Explore North Carolina’s National Forests

Explore North Carolina’s National Forests

Looking Glass Falls, in Pisgah National Forest, is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the U.S.

From mountains to sea, North Carolina’s four national forests span the state and offer visitors access to incredible scenery, wildlife and a wide variety of recreational activities. Whether you’re looking for the fragrant pines that define our coastal forests or the lush, old-growth hardwoods of the mountains, North Carolina’s national forests offer the opportunity to explore, play or just relax and enjoy the solitude.

Croatan National Forest

Encompassing 160,000 acres of pine forest, salt estuaries and wetlands, the Croatan National Forest is the only true coastal forest in the East. Bordered on three sides by water – the Neuse River, the Bogue Sound and the White Oak River – the park offers aquatic recreation as well as an interesting mix of wildlife.

Anglers head to the Croatan for its multiple fishing options. The 100-mile Saltwater Adventure Trail – the only national forest saltwater trail in the nation – offers the opportunity to fish saltwater creeks for oysters, shrimp and crab via boat or from the banks. River and stream fishing is abundant here, as well as lake fishing via the Great Lake boat ramp.

Explore the unique coastal forest environment on one of the many hiking trails that traverse the forest. The 20-mile Neusiok Trail, which is also part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, takes you from the sandy beaches of the Neuse River through cypress swamps, hardwood ridges and shrubby bogs and ends at a salt marsh on the Newport River. Hike the whole trail and stay in campsites along the way, or take a day hike on part of this scenic trail.

Black bears, bald eagles and alligators are among the wildlife that call the Croatan home. Keep your eyes peeled for carnivorous plants such as Venus flytraps and pitcher plants, which can sometimes be found in the forest.

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

Uwharrie National Forest

Located in central North Carolina, mainly in Montgomery Country, Uwharrie is the smallest of the state’s national forests at just over 50,600 acres. It’s named for the ancient Uwharrie Mountains, atop which most of the forest sits.

Venture to Badin Lake Recreational Area, the hub for a host of activities. Boating and fishing in the lake are available via the Cove Boat Launch, and while swimmers will find a great spot to take a dip at King’s Mountain Point. Several campgrounds, including the Badin and Canebrake Horse Camps for equestrians, provide a range of camping options from developed to primitive.

Uwharrie National Forest camping

There are more than 140 designated campsites throughout Uwharrie National Forest

Off-road vehicles (OHV) have a large, designated trail system inside the park for all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, 4x4 vehicles and side by sides. Spend the day riding the trails then camp at one of the designated sites.

Hikers will enjoy the 20-mile Uwharrie National Recreation Trail, which can be hiked in long or short sections depending on your experience level and timetable. This easy-to-moderate wooded trail meanders through the forest, traversing streams and rocky terrain, and offers rewarding mountain views along the way.

One of the earliest and largest gold mines was discovered near Uwharrie in 1799, and gold was found in the Uwharrie Mountains throughout the 19th century. Panning for gold in the forest’s streams and rivers remains a popular activity.

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

Nantahala National Forest

Stretching more than 531,000 acres across the mountains of Western North Carolina, Nantahala is the largest of the state’s national forests. Nantahala is a Cherokee word meaning "land of the noon day sun," a fitting name as in some spots deep within the park, the sun only reaches to the valley floor at midday.

One of the top rafting rivers in the country, the Nantahala attracts more than 250,000 people each year who come to experience the thrill of rushing through the Nantahala River Gorge. Numerous outfitters, including the renowned Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), provide gear and guides for trips downriver. Moderate rapids make it and exhilarating and safe run that is well suited to novice rafters.

Nantahala National Forest boasts numerous waterfalls, including the highest falls in the East, the stunning, 411-foot Whitewater Falls.

Hikers can traverse 200 miles of hiking trails – including 52 miles of the Appalachian Trail – in the Wayah District alone. The Wayah District is also home to the stony mountain peak Wayah Bald, where you can climb the Wayah Bald Fire Tower for views of the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, one of the largest strands of old-growth timber in the eastern United States, features 400-year-old hemlocks and yellow poplars that tower some 100-feet tall and measure more than 20 feet around.

Nantahala National Forest is divided into three Ranger Districts: The Cheoah Ranger District, the Nantahala Ranger District and the Tusquitee Ranger District.

Pisgah National Forest

The Pisgah National Forest covers 512,758 acres of mountainous terrain in the southern Appalachian Mountains, including parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Elevations in Pisgah reach over 6,000 feet and include some of the highest peaks in the eastern United States. Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain in the East, sits just outside the boundaries of Pisgah National Forest.

The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is a mecca for hikers, campers and rock climbers. The Gorge has been called the Grand Canyon of the East due to its depth (the river lies 1,400 feet below the ridge) and steep, rocky sides. Due to the rough terrain, hiking in the Linville Gorge can be a strenuous and challenging activity, but shorter trails geared toward beginners allow everyone to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Several trails follow the cliff edges with jaw-dropping views of the river valley and the opposite cliffs. The east and west ridges are dotted with many small canyons to explore.

Kids can get their fill of water fun in Pisgah. Sliding Rock, a 60-foot natural water slide with a seven-foot-deep pool at the base, is perfect for cooling off during the warm summer months. Lifeguards are on duty here during the season. Tubing is available on multiple rivers and streams through the park, including the North Mills River recreation area, which features a gentle but bold stream perfect for kids and adults.

A web of hiking trails weave their way across the park, including pieces of several long distance trails – the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the Shut-In Trail and the Art Loeb Trail. Short and long hikes are available and take you to waterfalls, creeks, ridges and mountaintops.

American forestry has roots in what is now the Pisgah National Forest. The Cradle of Forestry, located in the southern part of the forest, was the site of the first school of forestry in the country. It operated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Jason Frye is the author of two North Carolina guidebooks and lives and writes in Wilmington.


There’s much to see and do in North Carolina, so read on.

Request your Travel Guide

Download or order FREE guides and maps

Discover Project Project 543

Explore unique spots across North Carolina