Best Road Trips In North Carolina: Must-See Spots

North Carolina offers a diverse landscape ideal for road trip enthusiasts. From the scenic mountains to the charming coastal regions, you are never far from a breathtaking view or an exciting adventure. We’ll explore some of the best road trips in North Carolina to experience the natural beauty and charming communities.

One of my favorite trips in North Carolina is traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The stunning views, with distant hues of blue, make the Blue Ridge Parkway one of the most popular road trip destinations in the United States. You will find picturesque mountain towns, waterfalls, hiking trails, and famous vistas.

Of course, across the state, the Outer Banks offer a movie-set-like natural beach experience. The chance to stop and see wild horses living on the beach makes this another one of the best road trips in North Carolina.

Between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks are countless small towns and a few big-time cities, all waiting for exploration. Charlotte, in particular, is a surprisingly big city with everything from whitewater rafting to professional sports.

The Linn Cove Viaduct is a top destination among the best road trips in North Carolina.

Top Road Trip Destinations in North Carolina

While there are nearly endless road trips in North Carolina, a few can’t-miss destinations offer diverse landscapes and unique charm. We’ll start by highlighting five of the best road trip destinations in North Carolina:

  • Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Outer Banks
  • Asheville
  • Charlotte
  • Raleigh

Of course, these aren’t all the best road trips in North Carolina, so stick around for a few hidden gems.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway was started in 1936 as one of the New Deal’s signature park development projects, and it remains a national treasure. For instance, the Linn Cove Viaduct near Grandfather Mountain is an engineering marvel offering stunning views of the Appalachian Mountains.

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for 469 miles from Cherokee, NC, in the south to Rockfish Gap, VA, to the north. Along the way, you will also pass near prominent mountain towns, including Asheville and Boone.

This is one of the best road trips in North Carolina because of the stunning views. But also because there is plenty to do along the route. You will find hiking trails every few miles. You can also visit the Biltmore Estate in Asheville or stop at the Tweetsie Railroad near Boone.

I recommend stopping at Moses Cone Manor to stroll along the winding carriage trails and sit by one of the lakes.

The Moses Cone Manor sits along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is among the best road trips in North Carolina.
Moses Cone Manor

Outer Banks

The Outer Banks is a stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, famous for its pristine beaches and historic lighthouses. Visitors also like to see the wild horses near Corolla or some famous movie backdrops, such as the inn used for Nights in Rodanthe.

Start your trip in the Northern area of the Outer Banks, near Corolla. Then work southward to visit the beaches, such as Hatteras, Nags Head, and Ocracoke. Stop at Kitty Hawk along the way to appreciate aviation history and the location of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

Traveling along the Outer Banks by car will allow you to go at your own pace and experience its natural beauty, charming coastal towns, and intriguing history.

The natural and pristine beaches of the Outer Banks makes driving up and down the barrier islands among the best road trips in North Carolina.

Asheville

While you may pass near Asheville as you travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville is also one of North Carolina’s best road trip destinations itself. Nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina, Asheville is a vibrant city known for its thriving art scene, craft breweries, and beautiful architecture.

Asheville is the perfect base camp to explore the local hiking trails and many waterfalls, but Asheville also has a flare for the finer things in life. The historic Omni Grove Park Inn offers stunning views, championship golf, and even a subterranean spa.

Still, the Biltmore Estate is the pride of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Biltmore Estate is a 250-room French Renaissance ch√Ęteau that is both stunning and impressive. And while visiting, you can take a rooftop tour, enjoy complimentary wine tastings, go hiking, go shopping, or enjoy an irresistible dinner.

Charlotte

Charlotte is near and dear to my heart, as it’s where my kids were born, and my family lives. For those that live away from Charlotte, it is also one of the best road trip destinations in North Carolina.

Charlotte has it all. You can attend a Broadway musical at the Belk Theater or go whitewater rafting at the US National Whitewater Center. You can visit legendary food establishments, like Beef ‘N Bottle, or attend professional sports events. Even when they aren’t winning, attending Panthers, Hornets, and Charlotte FC games is still fun.

Charlotte is one of the few cities in the South with a light rail system, which resulted in a dense urban vibe and walkable neighborhoods. You can grab dinner north of Uptown at Optimist Hall (a modern and delicious food hall) and then ride the light rail to South End to stroll on Charlotte’s rail trail while eating ice cream.

And we haven’t even touched on other area attractions, like Carowinds and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Charlotte is the heart of the Carolinas, and you will be hard-pressed to run out of things to do in Charlotte. It is undoubtedly one of the best road trips in North Carolina.

Charlotte is one of the top road trip destinations in North Carolina. The Whitewater Center is a big reason why.

Raleigh

While I am personally more fond of Charlotte, Raleigh is also a fun destination. Since Raleigh is the state capital, you will find numerous museums, attractions for history lovers, and some of the best college sports in the nation.

Raleigh is home to NC State, which is less than 30 minutes away from both Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. As a result, the rivalries are fierce, which is only heightened by the number of NCAA basketball championships the region claims. Plus, the Carolina Hurricanes (NHL) play in Raleigh, and the minor league Durham Bulls are close by.

In comparing Durham vs. Raleigh, you understand why the region is often considered one. Still, there are plenty of differences between the two cities. Raleigh serves as a unique road trip destination, benefiting from Durham’s proximity for convenience.

Scenic Drives and Byways in North Carolina

While there are plenty of fantastic destinations in the Carolinas, sometimes the road trip is about the journey. North Carolina is a fantastic destination for road trips, offering endless scenic routes and byways. We’ll explore some of our favorite drives that showcase the state’s natural beauty.

The Pisgah National Forest is full of hidden treasures, such as this covered bridge near High Falls.
Covered Bridge near High Falls

Looking Glass Falls and the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway

One of our top recommendations is visiting Looking Glass Falls along the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. This historic route takes us through the picturesque Pisgah National Forest and provides several scenic overlooks. The Looking Glass Falls area is near other waterfalls and is perfect for a short hike.

For those that like slow drives, short hikes, and waterfalls, the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway is the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature.

Looking Glass Falls is a popular destination for North Carolina road trips and hiking.
Looking Glass Falls

Nantahala National Forest and Cherohala Skyway

Another intriguing drive is the Cherohala Skyway, which traverses the Nantahala National Forest. Along this route, we may stop at the Santeetlah Overlook for stunning vistas of the forest and mountains. The Skyway is particularly beautiful during the fall when the foliage turns vibrant shades of orange and red.

Fall Foliage Road Trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Speaking of fall colors, a fall foliage road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway is a must for any North Carolina road tripper. We mentioned the parkway in our top 5 road trips in North Carolina, but it is worth mentioning here as the perfect scenic drive.

This iconic drive offers spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and visiting during autumn allows us to see the mountains at their most vibrant. Key points of interest along this route include the historic Linn Cove Viaduct and Moses Cone Manor.

Many people time their road trips so that they can see the beautiful foliage in the North Carolina mountains.
Foliage Along Blue Ridge Parkway

Indian Lakes Scenic Byway and Fontana Dam

Lastly, the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway is another excellent option for a memorable road trip. This route takes us along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, offering stunning scenery and intriguing attractions, such as the Fontana Dam. For adventure seekers, the nearby Tail of the Dragon is a thrilling stretch of road with numerous twists and turns, making it popular among motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts.

These scenic drives and byways represent some of the most scenic road trips, not only in North Carolina but in all of the country. The Blue Ridge Mountains are truly breathtaking.

Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions

North Carolina is known for its beautiful coastline; one of the most iconic features is the lighthouses. Let’s explore some of the most famous lighthouses and coastal attractions of North Carolina. When you are done with the blue-hued mountains, these coastal areas also represent some of the best road trips in North Carolina.

Driving to see the lighthouses in the Outer Banks makes for one of the best road trips in North Carolina.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, standing at an impressive 198 feet. Located on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks, this current lighthouse iteration has guided sailors since 1870. Visitors can climb the 269 steps to the top for a stunning view of the surrounding area.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse boasts an iconic black-and-white swirled paint pattern that is recognizable worldwide. Still, that’s not the only reason that the lighthouse is well-known. The lighthouse was successfully relocated 2,900 feet in 1999 to avoid the negative impacts of beach erosion.

There is a small fee to access the lighthouse, but it is well worth it for the experience and breathtaking views. The lighthouse also serves as an important beacon for ships navigating the dangerous Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Corolla, North Carolina, might be better known for its wild horses along the beaches, but the Currituck Beach Lighthouse is also a popular destination.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse, located in the historic village of Corolla, stands at 162 feet and is known for its distinctive red brick exterior. Unlike most lighthouses, Currituck Beach Lighthouse is not painted, allowing the natural beauty of its bricks to shine through.

Climb the 220 steps to the top for panoramic views of Currituck Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, and the surrounding Currituck Outer Banks.

Oak Island Lighthouse

The Oak Island Lighthouse is an iconic structure which mariners recognize for its unique design.. It sits on the Cape Fear River near Oak Island. Its alternating bands of black, white, and gray make it easily recognizable for mariners.

The lighthouse can be found on the grounds of a US Coast Guard Station, but the lighthouse and surrounding properties belong to the Town of Caswell Beach. Oak Island Lighthouse is open for tours, allowing visitors to learn more about its history and enjoy the views.

Whereas most lighthouses feature a spiral staircase, the Oak Island Lighthouse utilizes a series of ship ladders from bottom to top. You will also note that while most lighthouses are wider at the base than the top, the Oak Island Lighthouse is a straight cylinder.

The newer construction features highlight that the lighthouse is much newer than others on this list, and in fact, Marine helicopters helped install the lantern housing.

Ocracoke Lighthouse

Ocracoke Lighthouse sits on the southern end of Ocracoke Island, which can be accessed by a ferry from Cedar Island. The ferry ride is officially part of the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway, so we feel we are on solid ground, including it in a list of the best road trips in North Carolina.

This white-washed lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina, dating back to 1823. Although Ocracoke Lighthouse is not open for climbing, it remains an important symbol of the area’s maritime history and a beautiful attraction to admire.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Lastly, Cape Lookout Lighthouse is located on the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina. The black-and-white diamond pattern of this coastal beacon makes it easily distinguishable.

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is only accessible by personal lighthouse or ferry, yet it is still one of the most visited attractions along the Outer Banks. Visitors can climb the 207 steps to the top for an incredible view of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, and enjoy various outdoor activities, including fishing, birdwatching, and hiking.

When considering the best road trips in North Carolina, you must consider the lighthouses. They are beautiful structures, offering even more breathtaking views, and they are historically significant for many different reasons.

Historic Sites and Cultural Attractions

North Carolina also offers various historic sites and cultural attractions, perfect for a road trip. In this section, we’ll explore Civil War sites and monuments, motor racing and NASCAR attractions, and small towns and cultural gems.

Civil War Sites and Monuments

During our travels through North Carolina, we discovered numerous Civil War sites and monuments. One notable historic site is Fort Fisher, which played a significant role in the conflict. We can also visit the Bentonville Battlefield near Raleigh and learn about the largest and deadliest Civil War battle in the state.

Another must-visit location is Wilmington, a port city with a rich history. Here, we can walk along the Cape Fear River and explore the USS North Carolina, a restored battleship turned museum. When you consider any North Carolina travel guide, Battleship North Carolina will be listed prominently.

One fun fact regarding Battleship North Carolina is that the operation is self-supporting. The museum doesn’t rely on tax dollars for operations. Aside from admissions, Battleship North Carolina also sells various knives and bottle openers made from steel and teak recovered during the ship’s restoration.

The USS North Carolina sits in Wilmington, and is a top area attraction.
USS North Carolina

Motor Racing and NASCAR Attractions

For race car enthusiasts, you can’t miss visiting the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a road trip. You can then venture toward Uptown to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Charlotte is known for its NASCAR roots and thrilling races. This makes the Charlotte area a perfect spot for race fans to take a road trip.

For a more immersive experience, we can head to Mooresville, also known as “Race City USA,” which houses several racing team headquarters, the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame, and various motorsports attractions.

Small Towns and Cultural Gems

A North Carolina road trip isn’t complete without exploring small towns and unique cultural attractions. For fans of the classic American television show, a visit to Mount Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith and inspiration for the fictional town of Mayberry, is a must. Participate in the local events and enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere.

Our North Carolina road trip itinerary offers diverse experiences, showcasing the state’s rich history, unique attractions, and stunning landscapes. So, pack your road trip essentials and join us as we embark on this unforgettable adventure through the Tar Heel State. There are endless road trips in North Carolina worth driving.

Sunrises in the NC mountains are a must-see.
Sunrise in NC Mountains

Driving the Best Road Trips In North Carolina

North Carolina is a beautiful state featuring majestic mountains and naturally pristine beaches. In between the mountains to the west and the beaches to the east, you will find unique small towns and a few world-class cities. In these ways, North Carolina is full of conflicting paradigms and more than a few fascinating sub-cultures.

The best way to truly appreciate the state is to plan out your desired road trips in North Carolina and then hit the open road. We are certain that you will appreciate the memories you will make along the way!

Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.