet magazine. Save room for a glass of wine from a nearby winery. Sample award winning wines at Shelton Vineyards, the largest estate winery in North Carolina. Also located nearby is Stony Knoll Vineyards and Round Peak Vineyards.
Best Park For Families
Kerr Lake State Recreation Area, Henderson
To say Kerr Lake is big is an understatement. With more than 850 miles of shoreline, it’s one of the largest lakes in the Southeast. It's also one of the most beautiful. From wooded shores to secluded coves to tranquil picnic areas, Kerr Lake offers fun for the entire family including fishing, camping, boating, skiing, sailing, wind surfing, swimming, boat ramps, nature walking, hiking, bird watching and picnicking.
Travel tips: In October you can see the "Show, Shine, Shag & Dine" and "The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame." It’s an antique/classic car show and nostalgia drag cars, held in Historic Downtown Henderson.
added: December 29, 2008
updated: July 12, 2012
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