The Best of North Carolina’s State Parks

Published on November 12, 2016

Back in March of 2010, I mentioned that I had a goal of visiting and photographing every single state park in my home state of North Carolina. In May of that same year, I narrowed my definition slightly to be those parks that have public facilities and for which attendance records are taken. At the time, there were 40 such parks (another has since joined their ranks, for a total of 41 as of this writing).

On Saturday, October 29, after over six years of park visits, I finally completed my goal!

My final state park visit was at Hammocks Beach State Park, the only park with ferry-service to its primary land parcel, Bear Island. Photos from this visit are coming in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. Photos from all of my other state park visits can be seen here.

One question I’m often asked when sharing my love of state parks with others is: which park is your favorite? This is a really difficult question to answer, as every single park in our state has something unique to offer (which, incidentally, makes visiting them all so worthwhile). That said, I thought it would be fun to rank some of the state parks from the viewpoint of my favorite park pastime: hiking. In this post, I’ll provide a breakdown of my favorite parks to hike in for all three regions of our state: mountains, Piedmont, and coast. I’ll also post a list of my least favorite parks for hiking.

Best of the Mountains

North Carolina is blessed with terrific mountain state parks. Here are my favorite mountain state parks to hike:

  1. Gorges: The westernmost park in our state, Gorges is my favorite mountains park. It has a particularly beautiful visitor’s center, and though the hikes are very challenging, they offer some of the most beautiful scenery in the state as a reward.
  2. Stone Mountain: Hiking up the giant granite dome is one of the most enjoyable things to do at this fantastic park. Views from the top are great, especially on a clear day, and several waterfalls can’t be missed!
  3. Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock: These two parks are a tie for me. Both have challenging, but rewarding, hiking trails, fantastic views, and lots to do. Regardless of the season you visit, there’s always something fascinating to see.

Best of the Piedmont

The Piedmont area of North Carolina is typically very heavily forested, which makes for some great spots to walk in the woods. Here are my favorite Piedmont parks:

  1. Eno River: Easily my favorite Piedmont state park (probably because of its proximity to where I live), Eno River has the best network of diverse hiking trails. For an area that has so many people, this park offers a terrific slice of solitude.
  2. Raven Rock: A popular park with some great trails to interesting geological features. The staircase down the namesake cliff is quite lengthy, so come prepared for a climb!
  3. Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve: This small park is a hidden gem. The hiking trails here are very easy, winding through a very unique long-leaf pine forest. Underbrush in this forest is nearly non-existent, which means you can see a long ways through the stands of trees. Definitely a park not to be missed!

Best of the Coast

Some of the most unique state parks in North Carolina are located along the coast. Here are my favorites:

  1. Jockey’s Ridge: Walking up the tallest living sand-dune on the east coast of the United States is something everyone should do. Just be sure to have your shoes on in the summertime: the sand can get quite hot!
  2. Goose Creek: Tucked along the Pamlico River, this park has an impressive boardwalk system. Strolling these boardwalks makes for some terrific sightseeing, and provides a glimpse at what natural life is like in the swamp along a river. Another hidden gem!
  3. Carolina Beach: Have you ever hiked in a forest at the beach? You can do so at this state park, where you’ll also find carnivorous plants in their native habitats. Keep your eyes peeled for Venus fly-traps and pitcher plants!

Honorable Mention

Of all the state parks I’ve visited, I had more pure fun at Merchants Millpond than any other. Canoeing in the millpond there is a delight, especially on a comfortable day. You’ll see plenty of wildlife (including alligators!) and you won’t want the experience to end. This park has good hiking opportunities too, so it’s win-win.

My Least Favorites

Three state parks truly stand out in my mind for least impressive hiking opportunities:

  1. Pettigrew: With only one hiking trail (and a poorly maintained one at that, at least when I visited), this park isn’t for hikers. If you like boating, however, you’ll love the lake at this park, which happens to be North Carolina’s second largest natural one.
  2. Lake Waccamaw: Again, this is primarily a boater’s paradise. Hiking here is difficult (the trails aren’t very well maintained), and the hike isn’t very interesting.
  3. Singletary Lake: This park is only open to large groups, so hiking here is a challenge. The trails that are offered, like many lake-centered state parks, are fairly short.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this round-up of my visits to various North Carolina state parks. I encourage everyone to visit them all, as it’s a great way to see our beautiful state!

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