Top 8 Backpacking Trips in North Carolina

Top 8 Backpacking Trips in North Carolina

The Great Smoky Mountains might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of North Carolina. But, the Tar Heel State has a lot of other beautiful and interesting natural wonders. The Pisgah National Forest is another favorite in the state for backpackers. (Along with the lesser-known Nantahala National Forest.) Mount Mitchell is the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. The state boasts literally hundreds of waterfalls, with Whitewater Falls and Looking Glass Falls being some of the most popular. Then, there are the 300 miles of Atlantic coastline to explore.

With such a wide variety of terrain, from salt marshes to mountains, coastlines to caves, North Carolina has a variety of nature to explore. If you're looking for the best backpacking options in the state, read on!

Featured Photo: Whitewater Falls (photo by Matt Barnett)

Art Loeb Trail

This trail is arguably one of the most popular backpacking trails in the state. It was named after a conservationist and hiker who was fond of the area. Located in the Pisgah National Forest, it runs for 30 miles. The Art Loeb Trail offers lots of amazing views as you make your way up into the mountains. It travels mostly along ridgelines, making the views that much better. Some highlights include Pilot Mountain, Gloucester Gap, Black Balsam Knob, Cold Mountain, and Shining Rock.

For all of the planning details, be sure to read our full write-up.

Art Loeb Trail

Falls Lake Trail

Just about every trail on our list is part of the much longer Mountains-to-Sea Trail. This one is no exception. At 60 miles in length, it's still on the longer side.

The Falls Lake Trail is located in the north-central part of the state, north of Raleigh. It's a great option if you're looking for something tamer than the mountain trails of NC. The route takes you along the lake for much of the way. This alone offers lots of wildlife viewing opportunities. You can expect a lot of creek crossings too. Fortunately, many of them have bridges.

There are two traditional campgrounds nearby. These can come in handy if you run into any trouble. You'll need to arrange a shuttle, of course, due to the trail's length. It's also worth noting that it can be a bit tricky finding info on this route online. There are several other trails in the area, or parts of this larger one, that are named similarly.

Foothills Trail

The Foothills National Rec Trail is another popular backpacking destination. Don't let the name “foothills” fool you, though. The trail's elevation gain makes it a challenging one.

The entire trail runs 77 miles between North and South Carolina. If you don't have time for the whole thing, many people like to section hike it. The scenery along this trail is truly magnificent. You'll enjoy the rivers, mountains, gorges, and plenty of waterfalls. Some of the more stunning ones include Upper and Lower Whitewater Falls. Speaking of water, there are plenty of sources for that along the way.

Spring is a great time for flower lovers. You can even find the rare Oconee Bells along the trail. Some other highlights include Table Rock State Park, the Chattooga River section, Sassafras Mountain, and Lake Jocassee. There are plenty of established campsites along the way. Most people agree that it's best to take 5 days to really enjoy everything the trail has to offer.

Linville Gorge Loop

Sometimes referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the East”, the Linville Gorge is one of the most gorgeous areas of North Carolina. This 22-mile loop around and through it is challenging, though. In fact, it's been sarcastically dubbed the “Is That All Ya Got?” trail.

Aside from the breathtaking views, there are some very cool rock formations. There are excellent campsites along the scenic river that you'll likely not want to leave. Speaking of the river, the trail can be especially tricky to follow along it. Be sure your wayfinding skills are up to snuff. You should also check water levels ahead of time because there are some river crossings.

If you're the type of person who likes to check out other attractions nearby, don't pass up Linville Falls and Linville Caverns after your hike!

Mount Mitchell Trail

Mount Mitchell is the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. Rising to 6,680ft, this trail to the top isn't very long, but makes up for it in steepness. As you can imagine, the 11.5-mile route is also popular with day hikers. But, we think it's worth making the trip an overnight so you can really appreciate the views. (And to catch your breath!)

Naturally, the main highlight is the amazing view of the Black Mountain Range from the peak. You'll also appreciate the shade of the mixed forest on your climb. These range from hardwoods in the lower ranges to spruce and fir in the higher-elevations.

Neusiok Trail

For something a little different than the mountain terrain, head out on the 21-mile Neusiok Trail. This trail is far east, near Beaufort and the coast. And, it offers a little bit of everything. You'll travel through shrubby bogs, longleaf-pine forests, cypress swamps, salt marshes, and sandy beaches. It probably goes without saying that you should bring some extra socks and shoes! Although dispersed camping is allowed, there is also a shelter you can take advantage of.

The Neusiok Trail is an excellent option for winter when the higher elevation trails are a no-go. Plus, you won't have to worry as much about snakes, ticks, and mosquitos!

North Sterling Loop

Naturally, we have to include at least one trail from the Great Smoky Mountains NP, though there are plenty to choose from. This 17-mile loop starts near Maggie Valley and is challenging despite its doable length. Magnificent views await at the top. If you can brave the fire tower, you'll find even more picturesque views. A mountain meadow offers some final views before heading back into the forest.

With all of the mesmerizing, boulder-filled creeks, there are plenty of water sources. Waterfalls are abundant too, including Mouse Creek Falls, a popular day hiking spot. There are also lots of trip hazards, so watch your step. Definitely plan ahead as you'll need to get a permit for your campsite. For even more important details, head over to our blog post.

North Sterling Loop Trail

Uwharrie National Rec Trail

For a different kind of forest adventure, head to the central part of the state. You might be surprised at the ruggedness and steep ups and downs for this area of NC. The Uwharrie is a modest 20 miles point-to-point. It can be made longer by adding on the Dutchman's Creek Trail.

Be prepared for creek crossings. However, depending on the time of year, you'll need to take extra water with you. You'll mostly be in the woods and will find several established campsites along the route. There are some areas with good views too. (You might want to go in winter or early spring for even better views through the barren trees.) Are you into history? You'll appreciate the cemeteries, gold mines, and old home sites along the trail too!

Location Map

The following map shows the location of each trailhead for your reference. Click the "Load Interactive Map" button to load the correct map. Once loaded, you can navigate to each trailhead and see the various trails.

For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.


From coastal marshes to lofty mountains, North Carolina is a treasure trove of great hiking trails. What are your favorite North Carolina trails? We'd love to hear about them in the comments section below!

Read Next

If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our “Best Backpacking Trips in the Southeastern U.S.” round-up post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great trails in the region.

Hike of the Week: Davenport Gap to Max Patch
Hike of the Week: Triple Crown Loop
Hike of the Week: Bartram Trail-Georgia Section

For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.

The Trailhead - Interactive Map of Backpacking Trips

Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.

Hike Roundup USA East

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