Go Wild: 4 North Carolina National Forests to Explore

Stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east, North Carolina is full of wild places where hiking, hunting, camping and fishing rule the day. Four national forests put our distinct woodland environments on display, and whether you visit a coastal forest, waterfalls and high peaks out west, or gold-rich woods in the middle, you’ll have your choice of 1.25 million acres to explore.

Nantahala National Forest

Nantahala – a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noon day sun” – is fittingly named as the steep mountains and deep canyons here make for places that see only a few hours of full sun each day. That also makes for challenging hikes and a river that thrill seekers flock to for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Nestled in the rugged mountains near Cherokee and Bryson City, it’s a landscape to behold.

Nantahala, all 530,000 acres of it, is the largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, and it holds more than 200 miles of hiking trails (including 52 miles of the Appalachian Trail), dozens of waterfalls (like the 411-foot Whitewater Falls, the highest falls in the East) and a mountain peak where you can see four states. In the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, you’ll find 400-year old hemlocks, yellow poplars towering 100 feet and trees 20 feet around.

More than a quarter-million visitors come each year to raft or kayak the whitewater of the Nantahala River Gorge, and outfitters such as Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) get the adventurous on the water and help Olympians train.

Pisgah National Forest

Two friends sitting on mountain taking in long-range views and sunrise
Linville Gorge

Covering 512,758 acres of mountainous terrain in the southern Appalachian Mountains, Pisgah National Forest is a short drive from Asheville and only minutes away from downtown Brevard. The mountains here tower higher than 6,000 feet and in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, hikers come to be challenged by expeditions in what’s often called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” though others come for short trails that give birds-eye views of Linville Falls.

At Sliding Rock, a 60-foot natural water slide, crowds gather to cool off in the warm summer months, though many skip the lines and opt for an afternoon tubing in areas like the North Mills River Recreation Areas.

Hiking and mountain biking trails lace the mountainsides here, and elements of the state’s longest and most scenic trails – the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the Shut-in Trail and the Art Loeb Trail – lead to waterfalls, mountaintop vistas and secret corners of the forest where you feel you’re the only one there.

Uwharrie National Forest

In central North Carolina, Uwharrie National Forest rings a strange and ancient upthrust of mountains. Shrouded in myth, legend and fact – gold was discovered here in 1799 and you can pan for gold in the forest today – Uwharrie draws visitors from nearby Charlotte and across the southeast for the hardwood forest, Badin Lake and opportunities for hiking, horseback riding and riding in an off-highway vehicle (OHV).

Badin Lake Recreational Area attracts boaters, anglers and swimmers in search of someplace to cool off, and after spending a few days camping in the forest or hiking the 20.5-mile Uwharrie National Recreation Trail, a dip in the lake is the perfect cure for too much trail dust.

There are plenty of trails here. Trails for hikers and equestrian explorers, trails for all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes and 4x4s, and trails perfect for long, multiday hikes or shorter walks perfect for outdoor novices.

The Uwharrie Ranger District Office is located on 789 North Carolina Highway 24/27 East in Troy.

Croatan National Forest

Aerial of national coastal forest with water, marshes and a wooden bridge

On the coast not far from the towns of New Bern, Beaufort and Morehead City, the Neuse River flows past the 160,000-acre Croatan National Forest. Comprising pine forest, salt estuaries and wetlands, and bordered on three sides by water – the Neuse River, the White Oak River and Bogue Sound – Croatan presents the coast as it was in the earliest days of settlement.

The 20.4-mile Neusiok Trail (which is a segment of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail) winds its way from the sandy banks of the Neuse River through cypress swamps, hardwood ridges, shrubby bogs known as pocosins, then ends at a salt marsh. Campsites along the way make spending a couple of days on the trail possible, though many visitors use it as a day-hiking trail.

For anglers and paddlers, there’s the 100-mile Saltwater Adventure Trail, the only saltwater trail in a national forest, giving access to fisheries, oyster and clam beds, and crabbing in the sound, rivers and creeks.

Black bears, bald eagles and alligators call Croatan home, as do carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap and pitcher plants.

The Croatan District Office is located approximately 10 miles outside the forest in New Bern.

Visit Outdoor NC for additional tips on how to connect with nature and help preserve the natural beauty of our state.

Updated March 19, 2024
About the Author
Jason Frye

Jason Frye

Jason Frye is the author of Moon North Carolina, Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip and Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He lives and writes in Wilmington.

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