It doesn’t take hours of travel for North Carolinians to experience some of the best views and outdoor adventures in the state.
Instead, a short trek down Interstate 40 will lead outdoors enthusiasts to a plethora of activities and breathtaking views in what’s called Nature’s Playground.
No matter what you’re hoping to get out and do, you don’t have to look any further than Burke County.
South Mountains State Park
South Mountains State Park, North Carolina’s largest state park, boasts almost 21,000 acres with about 50 miles of trails for hikers of all backgrounds.
“You can select what works for you,” said Jonathan Griffith, superintendent of South Mountains State Park.
About a mile long hike will take you to High Shoals Falls, one of the parks most visited spots.
“It’s just a beautiful place,” Griffith said. “With the rock cliffs, if you didn’t know it, you’d think you were in the big mountains. There’s probably 150- to 200-feet rock cliffs surrounding the waterfall, and the waterfall itself is 80-feet high. It’s a really pretty spot.”
Mountain bikers can join the hikers on moderate and strenuous trails to have their bikes climb some of the most beautiful terrain in the state.
For the avid equestrian, the park offers trails and campsites where horses are welcome.
The park even offers trout fishing.
“I think we are the, if not the southernmost, almost the most southern, trout waters available,” Griffith said.
Little ones can take an educational walk on Hemlock Nature Trail, which runs alongside Jacob Fork River and features informational displays about ecology along the river.
Lake James State Park
At Lake James State Park, enjoy hikes around the lake that offer views of the Linville Gorge.
“It’s a great place to get outdoors,” said Karen Johnson, administrative specialist at the park.
Watching the sunrise or sunset dip into the gorge from the Sandy Cliff Overlook is one of her favorite things to do at the park.
“We have an overlook that looks over into the Linville Gorge,” she said. “You can drive right to it. It’s a beautiful scenic overlook.”
The Paddy’s Creek area of the park offers a way to have a day at the beach without driving more than six hours to get there.
“Our most popular activity is the swim beach,” Johnson said. “People come out and want to go swimming, picnicking. Just enjoy the water and the sunshine.”
The park also offers walk-in, drive-in, and even boat-in campsites. Boat-in camp sites require reservations, but have campers paddling to Long Arm Peninsula to enjoy their weekend.
Don’t have a canoe or kayak to use? The park offers rentals.
Also at Lake James State Park, Holly Discovery Trail has 18 interactive educational activity stations.
Take a mini-vacation
Roughing it might not be for everyone, but there are plenty of vacation rentals throughout Burke County.
Apps like Airbnb offer rentals for lakefront and mountain homes throughout the county, said Ed Phillips, director of Burke County Tourism Development Authority.
“Even if you live here and don’t live on Lake James or don’t live up in the mountains, you can go to Airbnb or Vrbo and actually rent a house 15 or 20 minutes from your own home, but it would be in a new location on Lake James or in Jonas Ridge,” Phillips said. “You’d be surprised the number of people that have family reunions, or birthday parties, or whatever that they decide to stay here in their own county and experience that at the lake or the mountains and rent vacation rentals.”
A simple drive can show you some of the best views Burke County has to offer.
Burke’s N.C. Old Highway 105 has one of the most well-preserved gravel roads in the state, offering views of the western edge of the Linville Gorge, Phillips said.
“It’s about a 15-mile-long drive,” Phillips said. “Very scenic, and very rough and rugged. It’s like you’re totally in the wilderness, with cellphone service.”