North Carolina abounds in natural beauty with its vast wilderness areas, Appalachian Mountains and scenic Atlantic coastline. Providing access to these treasured outdoor places is a growing hub of interconnected trails, including the Carolina Thread Trail, extending into neighboring South Carolina; the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a developing 1,200-mile footpath; and the East Coast Greenway, linking communities by trail from Florida all the way to Maine. With such a plethora of exciting routes crisscrossing the Tar Heel State, perhaps it’s no surprise that the state legislature recently designated 2023 as the “Year of the Trail.”
Here are just 10 of our North Carolina favorites.
In the southwestern corner of the state, the nearly 14-mile Thermal Belt Rail Trail connects a handful of charming towns, such as Forest City (whose slogan is “Small town, deep roots”) and Rutherfordton (“A Minted Original”), where travelers will find mom-and-pop eateries, antiques and boutiques, B&Bs and historical downtowns.
Following the former Thermal Belt Railway, which served local textile mills, the rail-trail has a visible connection to its roots with railroad-themed kiosks, old rail embedded into some sections and a refurbished 1906 steel bridge lit up with blue and green lights at night.
From busy commercial areas to quiet neighborhoods and picturesque natural escapes, Greensboro’s Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway offers a taste of it all. A highlight is Lake Brandt, the city’s oldest and second-largest reservoir, along the north end of the 7.5-mile route. With the lake’s crescent-moon shape, the rail-trail crosses it twice and winds though a mixed pine and hardwood forest. Keep an eye out for wildlife here, such as bald eagles, blue herons, egrets and ospreys.
The greenway is also part of the larger Mountains-to-Sea Trail project, which aims to connect trails from the Greater Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks.
Counties: Chatham, Durham, Wake
From downtown Durham, one of North Carolina’s most populated cities, the American Tobacco Trail spins southward for 22 miles into woodlands and rural countryside. Now a truly multiuse experience for travelers on foot, wheel or hoof, the rail-trail follows a century-old railroad line that once transported tobacco leaf from the surrounding farming communities up to the American Tobacco Company in Durham for processing. Trestle bridges along the way stand testament to its past, and trailside historical markers share the story.
Paved on its northern end and crushed stone on its southern end, the route connects three counties in “The Triangle” region (famed for its research universities) and ties into the vast East Coast Greenway, a growing trail network stretching from Maine to Florida.
Winding through a mix of woodlands and marshes on Fayetteville’s north side, there is no shortage of gorgeous views along the Cape Fear River Trail. Closely following the river for much of its 5 miles, the paved pathway provides a natural oasis, a quiet place where adventures might find deer, lizards, snakes, birds and other wildlife; trailside interpretive signage offers the chance to learn more about them.
Other highlights of this scenic route include boardwalks, a covered bridge and the Clark Park Nature Center. At the latter, visitors can go on guided walks with rangers and naturalists, stop for a picnic, or simply enjoy the surroundings (including a waterfall!).
In the heart of North Carolina’s largest city, the Charlotte Rail Trail offers connections to the convention center, sports arena, Charlotte Transportation Center, restaurants and other businesses. Landscaping and public art along the trail help beautify the experience even in more urban and industrial areas.
Paralleling the city’s LYNX Blue line, the paved pathway is a rail-with-trail with a handful of stations along the route; trail users can take their bikes on the train, enabling more flexibility and options for commuting and transportation. Travelers can also extend their route with on-road bicycle facilities to reach even more destinations.
Tracing the eastern outskirts of Raleigh, the Neuse River Trail, one of the state’s most beloved and longest paved pathways, hugs the curves of its eponymous river for nearly 30 miles. The scenic route winds south from the Falls Lake Dam Recreation Area—with its plethora of options for fun, including swimming, paddling and camping—to the Wake/Johnston County line in the lush woodlands south of the capital city. Several river crossings along the way, including two on suspension bridges, and the trail’s boardwalks through wetland areas, offer outstanding views and opportunities to see wildlife.
South of I-87, a juncture with the Walnut Creek Trail allows travelers to head west into Raleigh, and at the southern tip of the Neuse River Trail, a seamless transition can also be made to the Clayton River Walk, which continues south along the Neuse River for another 4 miles. The trail is incorporated into the East Coast Greenway, as well, which is stitching trails together across North Carolina and along the Eastern seaboard.
The French Broad River Greenway offers a serpentine route along its namesake waterway, connecting three of Asheville’s parks: Hominy Creek River Park, Carrier Park and French Broad River Park. The paved 3.5-mile pathway courses through forests along the riverbank and traverses some residential and light commercial areas. The parks offer fun places to stop along the way with athletic facilities, picnic pavilions, river overlooks and fishing spots.
On the eastern end of Winston-Salem, the Salem Lake Trail traces the shoreline of its namesake lake, which spans 365 acres and is shaped like a skeleton key. With paddle sports of all stripes, plus fishing and motorized boating, the lake is a well-loved community amenity. The primarily dirt pathway adds to the fun with running, hiking and mountain biking opportunities along its 7-mile route.
On the lake’s west end, a seamless transition can be made to the paved Salem Creek Greenway, which heads southwest 4.5 miles into the city with connections to the Winston-Salem University campus and a handful of parks. Together, the two trails offer nearly 12 miles of outdoor recreation and active transportation options in the city.
County: New Hanover
In coastal Wilmington, the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail connects the city’s University of North Carolina campus and many of the community’s recreational gems, including Halyburton Park (with a nature center and educational programing), Empie Park (with numerous sports facilities) and Wade Park (a fantastic spot for birding and nature walks). The trail is named after a former director of parks and recreation who was passionate about creating and improving these types of assets for city residents.
Offering the best of both worlds, the paved, 15-mile pathway also provides access to urban amenities, such as restaurants, coffee shops, bike shops and other businesses, and is another link in the East Coast Greenway.
Nestled in the Catawba River valley in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the backdrop of the Catawba River Greenway couldn’t be prettier. Following the river under a canopy of trees and along the western outskirts of the quaint community of Morganton, the paved 3.8-mile pathway traverses Catawba Meadows Park, where the Living History Center offers interactive and interpretive information on a 16th-century Catawba townsite. At the southern end of the trail, a bridge over the river also provides access to Freedom Park, a recreational spot with something for just about everyone, including athletic facilities for tennis, basketball, volleyball, football, softball and soccer!
Additionally, the greenway is part of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, and plaques along the route share the story of the “Overmountain Men,” a patriot militia who participated in the 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain.