North Carolina has lots of roads. Not just four-lane highways packed with screaming cars but two-lane roads through peaceful corners of the state. The roads cross mountains and beaches, pass through small towns and big cities, and connect history, culture, and food. But what are the best roads to see the state?
From scenic byways to US Highways, these road trips are the best for exploring everything North Carolina offers. The only thing difficult about these road trips is picking which one to drive. The easy part is enjoying the scenic views, charming towns, and attractions.
Which of these road trips in North Carolina would you enjoy driving next?
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Blue Ridge Parkway
251 miles | 2-3 days
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the country’s most popular road trip routes. In North Carolina, the Parkway begins at Cumberland Knob Recreation Area and ends in Cherokee at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The 251 miles through North Carolina include some of the most iconic destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Linn Cove Viaduct snakes around the side of Grandfather Mountain. Linville Falls crashes into the bottom of a gorge far below several scenic overlooks. Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The Mount Pisgah area includes a hiking trail to the mountain’s summit, a lodge on the edge of the mountain ridge, and a campground.
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Along the way, take detours off the Parkway to explore the gateway towns. In Blowing Rock, stay at a lodge in town and walk to dinner and shopping. Boone is busier, but you’ll find lots of local dining and antiquing if you visit mid-week. Asheville is a mountain haven known for their craft beer and world-class cuisine. In Brevard, grab a coffee and enjoy a savory meal. Finally, Cherokee is home to the eye-opening Museum of the Cherokee Indian and entertaining Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama.
51 miles | 1 day
The Cherohala Skyway is one of the most scenic drives in the state – and one of the most remote. The 51-mile route begins in Robbinsville, about two hours from Asheville. Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Cherohala Skyway is a two-lane road with scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and attractions.
At 5,390-feet, the Santeetlah Overlook is the highest point on the Cherohala Skyway, but the Big Junction Overlook offers one of the best views. The Mudd Gap parking area allows day hikers to access the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail – a 3.3-mile hike leads to Whigg Meadow. The Turkey Creek Overlook is the best overlook on the Skyway, with a jaw-dropping view during sunset.
Indian Boundary Lake Recreation Area is a peaceful bastion for a weekend getaway in the mountains. A beach is the perfect place to swim in the lake, but you can also explore with kayaks or canoes. An 87-site campground is spread around three loops in a dense forest within walking distance of the lake.
Bald River Falls is a pleasant surprise on the Cherohala Skyway. The 100-foot-tall waterfall is a few miles from the Skyway on an unmarked two-lane road. Visitors can view the stunning waterfall from a bridge near the base of the falls, where mist from the churning water covers everything – and everyone.
Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
68 miles | 1-2 days
The 68-mile Forest Heritage Scenic Byway loops through Pisgah National Forest, beginning and ending near Brevard. The national forest was established in 1916 after Edith Vanderbilt sold over 86,000 acres of the Biltmore Estate to the federal government.
The loop includes the scenic route along US Highway 276 past Looking Glass Falls, Sliding Rock, and the Cradle of Forestry in America, where visitors can explore the origins of the first forestry school in the country. On NC Highway 215, explore small waterfalls like Sunburst Falls. Go for short detours on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Mount Pisgah and Devils Courthouse for breathtaking overlooks and hiking trails.
Indian Lakes Scenic Byway
60 miles | 1 day
Deep in the western North Carolina mountains, the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway meanders along the shorelines of Fontana Lake, Cheoah Lake, and Santeetlah Lake. Boat rentals are far and few in between, so bring your own kayak or canoe to enjoy these peaceful lakes. But it’s also possible to enjoy these lakes from the comfort of a collapsible chair at a lakeshore picnic area.
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Walk across the Fontana Dam, the highest dam in elevation east of the Rocky Mountains, along the Appalachian Trail and relive a moment captured in Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Take a detour along the Tail of the Dragon – an infamous motorcycle route that features 318 curves in 11 miles.
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Coastal Lighthouse Tour
300 miles | 4-7 days
Seven lighthouses remain along North Carolina’s coast, beaming brightly as beacons to the past. If you time the ferry crossings just right, you could complete this road trip in a scant two days – but what’s the fun in that?
Climb the steps inside Old Baldy Lighthouse, the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina, after taking a pedestrian-only ferry to Bald Head Island. At nearby Oak Island Lighthouse, the only way to climb to the top is a series of seven vertical ship’s ladders, so you might want to just enjoy the view from the beach boardwalk instead.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only lighthouse to explore along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. Completed in 1859, the 163-foot-tall lighthouse features an iconic black and white diamond pattern. The lighthouse stands on Shackleford Banks, part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Visitors need to book passage on a ferry to the island to explore the lighthouse and take a self-guided tour to the top.
Visit four lighthouses along the Outer Banks between Ocracoke and Corolla. The Ocracoke Lighthouse, completed in 1823, is the most remote in the state. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most recognizable lighthouses along the East Coast. Completed in 1870, the 198-foot-tall lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the country and the second tallest in the world. The 156-foot-tall Bodie Island Light Station is the third to stand on the same property and was completed in 1872.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is less than two miles from the end of paved roads on the north end of the Outer Banks in Corolla. Completed in 1875, the 162-foot-tall lighthouse is still open for visitors to climb the 220 steps to the top.
Did You Know? Carova is the northernmost beach town in North Carolina. The only way to get there is a four-wheel drive vehicle along 12 miles of the beach after the paved roads end in Corolla.
North Carolina Waterfall Scenic Byway
140 miles | 2-3 days
The North Carolina Waterfall Scenic Byway is a 98-mile route between Murphy and Rosman. But adding an extra 42 miles through Brevard and Pisgah National Forest includes a dozen more waterfalls – and some of the best in the state.
The 140-mile route includes 25 waterfalls, most viewable from the car or after a short walk. Travel through the Cullasaja Gorge to visit Cullasaja Falls, Bust Your Butt Falls, and walk behind Dry Falls. Take a short detour to see Whitewater Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. In DuPont State Recreation Forest, take short hikes to see High Falls, Triple Falls, and Hooker Falls. Finally, visit Looking Glass Falls, one of the most iconic waterfalls in North Carolina.
Along the way, explore the charming small towns of Murphy, Franklin, Highlands, and Brevard. Learn about North Carolina’s mineral mining past, enjoy boutique shopping, and sample the savory local cuisine.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway
144 miles | 3-5 days
The Outer Banks Scenic Byway is the perfect way to blend a road trip with a beach vacation. Stretching along 144 miles of two-lane roads, the scenic route includes over three hours on car ferries and moments of seeing water on both sides of the road.
Begin the drive in Beaufort and explore the Down East area of North Carolina. The Cedar Island Ferry to Ocracoke Village takes 2.5 hours, and at the midpoint, the land is nowhere in sight. Take another half-hour ferry to Hatteras Island to begin a journey of island hopping through Rodanthe, Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills.
Explore the charming beach towns and wide beaches. Delve into the history of Blackbeard and the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Discover local shopping, dining, and attractions. But most of all, feel the salty air blowing through your hair with open windows and nothing but sun overhead.
Pamlico Scenic Byway
127 miles | 1-2 days
Pamlico Sound is the largest lagoon on the East Coast, stretching 80 miles from Washington to the Outer Banks. The Pamlico Scenic Byway follows the route of US Highway 264 from Manns Harbor along the lagoon’s coast to Washington.
Explore early colonial history, enjoy the recreation in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, and take in the scenery along the peaceful highway through small communities, farms, and riverways.
US Highway 17
228 miles | 3-5 days
Once called the King’s Highway, the route of US Highway 17 was developed during the colonial era to connect the important port cities of Charleston and Boston. Today, the route connects inland cities and towns less than an hour from a beach at any given time.
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Explore the burgeoning craft beer scene in Wilmington, or spend an evening in the thriving downtown area. Take a guided tour of Tryon Palace, colonial North Carolina’s first capital. Enjoy the gorgeous scenery between Washington and South Mills at the Virginia border. End the journey with an adventure at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
US Highway 21
110 miles | 3-5 days
Much of US Highway 21 parallels Interstate 77 through North Carolina, but you’ll miss a lot of adventures if you stick to the interstate highway. During the height of the Great American Road Trip, the route was part of the popular Great Lakes to Florida Highway.
In Sparta, the route crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and into the Yadkin Valley wine region. In Statesville, explore the “Ballooning Capital of the East” with a hot air balloon ride, get a drink at Southern Distilling Company, and finish the day with something to eat at a local restaurant. Explore NASCAR heritage at museums and garage shops in Mooresville, and you can go for a race at the GoPro Motorplex. Follow the rest of the route into Charlotte for a Panther’s football game or explore one of the city’s exciting neighborhoods.
US Highway 64
578 miles | 5-10 days
One of two routes that cross the entire state from the mountains to the beach, US Highway 64 begins in Murphy along the North Carolina Waterfall Scenic Byway. Explore local shopping, dining, and attractions in Franklin, Highlands, Brevard, and Hendersonville. Visit Lake Lure, the famous filming location of Dirty Dancing, and the iconic Chimney Rock.
Leave the mountains behind with a trip through Statesville, the “Ballooning Capital of the East.” Visit the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro and take a detour to visit a hundred potteries along the Pottery Highway in Seagrove. Visit the state capital in Raleigh before leaving the piedmont behind, traveling into the coastal area. End the trip with a pleasant drive to Nags Head, where you can explore the history of the Wright Brothers and watch the sunrise across the ocean.
US Highway 74
430 miles | 5-10 days
Beginning in Murphy, US Highway 74 crosses the entire state in an entirely different route. Travel through the gorgeous Nantahala Gorge into Bryson City, then continue through the small mountain towns of Sylva and Waynesville. Spend a weekend in Asheville, a city known for the number of craft breweries, world-class cuisine, and gorgeous mountain views. Travel through Lake Lure, Forest City, and Shelby to discover great local food and attractions on the way into Charlotte.
Partially upgraded to interstate grade, the route along US Highway 74 between Charlotte and Wilmington can go by in the blink of an eye. Stop in Rockingham to get something to eat and take a short detour to Moores Creek National Battlefield. Arrive in Wilmington to sample the seafood, craft beer, and local shopping in the vibrant downtown – or skip it entirely in favor of a few days in Carolina Beach.