Exploring Charlotte, Past and Present, Through Its Trails
Running on dirt in North Carolina's biggest city takes you back in time—and away from it all
Charlotte's skyline, seen from BB&T BallPark, home of the triple-A Knights; a trail marker on the Latta Plantation and Nature Reserve. Photos courtesy of Christine Bucher
Editor's note: In our December issue, we feature Charlotte, North Carolina, as one of eight Top Trail Cities. Here, one runner writes about her own experience exploring the area's trails and provides trail and travel beta for runners visiting Charlotte.
My friend Lisa and I figured the leg of our run that would take us back to the parking lot would be the easy part. Exploring Crowders Mountain State Park, just south of Charlotte, we’d started on the Pinnacle Trail, marked “strenuous” on our trail map (aside from an easy first half-mile, that word turned out to be entirely accurate) and would end on the “moderate” Turnback Trail. But just as our gossipy conversation reached a particularly juicy piece of news, I caught my foot on a rock and went down, resulting in a bloody hand and a scraped leg, a couple of cheap souvenirs from my visit.
Lisa and her family had moved to Charlotte two years earlier, and this January, I visited her there. Exploring the area’s trails gave us a great chance to catch up—and, for Lisa, it was an opportunity to learn more about her adopted city, a place that’s urban enough to satisfy her intellectual Yankee soul but Southern enough to confound her. As much as she had researched schools, doctors and shopping places, as many Charlotte natives and transplants as she had met, she was still not quite ready to call the Queen City home.
A view of Crowders Mountain State Park in January, from The Pinnacle, one of the park's two peaks. Photo courtesy of Christine Bucher
Charlotte doesn’t have the iconic skyline of New York City, a world-renowned monument like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge or the heart-stirring history of Boston, Philadelphia or even Baltimore. Seattle, Portland and Austin have grabbed the hipster cred. North Carolina's biggest city has more than the Billy Graham Parkway, though. Founded on a trail crossroads used by the Catawba Indians, its trails and greenways tell a story of change and movement—and offer pretty good running, to boot.
So, on an unseasonably warm Sunday, Lisa and I set out to hit as many trails as we could. Crowders Mountain, the scene of my fall, was our first stop. Located on the South Carolina border, Crowders was the site of gold discoveries in the early 1800s, and by 1825, 25,000 people were employed in gold mining. The 1849 discovery of gold in San Francisco displaced the South’s gold, though—by this point, the easy-to-find surface gold around Charlotte had been exhausted, and deep mining was not lucrative.
Nowadays, running Crowders on a sunny morning yields other profits. The trails are well marked; we followed Pinnacle’s orange circles closely, and managed to keep something like a run going until we got to a set of boulders that required some scrambling. After that, we alternated jogging and walking—and got some applause from hikers for our attempts at speed, feeble as they were. At the summit, an expanse of mountains and trees stretched before us to a hazy horizon. The sun climbed higher, burning off the chill of the night before.
We burst off the trail into a nearly full parking lot: Crowders is popular with families, dog walkers and outdoor groups of all kinds.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center offers 25 miles of trails open to runners. Photo courtesy of Christine Bucher
After a few Trader Joe’s almond bars, we headed to trail location number two: the 700-acre U.S. National Whitewater Center, which, truth to tell, I was a little skeptical about. It seemed too corporate to be fun; with rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, a ropes course and zip lining, plus a bar and free live music some nights, it’s like a mall for the outdoorsy set. But there are 25 miles of trails open to running, and it didn’t take me long to wish I had something like it where I live. The well-marked trails, though closed when wet, are smooth and fun, mixing open, traffic-lane-broad stretches with woodsy singletrack.
From the full-service Whitewater Center, we drove to the Latta Plantation and Nature Preserve, centered around the Latta Plantation house, a smallish white-wood-sided structure with two small cabins and a barn arranged around it. This was the home of James and Jane Knox Latta, who farmed cotton with about 25 slaves in the 1820s. The Latta’s slave holdings weren’t large, but neither were they unusual for the area. Now, the forest has reclaimed the fields, and horses roam the trails.
Singletrack at the Latta Plantation and Nature Preserve. Photo courtesy of Christine Bucher
At the preserve's Nature Center, a friendly, enthusiastic ranger pointed us to his favorite trail, Beechtree. We followed the Hill Trail to find it, and were passed by a trio of glorious, galloping horses. But after that, things went south. We misread our map, and couldn’t find any markings to show us the way. Eventually we found a stretch of twisty singletrack through what felt like primeval forest, deep with leaf cover, complete with little bridges and undulating terrain. It was easy to see why it was the ranger’s favorite, and we decided that this is the trail for old-school trail runners who rely on moss-growth patterns, rather than blazes or trail signs, to find their way.
Our last stop, the next morning, was the Anne Spring Close Greenway, just over the border in Fort Mill, South Carolina, a town named for the textile mills that drove its predominate industry in the early 20th century.
The post-Civil War years saw a growth in the railroad network, and cotton growers realized they could increase profits by building their own mills, then distributing fabric via the railroads. One such industrial titan was Leroy Springs, and his descendant, Anne Springs Close, donated family land to preserve green space.
Open space at the Anne Springs Close Greenway. Photo courtesy of Christine Bucher
As we wandered toward the dairy barn, we weren’t sure where to park or pay the three-dollar admission, but never-shy Lisa accosted a runner in a San Jose Sharks sweatshirt who pointed us in the right direction. We never found him again, but we did find a pretty spectacular little suspension bridge, and sparkling Lake Haigler, encircled by rolling singletrack that follows the lakeshore for a while before heading into the woods. A little on-the-fly loop linking led us to the Kimbrell and Treeline Trails and a small stream crossing. Nimble Lisa jumped it; I took off my shoes and waded.
Then we found our way back to the barn and Lisa’s car, no longer the only one in the lot. As I stretched and flicked mud off my legs, I felt sudden-onset soreness and realized I’d logged more miles in two days than I usually do in a week—and simultaneously heard Lisa’s stomach growl. Time for brunch, I thought. There were plenty more trails to explore, but I knew I'd be back.
The Dirt on Charlotte, NC
1. U.S. National Whitewater Center, along the Catawba River. Explore more than 20 miles of marked trails with terrain ranging from technical singletrack with respectable elevation changes to flatter, easier trails. All lead you back to the river area to hang out afterward.
2. Anne Springs Close Greenway. Just over the South Carolina border in the historic textile town of Fort Mill, this privately managed park and trail system offers 40 miles of color-coded multiuse trails. It also hosts a stretch of the Carolina Thread Trail, a network of shorter trails that covers two states and stretches 220 miles.
3. Crowder's Mountain State Park. This rocky national heritage area offers some climbing, including the 1,705-foot King’s Pinnacle. There are also several dramatic natural cliffs with 100-plus-foot drops. The trails are technical. Many are short but can be strung together, and the moderate Ridgeline Trail is 6.2 miles long.
4. Reedy Creek Park. In Charlotte, this popular park, not far from the University of North Carolina campus, offers 10 miles of trails. Many are short, but can be looped together for more mileage and a mix of trail surfaces, from gravelly to a little more rugged but never seriously technical.
5. Colonel Francis Beatty Park. Shared with mountain bikers, this trail system offers flat terrain and a mix of paved sections, wider paths and rooty, twisty singletrack. It’s good place to gain a little speed while practicing your footing.
6. Davidson College Cross-Country Course. Located behind the Davidson College field house, the course offers wide, manicured trails in a wooded setting; it’s rolling but has no major elevation changes and nothing technical. The course offers 5K or 8K options, but you can do multiple loops.
7. Sherman Branch Park. Sherman Branch has a 6.9-mile main trail with plenty of twists and turns. The Big Lake Trail is smoother and wider, but it offers plenty of technical terrain. Maintained by the Tarheel Trailblazers, a 400-member trail-building juggernaut that maintains many Charlotte-area trails, Sherman Branch is very popular with mountain bikers.
8. Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve. The 1,351-acre preserve has 16 miles of trails and a variety of surfaces, from gravel to rooty singletrack. Most of the trails interlace to offer longer loops, and several trails follow the lake’s shoreline.
9. McDowell Nature Preserve. Forested rolling terrain along the banks of Lake Wylie, with nine miles of trails. Camp here and explore them all.
10. Campbell Creek and McAlpine Creek Greenways. Charlotte’s original greenway, McAlpine offers 4.8 miles of paved and gravel paths. It’s also the home of the popular McAlpine Creek Cross-Country course, mostly flat and fast.
If you’re flying in, you’ll arrive at busy Charlotte Douglas International Airport, located on the southwest side of town. Amtrak has passenger rail service connecting Charlotte to New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans. If you’re driving, you can take I-77, I-85 or I-40 right to Charlotte.
Where to Stay
As befits a business-travel-oriented town, Charlotte has a number of hotels, but a few stand out:
1. Duke Mansion, a 20-room bed and breakfast that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers classic Southern charm, two miles from the city center.
2. Dunhill Hotel is the downtown area (which Charlotteans call "Uptown"), and has 60 rooms with a “Roaring Twenties” theme. It also offers cookies every evening.
3. Hyatt House Charlotte Center City has amenities for an extended stay, such as rooms with separate kitchens. And even if your stay is short, there’s a rooftop pool and fireplace.
4. Aloft Charlotte Ballantyne is in a business park adjacent to a golf course. It’s also about midway between Fort Mill and the Colonel Beatty trails in Matthews. It offers a fitness center and a grab-and-go café.
5. Morehead Inn offers cozier accommodations in a B&B and is situated about a mile from Uptown, close to cycling and running paths.
Charlotte is stuffed with food options, ranging from Southern fried to raw. Tricia Childress, a professor at the Charlotte campus of food-oriented Johnson & Wales University and restaurant reviewer at Creative Loafing Charlotte, points out several refueling spots that get high marks in the taste department.
1. The healthy option is Gro Greek, in Matthews, owned by a group of marathoners. It offers pitas made fresh each day, house-made Greek yogurt and salads.
2. Childress also recommends a few less-virtuous options, such as nearly any of the city’s food trucks (tacos, bacon, Italian ice, cake), which tweet to let followers know their locations. Be at 1515 Camden Road at the end of the week for Food Truck Fridays, when the trucks gather. Or follow @cltfoodtrucks on Twitter to find a truck when you’re hungry.
3. Seventh Street Public Market, a favorite of chef and bread baker Peter Reinhart, is in Uptown. It features a number of local food vendors, from Bar Chocolate (Reinhart likes the truffles) to Ormand’s Cheese Shop (killer grilled cheese) to farm-to-table Pure Pizza and sushi at Bonsai Fusion.
4. If you’re craving a burger, hit Bang Bang Burger, which serves high-quality La Frieda beef, and give the cheeseburger egg roll a whirl.
5. If you’re after a beer, Charlotte has you covered with the NoDa Brewery Company, the Olde Mecklenberg Brewery, and Lenny Boy. The Liberty Gastropub offers creative, delicious food and a good beer list.
6. If you venture to Fort Mill for the Anne Springs Close trail network, Childress recommends the rustic vibe and comfort-inspired meals of The Flipside, such as the shepherd's pie. If you’ve started your day with a run, you’ll be glad you stopped in: the place specializes in breakfast.