Planning a North Carolina road trip? Whether you are looking at a road trip in North Carolina alone or as part of a larger Southern USA road trip, North Carolina has plenty to recommend it. On any road trip North Carolina offers both city pleasures and outdoor adventures. One of the best North Carolina road trips we have taken is to the Outer Banks for its miles of sand beaches, wild horses and the Kitty Hawk National Park. Road trips in North Carolina are great for every type of traveller such as beer and wine enthusiasts, family travellers, and outdoor adventure lovers.
11 North Carolina Road Trip Stops
Here are our 11 choices for road trips in North Carolina. We think any road trip to North Carolina should include the Outer Banks, whether in the North near Corolla or the South referred to as the Crystal Coast. For a college campus road trip North Carolina offers Chapel Hill, Durham, Charlotte and Wilmington. On the Tennessee western side for road trips North Carolina has the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest.
Nestled into the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the charming town of Asheville. This small mountain town is full of charm offering something for everyone, from the great outdoors to the foodie and craft beer scene, and even the arts and impressive architecture. Whether you’re spending a weekend in Asheville or have a full week, you’re sure to enjoy it!
Spend your days exploring the city and the surrounding mountains. If you’re into art, head down to the River Arts District to check out the hundreds of art galleries and murals, including live demonstrations of glass blowing. If architecture is more your thing, you won’t want to miss touring the largest home in America at the Biltmore Estate, which features over 250 rooms.
Head into the mountains to see a completely different side of Asheville.
- Drive the famous Blue Ridge Parkway stopping at dozens of stunning viewpoints.
- Hike some of the famous trails in the area, like Craggy Gardens, Chimney Rock, or Mount Mitchell.
- Visit stunning waterfalls, like Crabtree Falls, Catawba Falls, or Triple Falls.
- Stop at Sliding Rock for a 60-foot natural water slide with a swimming hole at the bottom.
Come nighttime, spend your evenings tasting delicious southern food and sipping your way through the 48 breweries in the greater Asheville area. No matter what your favorite style of beer, there’s sure to be one that suits you. Not sure where to start? Try the ever-popular Burial Beer Co., which offers great beer with a well-themed taproom, or the Funkatorium by Wicked Weed which specializes in sour and funky beers.
– by Julia Williams at The Cure For Curiousity
Blue Ridge Parkway
One of the most beautiful roads in the U.S. is the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stretching between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this winding road goes through various mountain peaks and ridges affording you the most beautiful views in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Start the drive by visiting Shenandoah National Park and make sure to get some hiking in while there. As you continue on your road trip itinerary, North Carolina affords you some fantastic stopping points.
Spend a night in Boone and visit the vibrant downtown and dine at one of the delicious restaurants in the area. Visit Blowing Rock right nearby for some incredible views of the surroundings. This is a privately owned landmark and there is a fee to get in along with a museum on site. Then continue along the parkway and make sure to drive up Mt. Mitchell to experience views from the tallest peak in the East of the U.S.
Your next stop will be in Asheville where you can enjoy a trendy scene and countless amazing restaurants. Check out the University or stroll through the downtown. Try some delicious Ethiopian food.
Finally, make your way to your final destination, Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This is the most popular national park in the United States by number of visitors so be sure to avoid peak summer travel if you would like some alone time during your hiking. The views at the park are incredible and possibilities of spotting wild life including the black bear are endless.
– by Lina Ray from Bucket List Places
No Southern USA road trip is complete without a visit to one of the gems of the region, Chapel Hill.
Said to be one of the most beautiful college towns in the United States, Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oldest public school in the country– founded in 1789.
One of the best things to do while you’re in town is to explore the campus, checking out the Old Well, the Belltower, the two quads, and the various Neo-Classical buildings scattered around the large and walkable university. Spend some time relaxing on the quads, enjoying Chapel Hill’s beautiful, mild weather and gazing at the beautiful, historic trees.
There is also a fantastic planetarium with hourly shows, called the Morehead Planetarium, and an art museum, called the Ackland Art Museum, that are absolutely worth a visit.
Franklin Street, the main hub of Chapel Hill, has excellent eateries, boutiques, and bars to check out, as does nearby Carrboro. If you’re ready for a bite to eat, discover incredible Southern comfort food at Crook’s Corner or Mama Dip’s; world-famous BLTs at Merritt’s; mouthwatering Mediterranean fare at Med Deli; and great bar fare at Linda’s Bar and Grill.
If you’d like a nightcap, check out the views of town from the roofdeck at Top of the Hill, which is a local brewery and distillery, or enjoy a more student pub vibe at Goodfellows’.
by Tegan George at Why Not Walk
On your road trip to North Carolina, stop by historic and vibrant Charlotte. It is nicknamed the Queen City after Queen Charlotte, after whom the city was named at the time of its founding in 1768.
Some of the cool things to do in Charlotte are the Nascar Hall of Fame, the Mint Museum (North Carolina’s first art museum) and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art devoted to midcentury modern collection.
Outdoor lovers will appreciate facilities such as the US National Whitewater Adventure center, Freedom Park, and Reedy Creek Nature Center catering to both adrenaline-charged water lovers as well as those who want regular hiking trails. There are 52 miles of greenway trails weaving through the Queen City.
Charlotte has the headquarters for Bank of America as well as the UNC Charlotte campus. As befitting a major financial and university city, Charlotte has a great choice of restaurants for casual and fine dining. In addition, there is a big craft brewery scene in the city as well as wine bars thanks to the wineries and vineyards nearby.
Sometimes marketed as the Southern Outer Banks, North Carolina’s stunning Crystal Coast offers a slightly off the beaten path option for a road trip in the south–but one that is packed with beauty, interesting things to do, and excellent food.
Running for 85 miles along the coast of North Carolina, some of the best things to do in and around the Crystal Coast include visiting the historic Cape Lookout Lighthouse and National Seashore (don’t miss the chance the climb to the top!), exploring Fort Macon, shopping in downtown Beaufort, spotting the wild horses that live on Shackleford Banks and other nearby islands, and of course, enjoying plenty of time on the beach.
There are a few fun museums in the area as well, including the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, which covers, among other things, the history of Blackbeard–the area’s most notorious pirate.
There are plenty of places to base yourself on the Crystal Coast, and a plethora of ocean-front house rentals available, but staying in Beaufort or Atlantic Beach will give you easy access to some of the best sights, including beaches, Fort Macon, dolphin tours, and more.
Other places to consider staying include Pine Knoll Shores, Emerald Isle, or the mainland coastal city of Morehead City–but with 85-miles of coastline, no matter where you stay, you’ll be within reach of several places on the Crystal Coast.
With affordable prices, gorgeous sandy beaches, and plenty of small towns and southern food to enjoy, the Crystal Coast is a fantastic place to enjoy the best of the coastal south on your road trip in North Carolina.
– by Kate Storm of Our Escape Clause
Durham is a more quiet stop and destination within a quick drive from Raleigh, one of the bigger cities in North Carolina. Known for Duke University, it has a compact downtown with sights to keep you busy. Most of them center around Duke University’s campus, such as the Duke Lemur Center, Duke’s University Chapel, and the Sarah P Duke Gardens. Note that if you do stop within the Duke campus, expect to pay for parking, which is per hour.
Aside from Duke University, one can also visit the Tobacco District in Durham. The city was a major producer of tobacco, as evidenced by the smokestacks that are now tourist attractions. The old Lucky Strike factory has been converted into shops, restaurants, and a trendy spot to walk around and enjoy local places.
After a whole day of exploring Durham, why not spend the night at the Hyatt Place close to the Raleigh-Durham airport? The hotel is located just off the interstate. While you’re in the vicinity, you should also include a trip to Raleigh as part of a multi-day visit. There’s plenty to do in the research triangle area as stops for a road trip.
– by Ruby Escalona from A Journey We Call Love
Nantahala National Forest
Many outdoor lovers visiting Western North Carolina spend time in Pisgah National Forest or Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But right next door, Nantahala National Forest gets a fraction of the tourist traffic.
Nantahala is remote and rugged. The Forest Service roads here will intimidate even the most confident backcountry drivers. The mountains are steep and the trails are often barely maintained. But all the trouble is worth it in exchange for some of the best views in the Southeast.
You’ll find the most accessible views on the Appalachian Trail near Nantahala Outdoor Center. Waterfall lovers should head to Gorges State Park or Panthertown Valley. Rainbow Falls is one of the top waterfall hikes in the Carolinas, and it’s easy and family-friendly.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, try the Yellow Mountain Fire Tower Hike or the trek up to Blackrock Mountain. The former is often considered the most difficult day hike in North Carolina, while the latter is the steepest trail I’ve ever encountered — if you can even call it a trail.
You can visit Nantahala on a day trip from Asheville. Camping is the best option for overnight visitors. Panthertown has incredible backcountry campsites (just be sure to bring a bear canister). Another top backcountry option is one of the Appalachian Trail shelters on Cheoah or Wesser Bald. If you prefer a little more comfort, try the Greystone Inn or one of the many AirBnB’s at Lake Toxaway.
– by Carrie Mann of Trains, Planes and TukTuks
One of the best places to visit on a Southern Road Trip is also one of the best beach destinations – the Outer Banks, North Carolina. With stunning sunrises, miles of beaches, historical locations, and adrenaline-pumping activities, there is something for every traveler!
If you enjoy nature can visit the wild horses of the Outer Banks or go bird spotting along Kitty Hawk Bay. Fans of history can visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial or Historic Corolla Park. Many of the attractions on the island are available year-round. If you want to get your heart racing, try jet-skiing, paragliding, or even hang-gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites!
Of course, just relaxing on the miles of beach is the perfect way to take a break from the car. Sunrise on the east coast will take your breath away.
Indulge your sweet tooth with a fresh, homemade donut from Duck Donuts. There are a few locations across the islands. For a great place to stay, check out First Colony Inn in Nags Head. The home-like atmosphere is within walking distance of the beach.
The Outer Banks is a must-visit destination on any Southern road trip!
– by Pamela Drager of The Directionally Challenged Traveler
The capital of North Carolina, Raleigh, is the perfect city to visit on a southern road trip. It’s easy to visit and explore the city, because most of the best things to do in Raleigh are located right downtown.
Don’t miss the North Carolina Museum of History. It’s a huge museum that you can spend hours walking through the exhibits. In addition to the permanent exhibit on the history of the state, there are also several smaller exhibits on more specific topics like sports in the state.
The Mordecai Historic Park is a great place to visit to learn about the contrast between how the wealthy lived in the house and the slaves who worked on the plantation grounds. You can easily walk to the house from downtown on N Blount St. This historic street is full of beautiful homes. Many have signs out front telling the history of the house or the former residents.
Raleigh has a lot of tasty food options. You can get southern favorites like chicken and waffles at Beasley’s or BBQ at the Pit Authentic BBQ. For some international favorites check out the Transfer Co Food Hall.
There are several places to stay downtown, but for the same quality and much lower price stay out of downtown. The Comfort Suites – Knightdale is only 10 minutes from downtown by car or about 25 minutes by public bus. It offers nice, clean and quiet rooms at reasonable prices.
by Elizabeth at The Fearless Foreigner
Wilmington is the perfect place for a Southern road trip especially for beach lovers. There is so much history to explore in the city, a beautiful riverwalk, and many small surrounding beaches.
If you’re a beach bum then don’t miss Wrightsville Beach where many of the UNC Wilmington students hang out. If you’re looking for a quieter beach that’s a bit more secluded then you could head south to Carolina or Kure Beach.
You can continue down to Fort Fisher where you can purchase a permit to drive out on the beach in search of the best fishing or sunbathing spots. This is only recommended if you have a four-wheel drive.
There are plenty of outdoor adventures like kayaking the Cape Fear River, parasailing, or surfing. Try your hand at something new and you just might be surprised.
If you’re looking for things to do in town then don’t miss the Airlie Gardens or the Wilmington Railroad Museum. You can also find many of the filming spots for One Tree Hill if you are a fan of the television series.
Make sure that you visit the USS North Carolina and tour this battleship for a unique history lesson. It’s so interesting to see how the men aboard the ship lived back in the war.
At sunset make sure you’re at one of the many delicious restaurants along the riverwalk. You can enjoy a meal while you watch the sun sink low in the sky.
– by Anna Space of Paddling Space
If you love wine and the outdoors then a trip to the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina should be on your bucket list. There are three different state parks in the area and over three dozen wineries to visit.
You can follow one of the designated wine trails like the Swan Creek Trail or Surry County Wine Trail or make up your own. A few of the best wineries in the area are Shelton Vineyards, Childress Vineyards, and Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery.
When you visit, stay in the quaint towns of Elkin or Mt. Airy and enjoy a little small town living. There are local shops and restaurants that will surprise you. Plus Mt. Airy is the town that the fictional “Mayberry” is based on in The Andy Griffith Show.
If you choose Elkin then you’ll be near some wonderful smaller wineries like Elkin Creek Vineyard, Grassy Creek Vineyard & Winery, and Carolina Heritage Vineyard & Winery.
Make sure you stop by Southern on Main and Angry Troll for a bite to eat while you’re in town.
If you want to head out on a hike then go to Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock, or Stone Mountain which are all three state parks. Each one has trails with varying levels of difficulty.
During the summer there are a few different rivers and lakes where you can kayak or canoe. The most popular is the Yadkin River where you can take a trip with Yadkin River Adventures. If you would rather paddle on a lake then check out Lake Hampton or the lake at Hanging Rock.
You won’t find a place with prettier views or friendlier people. A trip to the Yadkin Valley really lets you slow down and take a step back from your busy life.
– by Anna Cook at Stuck On The Go
Suggested North Carolina Road Trips Stops
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