Last Updated on July 26, 2023
Last Updated on July 26, 2023
North Carolina is lucky to have four diverse national forests across all three regions, from the mountains to the sea. Covering 1.25 million acres, each national forest in NC offers a unique ecosystem, from rugged mountain terrain to clear sandy beaches.
Whether looking for a challenging hike or gorgeous scenic views, these four forests will check every box for you, as it has for us!
We love exploring our state’s incredible outdoors and want to help you do the same. This guide details all four national forests in NC, providing background information and things to do to make the best use of your time.
Leave No Trace Reminder
Before we detail these wonderful national forests, we’ve got to make sure you remember to LEAVE NO TRACE.
To keep our state beautiful, pack out everything you bring with you.
Food waste, plastic bottles, trash, shoes—everything. Bring a baggie to pick up after someone less considerate than you.
With your help, let’s keep North Carolina beautiful and clean!
What are the Four National Forests in North Carolina?
Here are the four national forests in North Carolina:
- Nantahala National Forest
- Pisgah National Forest
- Croatan National Forest
- Uwharrie National Forest
What is a National Forest?
A National Forest designation differs slightly from the traditional National Park, which you may be more familiar with. National Parks are created with complete preservation in mind, while National Forests are managed for other purposes such as timber, recreation, wildlife, fishing, and more.
Nantahala National Forest
Nantahala National Forest is the largest of North Carolina’s national forests, so it’s only fitting to discuss this one first.
Where is Nantahala National Forest?
Nantahala National Forest covers a swath of 531,286 acres across the southwestern portion of the state, from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the western tip bordering Tennessee.
The eastern edge of Nantahala National Forest is 45 minutes west of Asheville.
The forest encompasses the mountain towns of Sylva, Cashiers, and Franklin, with the towns of Bryson City and Cherokee located right on the forest’s outskirts. There are seven counties that the forest sits on, including:
- Cherokee County
- Clay County
- Graham County
- Jackson County
- Macon County
- Swain County
- Transylvania County
“Nantahala” is a Cherokee word that means “land of the noonday sun,” which provides a glimpse into the rich influence of the Cherokee on this land and the beauty that lies within.
The Cherokee tribe has strong ties to the land surrounding Nantahala National Forest. They were the original residents of the land and began trading with English colonists in the 1700s.
Eventually, the tribe was forced into surrendering much of their land, yet Indigenous influences remain prominent here, especially in Cherokee.
On January 29, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson bought a large portion of land in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to form the Nantahala National Forest, which comprised much of the original Cherokee territory.
Over the years, the forest has been remapped to fit within North Carolina’s boundaries.
Returning to the meaning of Nantahala as “land of the noonday sun,” the name refers to the Nantahala Gorge. There, the sun only reaches the valley floor at midday, given its size, which is just one of the beautiful attractions.
Nantahala National Forest has many outdoor activities, attractions, and views. In addition to traditional hiking, biking, and camping options, here’s a list of some of our favorite places to see and things to do in the forest.
- Nantahala River Gorge: The gorge from which Nantahala gets its name is perhaps the center of the forest’s activities. The Nantahala River carved the 8-mile gorge over many centuries. Here, you’ll find the Nantahala Outdoor Center (aka NOC), a 500-acre adventure sports complex featuring whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking, zip lining, fishing, horseback riding, and more activities in the gorge. It’s the top thing to do at Nantahala National Forest!
- Panthertown Valley: This 6,300-acre backcountry area is called the “Yosemite of the East.” The rugged landscape features 25 miles of trails, gorges, valleys, waterfalls (including Schoolhouse Falls), and other scenic views. It’s accessible from Cashiers and Sylva if you want to hike or bike the trails.
- Waterfall Byway: The Waterfall Byway is a scenic road that winds through Nantahala National Forest and passes over 200 waterfalls. Visitors can pick a few waterfalls to spend some time at or take the opportunity to drive past dozens of them at once. Some notable falls include Dry Falls and Bridal Veil Falls near Highlands, and Silver Run Falls near Cashiers,
- Upper Whitewater Falls: Whitewater Falls is a cascade of waterfalls that flows from Cashiers, NC, to South Carolina. The Upper Whitewater Falls in the NC portion is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies at 411 feet. It’s a marvel of nature located off NC-281 in the Nantahala National Forest.
- Wayah Bald: Wayah Bald is a popular overlook in Nantahala National Forest with gorgeous views of Franklin and the surrounding area. The view is from 5,342 feet, allowing onlookers to see as far as the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. It’s accessible via a short hike on the Wayah Bald Lookout Tower Trail.
- Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest: This forest, memorializing the poet Joyce Kilmer who was killed in World War I, is one of the most ancient spots in Nantahala. The trees can be dated back over 400 years, some reaching 100 feet tall. It’s completely undeveloped and only accessible via a 2-mile trail.
- Scenic Driving: Nantahala National Forest is so vast that there are several scenic roads and byways for visitors. One of the best is Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. It’s a 61-mile road winding through the middle of the forest.
Pisgah National Forest
Pisgah National Forest is the second-largest national forest in North Carolina and one of the most well-known after Nantahala. These two forests are relatively close and share some borders, making it easy to visit them both in one trip.
Where is Pisgah National Forest?
The forest covers a vast part of the state that it sits in 12 counties:
- Avery County
- Buncombe County
- Burke County
- Caldwell County
- Haywood County
- Henderson County
- McDowell County
- Madison County
- Mitchell County
- Transylvania County
- Watauga County
- Yancey County
Because of its size, the forest is divided into three districts. In the “Things To Do” section, we’ll go over the biggest attractions in each district.
- The Pisgah Ranger District: This district is southwest of Asheville and is triangulated between Asheville, Waynesville, and Brevard. This district borders Nantahala National Forest to the west.
- The Appalachian Ranger District: This district covers a strip of land along the NC-Tennessee border, above the Great Smoky Mountains Range.
- The Grandfather Ranger District: This is the largest district stretching from Asheville northeast to Blowing Rock.
While Nantahala holds the title of largest national forest, Pisgah is the oldest national forest in North Carolina. It was established in 1916 after the federal government passed the Weeks Act of 1914, which allowed the government to purchase and create national forests on the eastern coast.
After this Act passed, the federal government purchased 86,700 acres of forest from the Vanderbilts, the family who built the famed Biltmore Estate. This parcel of land was the first conceptualization of Pisgah National Forest.
Over the following decades, the forest grew as Boone National Forest was incorporated into Pisgah in 1921, and Unaka National Forest was added in 1936.
Pisgah is also the birthplace of the first school of forestry in the country, which is preserved at the Cradle of Forestry historic site.
Today, Pisgah’s 500,000-plus acres comprise hardwood forests, whitewater rivers, waterfalls, and hiking trails.
The mountainous landscape features some of the best outdoor recreation in the state. In this section, we’ll review the top places to visit in Pisgah based on district. If you find yourself in a particular district, you can easily locate the best things to do for that area.
Pisgah Ranger District
As a reminder, this district is southwest of Asheville and borders Nantahala National Forest.
- Scenic Drives: The Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s favorite scenic byway, runs through Pisgah District through Asheville and into the Grandfather District. The Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, another scenic road, connects at milepost 411.9 for some extra scenic views and stunning locations.
- Cradle of Forestry in America: As mentioned earlier, this was the first school of forestry in the country. This historic site on the former land of the Biltmore educates visitors on Blue Ridge culture and forest management in a fun and engaging way. There are exhibits, guided tours, and short walking paths.
- Black Balsam Knob Trail: This 1.4-mile roundtrip hike is part of the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail network. The hike winds through some gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountain balds, aptly named “balds,” because of a lack of tree cover on the mountains. The trailhead is at MP 420 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- Devil’s Courthouse: This is a mountain and hiking trail located on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The name comes from the legend Judaculla, an ancient Cherokee spirit being and giant who held “court” in these mountains.
- Looking Glass Falls: This is one of our favorite waterfalls in NC due to its beauty and accessibility. The 60-foot roadside waterfall is located just off the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway.
- NC Arboretum: You may not have known that this Asheville landmark is also a part of Pisgah National Forest! The 434-acre botanical garden is one of our favorite places to visit in North Carolina and features educational programs, trails, and more.
Read More: How to Reach Moore Cove Falls near Brevard
Appalachian Ranger District
As a reminder, this district runs along the North Carolina-Tennessee border and includes some gorgeous gems.
- French Broad River: This 200-plus mile stream flows into the mighty Tennessee River. It’s the third oldest river in the world and has created some stunning formations over the years. Some of the top things to see here are French Broad Falls, Mill Shoals, and Cathedral Falls.
- Max Patch Trail: Max Patch is a 1,600-foot bald mountain along the famed Appalachian Trail. Visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the entire forest from here.
- Craggy Gardens: The Great Craggy Mountains are a sub-range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name “craggy” comes from the twisted, jagged rock faces dispersed throughout the range, with the highest peak being Craggy Dome at 6,105 ft. Visitors can park at the Visitor Center and embark on one of the several trails to the top.
Grandfather Ranger District
The Grandfather District is the easternmost section of Pisgah National Forest and features some of the most popular attractions in the mountains of North Carolina.
- Blue Ridge Parkway: As mentioned earlier, the Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for miles upon miles in this district.
- Linville Gorge Wilderness: This gigantic gorge is the gem of Pisgah National Forest, located directly in the center of the Grandfather District. The area has many hiking spots and attractions, such as Linville Falls, the Hawksbill Mountain Trail and nearby Table Rock Mountain Trail, and Wiseman’s View.
- Catawba Falls: This is easily one of our favorite waterfalls in Pisgah National Forest. The 100-foot cascade is reachable via a 3-mile roundtrip hike and features many beautiful sights. We’re looking forward to visiting again after park officials complete some much-needed upgrades to the trail.
- Grandfather Mountain: This massive mountain is a North Carolina icon for which this section of the forest is named. It’s surrounded by the Grandfather Mountain State Park, which is full of other things to do as well!
- Mount Mitchell State Park: Mount Mitchell is the tallest mountain in the state at 6,684 feet. The state park and the peak are within Pisgah National Forest and full of great things to do.
Uwharrie National Forest
Uwharrie National Forest is perfect for anyone seeking some nature time, whether for walks in the woods, four-wheeling, boating, or all of the above.
Where is Uwharrie National Forest?
Most of Uwharrie National Forest is located in Montgomery County, but parts of the forest also extend into Randolph and Davidson counties. The closest town is Troy, the Montgomery County seat, while Pinehurst and Asheboro are a few miles away. Badin Lake and Lake Tillery border the west boundary of the forest.
Uwharrie National Forest is the youngest and smallest of the four NC national forests. The 50,000 acres were bought by the federal government in 1931 for farmland but was established as a National Forest in 1961.
Despite its small size, the forest is known as the “Land of Many Uses.” It is home to the ancient Uwharrie Mountains, which are thought to have been volcanoes on the ocean floor originally. The mountains are relatively short at about 1,000 feet and are named for a local Native tribe.
In addition to the mountains, the breathtaking Uwharrie, Yadkin, and Pee Dee Rivers flow through the forest, giving life to a large deer population.
Perhaps most interestingly, the surrounding land was the location of the nation’s first gold rush in 1799. The remnants of the gold rush are still visible today, with abandoned mines still dotting the landscape.
Uwharrie National Forest has a range of activities found nowhere else.
- Badin Lake Recreation Area: This recreation area sits next to Badin Lake, a deep 190-foot lake. With 17 biking trails and 30 hiking trails, Badin Lake has ample opportunities for mountain bikers and hikers alike.
- Boating/Swimming: Badin Lake Recreation Area is also a hub for water activities on Badin Lake. From here, visitors can launch boats onto the lake and swim in the water.
- Morrow Mountain State Park: Morrow Mountain is the highest peak in the Uwharrie range, thought to be over 585 million years old. The state park borders Uwharrie National Forest to the west and has 15 miles of hiking trails, 16 miles of bridle trails, and a large campground.
- Hunting: Uwharrie is a designated game land with specified areas for hunters. A hunting license and Game Lands Privilege license are needed to hunt.
- Shooting Range: Flintlock Valley Shooting Range in Uwharrie is open Tuesdays through Saturdays. The ranges include a 25-yard pistol and a 100-yard rifle for those with pre-obtained passes.
- Horse Riding: Badin Lake has horse-specific trails for riders, as well as designated areas for horse camping.
Croatan National Forest
Croatan National Forest is the perfect wilderness for beach lovers. It’s the only pure coastal forest on the East Coast, stretching 120,000 acres across saltwater estuaries, bogs, swamps, and thickets of pine trees.
Where is Croatan National Forest?
The forest is triangulated between the coastal towns of New Bern in Craven County, Morehead City in Carteret County, and Swansboro in Onslow County (near Jacksonville). It is also bordered by water on three sides by the Neuse River, the White Oak River, and Bogue Sound.
This coastal forest was established on July 29, 1936, with 77,000 acres. It was named Croatan after the indigenous Native tribe that lived in the area during the time of the legendary lost colony of Roanoke.
By the 2000s, the forest has grown to incorporate 160,000 acres of land. Croatan National Forest is a pristine glimpse into what life would have been like as a settler in the past few centuries.
Like the other three national forests in the state, Croatan is managed from an office in Asheville. However, given its Eastern location, there is also a district office ten miles outside of the forest in New Bern.
Croatan National Forest has the best of both land and water activities. The large expanse of forests provides ample hiking, camping, and hunting opportunities, while the multiple bodies of water allow for water-based activities.
- Neusiok Trail: Hikers can explore the 20.4-mile Neusiok Trail, a segment of the state-wide Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The trail stretches from the Neuse River through swamps and bogs and ends at a salt marsh. There are also smaller trails throughout the forest, such as Patsy Pond Nature Trail and Cedar Point Trail.
- Camping: There are campsites along the Neusiok Trail, which is convenient for hikers looking to trek the entire trail. Beyond this, there are RV, group, and cabin campsites scattered throughout the forest at various locations.
- Flanners Beach: Flanners Beach is located along the gentle Neuse River. This is a popular spot for swimming and other water activities.
- Hunting and Fishing: Due to Croatan National Forest’s diverse ecosystem, there are opportunities for saltwater and freshwater fishing and hunting. There are lands for small and large games that you can hunt in.
- Boating: Both motorized and non-motorized boating is allowed at Croatan National Forest from different accesses. Some popular boat launches include:
- Brices Creek
- Catfish Lake
- Great Lake
- Siddie Fields
- Cahooque Lake
- Cedar Point
- Nature Viewing: Croatan National Forest has many wildlife, including black bears, raccoons, bobcats, otters, alligators, and incredible birds. You may see some of these animals if you’re lucky (or unlucky if you’re trying to avoid some).
Within the Croatan National Forest, there are an additional four designated wilderness areas. These pristine blocs of wild terrain are part of the National Wilderness Preservation System:
- Catfish Lake South Wilderness: This is raised bogland, where reptiles like alligators and snakes run amok. The area is named for Catfish Lake located here.
- Pocosin Wilderness: “Pocosin” means “swamp on a hill” in Indigenous culture. This wilderness area features the Venus flytraps, which are found in no other national forest.
- Pond Pine Wilderness: This is the smallest of NC’s wilderness areas, right next to Croatan’s Great Lake.
- Sheep Ridge Wilderness: This area is in the heart of Croatan and lacks any trails or campgrounds. It’s a genuinely primitive area and difficult to travel through.
What National Forests in NC Will You Be Exploring?
North Carolina’s national forests, Nantahala, Pisgah, Croatan, and Uwharrie, are the crown jewels of our state’s outdoor recreation. Each forest offers unique attractions and things to do in towering mountains and sandy coasts.
We’ve fallen in love with all four national forests in NC after years of exploring them. If you’re familiar with these pristine outdoor spaces, we’d love to hear from you.
Even if you have no experience in these public lands, let us know which ones you look forward to visiting.
More Things to Do in These National Forests in NC!
We’ve covered these amazing National Forests in many of our NC travel guides. Here are a few of them.