Culture + Style

Beyond the Speedway: Charlotte, NC’s Epic Outdoor Activities

An aerial view of Charlotte’s Lake Norman State Park. (Photo: iStock)

Charlotte has traditionally staked its claim as North Carolina’s banking and business center and the birthplace of NASCAR. However, the Queen City is more than asphalt jungle. In recent years, the city set its sights on becoming an outdoor-lover’s destination. In landlocked Charlotte, you still have your pick of ways to enjoy the water with a heavy dose of outdoor adventure.

Make a Splash in Lake Norman

Lake Norman
The marina at Lake Norman. (Photo: iStock)

Charlotteans love Lake Norman, located less than 30 minutes from downtown. This man-made lake is a popular weekend escape for locals and visitors, and you can expect to see dozens of powerboats and jet skis out on the water almost daily, even in winter.

Don’t have a boat? No problem. It’s rent everything from a two-person kayak to a luxury pontoon for 10 (complete with a built-in iPod-compatible sound system) from Aquaventure Rentals.

The lakefront Landing Restaurant is a fun choice for aprés-watersports cocktails, with a tiki bar and boat-in access.

If you prefer to sunbathe or go for a quick dip, the beach at Lake Norman State Park is open from April through October. It can get crowded in the summer, so go early for a little more elbow room.

Get Wet and Wild Whitewater Rafting

U.S. National Whitewater Center
Rafters enjoy the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. (Photo: Mic Smith Photography LLC / Alamy)

Looking for an on-the-water experience that’s a little more on the wild side? Head to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where visitors can sign up for stand-up paddleboard classes or watch competitions that are part of the Center’s Whitewater Race Series.

Pick up a two-day AllSport Pass, and you can choose your own adventure. Whitewater rafting is just one part of the picture at the Center. The pass allows you to choose from 15 activity options, including rafting to the Canyon Crossing high-ropes course.

Try the Mega Zipline, which takes you right above the whitewater for an amazing adrenaline rush.

Newbies fear not: The U.S. National Whitewater Center offers instruction, so you can learn to kayak or even get certified as a stand-up paddleboard instructor if you’re already a semi-pro.

Stroll Through Freedom Park

Freedom Park, Charlotte, NC
A sunny day at the Freedom Park bridge. (Photo: iStock)

Even if your stay in Charlotte is limited to its downtown, there’s still a quick nature fix close by. Known as “Charlotte’s Central Park,” Freedom Park is just outside the city center, bordering the prestigious Myers Park neighborhood.

The seven-acre lake at the park’s center is surrounded by a paved path and grassy areas for picnicking in Charlotte.

On any given day, you’ll find joggers circling the lake and couples pausing on the bridge, a popular spot for local wedding photos.

The warm climate here extends the season for being outdoors from early spring to late fall. Take advantage of it by getting out on the water and chilling out, Charlotte-style.