From pristine beaches along the Atlantic coast to calming lakes in the piedmont and sweeping vistas in the mountains, North Carolina is full of natural beauty, and you can experience it at the state's 41 state parks and recreation areas.
Whether you want to scale the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, paddle through rivers dotted with Spanish moss, or hand glide over towering sand dunes in the Outer Banks, here are the 10 best state parks in North Carolina.
Jockey's Ridge State Park
One of the northernmost beaches on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Nags Head is home to Jockey's Ridge State Park, which features the largest living sand dune system on the East Coast. Learn about the area's unique ecological and weather features at the on-site interactive museum, or explore the iconic 360-foot boardwalk or the Tracks in the Sand Trail, which at just over a mile gets you up close and personal with the dunes.
With activities ranging from kite flying to windsurfing, stand-up paddle boarding, and hang gliding, the park offers an active beach getaway. While there are no campsites or accommodations at the park, there are several rentals available in town, where you can catch stunning views of the shore from the 19th-century era Bodie Island Lighthouse, fishing from the Nag's Head Fishing Pier, or stroll through the forests of the Nags Head Woods Preserve.
Gorges State Park
Searching for scenic waterfalls and rugged terrain? Head to Gorges State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Transylvania County near the small town of Brevard. At nearly 8,000 acres, the park has four waterfalls, including the 150-foot Rainbow Falls, which can be accessed via the Grassy Ridge Trailhead just off Highway 218-S in Sapphire. The moderately paced, nearly 4-mile out and back trail also winds past the 20 foot Turtleback Falls and the 80 foot Drift Falls, which are both popular for sliding and cooling off after a warm weather hike.
Many of the park's trails are open for mountain biking and horseback riding, and the area is popular with trout fishers as well.
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
With more than 1,000 campsites, seven swimming beaches, and 14 miles of gentle hiking trails, Jordan Lake State Recreation Area is a great all-around vacation spot. It's location—less than half an hour from downtown Raleigh—makes it a popular day trip destination for city dwellers as well. Swim, boat, or ski on the 14,000-acre reservoir or go bird watching: Jordan Lake is home to the largest number of bald eagles on the East Coast.
The area has an on-site visitor center with an exhibit hall that explore the lake's ecology. For a quick break from nature, head to the nearby city of Pittsboro for shopping or a brewery or winery tour.
Merchants Millpond State Park
Paddle through miles of serene, swampy forest at this unique state park located just 30 miles northwest of Elizabeth City. At nearly 200 years old, the park's 760-acre millpond is a unique ecosystem defined by lush Spanish moss, towering bald cypress trees, floating aquatic plants, tree frogs, and pond turtles. The park is also home to over 200 species of birds, which can be viewed via canoe or hikes on the nine miles of paths, as well as paddle-in, backpacking, and tent camping sites.
Crowders Mountain State Park
Located just 30 miles west of downtown Charlotte, the 5,054-acre Crowders Mountain State Park make a great day trip or weekend getaway from the Queen City. The park has more than 11 hiking trails varying in difficulty, including the Ridgeline Trail, which connects to Kings Mountain State Park in neighboring South Carolina, and the Crowder's Trail, a near 5-mile loop that that climbs past wild flowers and rocky terrain before ending at the 1,625-foot summit of Crowder's Mountain, offering panoramic views of the surrounding piedmont.
In addition, the park has a nine-acre lake for paddling and fishing, designated bouldering and rock climbing areas, an interactive museum, and a backcountry campground.
Mount Mitchell State Park
At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, and the surrounding near 2,000 acre-area of the Blue Ridge Mountains was North Carolina's first official state park. Climb to the summit via the strenuous six-mile out-and-back Mount Mitchell Trail, which starts at the Black Mountain Campground, or the nine mile out-and-back Deep Gap Trail, which starts near the summit and then climbs through dense fir and spruce forests and ridge lines of adjacent summits before reaching the mountain's peak.
For a short, moderate stroll, opt for the self-guided Balsam Nature Trail, which follows a tiny stream and ends at the summit parking lot, where there is a concession stand and gift shop. The park has several campsites, a museum dedicated to the mountain's history, and an on-site restaurant.
Pro tip: Dress in layers, as the temperatures can be chilly at the summit, even in the summer months.
Grandfather Mountain State Park
Located 75 miles north of Asheville, Grandfather Mountain State Park in Linville offers 11 trails, from gentle, rolling climbs to steep treks over rugged cliffs. The park's highlight? The Mile High Swinging Bridge, which is the country's highest suspension footbridge and offers panoramic views of the mountains below.
Note that while admission to the state park is free, there is a charge for the bridge, which is $22 for adults (13-59), $18 for seniors (60 and up) and $9 for children (ages 4-12). The hike is just 0.7 miles out and back, dog friendly, and accessible to those with disabilities via an elevator in the Top Shop. For a more challenging hike, try the two mile Grandfather Trail, a rugged path that includes cables and ladders to traverse sheer rock faces to the park's highest peaks.
Lake Norman State Park
Just 20 miles north of Charlotte, this 32,510-acre park boasts the largest manmade lake in the Carolinas. Enjoy the 125-yard-long sandy beach on the park's south end, or rent a kayak, paddle board, or canoe at the visitor's center visitor center on Park Lake. In addition, the area also has more than 30 miles of biking and hiking trails, including the scenic 6-mile Lake Shore Trail, as well as campsites and public boat access.
Unwind from your outdoor adventures with dinner at Hello, Sailor, a lakeside seafood spot from the owners of the award-winning Kindred. The menu features shared plates like East Coast oysters and deviled crab dip, in addition to Southern-inspired salads, sandwiches, and whole flounder with salsa verde and chili mayo.
Chimney Rock State Park
The wooded Chimney Rock State Park near Asheville has six hiking trails and is a favorite of experienced rock climbers as well. The park's namesake peak, a 315-foot granite rock formation, offers panoramic views of the area, including Hickory Nut Gorge. Access the summit via the steep but short Outcroppings Trail. The 25-minute hike includes 494 steps that ascend more than 300 feet to the summit. For a longer excursion, take the 2.2-mile round-trip Skyline Trail, which travels through hardwood forests and offers views of the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls as well as Lake Lure, which is popular in the summer months for water-based activities ranging from canoeing to fishing and water skiing.
Hanging Rock State Park
Hanging Rock State Park is located within the Sauratown Mountain Range, an isolated system of monadnocks. In addition to more than 20 miles of hiking trails, including the nearly five mile the Moore's Wall Loop that climbs along several crappy outcrops to an Observation Tower at the park's highest peak.The park also has rock climbing outposts, 8.4 miles of mountain biking trails, and a lake and river for paddling, canoeing, and other water-based activities. There's also a 73-site campground as well as vacation cabins for overnight stays.