When we first moved to NC in 2017, I was beside myself envisioning the many cascading waterfalls and breathtaking vistas to be seen in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Needless to say, the region’s rugged landscapes and natural wonders did not disappoint. My wife Emma and I wasted no time in exploring the area, driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway every chance we got and visiting the many gorgeous NC state parks.
While living in the beautiful mountain town of Brevard for our first year, we thoroughly explored Dupont State Recreational Forest, which was just a few miles from our home. We also visited Chimney Rock State Park and nearby Gorges State Park.
The next year we moved further north, buying land just a few miles south of the Virginia border. We became regulars at Stone Mountain State Park, which is located just three miles from the Blue Ridge Mountain cabin and homestead we’re currently building.
Over the last 3 years we’ve been consistently blown away by what the North Carolina mountains have to offer in terms of hiking trails, scenic vistas, waterfalls, camping, wildlife, plants, and history.
For examples, just take a look at our guide to the Top 10 North Carolina State Parks and Recreation Areas, which includes suggestions on where to stay in each area.
NC STATE PARKS GUIDE
- Chimney Rock State Park
- Dupont State Recreational Forest
- Elk Knob State Park
- Gorges State Park
- Grandfather Mountain State Park
- Lake James State Park
- Mount Jefferson State Natural Area
- Mount Mitchell State Park
- New River State Park
- Stone Mountain State Park
1. CHIMNEY ROCK STATE PARK
743 Chimney Rock Park Road
Chimney Rock, NC 28720
Entry Fee: $10 Adult ($5 Youth) One-Day Pass/$32 Annual Pass
Chimney Rock State Park is located in the area of Hickory Nut Gorge, just east of Lake Lure in the corner of Rutherford County.
It is home to both Eagle Rock and Chimney Rock, and is renowned for jaw-dropping vistas of the surrounding region.
THINGS TO DO AT CHIMNEY ROCK STATE PARK
Most of the park’s 10 hiking trails are relatively short, but can be combined to make a longer route. Six of the trails are near the Chimney Rock access and require a fee, while the other four are free and near Rumbling Bald access.
Weed Patch Mountain Trail, a strenuous course and by far the park’s longest trail, is 8.5 miles. However, the majority of the trail isn’t actually on park property.
Hickory Nut Falls Trail goes by a stunning 404-foot waterfall, which was famously featured in The Last of the Mohicans. Outcroppings Trail, which is more or less a staircase, allows hikers to climb to the top of Chimney Rock.
Mountain biking is permitted on Weed Patch Mountain Trail, while both Eagle Rock and Rumbling Bald Mountain are open to climbers.
Trout fishing in the Rocky Broad River is another popular pastime at the park, but you’ll need a valid NC fishing license as well as a Trout license.
Near the park entrance you’ll find picnic areas, and food can be purchased at the Sky Lounge concession near Chimney Rock and the Old Rock Café at the main gate.
CHIMNEY ROCK STATE PARK LODGING
The park offers neither camping nor cabins, but there are lots of lodging options in the town of Chimney Rock, along the shores of Lake Lure, and in the nearby town of Bat Cave.
Lake Lure is famous for being one of the filming locations for Dirty Dancing, but it has long been a vacation spot for Western North Carolina residents. For a beautiful 3- or 4-bedroom chalet close to Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure, try a vacation home rental.
2. DUPONT STATE RECREATIONAL FOREST
PO Box 300
Cedar Mountain, NC 28718
Entry Fee: None
Dupont State Recreational Forest is located near the village of Cedar Mountain, between the towns of Brevard and Hendersonville.
In the “land of waterfalls,” Dupont may be home to the most impressive waterworks in Transylvania County, or the entire state of North Carolina for that matter.
THINGS TO DO IN DUPONT STATE FOREST
There’s no shortage of activities at Dupont State Recreational Forest, which is NC’s only designated recreational park.
There are extensive hiking trails in Dupont Recreational Forest, including routes to all the various waterfalls, mountain lakes, and mountaintop views. Many of these trails are not only open to hikers, but also cyclists and horseback riders.
Fishing is allowed within the forest, with tons of ideal locations. As part of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, even hunting is permitted in designated areas at designated times.
There are loads of picnic shelters, some with fireplaces (chimney and all), as well as a visitor center and a covered bridge crossing the creek that cascades down as High Falls.
The waterfalls (which were featured in The Hunger Games) are the park’s main attraction, with Triple Falls Trail leading to High Falls Loop being the ultimate hike for seeing them.
DUPONT STATE RECREATIONAL FOREST LODGING
There are no campgrounds or lodging within the park, but the surrounding area is stunning and has seemingly limitless accommodation options.
In the town of Brevard, which is midway between Dupont Forest and Pisgah National Forest, your best bet for lodging is the many cabin rental options.
Dogwoods Retreat also offers upscale cabin options, while The Inn at Brevard is a registered historical site dating back to 1885.
READ MORE: Pisgah National Forest: A Beginner’s Guide
3. ELK KNOB STATE PARK
5564 Meat Camp Road
Todd, NC 28684
Entry Fee: None
Elk Knob State Park is located in the remote northern reaches of western North Carolina, where winter weather is known to make quite an impression.
The park features one of the highest peaks in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge range (5,520 feet), from which Watauga County spreads out beautifully before you.
THINGS TO DO AT ELK KNOB STATE PARK
The #1 activity here is climbing the mountain for which the park is named, to be rewarded with a spectacular panorama. Surprise, surprise– Summit Trail is the route for this.
There are three other Elk Knob State Park hiking trails, including the Beech Tree Trail (which is perfect for kids) and a Backcountry Trail to the headwaters of the New River’s north fork.
The final trail, Maple Run Trail, was still under construction as of our deadline. It’s being designed to double as a cross-country skiing track in the winter.
Elk Knob State Park is unique among the mountainous NC State Parks, in that it strives to stay open during the winter to offer both cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
ELK KNOB STATE PARK LODGING
Within the park, there is only primitive camping available for lodging. It can be accessed via the Backcountry Trail.
For accommodations near the park, the Lovill House Inn is a historic B&B 20 miles away in Boone, which is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Inn at Crestwood Resort & Spa offers an onsite restaurant, spa, and indoor pool.
If you’re looking for Blue Ridge mountain cabins, the 3-bedroom Alpine Log Cabin is one of the top picks on Booking.com, while Highland Hills Cabins has a selection of cabins for rent right outside of Boone.
4. GORGES STATE PARK
976 Grassy Ridge Road
Sapphire, NC 28774
Entry Fee: None
Gorges State Park is located just over 50 miles southwest of Asheville, near the border with South Carolina.
It’s nestled amongst the Chattahoochee National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, and Pisgah National Forest.
This park is home to rugged river, towering rock faces, and the sort of beautiful waterfalls that coincide with such things.
THINGS TO DO AT GORGES STATE PARK
This park is recognized for its challenging terrain, which draws outdoors adventurers in search of backwoods trails and stunning waterfalls.
There are five hiking trails in Gorges State Park, two of which (Bearwallow Valley Trail and Bearwallow Falls Trail) are relatively short. Longer options include Canebrake Trail, Auger Hole Trail, and Foothills Trail.
Foothills Trail goes just under 7 miles through the park. But it actually extends some 77 miles, venturing into several other state parks, national forests, and wilderness areas.
All of the streams and rivers within the park were designated as Wild Trout Waters, including Bearwallow Creek, Toxaway River, and Lake Jocassee. Boating is also possible in some places.
Both horses and mountain bikes are permitted on a stretch of Auger Hole Trail, between the Frozen Creek access area and Turkey Pen Gap.
The Bearwallow Picnic Area is a particularly special spot for lunching on a blanket. Nearby is the waterfall overlook, with an observation platform over Bearwallow Creek.
READ MORE: The History of Downtown Asheville, NC
GORGES STATE PARK LODGING
There is backcountry camping available in Gorges State Park, which can be accessed from Grassy Ridge and Frozen Creek. There are also six camping sites along the Foothill Trail.
Raymond Fisher Campground is also located in the park, near Raymond Fisher Pond. These sites are only available by advance reservation.
200 Main is a swanky hotel nearby with upscale amenities, such as golf at a private club, a heated mineral pool, a terrace with a firepit, and a prime location in downtown Highlands, NC.
5. GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
9872 N.C. 105 S., Suite #6
Banner Elk, NC 28604
Entry Fee: Free
Grandfather Mountain has been an iconic symbol of North Carolina for decades.
Located in the state’s northwest region, where the flat northern border starts to creep southward, Grandfather Mountain State Park offers nearly 2500 acres of exploration of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There are trailheads here that are literally adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
THINGS TO DO AT GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
The #1 Grandfather Mountain activity is hiking, and the prize for making the effort is world-class scenic vistas. The altitude here soars to nearly 6000 feet, and from such lofty perches the landscape below opens out before you.
There are 12 miles of hiking trails at the park, spread out betwixt Black Rock Trail, Cragway Trail, Daniel Boone Scout Trail, Grandfather Extension Trail, Grandfather Trail, Nuwati Trail, and Profile Trail.
Many of the Grandfather Mountain State Park hiking trails (including Profile Trail, Cragway Trail, and Daniel Boone Scout Trail) are rated as strenuous, and Grandfather Trail is for advanced hikers only.
For an easy, child-friendly adventure at Grandfather Mountain, Nuwati Trail provides fantastic views as well as exciting stream crossings. It can be accessed directly from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 299.9, the Boone Fork parking area.
The park boasts a dozen distinct ecological zones and dramatic shifts in altitude, so prepare to see lots of rare and endangered plants and animals along the way.
GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN STATE PARK LODGING
Backpack camping is permitted in the park, with 13 separate camping sites to be found along the trails.
Reservations are required, and permits can be acquired at Profile Trailhead or near the Boone Fork parking lot.
Both Blowing Rock and Boone are located within 20 miles of Grandfather Mountain State Park, so there’s no shortage of hotels, B&Bs, and mountain cabins available for visitors.
Linville Falls Lodge & Cottages is great for those moving further south along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The historic property offers a nice restaurant and primo location for visiting Linville Falls, a must-see stop on any adventure in this area.
6. LAKE JAMES STATE PARK
7321 N.C. 126
Nebo, NC 28761
Entry Fee: Free
Lake James State Park, with its 6,000+ acre lake, is located a few miles north of I-40 near the town of Marion, between Asheville and Statesville.
In addition to being beautiful, this park offers a treasure trove of outdoor recreational activities well-suited for family enjoyment.
THINGS TO DO AT LAKE JAMES STATE PARK
Offering both a huge lake and the massive Catawba River flowing through it, Lake James State Park has an abundance of water-based activities, including boating, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing.
There are also 25 miles of pathways spread over 13 different hiking trails within the park, and 15 miles of these are open to mountain bikers as well.
Overlook Trail and Paddy’s Creek Trail skirt the shores of the lake. Holly Discovery Trail and Homestead Trail are both easy hikes that offer some good experience for the kids.
Two boat ramps providing access to the lake are available at Hidden Cove and Canal Bridge along NC 126, and canoes and kayaks can be rented from the park.
Swimming is only permitted in the Paddy’s Creek area. It’s free when no lifeguard is on duty, or requires a small daily fee when there is a lifeguard.
LAKE JAMES STATE PARK LODGING
Camping is one of the main draws for those visiting Lake James State Park. There are three campgrounds on site.
The Catawba River campground has tent sites, hot showers, and proper toilets, but it does require a very short hike in. The popular Paddy’s Creek Area has 33 drive-up campsites.
For aquatic adventuring, Long Arm Peninsula has paddle-in camping, which is accessible only via boat. Note that this is rustic camping, with no running water for drinking or washing up.
In nearby Moranton (about 3 miles from the lake), you’ll find Bridgewater Hall Historic Inn, a charming B& B that provides quaint accommodations with a touch of luxury.
7. MOUNT JEFFERSON STATE NATURAL AREA
1481 Mount Jefferson State Park Road
West Jefferson, NC 28694
Entry Fee: Free
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area is located near the town of West Jefferson, in the northern reaches of western North Carolina.
This area, which is visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, is special for its unique geology and rare plant ecology.
THINGS TO DO AT MOUNT JEFFERSON STATE PARK
Visits to this park center around two main activities, picnicking and hiking.
There is a picnic area near the summit of the mountain. The facility has 19 tables, eight grills, and a picnic shelter, all in a beautiful part of the montane forest.
There are six different hiking trails in Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, including one to the summit of the mountain and an educational loop for kids (and adults) to enjoy.
The main point of most of these hikes is to enjoy the fantastic views, including dynamic vistas into neighboring Virginia and Tennessee.
Mount Jefferson has some black volcanic rock, known as amphibolite, to look for.
It also boasts a stand of special virgin old growth forest, with long-lived northern red oaks and remnants of the American chestnut that once dominated the local ecological landscape.
MOUNT JEFFERSON PARK LODGING
There is no camping available at Mount Jefferson Natural Area, but there are plenty of spots nearby, as well as folksy townships to visit.
Raccoon Holler Campground is just a few miles from Mount Jefferson on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It offers RV hookups, fun family amenities, as well as fishing on Raccoon Lake.
For a stay at an official park, New River State Park is just 30 minutes away in Laurel Springs, offering RV hookups, showers, and paddle-in camping options.
If you’re looking for Blue Ridge Mountain cabins in the area, be sure to check out a cozy West Jefferson Cottage with private hot tub, the Rushing Stone Cottage, or Devoes High Country Getaway B&B in the nearby town of Todd.
For those seeking more amenities, Boone and Blowing Rock are only about 20 miles away.
8. MOUNT MITCHELL STATE PARK
2388 N.C. 128
Burnsville, NC 28714
Entry Fee: Free
Mount Mitchell State Park is in Yancey County, about 30 miles north of Asheville, and can be accessed via Milepost 355 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In addition to its serene surroundings, Mount Mitchell State Park is famous for its mountainous namesake, which is the highest point this side of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet.
THINGS TO DO AT MOUNT MITCHELL STATE PARK
Mount Mitchell, with its lofty summit, is a popular tourist destination (especially in the summertime). Consequently, the park has a concession stand, souvenir shop, and restaurant.
Hiking is the #1 activity in Mount Mitchell State Park, with seven hiking trails and about 15 miles worth of pathways to enjoy.
The Mount Mitchell Trail is a strenuous, but exciting route to the summit of the mountain. It’s an all-day hike– around 4.5 hours up and 3.5 hours back down.
It’s important to bring appropriate gear if you’re making this trek, as the temperatures at the top can get chilly even in summer.
There is a beautiful picnic spot near the summit parking lot. The grounds include two picnic shelters with fireplaces, as well as 40 tables, stone grills, and drinking water.
MOUNT MITCHELL STATE PARK LODGING
Mount Mitchell does have a 9-site campground available through the summer and into October, which is frequently used as a jumping-off point for backpacking into Pisgah National Forest.
If you’re looking for mountain cabins near the park, Albert’s Lodge at Mt. Mitchell and The Oak Cabin (which boasts a deck overlooking a creek) in Pisgah Forest offer a combination of rustic wilderness and comfortable amenities.
CELO Inn offers a unique experience near the park, with wood-cooked breakfasts, beautiful gardens, and several swimming holes. There are no TVs, spotty cell service, and a lot of nature.
Asheville is just 20 miles away, so you can find plenty of other hotels, cabins, and bed and breakfast options there.
9. NEW RIVER STATE PARK
358 New River State Park Road
Laurel Springs, NC 28644
Entry Fee: None
New River State Park winds near Laurel Springs, Jefferson, and West Jefferson, in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
The park’s namesake (and main attraction) was designated a National Wild & Scenic River in 1976.
Despite its name, it’s actually recognized as one of the oldest rivers in the United States.
THINGS TO DO AT NEW RIVER STATE PARK
As with all of these parks, hiking is one of the primary activities available to New River State Park visitors. There are a few miles of paths spread over 10 separate hiking trails.
But New River is truly a haven for paddlers, particularly beginners, because the waters are shallow and gentle, while the surrounding scenery is stunning. The park’s website has an informative rundown of distances and times between the various river access sites.
New River is also a renowned fishing site, with Smallmouth Bass, Redeye Bass, Muskellunge, Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Rockfish regularly caught in its waters.
There are several picnic areas in the park for day-trippers. Between these sites, there is access to shelters, beaches, grills, and even an indoor meeting room.
Recently added, the Elk Shoals access has a beach and swimming area that are open to the public year-round.
NEW RIVER STATE PARK LODGING
New River State Park has several different camping options.
The Wagoner access area has tent sites that can either be walked to or paddled to. The US 221 Access area offers numerous tent and RV sites. The Alleghany and Riverbend access areas both have paddle-in only campsites.
Just 4.2 miles away in Crumpler, the The Cabins at Healing Springs are a small group of of historic, renovated cabins ranging in size from two to eight people. The water from the Healing Spring has been reported to have curative properties.
If you’re looking for amazing river views, it’s hard to beat the River Dream Cabin in Piney Creek (6.5 miles away). The 3-bedroom cabin has a bedroom with large wrap-around decks on each level, which is great for watching kayakers drift by or for enjoying a sunset cocktail.
The River House Inn & Restaurant is located in Grassy Creek, which is 9 miles/20 minutes from the park. It’s located right on the river in converted farm buildings that date back to the 1870s, which have been updated with luxurious amenities.
10. STONE MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
3042 Frank Parkway
Roaring Gap, NC 28668
Entry Fee: None
Stone Mountain State Park is located between the towns of Elkin and Sparta in the northeastern corner of western North Carolina.
There, where the Blue Ridge Mountains transition to the Piedmont, Stone Mountain’s rock formations stand starkly in the landscape.
The park has an old homestead, waterfalls, and a huge granite dome for visitors to explore.
THINGS TO DO AT STONE MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
Hiking in Stone Mountain State Park is excellent. It offers 18 miles of hiking trails, many of which follow beautiful mountain streams with cascades and waterfalls.
The Stone Mountain Loop Trail is a fantastic 4.5-mile route that leads hikers up to the summit, past the old Hutchinson Homestead, to the base of 200-foot-tall Stone Mountain Falls.
The park also offers 20 miles of designated Trout streams for anglers to enjoy, plus a massive picnic area with over 75 picnic sites and a handful of picnic shelters.
Experienced rock climbers have the opportunity to scale Stone Mountain’s 600-foot granite face, taking in a bird’s-eye view of the Hutchinson Homestead when they reach the top.
The fully restored, mid-19th century homestead is definitely worth a visit. It features several buildings, including a home, corn crib, meat house, and barn. There’s also lots of old equipment displayed, as well as a traditional garden.
STONE MOUNTAIN STATE PARK LODGING
Stone Mountain State Park has a large drive-in campground with 90 sites for tents and RVs. There’s also six backpacking tent sites along Widow’s Creek Trail, which is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail system.
There are several other campgrounds nearby should the one at the park fill up (which often happens). These include Cedar Rock Campground and Sandy Creek Campground in Traphill, and Miller’s Camping and Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Stone Mountain State Park is literally the backyard for Serenity on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 2400 square foot, 4-bedroom vacation rental. Located in Sparta, NC, just off the parkway, it boasts beautiful mountain vistas from the expansive deck.
For a truly unique accommodation, check out the chic, 2-bedroom Cabin on Working Alpaca Ranch, which is surrounded by renowned vineyards in Roaring Gap (4.5 miles from the park).
This rental cabin is located on a working ranch with Alpacas, Llamas, ponies, cattle, chickens, ducks, and a stocked fishing pond. Enjoy a glass of wine in the gazebo, and you might just make some new furry friends!
–by Jonathon Engels