If you’re looking for the road less traveled, you’ll find it in North Carolina. The scenery across the state ranges from rugged mountain vistas where Daniel Boone once traveled to the sandy coast where wild horses roam.
While it’s possible to explore by bus or train, there’s nothing quite like navigating the state's curving roads from behind the wheel of a car. At 500 miles across, there's lots to explore, so give yourself plenty of time to see the changes in topography. From paths that follow the mighty rivers to the ferries connecting barrier islands, here are our favorite North Carolina road trips.
Blue Ridge Parkway: best road trip for slow travel
Cherokee to Cumberland Knob; 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 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 spots on the parkway, but there’s so much more to see. On the southern end, learn about the history of the Cherokee Nation at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
Mt Mitchell, the highest peak in the state, is right off the parkway, along with Linville Falls, one of the most famous waterfalls in the region. Moses Cone Memorial Park is a stunning home, now operating as an arts center.
The speed limit is 45mph or less for most of the multi-day journey, so take your time and plan on stopping often in the small towns nearby, whether for hikes or staying the night. Keep in mind that weather conditions may lead to closures, and some attractions and visitors' centers are only open from May to October.
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Cherohala Skyway (US 143): best road trip for mountain vistas
Beech Gap to Robbinsville; approx. 30 miles, about two to three hours
Opened in 1996, the 43-mile Cherohala Skyway travels between Tennessee and North Carolina through Nantahala National Forest. Encompassing 531,148 acres, Nantahala is the largest of the state’s four national forests, with more than 600 miles of trails.
This route, which reaches 2000ft to 4000ft above sea level, is a nice alternative if you don’t want to commit to the longer Blue Ridge Parkway. Give yourself the entire day to detour.
The drive follows the curves of the Benton MacKaye Trail, named for the conservationist, and there are shorter hikes you can take from the trail. Stop at the overlooks for incredible views of Lake Santeetlah.
If you want to add to the drive, continue on US 129 and NC 28 to make the loop around Fontana Dam or head north into 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 Western North Carolina gem is the Nantahala Byway, which weaves through the floor of the Nantahala Gorge. While US 74 continues west into Tennessee, the best section is the stretch of interconnected creeks that flow into the namesake river.
While you could make the drive in less than two hours, this section 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's not 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 many nearby waterfalls. The Nantahala Gorge area has glamping options too, including yurts and converted school buses.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway: best road trip for beachgoers
Nags Head to Otway; approx. 140 miles, five hours
Despite the name, the Outer Banks Scenic Byway comprises many smaller interconnected roadways, including US 64/264, US 158 and NC 12. The chain of narrow barrier islands continues to the north, but the official byway only covers a portion.
The journey will take at least five hours from top to bottom, including two ferries between the islands. But along the way, travelers are met with stretches of quiet beaches, historic lighthouses and seasonal campgrounds.
For pirate lore 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, though donations are accepted.
Also located on Hatteras is the Frisco Native American Museum, which highlights Native culture from all over 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 set between the mountains of Western North Carolina and the cities of the Piedmont. This combination of agricultural legacy and freshwater has created rich soil ideal for growing grapes. The region is now part of an American Viticultural Area spanning seven counties.
There are nearly 50 wineries in total on this stretch of US 68, which can be driven (safely!) in two hours. Or you can take your time, following the Yadkin River and staying at cozy inns along the way. Jolo Winery and Stardust Cellars are just two of the 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 about 25 miles west to Lenoir to enjoy more than 60 outdoor sculptures set on 1400 acres at the Western North Carolina Sculpture Park.