Making Legal Sense of North Carolina Public and Private Property Access

North Carolina has many different public agencies that control the lands we visit. All of them have different regulations, which makes it difficult to know how to act legally at a given time. It’s particularly confusing when you pass through two areas controlled by different agencies. For example, the hike to Rainbow Falls on Horsepasture River begins in Gorges State Park but ends in Pisgah National Forest. And if you go downstream from Rainbow Falls, you enter lands controlled by NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Huh?

Hopefully, this information will make it easier for you to understand how to remain legal on public property. However, I caution you that this is not a complete report. While I’m confident that everything stated is accurate, regulations could change at any time for certain areas. In addition, you should be aware that temporary restrictions might be imposed at any time due to safety, weather, bear activity, resource protection, construction, or any other activity on any public property. You should always check ahead. And you should know that I am not an attorney. I cannot give you legal advice and this report is not intended to be that.

I should also note that if you talk to officials at the different agencies, you might get conflicting answers, even when talking with two or more people at the same agency. On many occasions, I’ve had park officials tell me that it was illegal to hike off trail or park in a certain area, when I knew that was not the case. Sometimes, the officials are simply misinformed, but often it is an issue of liability or resource protection. They simply don’t want you to hike where you could get hurt or damage something. However, what they want and what is illegal are sometimes different things.

With that said, I should also say that I am not advocating doing something against the wishes of any park official, whether it is legal or not. Park personnel have a difficult enough time managing their properties. They don’t need folks like us running around all over the place in direct defiance of their wishes. I will leave it up to you to use good judgment.

I’m including only lands that contain waterfalls in North Carolina. So, the national seashores aren’t included. If anyone finds a waterfall at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, please let me know immediately!

Trail Building and Use

I’m including this section because of numerous inquiries about the legality of building trails on public lands. It is illegal to construct an unauthorized trail by cutting vegetation or altering the earth with tools on any public property. Placing flagging tape is considered littering. However, it is perfectly legal to hike on an illegally built trail unless the agency officially restricts it. If you are otherwise free to hike the land, you are free to hike on any trail or path on that land, regardless if the trail had been built illegally or not.

Private Property

It is never okay to hike on private property without the permission of the landowner. If the property is posted or painted purple, you are definitely breaking the law. You may be acting illegally even if the property is not posted. While you may be protected in cases where you passed from public property onto private lands without any signs alerting you, having a legal ground to stand on will not protect you against an irate landowner’s shotgun. (I know, I’ve been on the barrel end of that shotgun.)

An issue that often comes up regarding private property is that of creek walking. Some people think that as long as you stay in the creek, you’ll be okay. Aside from the fact that it impossible to stay in the water 100% of the time on most western North Carolina waterways, the legal aspect is murky, at best. If the waterway is considered navigable (you can float a kayak in it) it is generally considered public waters and you are free to float it. Wading is different and as far as I can determine, there are no laws established to address this. And even if there were, it would apply only to navigable waterfalls, which would not include the majority of creeks we like to explore for waterfalls.

The best option, of course, is to get permission from the landowner or just not go.

National Parks
Manage by National Park Service, US Department of Interior.
(Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

National parks are more restrictive with the rules than most other agencies. But generally, you are free to travel off trail anywhere in a national park except in certain restricted areas. Typically, a restricted area in a national park will have signs, but not always. Ignorance is no excuse. Most national parks do not allow backcountry camping except at designated campsites. In the Smokies, you have to get a permit to camp at one of its designated sites. You can apply for a special backcountry permit that allows camping in a non-designated area, but you are unlikely to receive one unless you are working on a scientific project. There may be rules against swimming in certain park waters, which would also apply to wading if the park official wanted to push it. I seriously doubt you would have any legal trouble with just crossing streams, however. You are allowed to park on the shoulder of national park roads as long as it is safe to do so. You must move your vehicle complete off the road. You are allowed to hike at night in national parks, except in certain restricted areas. For example, in the Smokies, you cannot walk in the Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at night.

Other National Park Units
Managed by the National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.
(Blue Ridge Parkway)

The Blue Ridge Parkway is an enigma. It is considered a “Unit” of the National Park System rather than a national park. But it operates with basically the same rules as any other national park. Except in designated areas, you are free to hike anywhere you like. You can’t camp, though, except at designated campsites. You can park on the shoulder of the road as long as you pull completely off the road and do not park in an unsafe area. I would also caution against pulling too far off the road. Rangers don’t like it when you try to hide your car and doing so only increases the potential for environmental damage. There may be rules against swimming in certain park waters, which would also apply to wading if the park official wanted to push it. For example, you cannot enter the Linville River at Linville Falls. I seriously doubt you would have any legal trouble with just crossing streams, however.

National Forests
Managed by US Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture.
(Pisgah, Nantahala, Uwharrie, and Croatan National Forests)

Waterfallers love hunting for waterfalls on national forest land because they are the least restrictive of all the state or federal agencies. Except in certain designated areas, you are free to hike anywhere in a national forest. You can also camp, although you should inquire with the Forest Service about any special rules for the area you are hiking in. For example, in Linville Gorge, you must obtain a permit during certain times of the year. Certain areas of national forests are closed to camping for resource protection or safety concerns. You are allowed to park on the shoulder of the road as long as it is safe and not in a restricted area.

North Carolina State Parks
Managed by the NC Division of Parks and Recreation.
(Gorges, Grandfather, South Mountains, and Stone Mountain State Parks, plus many others)

Generally, state parks are more restrictive than national parks or forests. Most have specific visiting hours. Unless you are camping, you cannot visit most state parks at night. Camping must be done at designated campgrounds or backcountry campsites. But you are free to hike anywhere you like as long as it is not in a restricted area. Park rangers in state parks are more hesitant to tell you that because they are concerned for your safety. One park superintendent told me that he likes to talk with the person a bit and then make a judgment on that person’s capabilities before giving info on a backcountry destination. However, he did acknowledge that he could not legally prevent someone from hiking anywhere they wanted unless the park had made that area a restricted zone. You are allowed to park on the shoulder of the road as long as it is safe and not in a restricted area. But keep in mind that in a state park, parking on the shoulder is liable to draw the attention of park rangers.

North Carolina State Forests and State Recreational Forests
Managed by NC Forest Service
(DuPont State Recreational Forest, Headwaters State Forest, and others)

Regulations vary with the state forests, but they are similar to the state parks. Generally, there will be specific hours of operation and you can hike off trail. You should check with each forest to learn the regulations specific to it. For example, DuPont State Recreational Forest is open only during the day, but you can apply for a special permit to visit at night. One big difference is that hunting is allowed in the state forests. You are allowed to park on the shoulder of the road as long as it is safe and not in a restricted area.

North Carolina Game Lands
Managed by NC Wildlife Resources Commission
(Green River Game Lands and several others)

There are many game lands in North Carolina. In fact, most of our national forests and some state forests are part of the game land system. However, NCWRC manages several game lands independent of any other agencies. The regulations are very similar to national forests. You can hike anywhere except in special restricted areas. You should check before camping, as some, such as Green River, do not allow it. You are allowed to park on the shoulder of the road as long as it is safe and not in a restricted area. Some game lands are privately owned, such as Toxaway Game Land owned by Duke Energy. However, they still allow public access to everyone, including non-hunters. In fact, on Toxaway Game land, you can hike and camp anywhere you like.

North Carolina State Natural Areas
Managed by the NC Division of Parks and Recreation
(Mount Jefferson State Natural Area and others)

There are several types of natural areas in North Carolina. Some are on private property and not accessible to the public. The state manages a few that are open to the public and operate on basically the same rules as the state parks. However, you should check ahead, as there may be differences in the regulations at each one.

County and City Parks

There are numerous smaller parks scattered all over North Carolina that are managed by county or city governments. Each has its own set of regulations, which you should check before visiting. Generally, camping is not allowed anywhere. It may or may not be okay to hike off trail. Typically, rules are posted at the entrance to the parks.