Best Road Trips in the USA: North Carolina

From quiet coastal getaways to city attractions, enjoy a road trip through the Tar Heel State.

An illustrative map of North Carolina, highlighting the Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, Outer Banks, and Wilmington. ©Kelsey Davis,

Whether you’re a thrill seeker looking to ride record-breaking roller coasters, an outdoor enthusiast in search of awe-inspiring views of the Great Smoky Mountains or a history buff wanting to tour historic estates, North Carolina offers something for everyone and provides a great place to take one of the best road trips in the USA.

Pack your bags and hit the road with us as we take you on an adventure through the Tar Heel State, starting in the Great Smoky Mountains in the western part of the state, from Asheville to Charlotte and Raleigh, then on to the Outer Banks and, finally, to Wilmington.

A sweeping view of the Great Smoky Mountains. iStock

Things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains

We’re beginning our North Carolina road trip with some fun in the great outdoors. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to picturesque views, diverse wildlife and a deep cultural history.

Next, motor on for a drive through Cades Cove, an 11-mile byway that technically starts in Tennessee but winds through North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Cades Cove is a popular tourist destination, with historic structures, wildlife, hiking trails and more.

You’ll have a good chance of spotting some wildlife here, as deer (below), groundhogs, turkeys, coyotes and even black bears are native to the area. (For the safety of yourself and the animals, be sure to follow the National Park Service’s wildlife-viewing tips.)

Deer graze in a meadow in front of tree-lined rolling hills. iStock

Explore the lush foliage and rolling hills of the Cherokee National Forest, named for the Native American nation that has lived in and cared for the area since at least 8000 B.C. The forest also extends into Tennessee and Georgia, totaling 650,000 acres. You won’t be hard-pressed to find a trail worth hiking.

A group of nine people wearing life vests and helmets whitewater raft in a river. iStock

No trip to the Smokies is complete without a dip in the mountain water. Try your hand (or paddles) at kayaking or whitewater rafting (above) down the Nantahala River. The reiver’s name, Nantahala, is derived from the Cherokee language.

A lit up cityscape of Asheville with rolling hills and a colorful sunset in the background. iStock

Things to do in Asheville

Next on our journey through the Tar Heel State is a stopover in the city of Asheville, which offers history, culture and views to spare. Enjoy the picturesque vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the drive into Asheville and stop at one of the roughly 280 lookouts to stretch your legs and take in the swoon-worthy views.

History buffs may be interested in visiting the homes of two late literary legends, Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg, both of whom called Asheville home. Another option is the historic Biltmore Estate, boasting a 250-room mansion on 8,000 acres of land. Built just before the turn of the 20th century, the estate opens up 175,000 square feet to the public to tour.  (AAA Members can save on tickets.)

A yellow, blue, and red hot air balloon hovers over a hill with clouds in the background. iStock

There’s not a better way to experience the views of Asheville’s surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains than from the sky, via a hot-air balloon ride (above). Asheville Balloon Co. flies spring through autumn and celebrates each ride with hors d’oeuvres and a champagne toast.

After a day of exploring historic Ashville estates and hot-air ballooning, stop by Grove Arcade for an eclectic mix of local shops and restaurants. Having originally opened in 1929, the Grove Arcade boasts iconic architecture and fine dining—and is the perfect place to refuel on your journey.

An aerial view of the buildings in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. iStock

Things to do in Charlotte

As we head southeast from Ashville, the next stop on our North Carolina road trip is Charlotte. Known as the Queen City, Charlotte is instantly recognizable by its regal skyline.

Families and amusement seekers will enjoy spending a day at Carowinds. There, you can ride North America’s tallest, fastest and longest giga coaster, lifting you up to a height of 325 feet before dropping you at a speed of 95 mph.

For even more celebration of speed, visit Charlotte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame. Learn about the history of NASCAR through interactive exhibits and race simulators. To see NASCAR history in the making, head over to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where you can enjoy a race, or a wide range of community events. You can even stay at the track’s year-round campgrounds so you’re close to all of the racing action.  (AAA Members can save at Carowinds and on pro sports tickets.)

A pair of hands go through a stack of vintage vinyls. iStock

For a quieter experience, the Sleepy Poet Antique Mall is a treasure trove of undiscovered finds. Browse furniture, vintage clothes, vinyl records (above) and just about anything that falls under the umbrella of their motto, “No rhyme or reason, just cool stuff.”

Finish off your time in Charlotte with a visit to the Whitewater Center. What began as an artificial whitewater course has grown into a sprawling adventure hub, with whitewater rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking and more. You can even experience the world’s first deep water solo climbing complex, a series of climbing walls that tower over a large pool. No harness is needed; you simply fall safely into the water if you lose your grip or reach the top.

Raleigh, North Carolina, USA downtown and George Washington Monument as viewed from the Capitol Building grounds. iStock

Things to do in Raleigh

Continuing your journey east, you’ll discover the capital city of North Carolina. Raleigh is a hub of culture, nature appreciation and small-business offerings.

To begin, visit the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for some hands-on fun. Learn from a wide range of permanent exhibits, watch live animal feedings, touch whale bones and even visit the Arthropod Zoo. Check the museum website for more info on all of its upcoming exhibits.

In downtown Raleigh (above), you’ll also find other world-class museum offerings, including the Marbles Kids Museum and the North Carolina Museum of History. You can tour a chocolate factory downtown, too, as well as play classic arcade games or indulge in a plate of whole-hog, pit-cooked barbecue.

A close up of a flower in bloom. iStock

After enjoying the hustle and bustle of downtown Raleigh, take a moment to slow down and immerse yourself in nature at the Juniper Level Botanic Garden. An educational, research and display garden, the 28-acre botanic garden is only open to the public eight weekends per year. (To schedule a weekday visit, contact Juniper Level Botanic Garden ahead of time for an appointment.)

A sandy beach with fencing at sunset in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. iStock

Things to do in the Outer Banks

Continuing eastward on your trek through the Tar Heel State brings you to the Atlantic coast. You’ve made it to the Outer Banks, our next stop on this road trip. Stretching south from the Virginia border for 120 miles, three counties form a string of barrier islands that have become a popular destination for sun-seekers. Feel the sand beneath your feet and soak in the lulling sound of waves crashing on the shore.

Visit the East Coast’s largest sand dune system at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The same winds that form the dunes can propel you on your own adventures. Visitors often enjoy kite flying, windsurfing, kiteboarding and even hang-gliding.

If sun and fun is more your speed, visit H20BX Waterpark. The park is packed with family fun and there are rides for kids and thrill-seekers. AAA Members can save on tickets.

A lighthouse with black and white stripes near a beach in Outer Banks, North Carolina. iStock

For a nearly 200-foot view of the ocean, visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (above). Built in 1870, the structure has survived over 40 hurricanes and guided many boats to safety. By day, you can’t miss it, thanks to its signature black-and-white spiral paint job. By night, its beam can ne seen from up to 20 miles in the darkness.

While you’re on Hatteras Island, check to see if you’ll be lucky enough to experience the Hatteras Island Oyster Roast. Each year, tickets to this community event are sold for the purpose of celebrating coastal culture and, of course, enjoying local oysters. Festival proceeds go to the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s restoration programs

Also in the Outer Banks is the birthplace of flight itself. At Kitty Hawk, you can walk the ground that Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew over in 1903. Trace the exact course of that historic first at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

 Two kids look through birdwatching telescopes on a wooden deck. iStock

Since long before the Wright Brothers, the Outer Banks has been home to a diverse range of flying residents, making it a sought-after location for birdwatchers (above) and nature photographers. Due to its unique habitats, the Outer Banks has hosted the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival since 1997. Taking place across five days and six national wildlife refuges, the festival hosts casual enthusiasts and seasoned birding professionals alike.

A large ship is docked beside tall buildings lit up at night in Wilmington, North Carolina. iStock

Things to do in Wilmington

Our final stop on this action-packed North Carolina road trip will bring you even further south along the coast. Wilmington (above) offers the charm of a small coastal town and the cultural richness of a historic city, making it a great pit stop for both fun in the sun and idyllic meandering.

Kick off your stay in Wilmington with a cruise around the city. Experience local flavor via a river cruise. Have a leisurely pedal aboard a 100% green paddleboat. Or see if you can get the flounder to bite by booking a personal fishing charter for a day out on the water.

A sunset view of Battleship North Carolina in Wilmington, North Carolina. iStock

The next activity is also aboard a boat, though it’s permanently anchored to shore. History buffs will find plenty to interest them on the Battleship North Carolina (above). Tour below the deck of this famous 35,000-ton ship to learn all about its role in World War II.

If you want to relax while your kids (5th–8th grade) have their own unique adventures, Sea Turtle Camp offers a Carolina Ocean Odyssey. There, your kiddos will aid in sea turtle conservation, explore salt marshes by kayak and even experience the thrill of learning to surf.

A view of the Wilmington Riverwalk with a bridge in the background. iStock

The city’s No. 1 tourist attraction is the Wilmington Riverwalk (above). Stretching for 1.75 miles, the Riverwalk gives visitors a path for wandering through the area’s shops, museums, parks, public art and restaurants. You can even discover filming locations for beloved television shows like Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, The Summer I Turned Pretty and more.

For some extra fun in Wilmington, you can also explore all that the city has to offer on two wheels by booking an e-bike tour from a veteran-owned business. The electric bikes and easy pace make it a breeze to explore Carolina Beach State Park, the Flytrap Trail and the Carolina Beach Boardwalk.

There’s history to be experienced as well. The National Park Service declared the Riverwalk’s Orange Street Landing part of its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. This means the site honors and preserves its history of resistance to enslavement and is celebrated for its cultural importance.

An aerial view of the sandy shores and rows of beach houses on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. iStock

Finish off your visit with a round of island-hopping along the coast. There are three beach islands just a short drive from Wilmington that make for perfect day trips. Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach (above) all impress with their sandy shores and the unique coastal town flavor you can only find in the Tar Heel State. 

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