22 Best State Parks in North Carolina with Mountains, Waterfalls, Beaches & More

Top of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina before sunset

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Looking for the best state parks in North Carolina?

Nestled in the southeastern region of the United States, North Carolina is brimming with natural beauty and diverse landscapes that capture the imagination. 

Its geography encompasses a range of diverse environments, from the majestic peaks of the Appalachian Mountains in the west to the picturesque shores of the Atlantic Ocean in the east. 

This variety of landscapes sets the stage for an interesting collection of state parks that beckon nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike.

Whether you’re looking to explore dense woodlands and cascading waterfalls of the mountainous parks, or sandy beaches, windswept dunes, and salt marshes of the coastal parks, there’s something for everyone.

So, get ready to explore these natural gems, with our comprehensive North Carolina state parks list.

Looking for the ultimate NC adventure? Try our North Carolina bucket list.

Or if you like to soak up the sun, read our guide to the best beaches in North Carolina.

North Carolina State Parks

To help plan your itinerary, we organized the state parks of North Carolina in this guide starting from the eastern part of the state around the Coastal Plain region and then we head up north to NC’s Mountain region.

Lake Waccamaw State Park

Eastern North Carolina is scattered with shallow craters, usually filled with vegetation.

Lake Waccamaw is an exception, as it is filled with water.

On the south shore of the lake is Lake Waccamaw State Park, a long strip of land with many places to launch watercraft and ten miles of hiking trails.

The park is located in North Carolina’s eastern lowlands, 25 miles north of the Atlantic Ocean and 40 miles west of it.

Campers can also stay in the park, but all camping is hike-in and tent-only.

And since this is one of the state parks near Wilmington NC, it offers a quiet spot for people staying there to get outdoors.

Lake Waccamaw is also one of our favorite day trips from Myrtle Beach.

Singletary Lake State Park

Singletary Lake is another one of these craters in this part of North Carolina that is filled with water.

The park is located midway between Wilmington and Fayetteville and completely encircles the lake.

While Singletary Lake is smaller than Lake Waccamaw, the park is slightly more developed with a designated group camp.

Aside from one mile of trails, the main activity found here is paddling on the lake, or fishing on the 500-foot-long dock.

The park is not well-known, being further away from cities, which makes it a serene spot for nature lovers.

Hammocks Beach State Park

Looking for North Carolina state parks on the beach?

Hammocks Beach State Park is unique as it requires a ferry to get to the main unit.

The ferry is passengers-only, and all parking is at the park office on the mainland.

To reach Bear Island, where the rest of the park is located, you’ll need to take the ferry through the Cow Channel, which spans a distance of 3 miles.

Aside from the walking path from the ferry dock to the beach, this park has no trails.

Most activities in this place are beach related, and since the beach is limited access, it can be quiet as well.

The island is also four miles long, so that leaves lots of space for different groups to have their separate spaces.

And if you want to access state parks near Jacksonville NC, Hammocks Beach State Park is just 19 miles away.

Fort Macon State Park

Fort Macon State Park is located outside of Morehead City and has recreational and historic aspects.

Located on the end of a barrier island south of the Outer Banks, the park is a popular public beach location and is also home to the restored Fort Macon and the Coastal Education Center.

The park has four miles of hiking and biking trails and also has two miles of coastal beach.

Paddlers may also enjoy the park, with Tar Landing Bay being a calm place to explore the estuarial lowlands.

The park also surrounds the Coast Guard Station for the area, giving visitors a glimpse of the active harbor and Coast Guard boats.

A view through the bunkers at Fort Macon Civil War museum at Fort Macon State Park North Carolina

Goose Creek State Park

Another one of the eastern North Carolina state parks is Goose Creek State Park, a flat park on the wide Pamlico River southeast of the city of Washington.

The park is characterized by its marshy landscape and has almost 9 miles of trails that weave through the swamp.

Goose Creek has a launch point for paddlers, and the park also has a tent campground for overnight visitors.

Part of the park’s trail system is a half-mile-long boardwalk through the lowlands.

Dinah’s Landing Road also has a boat launch for larger watercraft, more suited for the Pamlico River.

Pettigrew State Park

Pettigrew State Park is another park located on one of eastern North Carolina’s shallow lakes.

Covering the entire north shore of Phelps Lake, this long strip of land forms the park, offering a 9-mile-long trail that traces the lake from both ends, accompanied by several boat landings for different watercraft.

Phelps Lake is a large lake at 7 miles wide and 4 miles long.

Despite its lack of overnight amenities, this lesser-known park remains a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Visitors or residents of the Outer Banks may recognize Jockey’s Ridge State Park, one of the most popular among the North Carolina coastal state parks.

The park is centered around many sand dunes that have formed on Bodie Island, and all the hiking options in the park are among them.

Though relatively small, it is a popular destination, which is why it is recommended to get there early to ensure a parking spot during the busy tourism season.

Visitors can view both the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound from the top of the dune ridge, making it a unique spot and one of the highest points on the island.

A dramatic, colorful sunset over Albemarle Sound viewed from Jockeys Ridge State Park in the town of Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Dismal Swamp State Park

The largest continuous swamp in the eastern United States can be accessed in Dismal Swamp State Park.

This large park on the Virginia border specializes in hiking and paddling, with 22 miles of hiking trails and 5 main canals and ditches to paddle on.

Dismal Swamp is day-use only and has no overnight facilities, but hiking and paddling can be an all-day excursion at this park.

All the hiking trails are open to bike traffic and are almost completely flat.

Cliffs Of The Neuse State Park

Cliffs Of The Neuse State Park is located on the Neuse River just south of Goldsboro.

Paddlers are welcome on the Neuse River and on the lake.

The focal point is centered around several 90-foot cliffs which have various different shades and colors of bedrock on the Neuse River.

In addition, you’ll find 4 miles of hiking trails and a campground within this park.

You may also like our guide to things to do in Goldsboro, NC.

A Neuse River Overlook at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park near Goldsboro North Carolina

Medoc Mountain State Park

North of Rocky Mounts is Medoc Mountain State Park, which features what is left over from a once-high mountain in the eastern half of the state.

The hill only stands at about 300 feet above sea level now, but the park is large and filled with things to do from picnicking to fishing to hiking on the park’s 30 miles of trails.

Fishing Creek runs through the park, and — as the name suggests — is a great place for fishing, as well as paddling.

Many of the park’s trails are also open to biking and horseback riding, further increasing the variety of activities the park offers.

William B Umstead State Park

Looking for state parks in Raleigh, NC?

William B Umstead State Park is well-known for being a regular outdoor location for Raleigh residents as well as those coming from nearby Durham.

The park has 35 miles of hiking trails, many of which run along Crabtree and Sycamore Creeks, the park’s main waterways.

Those aren’t the only water features in the park, however; paddlers are welcome on any of the park’s four lakes, some are more easily accessible than others.

Fishing is popular on these lakes as well, and the park also rents canoes and kayaks to visitors upon request.

Thirteen of the 35 miles of trails are multi-use, and welcome bikes and horses as well.

Raven Rock State Park

Raven Rock State Park is a popular park southwest of Raleigh on the Cape Fear River.

The park’s main feature is the 150-foot-tall Raven Rock overlooking the river, but it also has 26 miles of trails that run along creeks, to waterfalls, and atop the river’s bluffs.

More experienced paddlers can take on the Cape Fear River, as it has rapids and rougher waters.

Fishing, biking, and horseback riding are all welcome in the park as well, each in their designated places.

Amenities include a full campground with tent and camper sites and also rentable cabins; for updated prices or advance booking, check their website.

Morrow Mountain State Park

Moving further west, Morrow Mountain State Park is just east of the town of Albemarle.

Morrow Mountain — the tallest peak at nearly 950 feet above sea level — offers visitors the opportunity to drive to its summit. 

With 37 miles of trails meandering through the park’s hills and along the Pee Dee River, outdoor enthusiasts can extensively explore the picturesque surroundings. 

South of the park, the Pee Dee River is dammed up, while the smaller and rougher Uwharrie River, which runs through the park, presents a more challenging experience for seasoned paddlers. 

Additionally, the park boasts multiple campgrounds, boat ramps, and an extensive network of hiking trails spanning nearly 40 miles.

Hanging Rock State Park

Looking for state parks around Winston-Salem NC?

Hanging Rock State Park is located just north and is a popular place for serious adventurers.

One of the state’s most well-known rock climbing destinations, the park includes over 9,000 acres and contains nearly 50 miles of hiking trails.

The park has a wide variety of things to do besides hiking and rock climbing.

Paddling on the park’s lake is sure to interest some, while fishing and swimming are also welcome in designated places.

This park has a full campground nestled between the mountains for overnight visitors as well.

The two main peaks in the park — Raven Rock and Moore’s Wall — rise to over 2,100 and 2,500 feet respectively.

And if you’re looking for state parks near Greensboro NC, Hanging Rock is just a 1-hour drive away.

View of the North Carolina mountains from the top of Hanging Rock State Park North Carolina

Pilot Mountain State Park

Similarly to the peaks of Hanging Rock, Pilot Mountain also rises over 2,000 feet above sea level within Pilot Mountain State Park, which is not even 10 miles from Hanging Rock State Park.

Since the park is centered on one peak, it is substantially smaller, but its popularity remains about the same as Hanging Rock.

The park is actually made up of two units: the mountain unit and the river unit, which are four miles apart.

Hiking can be found at both units, while rock climbing is reserved for the mountain unit, and horseback riding and water-based recreation are only found in the river unit.

The river unit is also home to a living historical farm, which might interest some visitors who like interactive exhibits.

Stone Mountain State Park

Steadily moving further west, Stone Mountain State Park is northwest of Elkin.

While the park is centered around the stone-topped Stone Mountain, the park is also home to deep creek valleys, waterfalls, a historic homestead, and more rock climbing.

The park has 30 miles of trails, which include 20 for hikers and 10 for horseback riders.

The trails mostly stay near Stone Mountain, but the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail runs through the park and departs through the northwest corner at elevations of over 3,000 feet.

Trout fishing is popular in the creeks here, but most would find it hard to paddle in them because they are small and fast-moving.

Lake Norman State Park

For state parks near Charlotte, you’ll want to head to Lake Norman State Park, located 45 minutes away in Troutman.

Lake Norman is different from most of the parks in the western half of the state since it isn’t centered around mountains.

The park is home to a campground, boat ramp, and 38 miles of trails.

Thirty of these are open to biking, expanding opportunities for bikers in the area.

The park is relatively flat, with an elevation difference of only about 50 feet in the entire park.

Water-based recreation is popular here since the park is located on a peninsula, surrounded by water.

Kayakers, fishermen, and recreational boaters particularly enjoy spending time at Lake Norman.

Reflections on calm water at Lake Norman State Park in North Carolina

South Mountains State Park

South Mountains State Park is more than 20,000 acres of parkland blanketed over the Appalachian Mountains.

The park has almost 50 miles of hiking trails and 35 miles of multi-use trails, all of which are open to horses and some of which are open to bikes.

And if you’re looking for state parks in North Carolina with waterfalls, South Mountains State Park has multiple falls and is also home to nearly 100 miles of streams for fishing or paddling.

A full campground is also available with options for tent, camper, RV, and hike-in sites, and is adjacent to thousands more acres of game land as well.

This large park is an outdoorsman’s paradise, with rugged landscapes to challenge adventurers.

Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney Rock State Park is substantially smaller than many of the state parks in western North Carolina but certainly is not short on attractions and scenic views.

The main attraction is Chimney Rock, which rises 315 feet above the surrounding landscape, and there are elevators to take visitors to the top and walkways among the cliffs.

Also, the park has one of the state’s best rock climbing destinations, including rock faces almost 600 feet high.

Hickory Nut Falls may be the most impressive attraction in the park, flowing down a 444-foot rock face.

A view from atop Chimney Rock State Park in North Carolina

Mount Mitchell State Park

Mount Mitchell State Park is the home of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Black Hills.

The park is a little under 2,000 acres, but it makes up for it in scenery, since much of the trail in the park is along the Black Mountain Crest.

You have access to over 40 miles of trails, only about half of which are in the park, the other half lie in Pisgah National Forest.

Visitors can drive to the top of the peak of Mount Mitchell as well, making the view accessible to nearly everyone.

The park also has backpacking campsites, a restaurant, and a concessions stand.

If you’re on the hunt for state parks near Asheville, Mount Mitchell is just an hour’s drive away.

Top of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina before sunset

Lake James State Park

Lake James is the final park in this article that is centered around something other than mountains.

This park is located just west of Morganton, on the man-made Lake James, which was made out of the Catawba and Linville Rivers.

The lake is a boater’s paradise; boating from one end of the lake to the other would be a 16-mile trip.

There are also 22 miles of hiking trails, 12 miles of biking trails, a swimming beach, a concessions stand, a tent campground, as well as hike-in and paddle-in camping at the park.

Grandfather Mountain State Park

If you’re looking for more state parks in the North Carolina mountains, head to Grandfather Mountain State Park.

Standing at almost 6,000 feet above sea level, Calloway Peak is the crown jewel of the park.

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs through the park, and the park is mainly centered around hiking and overlooks.

Grandfather Mountain State Park is just 11 miles from the Tennessee border and features craggy rocks all along the Blue Ridge.

Since the park gets so many visitors, hikers must fill out free permits to hike the mountain.

But with views 2,000 feet above the valley, a mile-high swinging bridge, and waterfalls, most would say it is worth the effort to obtain the permit!

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina with fall foliage

Final Thoughts

We hope this comprehensive list of North Carolina state parks has inspired you for your next adventure in the state

Have you visited any of these state parks?

We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below — or share any hidden gems we may have missed.

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