Ten Amazing Outdoor Adventures Near Raleigh & Chapel Hill, NC

Ten Amazing Outdoor Adventures Near Raleigh & Chapel Hill, NC

By Nancy Raven Kirk on April 04, 2023

Raleigh and Chapel Hill are known for their lively neighborhoods and Southern charm. There’s also plenty of outdoor recreation for those seeking a summer adventure. From coastal beaches to epic mountains, Raleigh and Chapel Hill are relatively close to tons of adventurous activities within the borders of North Carolina.

1. Traverse the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is 1,000 miles long and stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. The longest trail in North Carolina, the MST cuts through North Raleigh. Completing the full trail takes three to four months, plus training and preparation. While it's an exciting goal for many, most of us don’t have four months to spare. Instead, hike a portion of the trail. The most popular entry points are in either Blue Jay Point County Park or Wilkerson Nature Preserve. The MST is marked by white circles on tree trunks. Take this opportunity to Master Your Skills as a Backpacker.

two pine trees in front of gray mountains with white clouds
Great Smoky Mountains from Clingmans Dome and the starting point of MST. Photo by Jennifer Burk.

Tips on Backpacking

Backpacking takes hiking to the next level, as backpackers spend several days or more on a trail using only what they’ve brought with them. 

  • Remember to “Leave Only Footprints.” 
  • Pack out any waste
  • Maintain a compact backpack in order to keep weight minimal
  • Bring a sufficient amount of nutrient-dense food 
  • Pack clothing layers for varying or unexpected temperatures 

Don't forget to browse our KÜHL Backpacking Checklist for a quick guide to all the essentials.

2. Kayak on Lake Raleigh

This 75-acre lake is just three miles from Downtown Raleigh, offering a place of earthly refuge for local city dwellers, especially college students attending nearby N.C. State. The quaint lake does not allow motorized boats or swimming, making it a pristine place to kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. Visitors can also fish, enjoy a sunset picnic, or play disc golf at the waterfront’s nine-hole course.

body of water surrounded by green trees
Lake Raleigh offers kayaking, fishing, boating, walking, mountain biking, and golfing. Photo by Mark Doliner.

3. Hike or Backpack through Dutchman’s Creek Trail

Most hikes near Raleigh involve minimal elevation gain and are therefore considered relatively easy. Fortunately, the Dutchman’s Creek Trail in Uwharrie National Forest offers hikers a challenge. The 12-mile trail has an elevation gain of 1,637 feet, views of surrounding mountains, and in the summer, fields of wildflowers. If you want to take your hike a step further, spend multiple days in the forest on a backpacking trip and spend the night at a creekside campsite. 

trees in the forest during daytime
Dutchman’s Creek Trail and Uwharrie Trail make a pretty challenging loop! Uwharrie National Forest Trail by Chris Schieman.

4. Swim and Fish at Jordan Lake

There are nine access areas surrounding the shoreline of the 14,000-acre reservoir of Jordan Lake. You’ll find several swimming areas to cool down, as well as great spots for anglers. It’s one of North Carolina’s best environments for fishing, with underwater stumps and logs, and seven species of game fish, including largemouth bass, crappies, stripers, catfish, white perch, bream, and hybrids. If you don’t have a fishing kayak, this stunning lake may be the reason to get one. If you need guidance, consider this 7-Point Inspection When Shopping for Fishing Kayaks

In addition to swimming and fishing, there are 14 miles of hiking trails surrounding the hilly lakeshore, and hundreds of campsites that range from no amenity primitive sites to full RV hookups. 

body of water during purple and blue sunset
Stunning Jordan Lake in North Carolina. Photo by Lawrence Melosantos.

5. Break Out the Climbing Rope at Hanging Rock or Pilot Mountain

Hanging Rock State Park offers trad climbing on quartzite with plenty of routes for both beginner and advanced climbers. Moore’s Wall in particular is known for its views of the Piedmont flatlands and its variety of quality routes. Zoo View is one of the state’s classic climbing routes. Rated at 5.7, this popular single pitch is full of exciting moves. For those looking to push past their comfort zones, Moore’s Wall also offers the challenge of multi-pitches. 

Not into trad climbing? Try Pilot Mountain, which offers relatively short sport routes and top-roping in a range of grades. Be aware that this destination is quite popular for hikers, so you’ll likely be amidst some foot traffic. 

Both these climbing destinations are about 2 hours drive from Raleigh, so plan for a full day or spend a night at one of the nearby campsites. 

brown fence lookout point with green trees and sky in distance
No wonder Pilot Mountain is so popular among hikers! Photo by Patrick Mueller.

6. Visit the North Carolina Botanical Garden

Stroll through this massive botanical garden, which is home to a nationally known collection of southeastern native plants, including certain plant species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s one of the largest natural botanical gardens in the southeast and covers more than 1,000 acres. This will give you plenty of room to walk and appreciate mother nature, whether strolling through one of their many gardens or along a path by the river bed. 

white and purple flowers with a house in the background during daytime
Carnivorous plants at the NC Botanical Garden. Photo credit: Mx. Granger / Wikimedia Commons.

7. Bike 27 Miles on the Neuse River Trail

This winding 27-mile long trail is an excellent destination for a casual, yet lengthy bike ride along the Neuse River. The trail is also friendly for joggers, hikers, kayakers, and paddle boarders, with several boat launches throughout the area. A city oasis, visitors of the Neuse River Trail will enjoy natural swimming areas, grassy hills, scenic bridges, wetlands, and shady trees. 

bridge over river surrounded by trees during daytime
Neuse River Greenway Trail in Raleigh, North Carolina by James Willamor.

8. Check out the North Carolina Museum of Art Park

This North Carolina park celebrates both artwork and outdoor recreation. The large outdoor park, named the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, features three iconic Gyre rings, a coppery art installation that towers above picnickers. There are also other outdoor installations, some permanent and others temporary. 

There are two buildings on the premises that host galleries and exhibits, including permanent collections of Egyptian artifacts, a gallery of African art, European Old Master paintings, sculptures by Auguste Roding, and more. But the North Carolina Museum of Art Park offers more than art viewing, as visitors often bike, hike, and jog along the Capital Area Greenway and other wooded trails that are marked with point of interest signs. To make this activity even more enticing, there’s no admission fee for guests. 

ceramic hoops sculpture on a field
Thomas Sayre's "Gyre" sculpture in the North Carolina Museum of Art. Photo by Danny Navarro.

9. Dip Your Toes into Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Beach is Raleigh and Chapel Hill’s closest beach area at 131 miles away. The sandy beach offers excellent waves for surfing and boogie boarding, but you’ll find plenty of visitors simply sunbathing or swimming near the five-mile-long shoreline. Arrive early during the summer, as parking lots fill up quickly on beautiful blue sky days. Other nearby beaches worthy of a visit include Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Atlantic Beach

sea waves crashing on shore during daytime
Excellent surfing conditions, sandy beach and plenty of sun on Wrightsville Beach by Avery Cocozziello.

10. Spend the Weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains

Five hours away from Raleigh and Chapel Hill lies the most visited and most biodiverse park in the country: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’ve never been, put this national park at the top of your list. Even if you've already visited, there's always more to discover across the park’s 500,000 acres. Here you’ll find Appalachian mountain peaks, luscious forests, cascading waterfalls, and an abundance of healthy wildlife. The closest entrance from North Carolina is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. From there, be sure to drive along the Newfound Gap Road for sweeping views of the Great Smoky Mountains and tons of trailheads for epic hikes. After your visit to the Smokies, consider a visit to few other Remarkable National Parks on the East Coast.  

great smoky mountains during golden hour
A view from the Newfound Gap during golden hour. Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Ronnie Mayo.

Let Us Help You KÜHL Off

We understand how humid it can get in the Southeast. That’s why we’ve created breathable apparel made to move. Staying active in the heat has never been more comfortable.

Featured Image - Fishermen in early morning in North Carolina, USA by Will Breen.

Nancy Raven Kirk
Nancy Raven Kirk

Nancy is a writer, traveler, and outdoor enthusiast originally from Los Angeles. She's had work published in the L.A. Times, OC Weekly, and various other publications. Check out her website at www.copybykirk.com.


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