Hikes with History in North Carolina
5 North Carolina hikes that take you on a journey into the past

Author: Debbie Tullos

Fresh air, rustling leaves, and open spaces are enough for nature-lovers to set out on a trail. For many, however, the opportunity to encounter wild history in its natural habitat, outside the museum walls, is what calls them to the trail. Ruins, mounds, shacks…centuries of history embedded in the landscape of the Old North State are there, waiting for lifelong learners and adventurous explorers to discover. Here’s a list of North Carolina hikes for anyone drawn to moss-covered stone walls, crumbling foundations, ancient earthen structures, and imagining life long ago.

1. Rattlesnake Lodge Trail

Black and white photo of a lodge in the woods in 1903.
Rattlesnake Lodge, built in 1903. The lodge burned in 1926. (photo: National Parks Service)

The Appalachian Mountains, ancient geologic ruins themselves, have long been a place of refuge for those hiding or seeking respite from the world. Whether it be moonshiners, tuberculosis patients, society outcasts, or vacationers, the mountain mist promises quiet isolation. Rattlesnake Lodge near Asheville was one of these refuges. Built in 1903 by the Ambler family as a summer retreat, the lodge was intentionally remote, inaccessible even by standard wagons of the time.

The original Rattlesnake Lodge Trail is now part of the Mountains to Sea Trail. The trailhead is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway on the south end of the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel.

There are a couple of options for how to approach the hike and how much of the lodge site you want to explore, so the hike can take anywhere from 1–3 hours. The National Parks Service offers this guide for planning.

Among the structures and foundations still visible at the lodge site are the old barn, swimming pool, and a stacked stone wall. You’ll find a marker placed by the National Parks Service with information about the site, its history, and a map identifying the layout of the area with structures still present and those long gone. A small side hike will take you to the ruins of the tool shed and the spring house, well worth the detour.

If you’d like to take in a little more history while you’re in the area, Vance Birthplace State Historic Site is nearby.

2. Stone Mountain State Park

Photograph of a old barn sitting in front of the face of a mountain in fall.
Hutchinson Homestead, Stone Mountain State Park (photo: Katie Hall)

Hiking in Stone Mountain State Park near Roaring Gap, N.C. is a walk through Appalachian history. You have Stone Mountain itself, a massive 25-square-mile igneous rock formed by lava beneath the earth’s surface, gradually exposed by the work of time. This monument of the area’s geological history towers over the remnants of Appalachian human history, some left rusting and crumbling among the trees, some painstakingly preserved.

Stone Mountain Loop Trail has a bit of everything for hiking enthusiasts. If you choose to hike the entire trail, it’s classified as strenuous (so many stairs). The entire loop is a 4.5-mile trail that takes you across the summit of Stone Mountain and by a 200-foot waterfall, Stone Mountain Falls. Along the loop you will also encounter the Hutchinson Homestead.

Hutchinson Homestead is a farm built in the mid-19th century by the Hutchinson family. The family and descendants occupied the homestead until 1955. Restored in 1998, the homestead is representative of the lives of early European settlers in the area. Among the restored buildings are a log cabin, corn crib, smokehouse, barn, and blacksmith shop, set before the stunning backdrop of Stone Mountain’s granite dome.

Bonus: Stone Mountain State Park has two more trails that include a bit of history along the way, if you’re willing to share the trail with some larger hikers. The Bridle Loop Trail and the Bridle In-and-Out Trail are equestrian and hiker-friendly trails in the park. On both of these trails, you’ll see the remnants of liquor stills demolished during prohibition. You can find details about all of Stone Mountain State Park’s trails on the park website.

3. Town Creek Indian Mound

A photograph of a American Indian mound as being viewed through foliage.
Mound and reconstructed townhouse at Town Creek Indian Mound Historic Site (photo: NC Historic Sites)

The most ancient ruins left behind for exploration today are those created by Native populations before Europeans arrived. The Town Creek Indian Mound Historic Site offers the opportunity to see how the shape of the land revealed the story of a long vanished regional culture, called “Pee Dee” by archaeologists. While most archaeological sites are investigated for a few years before archaeologists move on to new locations, Town Creek has been the focus of a consistent program of archaeological research for more than half a century.

The reconstructed village site includes the mound and townhouse, the east lodge, and mortuary or clan lodge. The mortuary contains an exhibit depicting a burial scene with an accompanying audio program.

You’ll get in plenty of steps exploring the village site, but there is also a 0.25- mile nature trail along the river bottom. It starts from the visitor center and provides interpretation regarding local wildlife and dendrochronology, an important technique used by archaeologists at Town Creek.

4. Bentonville Battlefield

A photograph of an old cannon attached to wheels sitting in from of a old building.
The Battle of Bentonville was fought March 19–21, 1865. (photo: NC Historic Sites)

The Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site is the location of the largest Civil War battle fought in North Carolina. Historic structures at the site include The Harper House (ca. 1855), furnished as a Civil War field hospital, a reconstructed kitchen, and a dwelling for enslaved people.

War leaves a unique kind of mark on the land. This is certainly still evident at the Bentonville site along a 5-mile interpreted trail. From a trailhead near the visitor center, this trail takes hikers along Civil War earthworks, by cemeteries, across creeks and swamps, through woods and alongside agricultural fields. This trail is also part of the Mountains to Sea Trail.

5. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

An image of a dirt trail leading into a grassy area surrounded by trees.

The reconstructed 1585 earthen fort at Fort Raleigh (photo: National Parks Service)

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is the location of the first English colony in North America, which would become the famous “Lost Colony of Roanoke.” Before that settlement colony was established in 1586, the English set up a military colony there in 1585 and built the earthen Fort Raleigh.

Since the late 1800s, archaeologists have continuously investigated the grounds of Fort Raleigh in the hope of determining the fate of the “Lost Colony,” as well as hoping to piece together the interactions between English colonists and Algonquian Indians. The earthwork seen today was reconstructed in 1950.

In exploring the Fort Raleigh site, get in your steps exploring the reconstructed earthwork and the Waterside Theatre, home to The Lost Colony outdoor drama. The short Thomas Hariot Trail gives a perspective of how the environment played a pivotal role in the fate of those early English settlements. This 0.3-mile loop through the island’s maritime forest to the sandy shores of Albemarle Sound has interpretive signs along the way describing the forest habitat, the Algonquian methods for gathering food and resources the English found valuable.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site also has Civil War history to explore while you’re there. The Battle of Roanoke Island created a significant foothold for the Union in North Carolina and led to the establishment of a Freedmen’s Colony, which prepared formerly enslaved people for life after the war. The Freedom Trail is a 1.25-mile hike that takes you through the maritime forest and offers views of the Croatan Sound on the western edge of the park. The trail ends near the location where the Freedmen’s Colony and Civil War forts once stood.

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