As the sun dips beneath the horizon, a group of evening revelers pedal furiously, powering their mobile party as they clink glasses in cheers to the day’s end. But instead of cruising past skyscrapers on Trade Street, this craft — operated by Charlotte Cycle Boats — skims the serene waters of Lake Norman.
“It’s a pedal-powered party like what you’d see in Uptown Charlotte, but this is a pontoon version,” says Cyndi Bartley, operations and marketing director at Visit Lake Norman. “You can go out for that sunset cruise and make friends while you pedal.”
Party boats not your thing? No worries, the Charlotte area has plenty of options for fun on the water, from splashing with the kiddos to riding the rapids on a whitewater adventure. Read on for our guide to some of the Queen City’s best on-the-water fun.
Find an Adventure on the Lake
A short drive out of the city brings you to Lake Norman, the largest manmade lake in North Carolina, which boasts more than 500 miles of shoreline packed with activities for a day on the water.
Water sports reign supreme at Lake Norman, and beginners can take lessons with the pros at Ride LKN Wake and Surf School. photograph by Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority
Nature lovers can get a closer look at waterfowl, endangered plant species, and more on guided kayak tours of Latta Nature Preserve. And if simply cruising is more your speed, chartered boat excursions offer dinner and sunset cruise option — or you can join friends on a Carolina Tiki pontoon ride.
“It’s a very laid-back lifestyle,” Bartley says. “You can go everywhere in your flip-flops — you can walk into restaurants having just come off the boat with your cover-up on, and it’s fine.”
Ride the Rapids
Whitewater rapids may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Charlotte, but the Queen City is home to the world’s largest manmade whitewater river at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Visitors to the center get a rush riding the Class II to IV rapids in rafts or kayaks with a professional guide.
Charlotte is home to the world’s largest manmade whitewater river at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. photograph by Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority
Looking for more thrills? Then the deep-water solo might be for you: “It’s a climbing facility with free climbing that overhangs a 200-foot-long pool, and when you slide down, you land in the water,” says Jesse Hyde, brand director at USNWC. “It’s the only facility of its kind in the world.”
Those wanting a more chill experience in the water will enjoy the center’s flat-water paddling on the Catawba River. The center offers kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for cruising the river’s gently flowing waters — smooth enough that kids as young as 4 years old can paddle with adult supervision.
Explore the Shore
Straddling the border between North and South Carolina, Lake Wylie also offers an escape from city life with boating, hiking, and more.
Along the lake shore, McDowell Nature Preserve features more than 1,100 acres of protected land teeming with wildlife. Visitors can explore more than eight miles of hiking trails throughout the preserve and set up a tent at McDowell Campground, which offers everything from primitive campsites to RV hookups and even hammock camping.
Nearby, Copperhead Island also offers camping, plus direct boat access to Lake Wylie via four boat ramps. Visitors also enjoy fishing and beach volleyball on the island. And don’t worry — there aren’t an excess of snakes, despite the slightly scary name.
Take the leap
Once mined for granite rock, the quarry at Carrigan Farms in nearby Mooresville now beckons swimmers with its pool of refreshingly cool water emerging from a natural spring.
“It’s so blue because we don’t have runoff like you do in a lake,” says Kelly Carrigan, a fifth-generation member of the family that has run the farm since the 1700s. “It’s also what we use to irrigate our crops, so we know the water quality is good.”
Visitors can sample some of those farm-fresh treats at the quarry-side restaurant, and if you’d rather dip a pole than a toe in the water, fishing ponds next to the quarry offer catch-and-release bass, brim, catfish, and more. But on a hot day, it’s hard to resist those crisp, blue quarry waters.
“People love taking the plunge into the water,” Carrigan says. “We have a rope swing here too, so the adventurous can swing out over the water and drop in — it’s about a 16-foot drop, and it’s really thrilling and fast.”
Splash with the Kids
On a hot day, there’s nothing like cooling off with the little ones at a splash pad. And in Charlotte, several parks offer wet fun for kids.
Located conveniently to Uptown, First Ward Park draws families throughout the summer to its splash pad, with fountains that shoot water up at delighted children. During the summer, live music and food trucks up the fun factor.
Located conveniently to Uptown, First Ward Park draws families throughout the summer to its splash pad. photograph by Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority
In NoDa, kids flock to Cordelia Park’s splash pad and then head to the park’s public swimming pool. And at Latta Park in the Dilworth neighborhood, kids can splash and play at the sprayground and playground while mom and dad enjoy the pretty view of the Charlotte skyline.
Roll on Down the river
Springing from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Catawba River meanders through the North Carolina Piedmont, skirting the western border of Charlotte.
Anglers love the Catawba, fishing the river for bass, catfish, and more, but if you don’t want to cast a line, pick up a paddle: Kayakers flock to the Catawba for serene solo excursions and guided trips like the Eco Tours hosted by the Catawba Riverkeeper. The Riverkeeper also hosts a kids’ kayaking program for beginners ages 10 to 15.
Enjoy the Freedom to Roam
Just south of the city center, Freedom Park is anchored by a sparkling seven-acre lake that serves as the centerpiece of activity. Walking trails surround the lake, offering up-close views of the water, while outdoor shelters with grills set the scene for a waterside picnic.
The park also has a lakeside bandshell that hosts concerts, including a summer jazz series. And the annual Festival in the Park, held each September, features live music, local art and plenty of family friendly fun.
Get our most popular weekly newsletter: This is NC
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.