Walkers, joggers, and cyclists on the Rocky Mount Greenway are serenaded by the gentle roar and splash of the Tar River as it falls over the dam that once powered Rocky Mount Mills, a former cotton mill turned multiuse campus just across the water from Battle Park. The dam was built at the site of the natural rock outcrop that gave the town its name and marks the transition from the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain. It’s also one of the most striking sights on the seven-mile paved trail that runs beside the river and connects five city parks — from Sunset Park on the west end to Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the east end. Trail users can picnic in shelters overlooking the water, fish from a pier at Stith-Talbert Park, and see the knees of bald cypresses jut out from their swampy beds. Along the way, historical landmarks reveal how Rocky Mount has been shaped by the Tar River. — Rebecca Woltz
Great Outdoor Provision Co. is chock full of friendly staff that know and go outdoors. With spring just ahead, visit to learn about fly fishing and paddlesports opportunities. We have a full schedule of classes and demos to help you enjoy NC trails.
Keep an eye out for turtles along the River Trail in Cleveland County. photograph by wrangel/iStock/Getty Images Plus
The River Trail, Broad River Greenway
For a calming hike or bike ride by the water, explore the beautiful, 2.2-mile out-and-back River Trail, part of a 15-mile trail system that weaves across 1,500 acres of protected land in Cleveland County to form the Broad River Greenway. The River Trail is made up of natural surfaces, boardwalk, and gravel, and is part of the Carolina Thread Trail, a regional network of trails, greenways, and blueways connecting 15 counties in the Carolinas. Park at the trailhead near the ranger station, where a handicapped-accessible pathway includes educational displays. Cast a line at the fishing pier, look for turtles, enjoy the view from a waterfront bench, or set off for a walk. After heading west on the River Trail, retrace your steps to return to the trailhead. Then extend your journey along the banks of the river by following the 1.8-mile Cottonwood Trail east. After working up a sweat on a warm day, you can even wade into the water at a little beach near the trailhead. — Katie Schanze
The Great Dismal Swamp has one of the largest black bear populations on the East Coast. photograph by MattCuda/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Dismal Swamp Canal Trail
The Dismal Swamp Canal, part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, is the oldest hand-dug waterway in the country still in use today. Since it opened, the canal — initially completed in 1805, then expanded and fully operational by 1829 — has provided an inland route from Chesapeake Bay to Albemarle Sound without having to venture into the ocean waters around Cape Hatteras. Today, the canal is popular with paddlers, but you can also explore the area by foot on the out-and-back Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, which follows part of old Route 17 South along the historic waterway as it meanders through a wooded area. Park at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center and head south for three miles on a 10-foot-wide, paved section of straight and flat trail that’s perfect for families and handicap accessible. Part of the NC Birding Trail, the path features signs to learn about the canal’s rich history. You can also park at the welcome center, cross over the canal, and follow the waterway north into Great Dismal Swamp State Park, connecting to a variety of other trails. No matter which direction you go, keep an eye out for black bears, subtropical birds, butterflies, bobcats, and white-tailed deer — and be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen. — Katie Schanze
Deep in the remote Three Sisters Swamp of the Black River stands an ancient old-growth forest. For decades, a famed bald cypress, dated to 372 AD and known as Methuselah, was its patriarch — until two even older trees were discovered.