With both the misty Blue Ridge Mountains and the sweeping beaches of the Outer Banks, North Carolina packs ample natural wonders into a state that’s slightly larger than England. One of the original 13 U.S. colonies, “NC” also contains sites related to Indigenous peoples, early European settlers, and pirates. Here are the best ways to see it.
Road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway
More than 250 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway travel through the mountains of western North Carolina, bypassing scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and worthy pit stops such as the dramatic Linville Gorge. There, the river by the same name drops 2,000 feet in 12 miles through a steep, rugged canyon that’s a playground for hikers, rock climbers, and anglers. The parkway goes nearly to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, where an easy 0.3-mile hike climbs to the 6,684-foot summit.
Sample craft beer in Asheville
“People have been making moonshine around Asheville for a couple of centuries, so it wasn’t a big leap for homegrown breweries to start opening,” says local beer historian and author Anne Fitten Glenn. Now, more than 60 breweries operate in this mid-sized mountain city. A short walk from downtown, the South Slope Brewery District is home to nine suds producers, including Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium, which specializes in sour brews, and Burial Beer, which infuses its lagers and ales with unusual ingredients such as coconut and yuzu.
Glenn also recommends River Arts District Brewing, which recently opened in a vintage barn. “It’s tucked back in the woods and feels miles from town,” she says.
Bunk down at the beach
The Outer Banks are a series of barrier islands that stretch a hundred miles along North Carolina’s coastline. The area offers sandy beaches, charming towns, and lighthouses from Corolla to Cape Hatteras. Visitors can rent oceanfront houses for a week or spend a few nights at hotels such as the plush Sanderling Resort in Duck or the Roanoke Island Inn in Manteo. The latter features rooms and suites in a restored 1860s mansion with views of the cottage-like Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.
Splash into waterfalls and wading pools
In western NC, Transylvania County holds over 250 waterfalls, all reachable via road trip or hike. Dupont State Recreational Forest has several gushers, including 120-foot Triple Falls, which had a cameo in The Hunger Games. Gorges State Park is home to 26 cascades; two of the prettiest, Rainbow and Turtleback Falls, are accessible via a 3.9-mile out-and-back trail. Bring your swimsuit to enjoy Turtleback’s 10-foot-long rock slide into a cold pool.
The county’s star attraction is Pisgah National Forest, with 300 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. “Riding here is a challenging up and down traversing stretches of untamed forest tracks and waterfalls,” says Corey Coney of Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures, one of many outfitters that guide tours in the area.
Explore the crafts scene
North Carolina’s craft traditions—weaving, pottery, woodworking, and more—were born of hardscrabble existence in the once off-the-beaten track mountain region. “It’s not that making occurred in Southern Appalachia because of the isolation—but it lasted here because of the isolation,” says North Carolina craft historian Anna Fariello.
Located in the western mountains, Penland School of Craft and John C. Campbell Folk School both preserve the creative legacy with classes plus shops with works for sale. Find 300 galleries and artists’ studios along the Blue Ridge Craft Trails or purchase handmade souvenirs at the Folk Art Center near Asheville.
Slurp along an oyster trail
Though North Carolina shrimp deservedly get a lot of press, oyster farming booms here too, fueled by the state’s 2.2 million acres of coastal estuaries. Sample the state’s meaty, salty bivalves on the NC Oyster Trail, which spotlights 27 restaurants and 17 farms. Take a boat tour to view oyster beds and learn to shuck with Royster NC farm in charming colonial Beaufort, or eat fresh oysters raw on the half shell or broiled with creamed collards and cornbread crumbs at Three10 Bistro in historic downtown Wilmington.
Learn about early Carolina life at Old Salem
Historic interpreters in 18th-19th century garb demonstrate open-fire cooking, woodworking, and other practices from early North Carolina life at Old Salem Museum & Gardens. The open-air museum encompasses restored churches, houses, shops, and a museum of decorative art. The focus is on the Moravians, the German-speaking Protestant religious sect which founded Salem in 1766.
Explore the group’s craft traditions and belief in equality at the 18th-century Single Brothers House, where bachelors lived until marriage, or at the redbrick St. Philips African Moravian Church. “It’s the oldest African church still standing in the state, and it’s a poignant location,” says Tara Logue, Old Salem’s director of education. “Many enslaved Africans sat in its pews when Emancipation was announced.”
Spot wildlife in the Great Smokies
Elk, deer, turkeys, coyotes, and red-tailed hawks make their homes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a 522,427-acre natural wonderland that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border. “The Great Smokies is the most biodiverse place on the planet in the temperate zone,” says Vesa Plakanis, who owns the guided hiking company A Walk in the Woods. Look for wild things in Cataloochee Valley, a verdant lowland surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks, or on a four-mile round-trip trek to Andrews Bald. “It starts at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, and goes through an amazing boreal forest,” says Plakanis.
Visit an American castle
Completed in 1895 for a scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family, the Biltmore is a 250-room French-style mansion near downtown Asheville. Self-guided tours showcase the grand, Gilded Age spaces the owners used, such as a seven-story-high banquet hall and a library with 20,000 custom-bound books. Or take a guided Backstairs at the Biltmore tour to see how the estate’s 40 servants lived and worked. Plan to spend the day (or night) at the 8,000-acre estate, where other diversions include a winery, three hotels, and gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Hit the whitewater
Twelve million gallons of water fill the recirculating, manmade river at the heart of the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. The water lures Olympic kayakers for training and families for whitewater rafting. Its wooded campus also has 50 miles of walking and mountain biking trails, a 46-foot-tall climbing wall, and a challenging ropes course.