There’s something unforgettable about exploring in the car, and with its delectable barbecue, historic lighthouses, and NASCAR, North Carolina is undeniably a great place for a road trip. Nature lovers will appreciate the western region of the state with the Appalachian Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On the east coast, angling enthusiasts can check out the small fishing villages along the Atlantic Ocean. In short, a road trip in North Carolina gives you the best of what the state has to offer, and the best part is that many of these drives can be done in an afternoon! However, get the most out of your journey by spending the night in a unique North Carolina vacation rental. Just get your motor running, and enjoy the view!
1. Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway travels along the southern Appalachian Mountains and is one of the most popular scenic drives in the United States. The Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. On the way, you’ll find sweeping views and amazing recreational activities. For an even more Instagram-worthy road trip, travel during the fall to see the leaves ablaze in vivid colors. Once you cross into North Carolina, you’ll start through Pisgah National Forest. Stop at Fox Hunters Paradise Overlook, and don’t miss the short road that leads to High Piney Spur. There’s a flat, paved trail that leads to an incredible view from a stone observation deck. Other great stops along the way are the Northwest Trading Post, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, and Grandfather Mountain.
2. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
On this scenic road, you can explore pristine seashore, natural areas, historical sites, museums, and lighthouses. Start in the town of Points Harbor and head towards Ocracoke, or vice versa. However, if you start in Ocracoke, you’ll have to take a ferry from either Cedar Island or Swan Quarter Ferry. Definitely have your camera ready for the stunning views along US-158. After passing through Jockeys Ridge State Park, consider heading west on US-64 to Roanoke Island where you can tour a reproduction of the 16th century Elizabeth II, one of seven English merchant ships that arrived in 1585. During this hands-on experience, you can help set the sails, swab the deck, and raise the anchor with costumed-interpreters.
3. Cherohala Skyway
This 52-mile journey travels through the Great Smoky Mountains, the Cherokee National Forest, and Nantahala National Forest and offers spectacular views with plenty of recreational opportunities. Many people start in Tellico Plains, Tennessee and end in Robbinsville, North Carolina, but the drive can be done in either direction. Once you cross into North Carolina, take advantage of the many pullouts along NC-143 for amazing, expansive views of the Great Smoky Mountains. You might also want to take a side-trip onto Joyce Kilmer Road and spend some time hiking the two-mile Joyce Kilmer Recreation Trail in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. It’s the largest stand of old growth trees in the eastern United States with some trees over 400 years old!
4. Newfound Gap Road
Along this road are tunnels, stone bridge, and twists and turns where you can explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and understand why it’s the most-visited National Park in the United States. Start your trip in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and finish up in Cherokee, North Carolina. The highest point along your dive will be the Newfound Gap Overlook just as you enter North Carolina which will give you unsurpassed views as far west into Tennessee as you can see east into North Carolina.
5. Outer Banks National Scenic Byway
The Outer Banks National Scenic Byway stretches through 137 miles of marshes, dunes, beautiful beaches, and thriving wildlife. This route will take you through 21 beach towns such as Bodie Island, Hatteras, and Ocracoke as you follow the North Carolina coastline. Don’t miss the famous Hatteras Lighthouse. It’s the tallest lighthouse in the United States! Stop and stay a while in a quaint vacation rental to truly experience the unique and traditional maritime culture.
6. NASCAR Road Trip
If you’re a fan of NASCAR, you will no doubt want to head to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The race may be in May, but the track is open year-round for visitors. Next, head north to Kannapolis, North Carolina, the hometown of racing legend Dale Earnhardt. You can take the Dale Trail through his childhood neighborhood to see where Earnhardt first began racing. Then, head to Moorseville, home to numerous racing teams’ garages including Penske and DEI. Most of the garages have huge showrooms where you can see winning cars and maybe even watch the techs work.
7. Nantahala Scenic Byway
Take the Nantahala Scenic Byway to travel through North Carolina’s best backcountry. This 43-mile byway will take you through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest. Seeing the leaves change color during the fall is breathtaking, but take this road during the summer to take advantage of some water sports like world-class whitewater rafting, canoeing, and kayaking. If that doesn’t interest you, there’s a little bend in the road that’s full of quaint antique shops and Native American goods.
8. Piedmont History Road Trip
The Piedmont Triad consists of three large cities and is a great region to explore if you’re a history buff. Start in Mount Airy, Andy Griffith’s childhood home. One stroll through Mount Airy’s Main Street and you’ll instantly be reminded of the town of Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show. Next up, head to Old Salem which was founded by the Moravians in 1766. This colonial village is dedicated to preserving its rich and deep history. Finally, head to Durham for two great sites, Bennett Place and the Duke Homestead. Bennett Place saw the largest troop surrender in the American Civil War, and the Duke Homestead is where Washington Duke, of Duke University, grew up and helped create the largest tobacco company in the world.
9. North Carolina Waterfalls Road Trip
North Carolina has some amazing waterfalls, and this road trip takes you from north to south to see some of the most breathtaking waterfalls this state has to offer. Start with Linville Falls located off the Blue Ridge Parkway. After an easy, four-mile hike, you can see five different lookouts and unique views of Linville Falls. Crabtree Falls isn’t too far from Linville and will reward you with well-worth-it views after a three-mile hike. Other great waterfalls to stop at are Looking Glass Falls, perfect for a cool drip, Moore Cove Falls, the perfect “walk-behind waterfall,” and Cove Creek Falls, which is perfect for kids and adults. Last, but certainly not least, are the jaw-dropping Whitewater Falls. At 811 feet, this is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies!
10. Haunted Road Trip
You can experience a little bit of history on some of the other road trips on this list, but this haunted road trip will lead you to the scariest places in North Carolina. Way better than a haunted house, you can visit some real-life, notoriously haunted sites. Start with the Great Dismal Swamp, the site that inspired novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stay overnight in a vacation rental if you really want to get spooked. Visitors have reported hearing strange sounds, seeing lights, and encountering ghosts. More spooky stops along the way include Maco Lights, where a man named Joe Baldwin was decapitated by a train, Cry Baby Lane, where a fire destroyed an orphanage outside of Raleigh, and Devil’s Tramping Ground, a 40-foot diameter circle where nothing will grow. You’re last stop should be Grove Park Inn where the infamous Pink Lady fell to her death from a fifth floor overlook.
Ready to go? Check out these amazing North Carolina vacation rentals on Tripping.com.