North Carolina’s state trails provide an abundance of opportunities to experience some of the state's most magnificent landscapes.
As units of the North Carolina state parks system, they are distinguished from other regional and local trails, while still offering regional connectivity and public access. While a state park is operated and managed by the Division of Parks and Recreation, a state trail is composed of multiple, connected sections and, as a whole, epitomizes partnerships. Each section of the trail is sponsored by a federal, state or local government agency, nonprofit organization or private landowner.
Section sponsors build, maintain and manage their section of trail — deciding on location, design, surface, permitted uses and amenities. The North Carolina Trails Program is responsible for the overall corridor planning and coordination. The staff provides guidance and assistance to all section sponsors.
Each state trail has a partner organization. These partners are nonprofit groups with long histories of supporting their state trail. In addition to advocacy, promotion, volunteer recruitment and organization, planning, and trail construction, they are now responsible for distributing the funds allocated to each state trail through the Complete the Trail Fund, which was established in 2021. Many of the partners have very detailed information about the state trail on their websites, which is helpful when planning a trip to a state trail. When you click on a state trail, you can learn about the partner organizations.
A state trail is a linear corridor on land or water, separated from vehicular traffic, providing public access for non-motorized recreation or transportation. All state trails must be authorized by the General Assembly.
All state trails share legal status as components of the state parks system. This distinguishes them from other regional and local trails and pathways. These trails offer opportunities for regional connectivity and public access to some of North Carolina's most significant and scenic landscapes.
State trails epitomize partnerships. While a state park is operated and managed by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, a state trail is composed of multiple connected sections, and each section of the trail is sponsored by a state or federal agency, local government, or private landowner.
Section sponsors build, maintain, and manage their section of the trail. This includes location, design, surface, permitted uses, and amenities. Section sponsors retain authority on lands under their jurisdiction. They are encouraged to showcase places of natural, scenic, historic, and cultural significance; to feature the diversity of natural communities and landscapes in the state; to consider the needs of both long- and short-distance hikers; and to employ recognized standards of sustainable trail design and construction. Often, and ideally, section sponsors are supported by dedicated volunteers.
The overall trail corridor planning and coordination are the responsibility of the Division. The Division will provide guidance, coordination, and assistance for the multiple section sponsors, whose individual and diverse sections link together to form the state trail. Working together on connecting sections of a state trail is a way for communities to leverage their investments in trails to maximize the value for their citizens.
Enlarging the state parks system is important, but potential new park units — including state trails — must be selected carefully to ensure that they fulfill the purposes of the system and justify the considerable public investment in planning, coordination, acquisition, and management.
Before the General Assembly authorizes the creation of a new state trail, the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation may develop a feasibility plan or a conceptual plan. The conceptual plan basically identifies the planning area and potential partners, stakeholders, and section sponsors; determines whether the proposal meets the criteria for the establishment of a new unit; and evaluates the feasibility of implementing the proposed trail.
The Division has developed criteria to evaluate potential new state trails. This provides a system for evaluation, as well as a mechanism to remove unsuitable trails from consideration.
Three minimum criteria are used for the initial evaluation of proposed state trails:
- Statewide significant natural, cultural, scenic, and recreation value;
- Sufficient potential length and beauty to attract varied and significant use from regions outside the local area; and
- Minimal and surmountable incompatible features, such as roads, intrusive development or large water bodies.
If a potential state trail meets these basic requirements, then the feasibility of inclusion as a state trail is based on:
- Local public support for the general concept of a public trail and the availability of trail volunteers;
- Presence of viable section sponsors committed to the design, construction, maintenance, and management of the trail; and
- Environmental and economic sustainability of the trail route.
Constructed trail within the planned corridor is not part of the state trail until it is designated by the Secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Section sponsors may apply for designation once the trail is completed. Criteria for designation include public access, developing an emergency management plan, outlining amenities provided to the public, and inspection by a regional trails specialist.