It’s hard to believe there are 41 state parks in North Carolina (34 parks, 4 rec areas, and 3 staffed state natural areas)! Each with something different and beautiful to offer visitors. Enjoying one of the state parks is one of the best things to do in North Carolina, of course in addition to visiting one of these beautiful North Carolina National Parks.
Mount Mitchell became the first state park in the Southeastern US way back in 1916. Since then there have been many protected areas added to that list, creating a stunning state full of natural wonder. Of course, I could have listed off every park in this article, but I wanted to focus on my personal favorite state parks in North Carolina to visit.
Best State Parks In North Carolina
Hanging Rock State Park
Hanging Rock is located in Stokes County near Winston-Salem, and is home to the Sauratown Mountain Range. In total, it holds over 9,000 acres of vast and mountainous wilderness. There are four major waterfalls throughout this park, each a glorious cascading feat of nature, Upper and Lower Falls, Hidden Falls, and Window Falls.
There is a lake for swimming and canoeing. There are 20 miles of amazing North Carolina hiking trails leading to panoramic vistas and meandering alongside babbling brooks. There are opportunities for rock climbing, but be sure to check what permits are necessary. Many come to mountain bike as well, on the eight miles of trail available. The highest point in the park is Moore’s Knob, at 2,579 feet above sea level.
Carolina Beach State Park
This quintessential coastal state park rests on Pleasure Island in New Hanover County and heading here is one of the most romantic places to visit in North Carolina. It’s 761 acres of idyllic seaside setting. This site is home to some of the best fishing spots on the East Coast. Miles of trails traverse diverse terrains. Within these unique habitats you can find the Venus flytrap, one of the world’s most fascinating carnivorous plants. Plant lovers will identify several other special species among these wilds.
The visitor’s center features educational exhibits on the history and ecology of the area. There are many secluded camping sites to seek out a serene retreat beneath the towering trees and starry skies. Adventure in maritime forests, sand dunes, and wetlands. Keep your eyes peeled for river otters, foxes, alligators, and a wide variety of birds.
Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park is 7,500 acres blessed with plunging waterfalls, rugged gorges, craggy rock walls, and abundant biodiversity. Many rare species call this park home, including 12 endangered or threatened flora and fauna. Well-known among distance hikers and backpack campers, this park falls in with the backcountry traditions of the Carolina spirit. Certain areas allow mountain biking, trout fishing, and horseback riding.
Turtleback Falls and Rainbow Falls are popular hiking destinations within this natural oasis. The elevation and rainfall of the landscape create a surprising temperate rainforest not too far from Asheville. There are two access points, the main one being Grassy Ridge. Enjoy the extensive informational exhibits at the visitors center before taking off on your outdoor adventure.
Lake Norman State Park
This state park surrounds the largest manmade lake in North Carolina. It also boasts one of the best mountain biking network of trails in the area. There’s an extensive sandy shore, perfect for a swim, as well as plenty of fishing opportunities.
It’s a popular destination for camping, with many on-site amenities for individuals and groups. It’s almost 2,000 acres, and is located right near Troutman in central Carolina. It’s open year-round for plenty of fun in the sun for everyone. There’s a vast area dedicated to picnics, shaded under swaying trees. Hike the miles of trails through lush forests, all well-kept and easy to navigate.
Lumber River State Park
On a national river in Eastern North Carolina, this wild paradise is a scenic dream. It’s well-known for its paddling, and we can see why. It covers 115 miles of the spectacular Lumber River, the only blackwater river to be deemed a National Wild and Scenic River. The possibilities for kayaking and canoeing here are endless. There are 24 points for boat launches along the sparkling waters
At 13,659 acres, it encompasses four North Carolinian counties in the coastal plain. It’s open to fishing on the entire expanse of the waterway. If you prefer to enjoy the lush landscape on foot, there are many trails all covered in wildflowers. Take a respite at one of the many camping or picnic areas and be sure to look for native wildlife, such as beavers, black bears, and barred owls.
Jockeys Ridge State Park
Often touted as one of the best North Carolina state parks for its unique nature, Jockey’s State Park is home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast. It’s easy to climb and the view from the top offers unparalleled panoramas over the Roanoke Sound. The on-site museum explores the ecology of the area. The activities for exploring this otherworldly landscape are exciting. Try hang gliding, sand boarding, kite flying, or off-roading.
It’s located in Nags Head, North Carolina, and is a fan favorite spot for taking in a fantastical sunset. If you’re in search of a more leisurely experience, on the other side of the park where the sand meets the sound, there are amazing opportunities for wading, sunbathing, or wandering the nature trails through wetlands. The two trails are self-guided and explore the harsh yet fragile balance of the dune environment.
Mount Mitchell State Park
Mount Mitchell is the tallest mountain in North Carolina. The summit of the mountain is actually the highest point east of the Mississippi at 8884 feet! You can enjoy one of the finest hikes near Asheville by hiking to the top, or there is a viewpoint accessible by car.
All around Mount Mitchell, you’ll find spruce-fir, and there are some amazing trails to wander on. The Balsam Nature Trail is an easy loop suitable for most, while the 4.3 mile Deep Gap Trail is a bit more strenuous.
There’s an awesome museum showcasing the mountain’s cultural and natural history which is fun and informative. If you wish to camp in this North Carolina State Park there is a campground with plenty of backpacking opportunities – including the pathway to the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail.
Camping in these North Carolina State Parks
It is possible to camp in a few NC State parks. My personal favorite for camping is Carolina Beach State Park as you are right near the Cape Fear River! You can find out more about camping here.
How Much Does it Cost to Enter the NC State Parks?
Most of the North Carolina state parks are free to enjoy. However, there are a few exceptions for Falls Lake, Jordan Lake, and Kerr Lake State Rec Area in the summer months (Memorial Day to Labor Day and weekends in April, May, and September). The charges are:
- Motor vehicle: $7 per day
- Senior Citizen (62 or older) or military member: $5 per day
- Bus or van: $20 per day
Campsite fees can cost up to $33 per night depending on type and amenities.
Hours in North Carolina State Parks
Most North Carolina State Parks are open every day, excluding Christmas. Offices and indoor centers are usually open from 8-5 pm daily.