Charlotte continues to grow at a seemingly breakneck speed, and the heart of that growth has occurred in the South End neighborhood along the Charlotte Rail Trail. South End was formerly an industrial area full of warehouses. The introduction of the local Blue Line forever changed the neighborhood’s fate.
Today, South End is a must-visit destination. The Rail Trail is the most convenient way to get from place to place in the neighborhood. You can get wherever you want to go on foot or via a scooter. This is one reason that makes the area one of Charlotte’s only urban neighborhoods.
The density provides cool experiences, but it also means this is one of the few places in the South where you can live, work, and play without a car.
Top Reasons To Visit Charlotte Rail Trail
Still, plenty of American cities have greenways and rail trails. What is it that makes the Rail Trail in Charlotte so unique? Well, here are our top reasons to give Charlotte’s Rail Trail a visit.
1. – Murals & Art Installations
As you travel down the Rail Trail, you will notice several permanent art displays which provide a layer of unexpected vibrancy. In some places, that art may be as simple as beautiful artwork painted along the Rail Trail itself. You will notice artwork tactfully installed alongside the Rail Trail in other places.
Still, none of the permanent art installations match the full glory of the temporary event called I Heart Rail Trail. During the I Heart Rail Trail event, artwork is installed in four or five locations along the pathway. For instance, in years path, the organizers installed a section of the walkway encompassed by large hoops.
The hoops featured synchronized LED lights, which enabled quite the immersive experience. When my son was two, we repeatedly walked his stroller through the tunnel of light. My son doesn’t need to know that he was just the excuse for me to enjoy the lights.
In coming years, a new pedestrian bridge in part sponsored by U.S. Bank will connect South End to Uptown. The bridge is intentionally designed as an iconic gateway connecting Uptown to its blossoming neighbor to the south. When the bridge is lit up at night, it will become an awe-inspiring landmark for residents and visitors alike.
Until then, ensure that you find all of the existing art displays, including:
- Steelyard Mural
- Dilworth Artisan Station
- The Sting
- The Rail Trail Chalkboard
- The Exclamation Point
- Substation Illumination (at night)
- Magic Carpet Murals
- Edna’s Porch
- Fowler Porch
- Color Forest
- Rail Trail Symphony
2. – Skyline Views
One of my favorite reasons to run along the Rail Trail is that when you turn back toward Uptown, the former Duke Energy Center towers over the Rail Trail like a beacon showing you the way home. If you can hit the Rail Trail at dusk or dawn, the views of the skyline are amplified tenfold.
The golden hour glistens off the glass skyscrapers in Uptown. The Rail Trail has served as the vantage point for many skyline pictures.
Art and Skyline Views
In recent years, the skyline hopped over the 277 loop and continued southbound along the Blue Line. The Rail Trail not only offers beautiful views of the Uptown skyline but increasingly sits in the shadows of a sprouting skyline.
If you visit during peak hours, the hustle and bustle might distract you from the skyline’s beauty. The peaceful presence of the city may leave you speechless if you catch the Rail Trail on a weekend.
Charlotte’s skyline is comparatively young compared to the aging skylines you might find across the rust belt. While many historical high-rises are beautiful in their own right, the modern and clean lines (and blue glass) that fill Charlotte’s skyline perfectly reflect the sun as it rises and sets. Combine the shimmering glass with LED light installations, and it is beautiful.
3. – Food & Brews
Restaurants Near Rail Trail in Charlotte
Restaurants will come and go, but one constant is that you will find bustling restaurants and breweries along the Rail Trail in Charlotte. The center of South End and the Rail Trail is located at the intersection of Camden and W. Tremont Ave.
It is just around the corner from the Krispy Kreme headquarters, which sits inside a beautiful brick building. The Krispy Kreme HQ even features a donut test kitchen.
Back over on Camden, you will find a cluster of tasty places to eat. Superica is a Charlotte favorite for Tex-Mex. You will also discover more well-known fast-casual eats and treats, including Shake Shack and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream.
Shake Shack is slightly controversial because it placed longtime tenant Pike’s Soda Shop, a local concept similar to Shake Shack. While some prefer local establishments to national chains, Shake Shack is delicious and drives foot traffic, so we hope they find long-term success.
Further south down the Rail Trail, Sycamore Brewing is a mainstay. Its location along the Rail Trail invites visitors on scooters from all over South End. If you pass a group of 4 or 5 people traveling in a pack on Scooters on a Friday night, there is a good chance that Sycamore Brewing is at least one of their intended stops.
When Sycamore Brewing opened, it was ahead of its time in forecasting the popularity that South End would eventually see. With an expansive outdoor area that hosted friends, dogs, and even some babies over many years, it was inevitable that one of the developers circling South End might eventually snap it up.
Fortunately for you, Sycamore Brewing is reopening as an anchor retail tenant on the ground floor of a new office tower. Despite its prominent location, it will still have expansive outdoor spaces, but with a much more urban vibe replacing the somehow suburban vibe Sycamore Brewing maintained.
The result is a win-win all around.
4. – Trendy Retail
With increased foot traffic comes enhanced retail options, which have started to pop up around South End and the Rail Trail. The most obvious example is Atherton Mill, which happens to be on the opposite side of the rail from most of the Rail Trail, but is still a quick walk away.
Atherton Mill sits as stacked apartments atop a collection of the trendiest retail in Charlotte, outside SouthPark Mall. You will find favorites such as Anthropologie, Bonobos, Madewell, and West Elm.
Since the shopping sits below a stack of apartments, it is a surprisingly unassuming collection of retail powerhouses, but if you like to walk and shop, then this outdoor shopping center is for you.
Back along Camden, you will find another collection of interesting retail options. On the ground floor of the Lowe’s Tech Center sits the first physical Allbirds location in Charlotte. We love that the athleisure brand further ties the Rail Trail to the intersection of an active lifestyle and trendy choices.
Don’t forget that the Rail Trail is a trail at its core. It may represent much more than that as the center of Charlotte’s walkable urban community.
5. – Urban Exercise
With thousands of apartments and townhomes nearby, the Charlotte Rail Trail has also transformed into a vital thoroughfare for those looking to stay fit. The Rail Trail is a great place to go for a jog.
We love to run along the Rail Trail because there are so many things to see. The multi-mile trail offers a straight shot for running or jogging, with plenty of protected crosswalks built for the already-heavy pedestrian traffic. It will keep you distracted and entertained while you exercise.
How many other places can you run past the large art installations mentioned above? Along the way, you will see glimpses of the skyline that remind you exactly where you are. You will likely see a few cranes and the construction of new high-rises.
If you need to veer off the Rail Trail to add some distance, there are plenty of side roads connecting Tryon St. and South Blvd. to add excitement to your running route. Of course, when you stick to the Rail Trail, the Blue Line will periodically whiz along beside you, which is fun in its own right.
Just make sure you pick a good time to run. The Rail Trail is likely to be packed with people, scooters, and e-bikes on a Friday or Saturday night, but if you hit the trail in the morning, you will be surprised by just how few people you see, aside from like-minded people trying to fit their exercise in before the rush.
Bonus: Great People Watching
Besides all the reasons above, the Rail Trail is worth visiting simply for excellent people-watching. My favorite is to watch the confident Banker Bros doing a little showing off on the scooters for their female friends, but the Rail Trail has something to offer for everyone.
I will also include dogs in the people-watching category because you will inevitably see a few golden doodles. If you have small kids in tow, the combination of the passing light rail and the dogs is about as good as it gets. Add in the occasional I Heart Rail Trail lighting experience, and the Rail Trail offers a whole sensory experience for the little ones.
When you visit the Rail Trail, you will see families bonding, young professionals enjoying life, babies taking in the experience, and dogs doing the same. The variety of people (and dogs) adds to the overall vibrancy of the experience, as you will encounter individuals from all walks of life.
More About Charlotte Rail Trail
The Rail Trail is versatile and is great for visiting on nearly any occasion.
If you are looking for a cheap date night, do a fun art walk, watch the sunset against the skyline, and enjoy one of the many places to grab a beer and some food.
The Rail Trail is one of the best places to go for a stroll in Charlotte, along with Freedom Park, so here is everything else you might need to know.
On the other hand, it is a great place to go for a run or to do something completely different, like shopping with friends. Regardless of why you are checking it out, here are some other details you might be interesting to know.
Where Does The Rail Trail Start?
The complete Charlotte Rail Trail starts way north of town at the Sugar Creek Station and stretches as far south as the Arrowood Station. Still, it wouldn’t be that easy to make it from South End to Optimist Hall north of Uptown on the Rail Trail.
Defining where the Rail Trail starts in parts depends on further defining precisely what you are asking. The entire Rail Trail is 11 miles long, but a few gaps remain that need to be filled before the Rail Trail stretches for a fully contiguous 11 miles.
The most popular segment of the Rail Trail runs from near the intersection of South Blvd and Clanton Rd on the southern tip toward E Morehead St at the North (where it essentially runs into 277). Eventually, the iconic Rail Trail Bridge will be completed, and the path will continue to the northern edge of Uptown.
If you are simply wondering where to park, the densest shopping, restaurants, and breweries are near Camden, so start there.
How Long Is The Rail Trail?
The Rail Trail is about 11 miles long, but South End’s most popular section of the Rail Trail runs about 2 miles from Morehead to Clanton. If you can park near one end or the other, the Rail Trail offers a nice little 4-miler out and back run.
Is Charlotte Rail Trail Worth Visiting?
The Charlotte Rail Trail is worth visiting, whether you are a local or planning your first trip to Charlotte. What was originally designed as a utilitarian pathway along the Blue Line has transformed into a thread that binds Charlotte’s urban fabric.
Residents use the Charlotte Rail Trail for walking, jogging, bicycling, commuting, dog walking, dining, socializing, shopping, and as a replacement for driving. Some locations along the trail see 2,000 users per day. This is no surprise to anyone who has watched the thousands of apartments built between the Uptown and South End communities.
As a result, there is plenty to do and see, and the many art installations create an eye-catching visual experience, even as the sunset draws your eye toward the skyline. This is why the Charlotte Rail Trail has become one of the main draws to the city’s urban environment.