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From the Great Smoky Mountains in the west to barrier island beach destinations, there’s something for everyone when you visit North Carolina. With a North Carolina Travel Guide, you can explore everything to see. North Carolina has charming small towns and remote wilderness areas, as well as major metropolitan cities.
North Carolina is a surprisingly big state, just over 500 miles wide and 150 miles north to south. It will take some time to see it all, but with a good travel guide to North Carolina, you can choose which areas to focus on.
- Best Things to Do in North Carolina
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Hendersonville, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Mountains
- The Biltmore Estate
- Linville Gorge
- Battleship North Carolina
- North Carolina Zoo
- Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.
- Sara P Duke Gardens
- Tobacco Farm Life Museum
- Brunswick County Beaches
- Hidden beaches
- Where to Stay in North Carolina
- How to Get Around in North Carolina
- Travel Tips for Visiting North Carolina
- Consider travel insurance
- Pack Carefully
- Mind the seasons
- Check visitors centers
- Take the back roads
Best Things to Do in North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles Tennessee and North Carolina, and a sizeable portion is in Tarheel state. It is part of the greater Appalachian Mountains area.
70 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail goes through the park, and there are countless other trails of varying difficulty levels. It is a great place to explore nature in all its splendor.
The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Cherohala Skyway are two scenic drives near the park in North Carolina that should not be missed because they are very scenic. Both parkways take you from the park and could be considered sites of their own. North Carolina mountains attract most people, and the parkways are a great way to see them.
2. Waterfalls and wilderness
There are several waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the mountain hiking trails, and wildlife viewing is something many people enjoy. Fontana Dam creates a lake for fishing and boating. If you love the outdoors, North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a treasure and a well-preserved part of the North Carolina mountains.
It is the most-visited national park in the United States, and each season has appeal. Camping facilities, as well as primitive camping, are available in the national park, and there are nice hotels in the area as well. There is whitewater rafting in summer and an Appalachian ski mountain.
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is a great place to get started on a Great Smoky Mountains adventure. You may also explore history at the center by visiting the Mingus Mill and Mountain Farm Museum. There are also other historic buildings in and around the park.
See Related: Best National Parks to Visit in November
Hendersonville, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Mountains
The Smoky Mountains are just part of the mountains and wilderness of western North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Parkway goes through the Mountains with gorgeous scenic drives. You can take the Blue Ridge Parkway from the park to Asheville or Hendersonville.
There are national forests and a lot of trails to explore. You could spend days driving around the backroads of the Blue Ridge Mountains, exploring small farms and small charming towns that may be 200 or more years old.
Hendersonville is a relatively small town, full of historical charm, and has all the amenities you could ask for. The town has legendary bed and breakfast options, as well as some great restaurants and breweries.
2. Mast General Store
The Mast General Store is a must-see. It is one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the United States, founded in 1883. It is still a general store today, selling all kinds of merchandise.
“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” is their motto. There are a dozen or so Mast General Stores now, but the original one can still be seen in the small town of Valle Crucis near Hendersonville.
3. On to Asheville
Asheville is a larger version of Hendersonville but has a more eclectic and artsy style. The Blue Ridge Parkway goes through the city.
The downtown area is filled with antique shops, quirky restaurants, and bars, as well as a lot of artistic shops. Asheville is a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and to all the natural areas in southwestern North Carolina.
The Biltmore Estate
No visit to Asheville would be complete without a tour of the Biltmore Estate, built by the Vanderbilt family in the 1890s. Biltmore Estate has 8,000 acres, a rose garden with 250 varieties of roses, an Italian garden with sculptures, walking trails through the woods, and a managed forest.
It has a winery and its little village. The estate itself is a large manor with 250 rooms. There are secret rooms and secret passageways that are part of a tour you can take.
There are 45 bathrooms, 35 bedrooms, 80 fireplaces, and many huge rooms. Biltmore Estate has 180,000 square feet. The estate also has seasonal decorations, and its Christmas package is spectacular.
See Related: Best Places to Travel in Your 20s in the US
While western North Carolina is known for its beautiful mountains in the west, it also has a very nice canyon. It is in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, near the Smokies and the Appalachian Mountains. It is the deepest canyon on the eastern side of the country.
The Linville River flows through the gorge, and there is a 90-foot waterfall that is a popular tourist attraction, as well as a lot of hiking trails.
There are several trails down into the gorge and in the area with varying degrees of difficulty. There are also a lot of roads to explore the gorge and the general area. It’s a great place for an outdoor adventure, with whitewater kayaking, boating, fishing, bird watching, and wildlife watching everywhere.
Grandfather Mountain is also part of the Linville area. It is a great place for hikers and nature lovers, regardless of how much you want to hike.
There is a mile-high swinging bridge, the highest suspension bridge in America. It has been in place since 1952. There is a nature museum at the top of the mountain, and tours are available.
Battleship North Carolina
At the other end of the state, at the harbor of Wilmington, is the Battleship USS North Carolina. It was one of 10 World War 2 Battleships used by the U.S. Navy and served most of its time in the Pacific during the war.
It has been called one of the world’s best weapons of the sea. Today, you may wander about the interior converted into a museum. You may tour the mess hall, quarters for the sailors, and the large decks where the guns were mounted.
It is hard to grasp how big these ships are until you are aboard one. It’s an experience the whole family will enjoy. The Cape Fear River passes through Wilmington and is also a launching point for the Atlantic Ocean and the Outer Banks.
Raleigh is the state capital and a great city to visit for many reasons. You may visit the capital building there, and there are a lot of historic buildings in the area, in addition to North Carolina’s.
This area is in central North Carolina. Durham is technically 30 miles away, but the two cities have grown together over the years, and you may not notice passing from one to the other.
A bonus is that Raleigh and Durham have taken bicycling seriously. The city has created a network of bike trails that are as efficient and enjoyable as any city anywhere in America. North Carolina’s hiking trails and bike paths are second to none.
Raleigh has the North Carolina Museum of Art, which is outstanding. There’s also a museum of history, the Kids’ Marble Museum, and many other museums around the two cities. Pullen Park is one of the oldest amusement parks in the nation.
The historic Yate Mill County Park, Umstead State Park, and the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University are great natural areas to enjoy and relax.
North Carolina Zoo
The North Carolina Zoo is in Asheboro, south of Greensboro, in central North Carolina. It is just outside Asheboro and sits on a 2,400-acre site. It is the largest walk-through zoo in the United States.
It has all the animals you would expect from a zoo. There are elephants, giraffes, lions, and tigers. There are also animals from North Carolina.
The big difference is the animals are kept in natural-looking enclosures instead of cages. The habitat is created to be as natural as possible for the animals, allowing people to walk and see the animals up close.
There are 52.000 plants and 1,600 animals at the zoo. They are divided into North American, African, and Tropical sections. In addition to looking at animals from around the world, you may take a rope course, take a carousel ride, or ride a train. A viewing deck allows you to see giraffes up close and eye to eye.
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.
The famous writer Carl Sandberg had an estate south of Hendersonville in Flat Rock, near the South Carolina border. Sandberg won three Pulitzer Prizes during his lifetime, and he was active in the civil rights movement.
In 1945, he moved to Flat Rock and purchased a house on 265 acres. It was an old house then, occupied by Confederate army officers in the Civil War. Sandberg wrote about a third of his books while living there.
The house is restored to look like it did when Sandberg lived there. Tours are available. There is also a goat farm, which he and his wife ran.
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Sara P Duke Gardens
The Sara P Duke Gardens are among the most amazing gardens anywhere. There are 55 acres filled with plants from around the world.
The garden was started by Sara P Duke, the wife of one of the founders of Duke University. Admission is free and it is open year-round.
It started in 1934 and was largely wiped out by a flood in 1936, and thousands of flowers soon replaced it. There are four distinct areas, each with special sights of its own. The first is the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, a wooded area with 900 plant varieties.
The second is an Asian garden created with Japanese architecture. Another area is for promotional and commercial-type plants. The final area is the historical garden, where Sara Duke started the garden.
Tobacco Farm Life Museum
North Carolina has always been a major tobacco-producing state. It has the famous Tobacco Road, which refers to a small area with many tobacco factories. The museum is in Kenly, about 45 miles southeast of Raleigh, and tells the story of families who worked on farms that grew tobacco.
The museum is a restored homestead from the early 1900s, featuring a restored house, detached kitchen, smokehouse, a tobacco barn, and an outhouse. It covers 6,000 square feet and has exhibits on farm life, social life, and various farm artifacts.
This is in a rural area and is a good example of a place you might find while taking the back roads around the state. It’s also a good chance to learn about the tobacco industry that shaped the state for many years.
Brunswick County Beaches
The area between Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Wilmington, has miles of peaceful beaches that are often overlooked by tourists. To enjoy a beach that has some amenities, but is not crowded, take a trip to the beaches of Brunswick County. It is one of the overlooked areas of the east coast.
North Myrtle Beach goes to the state line, and beyond that is Carolina Shores. It is just as pretty of a beach as Myrtle’s without the crowds. South Brunswick, Holden Beach, Oak Island, Caswell Beach, Carolina Beach, Atlantic Beach, and Bald Head Island are the major beaches along this stretch.
You can get away from it all at Bald Head Island. It is accessible only by ferry and does not have many people, and is one of the barrier islands. It has a lighthouse that was built in 1794.
Brunswick County has several small towns that have a lot of charm. There are gorgeous, uncrowded beaches on the Atlantic Coast, and there are great restaurants, bars, and golf courses. And theme parks to enjoy.
Going north from Brunswick County, you can find more stunning beaches along the North Carolina coast through the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
See Related: Best Beaches in the US to Visit
Where to Stay in North Carolina
Just as there is a lot of variety in things to do in North Carolina, there is also a tremendous variety of places to stay.
Many camping areas are around parks, and bed-and-breakfast-type establishments are popular in historic areas. Beyond that, there are hotels at every price or luxury level you could imagine.
- Waverly Inn, the oldest inn in the state, in Hendersonville
- Bohemian Craftsman Cottage with outdoor space in Asheville.
- Omni Grove Park Inn, in Asheville.
- Orange Bliss, two-bedroom house in Wilmington
- Hyatt House, Raleigh Durham Airport
- The Carolina Inn, at Chapel Hill
How to Get Around in North Carolina
There are several large cities in the state with national or international airports. Flying from one city to another would be easy. The best way to get around, with the most freedom, is to rent a car after you land at an airport. Rentalcars.com
Travel Tips for Visiting North Carolina
North Carolina is a big state, but they are used to visitors, and with southern hospitality, they will take care of you in many ways.
There are a lot of possibilities when you visit North Carolina, so it is a good idea to do your research and decide on a particular area to explore instead of trying to see all of the state in a single week.
Consider travel insurance
It is a terrible thing to get stranded with no money in a place where you know no one and do not know the area. Consider getting travel insurance at a place like VisitorsCoverage or SafetyWing. This can help you if you get injured and need immediate medical attention.
It can also cover lost items, lost reservations, and situations where you have reservations but have to change your plans at the last minute.
Consult your North Carolina travel guide when considering where to go, and consider the weather. Smokey Mountain National Park can be cool even in summer, and it can by shopping online, or in your city. It can be difficult to find clothing or equipment while on vacation.
Mind the seasons
Most of North Carolina has four seasons, which affects your travel plans. Snow is possible in winter, and in the western mountains, you can also get snow early in the fall.
Summer is the busiest and most crowded time of year. Winter is much slower, but there is skiing. Spring or Fall are good times to go because you can usually find accommodations easily.
Check visitors centers
Most visitor centers will have a travel guide to North Carolina. They also can give you information that only a local person would know, and they are a great resource for making your vacation even more fun.
Take the back roads
Interstates look the same no matter where you are. To see the real North Carolina, get off the Interstate and big highways and take the backroads. You never know what you will discover.
A North Carolina travel guide is a great help but will only take you so far. Check out the countryside along the Blue Ridge Parkway and see what you can discover.
Small towns are also fun to visit along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and you can find lots of interesting things there as well. Talk to local people to learn about things not mentioned in a North Carolina travel guide. You can also tour the barrier islands and see stunning beaches on the east coast.
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Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He’s a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he’d heard.
Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he’s learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.
He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time.