If you’re looking for the road less travelled, you’ll find it in North Carolina. The landscape across the state ranges from rugged mountain vistas where Daniel Boone once traveled to sandy coastline where wild horses roam.
While it’s possible to explore by bus or train, there’s nothing like navigating the state’s winding roads behind the wheel of a car. At 500 miles wide, there’s plenty to explore, so give yourself plenty of time to see the changes in topography. From trails that follow mighty rivers to ferries connecting barrier islands, here are our favorite road trips in North Carolina.
Blue Ridge Parkway: Best Road Trip for Slow Travel
Cherokee Button in Cumberland; 175 miles, multi-day hike
Easily one of the best road trips in western North Carolina, if not the country, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds 469 miles through Virginia. It dates back to 1933 when US Senator Harry Byrd suggested connecting Virginia’s Skyline Drive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Construction began in 1935 and incorporated several New Deal programs. The final piece, the iconic Linn Cove Viaduct, was completed in 1987.
The viaduct is one of the most photographed places on the walk, but there is so much more to see. At the south end, learn about the history of the Cherokee Nation at the Museum of the Cherokee Indians.
Mount Mitchell, the state’s tallest peak, is just off the boardwalk, as well as Linville Falls, one of the area’s most famous waterfalls. The Moses Cone Memorial Park is a magnificent home, which now functions as an arts center.
The speed limit is 45 mph or less for most of the multi-day trip, so take your time and plan to stop often at nearby small towns, whether for hikes or overnight stays. Keep in mind that weather conditions may cause closures and some attractions and visitor centers are only open from May to October.
Cherohala Skyway (US 143): Best Mountain Road Trip
Beech Gap in Robbinsville; about. 30 miles, about two to three hours
Opened in 1996, the 43-mile Cherohala Skyway connects Tennessee and North Carolina through the Nantahala National Forest. Covering 531,148 acres, Nantahala is the largest of the state’s four national forests, with over 600 miles of trails.
This route, which reaches 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet above sea level, is a good alternative if you don’t want to take the longer Blue Ridge Parkway. Give yourself all day to make the detour.
The route follows the curves of the Benton MacKaye Trail, named after the conservationist, and there are shorter hikes you can do from the trail. Stop at lookouts for incredible views of Lake Santeetlah.
If you want to add to the route, continue on US 129 and NC 28 to loop around Fontana Dam or head north into Tennessee for the Diverted Dragon’s Tail.
Nantahala Byway (US 74): Best road trip for outdoor adventurers
Marble Whittier; 43 miles, about two hours
Another western North Carolina gem is the Nantahala Byway, which winds through the floor of the Nantahala Gorge. As US 74 continues west into Tennessee, the best section is the stretch of interconnecting creeks that flow into the namesake river.
Although you can make the trip in less than two hours, this section of the North Carolina Smokies begs further exploration. Book a trip with one of the many rafting outfitters who navigate the world-class rapids; if that’s not enough adventure, many also offer canopy and zipline tours.
Visit the southern shores of Lake Fontana or hike the trail to Findley Falls, one of many nearby waterfalls. The Nantahala Gorge area also offers glamping options including yurts and converted school buses.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway: The Best Road Trip for Beach Lovers
Head of Nags at Otway; about. 140 miles, five hours
Despite its name, the Outer Banks Scenic Byway includes many minor interconnecting roads, including US 64/264, US 158, and NC 12. The chain of narrow barrier islands continues north, but the official road only covers ‘a part.
The trip will take at least five hours up and down, including two inter-island ferries. But along the way, travelers encounter stretches of quiet beaches, historic lighthouses, and seasonal campgrounds.
To learn about pirate lore and buried treasure, head to the cemetery at the Museum of the Atlantic on Hatteras Island, filled with artifacts 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 showcases Native culture from across the country through art, artifacts, and handmade jewelry. There are also nature trails leading to acres of maritime forest.
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 Piedmont. This combination of agricultural heritage and fresh water has created rich soil ideal for growing vines. The area is now part of an American wine region that spans seven counties.
There are nearly 50 wineries in total on this stretch of US 68, which can be traveled (safely!) in two hours. Or you can take your time, follow the Yadkin River and stay in cozy inns along the way. Jolo Winery and Stardust Cellars are just two of the many choices to choose from.
Even if wine isn’t your thing, this region has plenty to offer. Wilkesboro hosts the annual Merlefest bluegrass festival and two moonshine distilleries, Copper Barrel Distillery and Call Family Distillers. Head about 25 miles west to Lenoir to enjoy more than 60 outdoor sculptures on 1,400 acres at Western North Carolina Sculpture Park.