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The Ultimate North Carolina State Parks Road Trip

From the mountains to the sea, these 10 state parks will take you from the peaks to the shore when you just want to get away from it all.

It turns out the National Park Service isn't the only parks organization that can brag about being 100 years old.

Founded in 1916, North Carolina State Parks is celebrating its 100th year of preserving and maintaining the natural wild in North Carolina. This long, skinny state puts its treasures along the shady mountainsides beside the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the marshy coastal lands known for ecological diversity. To celebrate 100 years of state parks in North Carolina, we called up some of our friends at the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation to help us plan one amazing state parks road trip featuring 10 of the best parks that North Carolina has to offer.

Top off the tank and get ready to hit the road. This is your ultimate NC State Parks road trip. The course starts near Charlotte at Crowders Mountain State Park, heads west into the mountains, and then flings its way east to massive sand dunes on the Outer Banks.

Crowders Mountain State Park, North Carolina
Crowders Mountain is just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. (Courtesy North Carolina State Parks)

Crowders Mountain State Park

The trip starts just outside of Charlotte at Crowders Mountain State Park. More than 25 miles of hiking trails allow for dramatic hikes up to the top of the Crowders Mountain and its sister peak, The Pinnacle, for a view that spans for miles across the piedmont (you can see the downtown skyline). Climbing and bouldering are popular at the park in addition to canoeing and fishing on the nine-acre lake.

South Mountains State Park, North Carolina
South Mountains State Park has 40 miles of hiking trails and miles of equestrian trails with beautiful scenery. (©Jill Lang/Shutterstock)

South Mountains State Park

The next hint you get of the big mountains to the west is South Mountains State Park. Although separated from the main strand of the Blue Ridge Mountains by erosion, the terrain is just as rugged. Head here for the 40 miles of hiking trails, 33 miles of bridle trails and six camping locations for backpackers. Stand at the waterfall observation deck and watch Jacob Fork River flow over sheer rock to drop 80 feet, creating High Shoals Falls. Fishing and mountain biking are also popular activities within the park, so pack your gear accordingly.

Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina
You can almost see Charlotte, North Carolina, from the top of Chimney Rock on a clear day. (©Alexey Rotanov/Shutterstock)

Chimney Rock State Park

Stop in at the Chimney Rock Access point to pay admission and then hike up to the spire above the trees. The Great Woodland Adventure Trail is prime hiking for family-friendly exploration and nature observation. A visit isn’t complete without seeing Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the Eastern U.S. at a height of 404 feet. 

Driving Tip: Hop on Alt 74 to pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of Asheville, and then follow the parkway north to our next stop at Mount Mitchell State Park.

Mount Mitchell State Park, North Carolina
Mount Mitchell State Park has the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. (©Mark Van Dyke Photography/Shutterstock)

Mount Mitchell State Park

Mount Mitchell looks out over the spruce-fir forest throughout the park with the peak being the highest point east of the Mississippi River at 6,683 feet. The observation deck boasts 360-degree views. Fascinatingly, the wildlife and plants are close to Canada's wildlife and plants because of the alpine environment. Winter snows in the park can reach up to 120 inches, and even in the summer, the temperatures can be much, much cooler than what you'll find in nearby Asheville, which is known for its brews and art. From May to October, you can stop in for lunch at the park’s restaurant.

Lake James State Park, North Carolina
The 6,000 acres of Lake James State Park makes for an easy stroll in the park. (©Jesse Kunerth/Shutterstock)

Lake James State Park

This state reservoir is more than 6,000 acres and comes with all the water sporting activities an adventurer could want. Aside from canoeing, kayaking, swimming and fishing travelers can take to the trails around the park. Trails range from family-friendly, like Holly Discovery trail, to more hardy trails like Overmountain Victory Trail. The lake is formed primarily from the outflow of nearby Linville Gorge, a rugged landscape itself that beckons climbers and hardy hikers.

Grandfather Mountain State Park, North Carolina
Grandfather Mountain State Park hugs the Blue Ridge Parkway for some incredible mountain views. (©Dave Allen Photography/Shutterstock)

Grandfather Mountain State Park

The park’s south border hugs the Blue Ridge Parkway, promising challenging hikes through some of the state's most diverse ecosystems that endure the state's most ever-changing weather. High above the entrance to the park, guests can see unrivaled views from the "Mile High Swinging Bridge," a giant suspension footbridge that's been swinging over the state for more than 50 years.

Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina
Hanging Rock State Park is a popular hangout for climbers, mountain bikers and other nature enthusiasts. (©Mary Terriberry/Shutterstock)

Hanging Rock State Park

Created in the 1930s, this state park 30 miles north of Winston-Salem protects Hanging Rock and other natural formations including Moore’s Wall. This park offers a bit of everything: hiking, canoe and rowboat rentals, mountain biking, rock climbing and plenty of camping. Some 20 miles of trails lead to waterfalls, rocky cliffs and even a mountain cave.

Eno River State Park, North Carolina
If you're hungry after visiting Eno River State Park, stop in to the neighboring towns of Raleigh or Durham for Southern-style barbecue. (Courtesy North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation)

Eno River State Park

As we head east, the landscape becomes less mountains, more farms, and the hikes a bit more pastoral. At the Eno River State Park, you can travel along the 30 miles of trails that snake the banks and surrounding areas of this river. With so many miles of trails and relatively few users, the walking and hiking trails are exceptionally quiet (almost undiscovered), but packed with scenic views. This state park is close enough to Raleigh and Durham for lunch, dinner or a quick gear-shopping trip. 

Merchants Millpond State Park, North Carolina
The paddle trails are popular in the mostly-aquatic Millpond State Park. (©Megg/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Merchants Millpond State Park

Before you arrive at the coast, stop off at this marshy, water-based state park. Merchants Millpond State Park has miles of hiking on land, but bring or rent a canoe or kayak and follow the marked paddle trails through Merchants Millpond. Some trails lead to remote, over-night campgrounds for those who want to spend the night. In the 1800s the pond was a source of commerce, powering a sawmill with an adjacent farm supply store and other businesses, while today, giant cypress and gumtrees pepper the swamp forest pond. The area is a wetland wildlife sanctuary, so bring your camera and be on the lookout for otters, owls and a lot more wildlife.

Jockey's Ridge State Park, North Carolina
While one side of the ridge looks barren and sandy, the other side of the 80-foot sand dune allows sunbathing and wading in the east coast waters. (©lembi/Shutterstock)

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

End your North Carolina state park road trip with views from the tallest sand dune on the east coast at Jockey's Ridge State Park. The sand shifts with northeast winds in the winter and northwest winds in the summer, making it a “living” sand dune. Sand board down the 80-foot ridge or bring a kite for flying with unobstructed views.

From Mountains to Beaches: The Ultimate NC State Park Road Trip