A vacation in North Carolina promises a rare combination of exciting mountain adventures and lazy days spent at the beach. Whether you want to scale the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast, visit the site of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight or meander along America’s Favorite Scenic Drive, North Carolina has you covered. To enjoy both the mountains and the coast on your North Carolina visit, you’ll have to be strategic in your planning. This guide of the top things to do in North Carolina will help you make the most of your trip. (Note: Some tours and excursions may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions and parking reservation requirements. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Did you know that America’s largest privately owned home is located in North Carolina? Biltmore Estate, a National Historic Landmark, is nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville. Spanning 8,000 acres, the French-Renaissance estate boasts 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. Dreamed up by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800s, the home served as Vanderbilt’s country retreat. Today, parts of the extravagant home are open to the public. When you’re not marveling at the mansion’s 10,000-volume library, its centuries-old tapestries or the indoor swimming pool, stroll the grounds, which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park in New York City), or indulge in a tasting at the on-site winery. Many travelers call this a must-visit attraction when in Asheville but warn that it can get quite crowded. Visitors also advise booking your tickets well in advance to secure your preferred time. Additionally, many suggest upgrading your ticket to the “Exclusive Experience” to view areas of the home not featured in the basic tour (such as the guest and servant quarters), as well as have the opportunity to be led around the house by an expert guide. If you can’t get enough of the spectacular setting, consider booking a stay at one of the on-site accommodations, including the Inn on Biltmore Estate.
[See more of Asheville: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos.]
Enjoy a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Part of America’s Favorite Scenic Drive winds its way through North Carolina. The 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are numerous entry points to the parkway (which is free to access) in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina, but if you want to admire some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River, you’ll want to traverse the parkway near Asheville. Popular stops along the parkway include Craggy Gardens (known for its 360-degree views and abundance of rhododendrons), Mount Mitchell (the highest peak in the eastern United States) and Linville Falls (a three-tiered waterfall that cascades into the Linville Gorge). When you’re ready to stretch your legs, there are multiple hiking trails easily accessed off of the parkway, including the family-friendly Graveyard Fields. This nearly 3-mile-long loop trail takes hikers to two waterfalls. If you’re up for the challenge, there’s also the more strenuous 2.6-mile out and back Mount Pisgah Trail, which features views of Cold Mountain from its 5,721-foot summit. After a day marveling at the parkway’s scenery, retire to one of the top hotels in Asheville.
[See: The Most Scenic Drive in Every State.]
NASCAR Hall of Fame
If you’re a fan of NASCAR, you’ll want to stop by this interactive museum in Charlotte. Along with an impressive display of legendary cars, such as Jack Ingram’s 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Wendell Scott’s 1962 Chevrolet Impala, the hall of fame also boasts racing simulators and exhibits that allow visitors to see inside a race car engine through augmented reality. The attraction also offers the popular Pit Crew Challenge, in which visitors are tasked with completing the duties of a pit crew, including jacking up a car, changing a tire with a real air gun and filling up the fuel tank. What’s more, the NASCAR Hall of Fame houses a nearly 300-person theater, a gear shop and a broadcast studio, among other amenities. Visitors assure that you don’t have to be a NASCAR aficionado to enjoy a stop here thanks to the welcoming staff and fun exhibits. Plus, its location in Uptown means visitors will find themselves within walking distance of a variety of top hotels and attractions, including Discovery Place and Mint Museum Uptown.
[See more of Charlotte: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos.]
Grandfather Mountain State Park
Situated in northwestern North Carolina, about 70 miles northeast of Asheville, Grandfather Mountain State Park is a playground for adrenaline junkies. The park’s namesake stands tall at nearly 6,000 feet, making it the highest peak in the Blue Ridge mountain range. Along with its towering mountain, the park is known for experiencing the South’s most severe weather. So, if you plan on exploring the park’s 13-plus miles of trails, keep an eye on the forecast. If you’re up for the challenge, consider trekking the 2.5-mile out and back Grandfather Trail, which is one of the most arduous trails in the Southeast thanks to a series of 18 ladders positioned to aid hikers climb the many cliffs and crags. Less experienced hikers may want to try the 1.2-mile out and back Nuwati Trail, which follows the track of an old logging road and offers breathtaking views of the Boone Bowl and Calloway Peak from Storyteller’s Rock. When it’s time to bed down, set up a tent at one of the park’s 13 primitive hike-in campsites, which must be reserved in advance (for a fee).
[See: The Most Scenic Mountain Resorts.]
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Visit the site where Orville and Wilbur Wright first took flight and the locations where they landed at Wright Brothers National Memorial in the Outer Banks. Among the attractions here are reconstructed buildings like a hangar and living quarters that offer visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the Wrights in 1903. The area also features the Wright Brothers Monument, which sits atop Big Kill Devil Hill, where the brothers first tested their gliding experiments. To learn more about the brothers and their mission to fly, you’ll want to stop by the visitor center – a National Historic Landmark that’s full of interactive exhibits. After you’ve explored the memorial, head about 5 miles south to Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Visiting the state park, which is known for towering sand dunes and strong winds, will give you a better idea of why the Wright Brothers chose the Outer Banks when searching for optimal conditions for their flying experiments.
Ride the rapids at the U.S. National Whitewater Center
One of the top things to do in Charlotte, the U.S. National Whitewater Center offers more than 30 different recreational activities across its 1,300-plus acres. The star attraction is the center’s human-made whitewater river – the world’s largest – which offers Class II to Class IV rapids. When you’re not riding the rapids, explore the center’s variety of other activities, including its Deep Water Solo complex. This structure consists of five rock climbing walls ranging in height from 20 to 45 feet that are positioned over a deep pool of water. So, instead of wearing traditional climbing equipment, you’ll climb without harnesses or ropes and fall into the pool. Seasonal yoga, zip lines, a ropes course and more than 50 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners round out the activities available here. To make the most of your time, heed the advice of reviewers and pick just one or two activities to enjoy instead of trying your hand at all of the center’s offerings. Time your visit during one of the center’s annual festivals to see the venue come alive with music, competitions and exhibitions.
Scale the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
You can visit the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast with a trip to Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Located in Nags Head in the Outer Banks, the park spans 426 acres and features dunes standing more than 60 feet tall. To explore the dunes, you can traverse a 360-foot-long boardwalk or hike the park’s two trails. While hiking, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like ospreys, foxes, brown pelicans and coyotes. You’ll also want to look for fulgurites, or glass tubes formed when lightning strikes the sand. Thanks to the park’s year-round prevailing winds, this is an ideal location to try your hand at kite and model plane flying, as well as hang gliding. Hang gliding lessons are offered through Kitty Hawk Kites, which is located near the park’s visitor center. Plus, the park sits less than 5 miles south of Wright Brothers National Monument, meaning you can visit both of these top attractions in the same day. Try to time your visit for sunset, when visitors say the park is particularly magical. When it’s time to bed down, hang your hat at one of the many beachfront vacation rentals that dot the Outer Banks.
[Read: Vacation Rentals: The Best Vacation Rental Sites for Every Type of Traveler.]
North Carolina Museum of Art
Located in Raleigh, the North Carolina Museum of Art has a unique origin story. In 1947, North Carolina became the first state in the country to use public funds to buy art when the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $1 million for the purchase of art. The collection started with the acquisition of nearly 150 European and American paintings and sculptures. Today, the museum’s collection, which is housed in a nearly 130,000-square-foot space, spans more than 5,000 years. Among its highlights are Egyptian funerary art, the largest assemblage of Rodin sculptures in the American South and the 164-acre Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, which includes gardens, fields and woodlands interspersed with sculptures. After you’ve toured the art museum, consider exploring the other state museums located in Raleigh, including the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina Museum of History. And when you need a break from the city’s indoor attractions, sites like Pullen Park and William B. Umstead State Park can offer a dose of fresh air.
[See more of Raleigh: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos.]
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
One of the top things to do in the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches for more than 70 miles from the borders of the Oregon Inlet to the edge of the Ocracoke Inlet. Lounging on the soft golden sands is the main activity here, but this protected area is also home to three historic lighthouses, two of which visitors can climb. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Bodie Island Lighthouse are both open seasonally for lighthouse climbs, a popular (though slightly strenuous) activity that yields spectacular views of Bodie Island, the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound. There are also plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing thanks to the 400-plus species of birds that call the area home. Though there are plenty of accommodation options within the Outer Banks, including beachfront resorts and vacation rentals, you may want to consider roughing it at one of the four campgrounds along the Cape Hatteras shoreline, as it will give you the chance to view some of the country’s darkest night skies east of the Mississippi River.
[Read: The Best North Carolina Beaches.]
Gallery: Stunning photos show America’s least visited national parks are among the most beautiful (USA TODAY)
North Carolina Arboretum
The 434-acre North Carolina Arboretum has ties to nearby Biltmore Estate. Before his death, Frederick Law Olmsted (“the father of American landscape architecture”) designed the landscape surrounding Biltmore. Olmsted’s designs included plans for an arboretum that was never created. Nearly 100 years after Olmsted first envisioned the arboretum, it was finally established in 1986 within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest just south of Asheville and adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Today, the arboretum welcomes visitors with more than 65 acres of cultivated gardens, including a world-renowned collection of bonsai trees. Beyond its beautiful flora, the arboretum boasts 10-plus miles of hiking trails that connect to scenic areas like Lake Powhatan, the Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway. What’s more, the arboretum hosts a variety of indoor and outdoor exhibitions and events, such as sculpture displays by local and national artists. Many visitors describe the gardens as peaceful, though they suggest grabbing a map at the entrance to avoid getting lost.
Take in the view from Chimney Rock State Park
For a glimpse at some of North Carolina’s most awe-inspiring mountain scenery, head about 25 miles southeast of Asheville to Chimney Rock State Park. From the top of the park’s 315-foot-tall namesake, you can admire 75-mile views overlooking Lake Lure and the Hickory Nut Gorge (on a clear day). To reach the top of Chimney Rock, you can either climb 500 steps or ride the elevator up. More adventurous travelers will also want to explore the park’s six marked hiking trails, which range from the kid-friendly Great Woodland Adventure, which features interactive displays and sculptures about the park’s animal residents, to the more strenuous 1.9-mile out and back Four Seasons Trail, which includes a 400-foot elevation gain throughout the hardwood forest. After marveling at the mountain scenery atop Chimney Rock, you’ll want to make a stop at Hickory Nut Falls, which also sits within the state park. At 404 feet, it’s one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River.
[See: The Most Beautiful Waterfalls to See Around the World.]
Nestled in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard and Asheville, Sliding Rock is a 60-foot mountain waterslide that ends in an 8-foot-deep pool of water. Approximately 11,000 gallons of water course down the rock each minute. The water temperature is brisk (between 50 and 60 degrees), which is why this natural attraction is particularly popular during the summer months. If you’re not up for careening down the rock face, you can watch sliders from two observation decks. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the site is staffed with lifeguards; in the offseason, you can still visit, but know that lifeguards aren’t on patrol. After you’ve cooled off, explore some of the other nearby trails and waterfalls that dot U.S. Route 276, known as the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway. The family-friendly, 1.4-mile Moore Cove Falls Trail sits just a mile away, while the photogenic Looking Glass Falls is located 2 miles away along the highway and is easily accessed via an observation deck at the base of the falls.
A popular retreat for families and traveling groups thanks to its abundance of beachfront vacation rentals, this string of barrier islands off the coast is perhaps best known for its 100-plus miles of beaches. Each stretch of sand offers a little something different for vacationers. Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills are known for having some of the biggest waves on the area’s northern beaches, making these spots particularly popular with surfers and skimboarders. Meanwhile, Frisco provides optimal conditions for four-wheel-drive beach excursions. But if you simply want to relax, head to Nags Head, which offers plenty of room to spread out. Or, grab a fishing rod and set up camp in Hatteras, which is a premier fishing destination. If you encounter a rare rainy day while visiting the islands, consider escaping the weather in one of the area’s indoor attractions, such as the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island or the Whalehead Club mansion on Corolla.
[See more of the Outer Banks: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos.]
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the most-visited national parks, this protected area spans more than 520,000 acres along North Carolina’s western border. Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more than 850 hiking trails and is considered the most biodiverse park in the national park system. What’s more, it’s home to some of the tallest peaks in the eastern United States. One of those peaks is 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, which wows visitors with 360-degree views of the Smokies (on a clear day, visitors can see for 100 miles). For more spectacular mountain vistas, intrepid travelers should hike the 3.6-mile round-trip Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald, which starts from the parking lot at Clingmans Dome. Boasting an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, Andrews Bald is the highest grassy bald in the park. Along the trail, hikers may spot patches of blackberries and raspberries, Fraser firs and wildflowers, depending on the time of year. For travelers who don’t want to rough it in one of the park’s campsites, there are more traditional lodging options, such as hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations, in Bryson City and Cherokee. Entry to the national park is free.
[See more of Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos.]
If you’re looking for a charming weekend getaway that promises luxurious accommodations, delectable food and plenty of outdoor adventures, consider Highlands, a mountain town in southwestern North Carolina near the Georgia border. Surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest at an elevation of 4,118 feet, Highlands is one of the highest towns east of the Mississippi River. Make the most of the town’s elevation with a hike up Whiteside Mountain – appropriately named for its sheer white cliffs. To reach the mountain’s summit, you’ll have to hike a 2-mile loop trail bordered by wildflowers. At the peak, you’ll enjoy incredible views to the east, south and west. Highlands is also known for its variety of waterfalls. Many are easily accessed off of U.S. Route 64, including Dry Falls, which cascades 75 feet over a cliff and has a built-in walkway behind it (hence the “dry” part of its name). When you’re ready to pamper yourself after a day of adventure, Highlands has you covered there, too, thanks to some luxurious digs like the Old Edwards Inn and Spa and its sister property, Half Mile Farm.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Accessible only by boat from Beaufort and Harkers Island, Cape Lookout National Seashore is a must-visit stop for the intrepid traveler. Located along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast in the southern Outer Banks, Cape Lookout offers 56 miles of undeveloped beachfront. Along with its distinct lighthouse, known as the “Diamond Lady” thanks to the diamond pattern painted on its exterior, Cape Lookout is also known for the herds of wild horses that roam the barrier island of Shackleford Banks. You can observe this herd of more than 100 horses grazing in the grasslands or on the dunes. Along with its collection of horses, Cape Lookout is considered a prime birding spot (more than 250 species have been spotted here). It’s also one of the premier kayaking and canoeing destinations on the mid-Atlantic coast, boasting 112 miles of uninhabited shoreline. Water sports equipment rentals are available on the mainland with outfitters like Down East Kayaks. Though there are no established campgrounds at Cape Lookout, camping is permitted year-round. You can also rent rustic wooden cabins.
[See: Top Beach Camping Spots in the U.S.]
Battleship North Carolina
History buffs will want to stop by the Battleship North Carolina while visiting Wilmington. At the time of its commissioning in 1941, the ship was considered “the world’s greatest sea weapon.” It proved a formidable foe during World War II when it was involved in every major naval offensive in the Pacific area of operations and earned 15 battle stars. Today, the ship is a National Historic Landmark and serves as the state’s memorial to its WWII veterans and the 11,000 North Carolinians who died during the war. On the self-guided tour, visitors can explore nine levels of the ship, including the mess decks, berthing areas, engine room and bridge, among other must-sees. According to travelers, the self-guided tour is well marked but does require climbing up and down some narrow stairs, so keep that in mind if you have limited mobility. Visitors also advise bringing water and wearing sunscreen, as the ship can get warm, especially in summer. When at the ship’s bow, keep your eyes peeled for Charlie, the alligator that’s usually seen sunbathing in the waters of the Cape Fear River where the ship resides. After your ship visit, plan to stroll along Wilmington’s Riverwalk, which is lined with popular restaurants and bars, and sits just across the river from the battleship.
[See more of Wilmington: Things to Do | When to Visit | Hotels | Photos.]
Sample a pint or two at Asheville’s breweries
This city in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains is home to more breweries per capita than any other U.S. city. Whether you prefer a hoppy India pale ale or a fruit-forward sour, you’ll find it in Asheville. Though some of the biggest names in craft brewing, such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, do have outposts here, Asheville is home to an impressive collection of local producers. There are more than 50 breweries in Asheville, so narrowing down your personal list can be tricky, but perennial favorites include Wicked Weed Brewing, Green Man Brewery, Highland Brewing Company and Burial Beer Co. If you’d rather let someone else guide you through the city’s beer scene, consider signing up for the Asheville Brews Cruise bus tour, which takes visitors to up to four breweries during the approximately three-hour excursion. When you need a break from sampling the city’s suds, make the most of Asheville’s perch among the Blue Ridge Mountains by hiking the Appalachian Trail or floating down the French Broad River.
Bald Head Island
Located in the mouth of the Cape Fear River, this car-free coastal island is only accessible by ferry from Southport (about 35 miles south of Wilmington). A getaway in every sense of the word, Bald Head Island is a nature lover’s paradise with 14 miles of wide white sand beaches and verdant nature preserves covering more than 80% of the island. To learn more about the island’s beach, marsh and maritime forest habitats, as well as its ample wildlife, sign up for a tour with the Bald Head Island Conservancy, which offers tours via golf cart (the preferred method of transportation on the island). You can also explore the creeks around the island via kayak or canoe. The conservancy offers guided trips, as does local outfitter The Sail Shop. And for a spectacular 360-degree view of the state’s southernmost barrier island, climb the 108 steps to the top of the Bald Head Lighthouse – the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina. When it’s time to turn in for the night, you’ll have your pick of beachfront vacation rentals, some with space for up to 18 people.
[See: Small Beach Towns That Should Be On Your Radar.]
Part of the Pisgah National Forest and about 60 miles northeast of Asheville, the Linville Gorge is considered one of eastern America’s most rugged gorges. The gorge is formed by Jonas Ridge to the east and Linville Mountain to the west; the Linville River bisects the gorge and runs into the valleys below. Several hikes allow visitors to marvel at the spectacular mountain scenery. Perhaps the most popular is the hike to Linville Falls, believed to be the most photographed waterfall in North Carolina. You can hike to five viewpoints from two trails that depart from the Linville Falls Visitor Center, which is located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 316. More popular hikes include Table Rock Mountain and Hawksbill Mountain. The 2.2-mile climb up Table Rock Mountain promises even more photogenic views from its 3,930-foot peak. Many hikers combine a trek up Table Rock Mountain with a climb up Hawksbill Mountain since they’re within a few miles of each other. The 1.5-mile round-trip Hawksbill Mountain hike requires an elevation gain of about 700 feet, but the views of the gorge, the river and, on a clear day, the Charlotte skyline are worth the effort.
North Carolina Zoo
Located in the heart of North Carolina in Asheboro, about 40 miles south of Greensboro, the North Carolina Zoo sprawls across 2,600 acres, 500 of which are developed. Its claim to fame is that it’s the world’s largest natural habitat zoo, with more than 1,800 animals. The animals are dispersed across two regions, North America and Africa, as well as a desert and a tropical, free-flight aviary. Among the zoo’s standout animals are African lions, grizzly bears, ocelots and polar bears. Plus, the aviary houses more than 100 exotic birds and 3,000 tropical plants. Beyond the animals, the zoo boasts a variety of attractions, such as a carousel, a butterfly garden and a ropes course, among other diversions. Visitors warn that you’ll do a lot of walking, so wear comfortable footwear. When you’ve had your fill of the animals, peruse downtown Asheboro, which is home to a collection of charming shops and restaurants.
[See: The Best Zoos in the U.S.]
Go whitewater rafting
After you’ve gotten your feet wet at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, why not test your rafting skills on some of the state’s rivers? Many outfitters are located near Asheville, making it easy to tack on a day of rafting to your trip. The Nantahala River is considered the state’s busiest and most well-known whitewater rafting river. A dam-controlled river, it boasts 20 Class II and III rapids, as well as scenic sections of calm water. Meanwhile, the intensity of the French Broad River is determined by recent rainfall. Half-day trips featuring Class II or III rapids are available, as are full-day trips that promise Class IV rapids. Whichever type of trip you book on the French Broad River, you’ll enjoy the surrounding scenery of the Pisgah National Forest. For a unique experience, consider rafting down the Nolichucky River, which allows you to start your adventure in North Carolina and end in Tennessee. And if peaceful waters are what you’re after, consider the Tuckasegee River, which offers ideal conditions for scenic rafting and tubing. Depending on which company you choose, there are single-day or multiday rafting trip options available. Check out U.S. News’ roundup of the best whitewater rafting tours in North Carolina to plan your trip.
A quintessential beach vacation, this town just east of Wilmington is a magnet for families and active travelers thanks to its variety of water sports, parks, gardens, kid-friendly playgrounds and surf schools. Popular water activities include surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and wakeboarding. A variety of water sports equipment rentals are conveniently located near the beach, including traveler favorite Wrightsville SUP. If you’d rather admire the water from aboard a boat, sailing cruises are equally popular, especially at sunset. Back on land, the popular 2.5-mile Loop trail offers visitors a paved walking, running and cycling path that meanders past the Intracoastal Waterway, Banks Channel and photogenic salt marshes. Meanwhile, 67-acre Airlie Gardens boasts 10 acres of lakes, a 500-year-old oak tree and a variety of local flora and fauna. Though there are numerous resorts in Wrightsville Beach, there is a larger supply of vacation rentals. Many of the rental home properties are located just steps from the beach and offer plenty of room for traveling groups of all sizes.
You may also be interested in:
- The Best Places to Visit in the Carolinas
- The Top Romantic Getaways in North Carolina
- The Best Family Beach Vacations in the U.S.
- The Best U.S. National Parks
- The Best Mountain Towns to Visit in the USA
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