Hike where the horses do

Hiking trails continue to be over-run. Thank the run of great weather (OK, there’s been a little rain here and there) and a lack of other recreational options during the age of Coronavirus for that.

But this overcrowding is more of a situation for trails intended for two feet. What about all the trails built for four?

In North Carolina’s State Parks system alone, 11 locations have equestrian trails, from the 32-mile network of interlocking horse trail at South Mountains State Park, to the 2-mile Bridle Out & Back Trail at Stone Mountain State Park (which visits a still!). Those 11 parks have a total of 35 equestrian trails offering 118 miles of riding. 

Or hiking, depending upon your recreation perspective. 

And that’s just in the state parks. The state’s four national forests offer hundreds of miles of trail open to both horseback riding and hiking. 

You’ll find a few key differences between equestrian trails and dedicated hiking trails:

  • Fewer bridges. Horse trails crossing major rivers will have bridges, but otherwise you’ll be fording streams when you reach water. Reason: it takes a substantial bridge to support a one-ton horse, and horses are less averse to getting their feet wet than we are. One of the reasons we focus on state parks in this post is that water crossings within their boundaries are likely to be less challenging than those in national forests. If water crossings make you nervous, get a good scouting report before hiking an unknown equestrian trail. And if you can’t find a good review online, at least get a topo map of the trail and look for what might be significant crossings.
  • Typically wider. To allow for a horse’s greater girth and to allow for two of these greater girth’s to pass on the trail, horse trails tend to be wider, often piggybacking on old roadbeds. Though wider, they often aren’t wide enough to create an opening in the canopy overhead, so you still benefit from shade on a summer’s day.
  • Typically have more overhead clearance. Because of the overhead clearance required for a horse and rider, these trails generally are trimmed high above the trail. Coupled with the fact these trails are also wider, you tend to get better air flow, which is especially helpful on a summer’s day. 
  • Can be more sloppy. Because a one-ton horse makes a greater impact on a trail than a 180-pound person when they go through a low-lying wet area they can leave divots that become small holding ponds. Thus, they can be a bit sloppier. Sturdier hiking shoes or boots are advised when hiking an equestrian trail. 

There’s a chance you’ve already hiked on a horse trail. If you’ve hiked the Multiuse Trails at Umstead State Park in Raleigh, you’ve hiked on horse trail. 

But more likely, you haven’t. Three quick recommendations:

  • Raven Rock State Park, Avents Creek Access. East Loop, West Loop. 8 miles. We’ll let the accompanying video tell the story on this one. In short these are two 4-mile loops with the same trailhead. Start with the West Loop hiked clockwise; three-quarters of a mile in you’ll hit Jumping Fish Falls, a 5-foot drop followed by a 3 footer. Surprisingly steep terrain, considering this is the cusp of the coastal plain.
  • South Mountains State Park, 32 miles. Ninety percent of the visitors to South Mountains go to Upper Falls, which means you have the vast majority of this, the biggest state park in North Carolina, to yourself. Probably the best horse trails for hiking in the state.
  • Morrow Mountain State Park, 19 miles. These trails are more intimate than you might think for horse trails. They also offer the opportunity for long stretches seeing no other hikers. And conveniently located — for folks in Charlotte, the Triad and Triangle — in the center of the state.

Miles of equestrian trails await in North Carolina for the hiker eager for something different — and less crowded. Saddle up!


N.C. State Park equestrian trails. Find a rundown of the 35 equestrian trails in the system’s 11 state parks here.

North Carolina National Forests. North Carolina’s four national forests — the Croatan, Nantahala, Pisgah, and Uwharrie, include hundreds of miles of horse trails open to hiking. Find those trails starting here.

Virginia State Parks. Nineteen Virginia State Parks have, or offer access to, more than 250 miles of equestrian trails. Find those trails here. 

GetBackpacking! Guide to Water Crossings. Intimidated by the prospect of crossing a stream that requires you to get wet? Our guide discusses proper footwear for wet crossings, as well as tips on scouting the crossing, what to do immediately before the crossing and the crossing itself. You can find our guide here; order by Monday, May 31, enter code 5WT3YYH2 and save the 99-cent fee. 

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