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Kid-friendly North Carolina hikes

You like the idea of taking the kids for a hike. Now it’s just a matter of convincing them it’s a good idea. And that can be a challenge with so many appealing activities vying for their attention. The answer?

Make hiking sound even more appealing.

Wanna go see a waterfall? Would you believe there’s a place near here where you can see 50 miles – or farther – into the distance? Have you ever wondered what giant, prehistoric beavers might be capable of?

What kid could resist all that?

Having a hook is key to a successful family hike. So is hiking a trail that’s not too long, not too hard. (Snacks help, too.)

Here are 5 family-friendly hikes that fit the bill.

1. High Shoals Falls Trail

South Mountains State Park, Connelly Springs (south of Morganton)

Distance: 2 miles

Difficulty: Easy, moderate when you get to the falls

Highlights: Mountain creek, waterfalls

Every hike should have a carrot: at High Shoals Falls, it’s an 80-foot cascade. From the main parking area at the end of South Mountain Park Avenue, the first three-quarters of a mile of hiking is along an old roadbed with a nearly imperceptible climb. And when the climbing does start, it’s of the fun kind as the path follows Jacob Fork through a boulder field to the base of High Shoals Falls, viewed best from a platform at the base of the falls.

Enjoy the falls’ spray, take a selfie, then head back the way you came. (The trail loops, but the view from the top isn’t worth the arduous climb up a wood staircase, nor the steep, knee-rattling return to the main trail).

High Shoals Falls

2. Little Long Mountain summit via Joe Moffitt trailhead

Uwharrie National Forest, southwest of Asheboro

Distance: 1.6 miles

Difficulty: Moderate (the trail gains nearly 200 vertical feet in 0.8 miles)

Highlight: One of the few mountaintop views in the Piedmont

For a mountain range in the Piedmont that tops out at nearly 1,200 feet (much of the Piedmont is in the 300- to 500-foot range), there are precious few panoramic views. Nearly all the “peaks” in this relic range are forested. But atop 925-foot Little Long Mountain, you’ll find an unobstructed view from the east to the south to the northwest.

Sunrise and sunset are especially special up here, but the rare opportunity to see so much surrounding terrain makes this a worthy hike any time of day. You’ll need to put in a little effort to get there – the promise of a spring midway up helps – but it’s well worth it, especially if you bring a picnic lunch to share in the Boy Scout-built shelter on top.

Little Long Mountain

3. Bay Trail

Jones Lake State Park, Elizabethtown (southeast of Fayetteville)

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty: Easy/moderate

Highlight: Unusual Carolina bay lake, abrupt transition from pine savannah to coastal bay forest.

You know what kids love most? A question to which an adult has no answer. Such as, what caused the roughly half million Carolina bays that dot the Eastern seaboard to form? Most of the elliptical depressions have long ago filled in, but a few, such as the 224-acre Jones Lake, remain. It’s spring-fed (the water is clean, despite its tannic, ice-tea appearance), it ranges in depth from 8 to 12 feet, and no one is quite sure how it and its bay-brethren formed. Ocean currents from when the area was under water? Wind patterns? The handiwork of giant, pre-historic beavers?

The most common guess is that they were formed by a meteor shower 12,000 years ago. Pretty cool, too, how this trail rimming the lake goes through a pine savannah one minute, a coastal bay forest the next.

Jones Lake

4. Buckquarter Creek Trail

Eno River State Park, Durham

Distance: 1.5 miles

Difficulty: Easy/moderate (there are some short, steep climbs on the ridge section)

Highlight: Passage along the rocky Eno River, refreshing water play area at hike’s end

Hike this trail counterclockwise to get the hilly part out of the way. Then, for the last half of the hike walk down an especially scenic stretch of the Eno River. On a warm day (even on a not-so-warm one), the kids will want to jump in and splash about. Be patient, you advise. Near the end of the hike, after climbing a staircase overlooking a Class III rapid, the river flattens and becomes wader-friendly. At Fews Ford especially, on a warm day, you’ll find families with young ones frolicking in a stretch of river that widens and exhibits a relatively uniform bottom. Bring plenty of drinks and snacks: you might be here a while.

5. Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve


Distance: 3.6 miles (about half that for the Inner Loop only)

Difficulty: Easy

Highlight: An unexpected sylvan oasis in the heart of Charlotte

Charlotte/Mecklenburg County residents are blessed with 24 nature preserves, most of which are open to the public. Some, such as Latta Plantation and Reedy Creek Nature Preserve, are extremely popular – and crowded. But there are hidden gems in the mix, one of which is the 187-acre Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve off Nevin Road near I-77 and I-85.

Quickly, you escape the metro madness, first along a small creek that runs through a young forest of hardwoods, pines and cedars; later, through a stand of beech trees dating back 150 to 200 years. Here, you’re in an isolate island where 106 herbaceous plant species, 78 species of woody plants, 53 species of birds and 24 species of butterflies have been documented. That should be sufficient to keep all the kids in your family – young and less so – entertained.

Joe Miller
Joe Miller

Joe Miller is the author of four books on outdoor adventure, and writes about health, fitness and the outdoors. Read his blog at

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