12 Must-Do Backpacking Adventures in North Carolina

Spend a night or two above the clouds.

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

Home of the famous Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina is an incredible place to put your backpacking to the test. With so many options to link up multi-day backpacking trips, you'll never run out of trails to explore. Hit up a section of the Appalachian Trail, camp out deep in one of the national forests, or take in a sunset view of the never-ending rolling hills. Doesn't sound too bad, right? Pack your gear, make your plan, and hit the trail!

1. Camp on Hawksbill Mountain

Photo: John Stephens

Distance: 1.87 miles
Elevation: 633 ft 
Type: Out-and-back

The hike to Hawksbill Mountain will reward you with panoramic views of Linville Gorge for minimal mileage. At the top, look left to Asheville and Table Rock and right to absorb all of the gorge’s glory. This is a great spot for catching sunrise or sunset. If interested in staying overnight, contact the local ranger office to inquire about camping permits.

2. Backpack the Art Loeb Trail

Photo: Steve Yocom

Distance: 30.07 miles
Elevation: 7467 ft
Type: Point-to-point

Follow the scenic Art Loeb Trail to summit Cold Mountain or climb Shining Rock Mountain’s quartz towers. Check out the spring at the top of Cold Mountain just before reaching the campsites. Tip: Hiking the trail from South to North will save the best views for last! Bring plenty of water and food if you decide to hike the whole trail as this is a longer trek. Some parts are not well marked, so also come prepared with a map or reliable offline navigation tool.

3. Backpack the Forney Creek Loop

Photo: Haresh Soorma

Distance: 19.04 miles
Elevation: 3500 ft
Type: Loop

This adventure features mountain views, stream crossings, and campsites along the way. Please note that permits are required for overnight camping in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. If you have the time, check out Clingman’s Dome near the parking lot too. Wear appropriate footwear as it’s possible you’ll need to get your feet wet (depending on the season) at the stream crossing sections.

4. Hike from Max Patch to Hot Springs

Photo: Steve Yocom

Distance: 19 miles 
Elevation: 2966 ft
Type: Point-to-point

Hike through high grasses and wildflowers before arriving at a natural hot spring. This well-marked adventure boasts stunning views and the opportunity to camp overnight (campground right across the street from the parking lot). You may encounter some Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, offering a unique chance to say hello and potentially exchange memorable stories!

5. Hike to Grassy Ridge Bald in the Roan Highlands

Photo: Steve Yocom

Distance: 4.84 miles
Elevation: 932 ft
Type: Out-and-back

On the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, hop on the Appalachian Trail and head north through the Roan Mountain Balds. Wear sturdy footwear as this is a rocky trail. Stay the night at one of the established campsites for an unbelievable sunrise or sunset. It gets rather windy at the top since the area is quite exposed so bring appropriate outerwear and make sure your tent is pitched securely!

6. Backpack the Southern Smokies: Fontana Lake to Clingman’s Dome

Photo: Andrew Todd

Distance: 20.39 miles
Elevation: 5750 ft
Type: Point-to-point

Backpack from the southernmost point (Fontana Lake) to the highest point (Clingman’s Dome) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In this more secluded part of the park, you’ll experience peace among the forests and small waterfalls. Be prepared for stream/creek crossings. Permits are required for overnight camping.

7. Backpack through Nantahala National Forest via the Appalachian Trail

Photo: Bradley Burgess

Distance: 27.11 miles
Elevation: 5420 ft
Type: Point-to-point

Enjoy exploring three Southern Appalachian balds through the Nantahala National Forest starting right outside of Franklin, North Carolina– a hiker-friendly town! You’ll pass by cascading waterfalls and will have the chance to soak in the beauty of surrounding peaks. Settle in at one of the shelters along the way overnight and be sure to check out the Wesser Bald fire tower for worthwhile panoramic views.

8. Catch a Sunset on Green Knob

Photo: Steve Yocom

Distance: 9.08 miles
Elevation: 1368 ft
Type: Out-and-back

Seize the opportunity to trek through a section of the Mountain to Sea Trail and marvel at the views of Mount Hardy and the surrounding Middle Prong Wilderness, usually less crowded than the neighboring Shining Rock Wilderness. Pass by forests boasting oak, birch, spruce, and fir trees and hike alongside brooks, waterfalls, and meadows. Sunrise or sunset at the Green Knob summit makes for a particularly striking sight and is a great spot for photo opportunities.

9. Hike and Camp the Sam Knob Loop

Photo: Steve Yocom

Distance: 3.84 miles
Elevation: 807 ft
Type: Loop

This backpacking adventure in the Pisgah Ranger District offers a unique opportunity to soak in an amazing sunrise and sunset as there are two summits– one facing east and the other west. Far enough away from city lights, this is also an excellent spot for night photography. This is an especially great warm weather adventure as you’ll pass by waterfalls and swimming holes along the way. Fly fishers will enjoy opportunities to catch wild brook trout.

10. Backpack Graveyard Fields Black Balsam Knob Circuit

Photo: Clare Healy

Distance: 9.83 miles 
Elevation: 1522 ft
Type: Loop

Explore beautiful mountain balds in the Southern Appalachians. These include Black Balsam Knob, Sam Knob, and Tennent Mountain. Take your time admiring the vastness and beauty of the layered Blue Ridge Mountains. Camping is allowed in the Pisgah National Forest, but be sure to follow the proper rules and regulations. Pack plenty of water as the water supply along the trail is rather limited.

11. Backpack the Roan Highlands Appalachian Trail

Photo: Steve Yocom

Distance: 15.47 miles
Elevation: 2598 ft
Type: Point-to-point

Enjoy panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains while backpacking to six grassy balds along the Appalachian Trail. Known for being one of the best sections of the AT, you won’t be disappointed by the breathtaking views, the starry night sky, and the opportunity to see an alpine sunrise. Say hello to thru-hikers who you might see passing through!

12. Backpack the Dutchman’s Creek Trail, Uwharrie NF

Photo: Conrad McGill

Distance: 11.31 miles
Elevation: 1407 ft
Type: Loop

Located in the Uwharrie National Forest, this adventure through the woods is mostly flat with several inclines. Part of the section towards the second half of the loop, however, has been coined Hallucination Hill, named for its length and steep incline. Those looking for a challenge will find one here! Since the trail is pretty densely covered with trees, it's not the most scenic hike, but the trail is well-marked and there are a number of campsites to set up tent and enjoy the night fully immersed in nature.

Cover photo: Steve Yocom

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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