If you’re looking for the road less traveled, you’ll find it in North Carolina. The scenery across the state ranges from rugged views of the mountains where Daniel Boone once traveled to the sandy shores where wild horses roam.
While it’s possible to explore by bus or train, nothing beats navigating the state’s winding roads from behind the wheel of a car. At 500 miles across, there’s a lot to explore, so give yourself plenty of time to see the changes in the topography. From trails that follow the mighty rivers to the ferries that link the barrier islands, here are our favorite road trips in North Carolina.
Blue Ridge Parkway: Best Road Trip for Slow Travel
Cherokee to Cumberland Button; 175 miles, multi-day trek
Easily one of the best road trips in western North Carolina, if not the country, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds 469 miles up through Virginia. It dates back to 1933 when US Senator Harry Byrd proposed connecting Virginia’s Skyline Drive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Construction began in 1935 and included several New Deal programs. The last stretch, the iconic Linn Cove Viaduct, was completed in 1987.
The viaduct is one of the most photographed spots on the Parkway, but there is so much more to see. On the south side, learn about the history of the Cherokee Nation at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
Mt Mitchell, the highest peak in the state, is just off the parkway, along with Linville Falls, one of the most famous waterfalls in the region. Moses Cone Memorial Park is a beautiful home that now serves as an arts center.
The speed limit is 75 mph or less for most of the multi-day trip, so take your time and plan to stop often in the small towns nearby, whether for walks or overnight stays. Please note that weather conditions can lead to closures and some attractions and visitor centers are only open from May to October.
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Cherohala Skyway (US 143): Best Mountain View Road Trip
Beech Gap to Robbinsville; approx. 30 miles, about two to three hours
Opened in 1996, the 70-mile Cherohala Skyway travels between Tennessee and North Carolina through Nantahala National Forest. Nantahala covers 531,148 acres and is the largest of the state’s four National Forests, with over 600 miles of trails.
Reaching 2000 ft to 4000 ft above sea level, this route is a nice alternative if you don’t want to be tied down to the longer Blue Ridge Parkway. Give yourself all day to take a detour.
The drive follows the curves of the Benton MacKaye Trail, named after the conservationist, and there are shorter walks you can take from the trail. Stop at the lookout points for fantastic views of Lake Santeetlah.
If you want to extend the drive, continue on US 129 and NC 28 to do the loop around Fontana Dam or head north to Tennessee for the circuitous Tail of the Dragon.
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Nantahala Byway (US 74): Best Road Trip for Outdoor Adventurers
Whittier to Marble; 43 miles, about two hours
Another gem in western North Carolina is the Nantahala Byway, which weaves through the floor of the Nantahala Gorge. As US 74 continues west to Tennessee, the best part is the stretch of interconnected creeks that flow into the river of the same name.
While you could make the drive in less than two hours, this part of the North Carolina Smokies begs for further exploration. Book an excursion with one of the many river rafting outfitters navigating the world-class rapids; if that wasn’t enough adventure, many also offer canopy and zipline tours.
Visit the southern shores of Fontana Lake or hike the trail to Findley Falls, one of several nearby waterfalls. The Nantahala Gorge area also has glamping options, including yurts and converted school buses.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway: Best Road Trip for Beachgoers
Nags Go to Otway; approx. 140 miles, five hours
Despite its name, the Outer Banks Scenic Byway is made up of many smaller interconnected roads, including US 64/264, US 158, and NC 12. The chain of narrow barrier islands continues north, but the official byway is only part of it.
The journey takes a minimum of five hours from top to bottom, including two ferries between the islands. But along the way, travelers encounter sprawling uncrowded beaches, historic lighthouses, and seasonal campgrounds.
For information on pirates and buried treasure, head to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island, filled with artifacts pulled from shipwrecks, including Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Admission is free, although donations are accepted.
Also located on Hatteras is the Frisco Native American Museum, which highlights indigenous culture from around the country through art, artifacts, and handmade jewelry. There are also nature trails leading to acres of marine forest.
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Yadkin Valley (US 68): Best Road Trip for Wine Lovers
Happy Valley to Pilot Mountain; 78 miles, two hours
The Yadkin Valley is located between the mountains of western North Carolina and the cities of the Piedmont. This combination of agricultural heritage and fresh water has created a rich soil ideal for growing grapes. The region is now part of an American winegrowing region that spans seven counties.
There are a total of nearly 50 wineries on this stretch of US 68, which can be (safely!) to drive in two hours. Or you can take the time to follow the Yadkin River and stay overnight in cozy inns along the way. Jolo Winery and Stardust Cellars are just two of many to choose from.
Even if wine isn’t your thing, this region has plenty to offer. Wilkesboro is home to the annual bluegrass festival Merlefest and two moonshine distilleries, Copper Barrel Distillery and Call Family Distillers. Head west about 40 miles to Lenoir to enjoy more than 60 outdoor sculptures on 1,400 acres at the Western North Carolina Sculpture Park.