Top 5 Trails At US National Whitewater Center

While the Whitewater Center evolved into one of the Charlotte region’s best tourism draws, you might not know how much there is to do once you arrive. The trails at the Whitewater Center are one of the main reasons you might visit.

Whitewater rafting offers the namesake for the Center, and the Deep Water Solo Center is beyond cool. Still, hundreds of people visit the Whitewater Center each weekend for the trails.

While the Parkway is the most accessible, none of the trails are particularly easy. In fact, the Whitewater Center labels the trails as difficult, more difficult, and most difficult.  We’ve gone with the more traditional descriptions, including beginner, intermediate, and advanced. 

What Are The Best Trails At Whitewater Center?

Trail Marker at Whitewater Center in Charlotte

It is impressive that the Whitewater Center features more than 50 miles of trails. Even so, it is hard to grasp how impressive the trail network is unless you conquer all the trails yourself.

Plenty of races are part of the Whitewater Center Race Series that introduce participants to the broader network. My favorite event is the Time Laps trail relay race. Teams of runners earn varying points based on the difficulty of the trails they run.

Parkway Trail (Beginner)

The Parkway Trail is the only all-weather trail at USNWC. It is a 3-mile-long beginner trail parallel to the main entrance drive. The Parkway is likely the most used trail at the Whitewater Center because it is the only trail open when the overall trail network is shut down.

The Whitewater Center is diligent in protecting athletes and the overall condition of the trail network. They do this by closing access to the trails when they are oversaturated with rain. The trails will get constantly torn up if they are overutilized while wet. No one wants that to happen. 

The Parkway is the only all-weather trail at the Whitewater Center, but it is still challenging. It is a dirt and gravel travel that is much more difficult to run on than a concrete sidewalk.

There are sections of the trail in which a gravel trail runs within 10 feet of the entrance driveway. Other times, the trail veers off through the woods. The course goes up and down and provides a noticeably different experience than roadways.

The entrance drive is almost always within the eyesight of the Parkway. Still, the trail will leave you surprised at how much variation the natural topography of the land offers compared to a roadway that is a mere few feet away. 

The Parkway Trail is an excellent introduction to the Whitewater Center and would be a great introduction to trail running or mountain biking.

Dirt Trails for Running and Hiking
Over 50 Miles of Trails

Lake Loop (Beginner)

The Lake Loop is another ever-popular trail that winds for about 3 miles between three or four small lakes. The still lakes make for unique scenery. Several trails run alongside rivers and creeks, but the lakes add even more variety.

The lakes are tiny and very close together, so I enjoy the lake loop pathway because there are a few places where the trail runs along a ridge between the lakes. And I am not the only one. Every time I run the Lake Loop, a family of young mountain bikers also enjoys the trail.

There aren’t many technical aspects to the Lake Trail, making it great for beginner to intermediate hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. Still, the Lake Loop has a deceptive challenge to its name. 

This is one of the most root-covered trails in the Whitewater Center. For mountain bikers, this makes for a bumpy and choppy ride. Tires also tend to slip on slick roots. For trail runners, those pesky roots make a habit of grabbing running shoes if you don’t lift your feet high.

I’ve had a few wipeouts on the Lake Loop when I added the trail as a second trail to my run, and my legs were already tired. Still, the Lake Trail is beautiful and different.  If you are new to the Whitewater Center, the Lake Trail is a must for your hike, run, or ride. 

North Main (Intermediate)

The North Main trail is one of the most beautiful trails at the Whitewater Center and winds 3 miles back and forth across the ridge between the artificial whitewater river, the Catawba River, and Long Creek. It is a compact trail that winds back and forth up a bank before descending back and forth.

The elevation changes are much more significant than you find on the Parkway or Lake trails. In addition to the elevation changes, the trail features a few more technical elements, such as jumps for mountain bikers that result in exciting terrain for hiking or running.

The trail is entirely doable, but it is challenging and will wear your legs out downright.  There have been times that I finished running along North Main, and my legs felt like jello. This is especially true during the hot and humid summer, but the winter months present challenges.

If the trails are ever too wet, they are generally closed, but the Whitewater Center keeps the trails open for most race days.  If you show up for a race day during the winter, be careful what you might find. The trails are difficult to run on when the ground freezes.

Still, the North Main is one of my favorite trails at USNWC.  It is naturally beautiful and challenging, but the fact that it is under the tree canopy and near the water helps keep it a little breezy when it is warmer. 

Plus, several other trails connect to the North Main trail, making it an essential path in the overall network.

Trails Through The Woods
Trails Through The Woods

Smokey + Bandit (Intermediate)

Smokey and the Bandit are actually two trails, but they are connected, and if you use one, you will likely use the other. The two trails are just under 4 miles long combined. But you should know one other thing about the Smokey and Bandit trails. They are across the main road from the Whitewater Center.

They are easily accessible, but you must run the Parkway trail to reach Smokey + Bandit if you park up at the main parking lot.  So, you are looking at closer to 7 miles if you conquer the whole connection of trails from beginning to end. That’s no small feat for most people, but this is especially a challenging combination on trails. 

The thing that I love about Smokey + Bandit is that there are fewer trees, and the trail is further from all of the action, so experiencing Smokey + Bandit feels a little freer. You can see the terrain you are conquering. You can see where you’ve been and where the trail is headed.

Often, you even see the other runners and riders conquering the trail. I will warn you that the Smokey Trail also connects to the Rail Trail, and another route is still under development. If you aren’t paying attention, you might end up deep in paths you are unfamiliar with, away from the primary Center.

This happened to me once when I ran Smokey + the Bandit solo. Have your phone charged up, consider taking a trail map, and ensure you familiarize yourself with the trail map before you head out.

Again though, it is totally worth it. The trail adds another unique vibe that is distinct from most of the other trails in the network.  It is incredible how much the terrain changes in such a small area.

Figure 8 (Advanced)

The easiest way to access the Figure 8 trail is through the North Main trail discussed above. Figure 8 is 1 mile long but isn’t directly accessible from a trailhead. You will need to go through the North Main or perhaps add it to the Carolina Thread Trail.

The Figure 8 trail is the most technical trail on this list, but it is also one of the most fun trails you will ever run. There is one rocky and steep incline that you won’t soon forget. Much of the trail will make you feel like an outdoor warrior.

Add Figure 8 to the North Main, and you have a challenging 4-mile trail that snakes between the Channel Loop and Long Creek. 

What Activities Are The Trails Used For?

Entrance to Whitewater Center

Visitors at USNWC commonly use mountain biking and trail running trails. Still, you can use them for hiking or walking. Make sure the trails are open, pay for parking, and then you are free to use the trails.

The trails are open whenever the weather and conditions allow, and the Race Series offers competitions throughout the year. And if races aren’t your thing, consider going on a run or a bike ride before one of the River Jam concerts.

If you are looking for something to do alone in Charlotte while you clear your mind, running or hiking the trails at the Whitewater Center is a great option. And then, when you are ready to interact, go hang out with friends and family at the River Jam.

Can You Walk On the Trails At The Whitewater Center?

You can walk on any trails, just like serious hikers.  The trails aren’t just for mountain bikers or trail runners. Feel free to go for a walk and do some exploring.

Make sure you stay alert. Mountain bikers speed through trails; even trail runners may have trouble stopping their momentum once they get going.  It is perfectly fine to walk the trails. Still, be sure to pay attention and familiarize yourself with a trail map before you get going. 

Make The Most Of The Trails At USNWC

With more than 25 distinct trails combined to create an overall trail network more than 50 miles long, the Whitewater Center has a path for everyone. Whether your preferred activity is hiking, running, or mountain biking, USNWC offers an incomparable outdoor mecca inside a major US city.  

Our five favorite trails include the Parkway, the Lake Loop, North Main, Smokey + Bandit, and Figure 8, but once you are comfortable with the trails at the Whitewater Center, you will likely find a few that you love. Grab a good pair of shoes, and get out there and enjoy the trails!

Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.