By Bryan Richards
Charlotte comes alive in the springtime. Locals flock to favorite outdoor spots like Freedom Park, where they can enjoy a picnic with the backdrop of bikers pedaling along the trails, or the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where they can sip a beer while adventurers carve up the rapids.
What fun is standing on the sidelines as a spectator, though? Isn’t the real excitement in the heat of the action as a participant? From beginner biking to moderate kayaking and expert hiking, our Outdoor Fun Guide is designed to help you get out, get active, and enjoy the city’s warmth and charm.
SKILL LEVEL: BEGINNER
The easiest outdoor activity to pick up is hiking because it involves the lowest level of investment. All you need is that pair of sneakers collecting dust bunnies in the back of your closet. Lace them up, strap on your Fitbit (if you have one) and start logging some steps. The Charlotte Rail Trail and Little Sugar Creek Greenway are great route options, as both are paved and well-lit.
If you haven’t ridden a bike since your youth, the old saying “it’s like riding a bike” may sound like a cruel joke. It’s true, though; riding a bike is easy, even if you haven’t done it in decades. To get you started again, Charlotte B-cycle, Uptown Cycles and The Spoke Easy all offer inexpensive rentals. The Spoke Easy even has on-site restaurant and bar to help you fully immerse yourself in the biking culture.
With your helmet strapped on, head out to one of the many Charlotte paths, like the infamous Booty Loop, that are ideal for novices. The 2.8-mile loop through the postcard-perfect Myers Park neighborhood doesn’t cross any major intersections and only has right turns. If sharing the road with cars sounds intimidating, the 5.8-mile-spanning scenic trails of the Lower McAlpine Creek, McMullen Creek and Four Mile Creek Greenway are another great option. If you’re looking to make biking a family adventure, enroll the kids in lessons at Learn to Ride Charlotte.
For the added moral support of fellow bikers, look into one of the city’s great bike clubs events, like the Plaza Midwood Tuesday Night Ride, which meets every Tuesday night, rain or shine, at 7:45 at The Common Market on Commonwealth Avenue. There’s also the Sunday Slow Riders, who meet weekly on Sundays at Legion Brewing for relaxed rides around town. The group meets at 1:45 p.m. in the spring, winter and fall and at 7:45 p.m. in the summer.
WeeklyRides.com is the ultimate resource for meetup rides of every kind. WeeklyRides offers three types of cycling: Rides by Day, which are structured as daily training rides; Rides by Skill, which feature novice, intermediate and advance level rides; and Social Rides, which are tied to a social activity at a local spot. Looking to start lightly and make new friends? Try the JoyRide meetup, which convenes at Amelie’s French Bakery for desserts and a 10-15-mile ride each Sunday.
While water sports like kayaking and whitewater rafting might be off limits to most landlocked metropolitan cities, they aren’t to Charlotte! We’re lucky to not only be surrounded by three man-made lakes but also to be the home of the world’s largest man-made recirculating whitewater river, which is located at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Let’s hold off on rafting through rapids for now, though, and focus on getting your paddle wet over easy-to-maneuver flatwater kayaking.
Several companies on Lake Norman offer kayak rentals. Look for one that rents sit-on-top kayaks (they’re next-to-impossible to sink) but that’s also located away from the chaos of the lake’s boating traffic. Long Island Paddle Sports is a great option. The outfitter is situated on a quiet section of the lake, with the peaceful waterfall at Balls Creek only a 45-minute paddle away from the drop zone. Or rent from My Aloha Paddle & Surf, Inc., which features a waterfront drop-off point from which you can launch your kayak directly.
SKILL LEVEL: MODERATE
It’s time to transition those evening walks from pavement to dirt. First, you might want to pick up a pair of hiking boots or trail shoes. At Great Outdoor Provision Co. and Jesse Brown’s Outdoors, you can purchase everything from proper footwear for your newfound hobby to tents and CamelBaks.
Once you’re properly equipped, check out the several hiking trails within Charlotte city limits that are great for hikers seeking moderate terrain. McDowell Nature Center and Preserve offers relaxing water views along the shores of Lake Wylie, Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve delivers a scenic walk through a Piedmont prairie, and Reedy Creek Park and Nature Center leads hikers through a maturing Piedmont forest.
Now that you have some miles under those tires, it might be time to buy a bike of your own. The least expensive way is with a refurbished (or “re-cycled”) bike from Trips for Kids Charlotte. Feel good knowing that the proceeds help disadvantaged youth experience the joy of biking. If you’re ready to go all in with a new bike, BikeSource and Bicycle Sport will get you properly measured and outfitted with everything from road bikes to mountain bikes. BikeSource even offers workshops on essentials like changing tires.
Now it’s time to steer away from the city streets and onto the off-road trails. Enter: Mountain biking. From the popular trails that meander through the U.S. National Whitewater Center campus to the routes that run along Colonel Francis Beatty Park in Matthews, there are plenty of mountain biking havens in the Charlotte-metro area. A great way to get started is via a group ride with the Tarheel Trailblazers meetup club. General information meetings for the club are held at 7:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month at DiIworth Neighborhood Grille.
The natural next step for kayaking is to brave the rapids. The best place to do that is at—you guessed it—the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Get a taste for the hydraulics, drops and backwashes with a guided rafting expedition of the raging Class II-IV rapids. Family Rafting and Adventure Rafting excursions are ideal launching pads. Once you have a feel for the water, enroll in a Whitewater Clinic for the basics on navigating a kayak through the torrents.
SKILL LEVEL: EXPERT
Ready to take your outdoor adventure to the next level? Yeah, we thought so.
Two great options for hikers are trail racing and mountain hikes. Both the Charlotte Running Company and the U.S. National Whitewater Center host trail races throughout the year, ranging from 5Ks to 24-hour relay races. And the Queen City is fortunate enough to have two mountains—Kings Mountain and Crowders Mountain—within driving distance of popular trails that offer steep elevation changes sure to get the heart racing.
For bikers, Start2Finish Charlotte hosts a weekly mountain bike race series that utilizes trails throughout the region, and the U.S. National Whitewater Center hosts the annual Ride & Seek MTB Adventure Race each fall. On this challenge, teams of two ride as fast as they can through different challenges and checkpoints across the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s 30-mile-plus trail system.
Of course, the ultimate bicycle adrenaline rush just might come in the form of BMX or track racing. Hornet’s Nest BMX will get you started BMXing with lessons and a weekly race series. And with lessons, weekly lunchtime rides and regularly scheduled races, Giordana Velodrome in Rock Hill, South Carolina, is your spot for track racing.
The ultimate in local whitewater rafting adrenaline rushes comes in the form of expert-level Rodeo Rafting and solo kayaking at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Pro tip: It’s recommended that you have several bouts with Adventure Rafting before you embark on a guided Rodeo Rafting outing. For solo kayaking, a series of whitewater kayaking clinics (including courses like the Kayak Sampler and the Kayak Roll) are the first step. The next progression is to move on to whitewater lessons in which you’ll work one-on-one with a professional instructor and staff to refine your technique and fundamentals and prepare to brave the waters alone. Once you’re fully committed and ready to purchase your own kayak, look no further than the on-site gear shop, Outfitters.
This article ran in the March 2017 issue of Charlotte Happenings.