Top 5 Most Underrated North Carolina State Parks
North Carolina is home to some fabulous state parks. Although iconic parks like Jockey’s Ridge, Carolina Beach, Hanging Rock, and Grandfather Mountain earn most of the outdoor love in the Old North State, NC is actually home to 34 parks, four recreation areas, and three staffed state natural areas, all of which fall under the North Carolina State Parks umbrella.
Whether you need some inspiration for a quick day hike or a week-long outdoor get-away, here are five often-overlooked North Carolina state parks worthy of your attention.
Goose Creek State Park
Located directly on the Pamlico Sound and only a short drive from historic Bath, Goose Creek State Park is a real North Carolina low country gem. The park spans 1,672 acres and is only a few turns and a good stretch of twisty back roads off Interstate 264. Ancient live oaks draped in lacy Spanish moss line both the park’s main drive (Camp Leach Road) and the coastline.
The Pamlico Sound is the largest lagoon on the East Coast and America’s second-largest estuary after the Chesapeake Bay. Because the sound is connected to the ocean by only several small inlets between North Carolina’s barrier islands, it is an important habitat for blue crabs, flounder, and red drum, all of which can be caught along the shores of Goose Creek State Park.
Water spilling from freshwater Goose Creek into the sound creates brackish water. That means that after a good rainfall, anglers can stand on the banks and catch saltwater spot and croaker on one cast, and then reel in freshwater crappie and largemouth bass on the next.
The park also features eight miles of walking trails that cover ground the infamous Blackbeard and the Tuscarora Indians once roamed. All the trails are flat as a pancake, well-kept, and perfect for novice hikers and young children.
The trails offer glimpses into a mix of Eastern North Carolina ecology. Within the park’s boundaries, visitors will find brackish marshes, boggy freshwater swamps, and a lush evergreen forest separating the two. Impressive plant species include 100-foot loblolly pines, 8-foot sawgrass, and the furthest northern populations of Dwarf Palmetto thrive here.
For outdoor enthusiasts itching to pitch a tent, Goose Creek offers diverse camping opportunities. Primitive campsites perfect for pop-up tents are aptly located on Campground Road. The park also provides RV camping, as well as air-conditioned cabins, which are a relief during the sweltering humidity of a coastal Carolina summer.
Other great features within Goose Creek State Park include a sandy swim beach, boat ramp, a paddling launch, several picnic shelters, and a visitor’s center that houses several educational displays.
The Best Time to Visit Goose Creek
Visiting Goose Creek in the summer is not for the faint of heart. Eastern NC summers are notoriously hot and the humidity can run so high it feels like you almost have to breathe the air with a spoon. In my opinion, December-January is the best time to visit the park. Not only will you avoid the summer crowds, but the Pamlico Sound is a major wintering area for waterfowl, providing plenty of birding opportunities. Bring your binoculars!
Medoc Mountain State Park
Sitting right on the dividing line between Eastern and Central North Carolina, Medoc Mountain State Park and its 325-foot peak is all that’s left of an ancient mountain range. The park is only about an hour's drive from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.
The park offers ten miles of hiking trails, many of which meander along sparkling Fishing Creek, one of the cleanest creeks in the region. Sunfish, bluegill, largemouth bass, and chain pickerel provide plenty of opportunities for anglers itching to wet a line.
An equestrian’s dream, Medoc Mountain has ten miles of bridle trails and spacious trailhead parking for horse trailers. The trailhead also has five convenient, horse-friendly primitive campsites.
If biking is more your style, Medoc Mountain has something for you. The park has nine miles of multi-use mountain biking trails. The gently rolling terrain is perfect for cyclists of all skill levels.
The park’s family campground is nestled in a hardwood forest bordering grassy fields. It offers 34 individual sites. Twelve of those sites have electrical hook-ups, and two are wheelchair accessible.
The Best Time to Visit Medoc Mountain
I sincerely believe Mother’s Day weekend is the perfect time to visit Medoc Mountain. The park is home to large concentrations of mountain laurel, and May is when these beautiful bushes burst open their delicate white and pink flowers. Typically only found in the mountainous regions much further west, the mountain laurel is one remnant of Medoc Mountain’s ancient highland origin.
William B. Umstead State Park
When we think of state parks, we usually conjure up visions of cruising down twisting back roads to access out-of-the-way forested areas. While most of NC’s state parks are at least slightly off the beaten path, William B. Umstead State Park is located in the heart of one of the state’s busiest metropolitan areas. The nearly 6000-acre park is a tranquil retreat surrounded by Raleigh’s bustling expressways and bordering the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Umstead’s nearly twenty miles of hiking trails are easily accessible from Interstate 40 and US 70. The trails wander around three beautiful manmade lakes, so don’t forget your fishing pole. Visitors can opt for a leisurely stroll along a short nature trail or a lengthier hike into the woods. The park also has 13 miles of multi-use trails that are both horse- and bike-friendly.
Bring your camping tent and enjoy one of Umstead’s 28 well-shaded campsites. Electrical hookups aren’t available, but the campground has centrally located showers and restrooms.
One of the park’s coolest attractions is an artistic collaboration between humans and Mother Nature. Tennessee-based Smoky Mountain Art used chainsaws to create a wildlife art scene from a fallen 25-foot oak tree along the park’s Multi-Use Trail.
When to Visit Umstead Park
Whether you call Raleigh home or just passing through, Umstead State Park offers a welcome slice of green space for urban refugees to unwind and relax. Visit Umstead Park any time you need some good old-fashioned nature therapy.
Lake James State Park
Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, an hour east of Asheville, Lake James State Park is only about 15 miles off Highway 40. It has a steep, forested landscape dotted with copious wildflowers surrounding a sparkling lake. Because it is fed by mountain waters, from the Linville and Catawba rivers, Lake James is cool, runs deep, and appears almost luminous year-round.
Lake James State Park is all about the lake. Not only does the park have two boat ramps for sailboats and powerboats, but you can also rent kayaks and canoes to get out on that pristine water. A favorite destination for serious largemouth bass anglers, Lake James is full of hidden coves, exposed points, and enough underwater structure to challenge the skills of any angler.
The park also has a well-kept, sandy-shored swim area visitors can enjoy for a small fee. The beach area even has a concession stand.
Lake James is home to an extensive trail system that winds through the landscape. With 25 miles of trails surrounding the 6,812-acre lake, there’s plenty to keep ambitious hikers busy. Fifteen miles of those trails are also open for mountain biking, offering terrain suitable for cyclists of all skill levels.
With three very different campgrounds, this park is brimming with camping opportunities. The Paddy’s Creek Area has 33 drive-up, easy access campsites. The Catawba River Area has 20 walk-in campsites. Although you’ll have to carry your camping gear up to 300 yards from the parking area, the breathtaking early-morning views of the lake are worth the effort. The Long Arm Penninsula offers paddle-in, boat-only access camping for those who really want to get away from it all.
The Best Time to Visit Lake James
Everyone wants to head to the North Carolina mountains in October to see the changing leaves paint the landscape in rich reds and yellows. However, my favorite time to visit Lake James is the spring. In April and May, the trails are decked out in blooming rhododendron, cardinal flower, and wild azalea. The spring bloom is also when the largemouth bass hit top-water plugs on the lake, which is a serious adrenaline-pumping experience for anglers.
Elk Knob State Park
If you travel west through the Tar Hell State until you’re almost to Tennessee, you’ll end up in Elk Knob State Park. Deeded to the state in 2003, Elk Knob is one of North Carolina's newest state parks, which means it is still a bit of a hidden secret. However, with its amazing views and unique backcountry camping opportunities, this gem won’t stay hidden for long.
The park has extensive hiking options, and volunteers constructed most of the trails. In my opinion, Elk Knob’s Summit Trail (5,520 feet above sea level) is one of the best hikes near Boone, NC. The peak sits 5,520 feet above sea level, and while this is no Mount Mitchel, you can see it from here. Elk Knob offers vast sweeping mountain views to the north and south. Getting there requires a strenuous two-mile trek that covers a 1,000-foot elevation change. The hike isn’t easy, but the view is bucket list material.
Thanks to the extended weathering of the mountain’s metamorphic rock, Elk Knob has nutrient-rich soil. The soil combined with the high elevation creates the perfect growing conditions for many rare and endangered plants, including Gray's lily, trailing wolfsbane, large purple fringed orchid and flame azaleas.
Elk Knob only offers primitive camping. The sites are located one to two miles from the trailhead. Because you’ll need to carry all your camping supplies (including water), you’ll definitely want to pack light.
The Best Time to Visit Elk Knob
Come for the view from Elk Knob, which is equally breathtaking in every season. Since the park allows cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities, you’ll want to stay through the winter. Just skip the expensive ski resort.