15 free outdoor fall and winter activities in Charlotte, from hitting the trails to holiday markets


Between presents for loved ones and too many trips to Peppermint Forest (guilty), the costs of the holiday season can add up quickly. Luckily, given Charlotte’s moderate fall and winter weather, you can still indulge in the best seasonal activities outdoors — all for free.

Wander around a German-inspired market, catch the leaves changing from the top of a mountain or watch a tree lighting ceremony in the heart of Uptown, all without spending a dime.

Scale a nearby mountain

Crisp fall air inspires a weekend hike (and a #fall selfie from the peak.) Head to a nearby mountain at Crowders Mountain State Park to see the leaves change and get a view of the Queen City from a new perspective. The drive is short… but arrive early on weekends, as parking is limited.

Looking for more of a challenge? Grandfather Mountain, Linville Gorge, and Roan High Knob on the Appalachian Trail offer sweeping vistas and a hike that’s worth the two-ish hour drive.

[Related: Best hikes within three hours of Charlotte]

[Related: Hiking guide: Want to scale ladders and explore plane wreckage? Check out this amazing route]

[Related: ‘Find somebody to lean on.’ And other pieces of wisdom I picked up on my hike.]

Get your sweat on outside

Spring and summer are perfect for a free outdoor yoga sesh, but cooler temperatures require a bit more movement to keep muscles warm. If you don’t mind being sore for a few days, head to the STAX bootcamp — free on Tuesdays and Thursdays and worth the pain.

Or, grab a friend and join a run club. Some locations, like Heist Brewery, offer “Frequent Runner Cards” redeemable for menu items after completion of a number of runs. Find a full list of free local run clubs here.

Wander around the farm


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Gorgeous morning for coffee, pizza and fresh air on the farm.

A post shared by Wise Acres Organic Farms (@wiseacresorganic) on

What’s fall without a trip to the farm? While some farms near Charlotte charge admission, Hodges Family Farm and Wise Acres Organic Farm allow free entry. Stroll around, enjoy the fresh air, and visit with the animals. And I know we’re talking free stuff, but my advice? Bring just a few dollars and indulge in pizza, popcorn, and cider — you won’t regret it.

Attend the Thanksgiving Day Parade

Celebrating over 70 years of holiday memories, the Novant Health Thanksgiving Day parade will feature floats, balloons, marching bands, and performing acts. Don’t miss exclusive appearances by Miss North Carolina, Santa, the United States Old Fife and Drum Corps, and the cast of Carowinds’ Winterfest. The parade will begin on 9th St. at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, November 22 and will march south on Tryon to Stonewall St.

Catch a tree lighting ceremony

Whether you assemble your tree the first week of November (me) or wait until December, the Uptown tree lighting ceremonies are a must-see.

Head to the NASCAR Hall of Fame for the 4th Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony on November 24. The festival begins at 5 p.m. and the tree will twinkle for the first time this year at 7:15 p.m. After the celebration, grab a photo near the glimmering trees adorned with white lights and vibrant snowflakes in the plaza.

The following week, head Uptown to catch the Uptown Tree Lighting presented by Charlotte Center City. This year’s tree lighting ceremony will occur on November 29 from 5:30-6:30 p.m. to the sounds of holiday music at the Christmas Village at 7th St. and Tryon St.

View the holiday lights in Fourth Ward

The Fourth Ward houses look beautiful no matter the time of year, but they’re particularly charming dressed in holiday lights. Though the Holiday Home Tour requires a paid ticket for admission, the exteriors are viewable at no charge. Stroll through the historic neighborhoods to get your dose of Christmas cheer.

Hunt for gifts at a holiday market


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Glühwein and twinkly lights and blanket scarves… 🎶 It’s Christmastiiiiime in the cityyyyy 🎶

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Ditch department store shopping for an outdoor holiday market. From Thanksgiving Day until Christmas Eve, the Charlotte Christmas Village will host local and international vendors at its German-style holiday bazaar. Admission is free and includes live performances, but you may want to spring for a warm beverage. Note: The market will have a new location this year at the corner of 7th St. and N. Tryon.

If you can’t get enough of German-style markets, The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery will host its annual Weihnachtsmarkt featuring local vendors, holiday beer, and spiced wine. Admission to the market is free, and the unique setup of the brewery makes the experience feel truly authentic. The market is open November 30 through December 15.

Make the drive to Christmas Town USA

Sparkling with holiday cheer, Christmas Town USA in McAdenville (Gaston County) will host visitors for a 63rd year to observe its holiday wonderland. The festive destination features over 160 decorated homes and 265 evergreen trees glittering with 500,000 red, green, and white lights. Car traffic is heavy on the weekends — opt for a parking spot and stroll along the decorated streets. 

Lights glow nightly on Monday – Friday from 5:30 – 9:30 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday from 5:30 – 11 p.m.

[Related: 12 things to know about visiting McAdenville (aka Christmas Town USA]

Hit the trails at the U.S. National Whitewater Center


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What’s your favorite trail for fall color?

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Even though water activities halt during the winter months, the U.S. National Whitewater Center still proves a fun spot for a weekend outdoors. Walk or bike the trails for no charge (save for the $6 parking fee) — the greenery and fresh air offer a welcome escape from a week spent indoors. Bonus: trails are dog-friendly.

[Related: 6 reasons to hit the trails at the U.S. National Whitewater Center]

Note: Trails are open 365 days a year, weather permitting. Check the trail status at the bottom of any page on the USNWC website. Open trails are marked by a green circle.



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