The Best Way to Spend a Long Weekend in Charlotte
This North Carolina city is an outdoor vacation hub you’ll never want to leave
Just a short drive from some of the tallest peaks and most rugged wilderness east of the Mississippi, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a hidden gem for outdoor lovers. Charlotte is a city that feels like it was made for cyclists and runners, and with a plethora of waterfalls, swimming holes, rock climbing crags, paddling routes, and more, it’s easy to create an adventure-filled itinerary in the Tarheel State. Once you take into account the vibrant, diverse culture, delicious food, great year-round weather, wealth of breweries, and entertainment options, the Queen City might be hard to leave at all.
All of that gets even more appealing when you realize how easy it is to get to Charlotte. Charlotte Douglas International Airport is less than 10 miles from the heart of the city and sees flights in and out of more than 180 destinations—including more than a few international hubs. Spend Friday getting to town (or, with all these direct flights, fly in after work) and head right into the city to kick off your adventure.
While there’s still light, head straight to Camp North End: Charlotte’s hub for innovation and creativity. What was once a manufacturing site for Model T cars is now an open-air artistic space and home of some of the city’s most interesting businesses. Take a peek at art by local artists (be sure to stop by BLKMRKT, a collective of local Black creators), then track down some street food at La Caseta where they advertise their traditional latin cuisine as “Mother Made”—recipes that have been passed down through generations. Top it off with a beer at Heist Brewery, which hosts regular concerts and has plenty of outdoor seating.
After enjoying a brew, check into your room at The Westin, in Charlotte’s downtown, which locals refer to as “Uptown.” Pets are welcome and the outdoor balcony adjacent to the pool area has a fire pit. It’s almost like camping, except with a significantly more comfortable bed.
Snag whatever last-minute gear you need at one of the area’s favorite adventure shops, Great Outdoor Provision Co., and then hit the road to Crowders Mountain State Park, less than an hour from the city, but packed with world-class hiking. A 4.3 mile family-friendly trail starting at the visitors center will take you to enjoy the views from the summit of 1,705-foot Kings Pinnacle. You’ll find yourself weaving through the picturesque forest before topping out on the steep, rocky summit, a hike suited for adventure lovers and more casual hikers alike.
For those looking to push a little harder, try Crowders Mountain itself, or the Ridgeline Trail, which continues south from Kings Pinnacle all the way to South Carolina and features technical sections which involve climbing.
Looking for someone to hike with? Check out Issa Vibe Adventures, a local organization that looks to provide outdoor adventures for everyone and expose more people in the Black community to the outdoors.
On your way back from the park, cool off at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, an Olympic-level kayak and canoe training facility and a whole lot more. Catch a race or concert, try your hand at rock climbing over a pool, hop on a zipline, hike or bike the Center’s 50 miles of trails, or get on the whitewater in a kayak, SUP, or raft. After you’ve had your fill of fun, the Pump House Biergarten on the complex hosts as many as 60 beers on tap and offers a smorgasbord of food.
If you haven’t eaten your fill at the USNWC, head back to Charlotte’s Mill District, which includes the neighborhoods of Belmont, Optimist Park, NoDa, and Villa Heights. Both historic and new, the Mill District is home to abundant modern dining, shopping, and hangout options while holding on to the community’s textile industry legacy. No trip to North Carolina would be complete without authentic barbecue, and Sweet Lew’s is the solution. The service station-turned-smoke shack uses a blend of hickory, pecan, and peach woods to smoke their meats. Just reading the menu—smoked pork shoulder, beef brisket, spare ribs, and more—is enough to get your mouth watering.
Not in the mood for BBQ? Optimist Hall is a former textile mill loaded with a broad collection of eateries. You can find pizza, Asian street food, Indian, Mexican, burgers, and a lot more, all in one central location.
Ease into the day by hopping on Charlotte’s Rail Trail, a 3.5-mile route connecting various neighborhoods and a great place for running and biking, as well as commuting through the city.
Make a pit stop at Not Just Coffee, right off the trail at Atherton Mill, for a brew and some light breakfast before heading to the brand new Mountain Creek Park. Opening in early 2022, the 606-acre park features 18 miles of biking, hiking, and running trails less than an hour from the city. The trails here were specifically designed and built with mountain bikers in mind, and include bike-only routes and a maze of riding options around the upper reaches of Lake Norman.
After a day of biking, make your way back to the city and grab one last beer at NoDa Brewing Company, along with a snack from one of the rotating local food trucks before heading back to the airport. And remember, it’s never too early to plan your next visit.