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5 stunning fall hikes in the North Carolina Piedmont

The beginning of fall can be a busy time: the start of school, slipping back into the routine of work, still operating under the assumption your favorite football team has a chance. It’s also a wonderful time of year to enjoy the great outdoors in the Tar Heel State.

We’ve got the perfect guide for great hikes in the North Carolina Piedmont. Sure, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Mountains-to-Sea trail, and the Appalachian trail might be best known for their great hikes, but there are some excellent hiking trails in the central part of the state as well, where you can enjoy pine forests and all the natural beauty the Piedmont has to offer. We recommend checking out Western North Carolina and the Outer Banks as well, but if you’re located somewhere in the middle, you can find miles of trails to enjoy.

Yes, there is some complication. Between Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle, there are lots of teeming masses. But again, despair not! There are plenty of places to go in the Piedmont that aren’t standing room only when it comes to enjoying fall color. Here are 5 stunning fall hikes in the North Carolina Piedmont, with great color and surprisingly small crowds.

1. South Mountains State Park

  • Burke County, 18 miles south of Morganton
  • 40 miles of total trail, loop options starting at 2.7 miles

At 18,000 acres, South Mountains State Park is North Carolina’s biggest state park. Yet in 2013 it came in 22nd in terms of total attendance. Why? It sure isn’t a lack of gorgeousness. The park boasts several stunning waterfalls – including its star attraction, High Shoals Falls – and easy trails on old natural-surface roadbeds that takes you deep into this mixed hardwood forest. The park, located south of Morganton, reaches 3,000 feet at its highest peaks, meaning fall color gets an early start for the Piedmont. Plus, 40 miles of trail, including 17 open for mountain biking, further disperses what few visitors there are. Lots of good loop options, but a favorite if you’ve got the day is the Shinny Creek/HQ/Upper Falls/High Shoals Falls circuit, which will treat you to both colorful forests and cascading falls.

Moore's Wall, Hanging Rock. Photo courtesy North Carolina State Parks

2. Hanging Rock State Park (Moore's Knob Trail)

  • Stokes County, a half hour north of the Triad
  • 4.3 miles

Hanging Rock State Park uncrowded?! True, Hanging Rock, the park’s feature attraction, resembles an ant hill on a brilliant fall weekend, but that’s because the mile-long trail to the top makes it so accessible. The swarm is understandable considering the great 360 views from the top. But invest a bit more sweat equity and you’ll get those same kaleidoscopic views – to the Blue Ridge to the west, Winston-Salem to the south, deep into the Piedmont to the east and to Virginia’s George Washington National Forest to the north – from atop Moore’s Knob. The catch is that effort: instead of a mile-long saunter (a portion of which is paved) to achieve Hanging Rock, you’ve got a 4.3-mile trek that includes a stout and relentless climb up rocky Moore’s Wall. It doesn’t entirely weed out the masses, but you won’t find yourself taking a number for prime viewing space atop Moore’s Knob, either. This more challenging hike offers some of the best views in the park, and it’s the perfect choice for a more experienced hiker.

3. Medoc Mountain State Park

  • Hallifax County, an hour and a half northeast of the Triangle
  • 5 miles

Out of sight, out of mind could, sadly, be the motto of this lovely but lonely gem near Hollister, which is near Littleton, which is near Roanoke Rapids, which…well, you get the picture. This time of year it’s a picture chock full of reds and yellows from the sweet gum, river birch, ironwood and alder that dominate the lowlands, to the mixed hardwoods at the park’s higher elevations (325 feet). Hike atop the bluffs over intimate Little Fishing Creek, visit the giant white oak atop Medoc Mountain. And check out the remaining signs of what was one of the nation’s first vineyards, and do it all in the quiet, color-filled fall afternoon. Recommended hike: From the main meadow parking lot (great for a picnic or Frisbee) the Stream Loop, Discovery Loop and Summit Loop will give you five miles of exposure to the park’s best attributes.

4. Raven Rock State Park (Campbell Creek Loop Trail)

  • Harnett County
  • 5 miles

Raven Rock, about an hour from the Triangle and 45 minutes from Fayetteville, is a bit like Hanging Rock State Park in that it can get crowded. Rather, the flat, 2.6-mile trail to the park’s namesake attraction can be crowded with folks drawn by the 150-foot bluff overlooking the Cape Fear River. That’s on the east side of the park. Head west on the 5-mile Campbell Creek Loop Trail and the crowds diminish significantly. Hiked clockwise, the trail meanders through a hardwood forest alit with fall color before dropping down to the Cape Fear and Lanier Falls. The return is largely along Campbell Creek, which belies the park’s perch on the cusp of the coastal plain with its rocky, montane feel. Rated moderate in difficulty, the presence of water makes this a great place to hike with kids.

5. Birkhead Mountain Wilderness, Uwharrie National Forest

  • Randolph County, miles west of Asheboro
  • 7.2 miles (starting from the Lassiter Mill Road trailhead)

The Uwharrie National Forest is the featured attraction of North Carolina’s “Central Park,” an outdoor adventure wonderland located less than an hour and a half from the state’s three population centers: Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle. Yet it’s stunning how many seasoned hikers have never heard of the Uwharries (let alone our own “Central Park”). And if they haven’t heard of the Uwharries, they sure as heck haven’t heard of the Birkheads, which occupy  5,100 acres of the forest’s northern tip. That translates to lots of you-alone time on the 7.2-mile Robbins Branch/Birkhead Mountain/Hannahs Creek loop, which follows ridgelines and drainages on its tour of this unlikely (being so close to three metro areas) wilderness. A preponderance of oaks and hickories makes for a brilliant yellow hike on a fall afternoon.

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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