This State Is Called the 'Great Trails State' Thanks to These Waterfall Treks, National Park Hikes, and a 700-mile Route From Mountains to Sea

North Carolina is in its trail era, calling 2023 its 'Year of the Trail.' Here's where to hike, bike, boat, and horseback ride.

Looking Glass Falls in the Pisgah National Forest

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The idea that hitting the trails is only for the mega-athletes among us is a thing of the past. More and more people are getting out on their local pathways — with trail use increasing by a whopping 45 percent between 2019 and 2022, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. That dramatic jump in trail use is due in part to the vast number of newbies who are getting outside and discovering their local hiking and biking trails.

That upward trend is not going unnoticed in North Carolina, a state that’s long been nicknamed “The Great Trails State.” North Carolina prides itself on its access to the great outdoors — for people of all interest and skill levels. To that end, the state has named 2023 the “Year of the Trail” with a push to share the hiking, biking, boating, and horse trails available across the state. In addition to regular events — think: group bike rides, outdoor gallery walks, and birding hikes — they’re showcasing the trails that make North Carolina so special

Here are a few of our favorites, including routes for hikers, bikers, paddlers, and riders.

For Hikers

Deep Creek Waterfall Loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you’re looking for an easy route that has lots to see, look no further. The Deep Creek Waterfall Loop is short (2.4 miles roundtrip) but packs a punch. Along the way, you’ll see three waterfalls and if you time it right, you might even catch some spring wildflowers.

Just keep in mind that this loop is one of the area’s most popular, so start early and expect to make some friends on the trail. 

Hikers watch Indian Creek Falls along the Deep Creek Loop Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Courtesy of Swain County TDA Chamber of Commerce

Looking Glass Rock Trail in the Pisgah National Forest

There’s a lot to like about Looking Glass Rock Trail. The 6.2-mile out-and back route is rated as moderate, providing hikers with enough challenge to keep the day interesting. And while it is popular with hikers, you’ll also spot runners and rock climbers who come to take on climbing routes that have been compared to those found in Yosemite National Park. 

Hikers of all levels will enjoy gaping at the huge rock walls and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Triple Falls Trail in Dupont National Forest

This trail is short — at just 1 mile, round trip — but full of beauty. Along the short journey you’ll pass three waterfalls, including one that served as a filming location for The Hunger Games. If you want more waterfall goodness, opt for the 4.5-mile round-trip Three Waterfalls Hike, which actually takes you on a journey to five waterfalls: Hooker Falls, High Falls, and the three Triple Falls.

Both waterfall-laden routes are located in Dupont National Forest, a 10,000-acre outdoor playground that’s known for its stunning cascades (not to mention its glassy lakes and mountain views).

For Bikers

Mountains to Sea 

Bikers have long been infatuated with North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea route, which connects the mountains in the west to the state's eastern coast. Completing the entire route, which is more than 700 miles, takes days, but you can skip the overnights (and climbs) by testing your legs on the final section of trail that runs along the coast from Swan Quarter to Manteo at the Outer Banks.

Mountains-to-Sea Trail biking at the Bodie Island Lighthouse

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Two people paddling a canoe along the Mountains to Sea trail

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If you do the full route, expect to see the best of North Carolina — including rugged mountains, rolling pastures, and many of the state’s largest cities, including Asheville, Durham, and Raleigh.

For Paddlers

Roanoke River State Trail

North Carolina’s Roanoke River was named a state trail in 2021, but the river has long been a top destination for paddlers interested in making the watery journey from the coastal plain to the Atlantic Ocean. The route, which passes through the largest intact bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem east of the Mississippi, is home to wildlife galore — including black bears, river otters, bobcats, and beavers.

A view from a yellow tent out into the Roanoke River State Park trail in North Carolina

Courtesy of

Along the many miles of river trail, kayakers and canoers can camp at several riverside camping platforms linked by nearly 140 miles of water trail.

For Horseback Riders

Auger Hole Trail in Gorges State Park

View of falls along Auger Hole Trail in Gorges State Park

K Bischof

You can hike and bike Auger Hole Trail, but we’d argue it’s best experienced from atop your trusty steed. The route, which is fairly strenuous, cuts through the heart of Transylvania County's Gorges State Park, which is known for its backcountry-style recreation.

The 14-mile round-trip trail starts from Frozen Creek and ends at Turkey Pen Gap (at least for horseback riders and mountain bikers). There are two river crossings and steep terrain to keep you and your horse well-challenged.

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