Expand your playground


June 1, 2020

Looking for new outdoor recreation options in Charlotte? Try these.

by Ely Portillo

When stay-at-home orders disrupted life’s rhythms, I found myself with a lot more free time this spring. 

No commute. No mad morning scramble to get ready for day care. No swearing at traffic on I-85, rushing home to beat the setting sun.

So, I did something I’d been meaning to do for a long time: I got out my bike. 

Dusty, a tad rusty and badly in need of some oil, the old Schwinn worked fine — after I figured out how to change a flat tube, adjust the brakes and tweak the derailleurs so the chain stopped popping off. The cliche about how it’s just like riding a bike is true, thankfully, at least when it comes to actual bikes. 

And I decided I wanted to do a bit of trail riding, something I didn’t have much experience with. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go far. James Boyce Park, in southeast Charlotte just off Sardis Road, has a modest selection of short, mixed-use trails with just enough up-and-down to be a challenge (for me, anyway), all connected to miles of greenways that make it easily accessible from various parts of the city. 

I jumped on, had a blast, and decided that I was ready to hone my skills at mountain biking. The Charlotte region abounds with new options to play outside. So, if you’re tired of your usual walking or jogging routine, give one of these a try.


It sounds a bit intimidating if you are new to the sport, but there are plenty of options for riding on nearby trails that don’t require death-defying jumps or slogs up huge peaks. If you’re bored riding on neighborhood streets or flat greenways, give one of these a try. 

There’s a wealth of mountain biking options in Mecklenburg parks, with trails of varying difficulty spread across the county. You can find almost 6 miles at Colonel Francis Beatty Park in Matthews, 8 miles in Renaissance Park off West Tyvola Road and almost 4 miles in North Mecklenburg Park in Huntersville. Off Rocky River Church Road in east Charlotte, you’ll find Sherman Branch Nature Preserve, with a dozen miles of different trails for you to ride. 

The single biggest local concentration of trails is at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, which has more than 50 miles ranging from beginner to advanced (they’re graded like ski slopes, with green, blue and black diamond trails). 

The easiest route and best introductory ride is the Lake Trail, a 3-mile loop with nice views of the ponds it snakes around. You don’t need to pay for anything besides parking ($6 for a day pass) to ride at the Whitewater Center, and bikes are available to rent if you don’t own one, with prices starting at $30, including a helmet. 

You can find more details about difficulty levels and routes of various trails at mtbproject.com or at tarheeltrailblazers.com, which has a “Beginner’s Corner” with tips and suggestions for easier local rides.


With summer temperatures settling in, there’s nowhere more tempting to be than the water. But if you don’t have a kayak or canoe and the means to haul it somewhere, water sports can seem inaccessible. Don’t worry, however: There are a couple of low-cost, low-commitment options you can try. 

Just west of Charlotte, you’ll find the South Fork of the Catawba River just over the Gaston County line. Park in Cramerton, a former textile town that’s seeing a revival, and rent a canoe or kayak at Floyd & Blackie’s, a coffee shop/sandwich joint/ice cream store/outdoor outfitter. You can put in to the flat, easygoing river here and paddle for miles — and reward yourself with an ice cream or a smoothie when you return. Kids will also love Goat Island Park, connected to the town by a bridge over the river that’s just a short walk away.

To the east, check out Morrow Mountain State Park. Although you might think of this as a hiking destination, there’s a boathouse with canoe and kayak rentals open all summer. You can paddle and explore coves on the Pee Dee River and Lake Tillery, find a quiet spot below the dam, and enjoy a picnic while watching waterfowl swoop overhead.


If you want to try hiking but the thought of fighting crowds at Crowders Mountain gives you hives, there are plenty of other nearby options. 

For an introduction to longer hikes, you can try the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail. East of Albemarle, this gently hilly trail runs through the Uwharrie National Forest, often overshadowed by its bigger brothers to the west like the Pisgah National Forest. The trail runs for 20 miles, with several options to make loops. And since it’s not mountainous, you won’t be huffing and puffing too much. 

To the northwest, Rocky Face Mountain Recreation Area is a county-owned former quarry near Hiddenite. Just over an hour from Charlotte, this small mountain saw much of its face chopped off decades ago to quarry granite. Now, it’s been transformed into a playground for rock climbing and hiking. The trails up Rocky Face are shorter but surprisingly challenging — and if you do the 2.2-mile main loop eight times, you’ll have gained a full 5,280 feet in elevation and completed the “Vertical Mile Challenge.”

If you want a hike by the water, check out Lake Norman State Park. North of Charlotte, the 6.2-mile Lake Shore Trail offers miles of mostly flat hiking with options to shorten or lengthen your trip depending on your preference. Bonus: The park also includes boat rentals and more than 30 miles of mountain biking trails, so you can try all three activities in one place. SP

Photographs provided by U.S. National Whitewater Center and  Floyd & Blackie’s

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