25 Best Day Trips in North Carolina
From the beaches of the Outer Banks to the tallest mountains of the Blue Ridge range, North Carolina contains endless opportunities for sightseeing and activities. It’s home to some of the oldest towns and settlements of the United States, and its diverse small towns are absolutely worth a trip, whether for an afternoon or a weekend. From rock climbing at Chimney Rock to exploring the history of the Cherokee Nation in Cherokee to relaxing on the boardwalk or sunbathing at Carolina Beach, North Carolina, has so much to offer that is definitely not to be missed. Photo: Konstantin L/Fotolia
Asheville, NC, a city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is renowned for its arts and cultural scene as well as for its historic buildings. It’s a beautiful city with a thriving culture, and there’s no shortage of things to do in Asheville. Visitors can tour the elaborate house and gardens at the Biltmore Estate, visit the Asheville Pinball Museum, or sit back and enjoy a tasty beer at the New Belgium Brewery and Tasting Room. Those looking to get out into the great outdoors will find a plethora of opportunity within a short driving distance for hiking, biking, kayaking, and mountain views.
The boardwalk at Carolina Beach is famous nationwide for its shops, restaurants, rides, and entertainment for visitors of all ages. During the summer, weekly firework shows and regular concerts and events add even more to the experience. On the beach itself, there is ample opportunity for sunbathing and watersports, and at nearby Carolina Beach State Park, visitors can wander a sandy trail that leads to an awe inspiring view of Cape Fear River. Whether they are looking for a relaxing weekend away, or a day trip full of excitement, families, friends, and solo travelers will all find something to love about Carolina Beach.
With its quaint shops and stunning location (it is one of the only towns directly along the Blue Ridge Parkway), Blowing Rock claims the title of “Crown of the Blue Ridge.” In Blowing Rock, which is located near the impressive Grandfather Mountain, visitors can hike, bike, or boulder, but they can also relax and enjoy this charming town and all it has to offer. The Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West themed park, is a great destination for families, and Blowing Rock Art and History Museum offers some cultural education for history buffs. And with over a hundred unique shops in its downtown area, Blowing Rock is a fantastic place to treat yourself to something new. Browse NC island
Photo: Holly Michele/Fotolia
»Pisgah National Forest
Nature lovers will delight in the thickly wooded slopes of Pisgah National Forest, whose 500,000 acres are home to hiking trails that extend for more than 1600 miles over rivers, past cascading waterfalls, and through the beautiful North Carolina wilderness. There are several tall peaks within the forest, including Black Balsam Knob, Cold Mountain, and Tennant Mountain. Trails to the summits of these peaks vary in length and difficulty for hikers of all ability levels, and camping in Pisgah National Forest is permitted at both established campsites and in backcountry locations.
In Brevard, visitors can find all the outdoor activities they’d expect to find in a North Carolina mountain town, including hiking, cycling, and rock climbing, as well as a vibrant cultural scene with music, food, and festivals. Brevard hosts six festivals every year, and countless events on top of that, but it still manages to maintain the charm of a small town community, with locally owned shops and restaurants and friendly inhabitants. Visitors to Brevard will adore the atmosphere in the town, which is cultured yet quiet, and boasts a thriving music scene with everything from symphonic orchestras, live bar performances, and bustling music festivals.
North Carolina has lots of options for outdoor enthusiasts, from hiking mountains to swimming in the ocean, and a day trip or weekend excursion to Bryson City should definitely be added to that list. Situated just an hour’s drive from Asheville, Bryson City invites visitors to kayak or navigate the rapids in a raft on the Nantahala River, head to the famous Tsali trails for some mountain biking, hike or horseback ride through forests and past waterfalls, or spend a peaceful day fishing on Fontana Lake. The town is tucked away in the Smokies surrounded by steep slopes, rushing creeks, and stunning nature that is sure to leave visitors breathless.
Photo: Jill Lang/Fotolia
Atlantic Beach is one of only five communities located on the barrier island of Bogue Banks in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. With a beach that is nationally recognized as one of the best in the country and an array of state parks and attractions that offer a combination of history, nature, and fun, Atlantic Beach has something for everyone. A boat ride to Cape Lookout National Seashore allows visitors to explore a lighthouse watch wild horses on the beaches, and tour a historic town, while Fort Macon State Park is a great place to walk, explore, visit the beach, and learn about its history as a Civil War fort.
» Chapel Hill
A visit to Chapel Hill will show visitors almost immediately why it’s such a popular destination for tourists. It has everything, including restaurants, family activities, a music scene, parks, art and museums, and lots of history. Visitors can view collections of art from all over the world at the Ackland Art Museum, take some time to smell the roses at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, or head to the Carolina Basketball Museum for exhibits about the history of UNC basketball. Chapel Hill is also home to the Carr Mill Mall, a historic market, and the Weaver Street Market, where visitors will find not only shopping but also food and music.
Photo: Jill Lang/Fotolia
Cherokee, North Carolina is a town inside the Eastern Cherokee Reservation, and it offers visitors an amazing look into Native American culture and history through museums, shops, and shows. Live demonstrations at Oconaluftee Indian Village will show visitors what life was like in an 18th century Cherokee village, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian will teach about the history of the Cherokee Nation in the region. Cherokee is located at the doorstep of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so it’s situated in some beautiful natural settings and also serves as a great jumping point for exploring the park.
Photo: Jill Lang/Fotolia
Located in Hickory Nut Gorge just beneath the towering hulk of Chimney Rock Mountain is Chimney Rock Village, a charmingly quirky town with plenty of shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, and services. Chimney Rock State Park is a huge draw for visitors, and the entrance to this beautiful park is laughably easy to find, as it’s located right on Main Street in town. The park features some amazing rock formations, including the one that gives it its name, as well as some great opportunities for rock climbing or hiking to the top of Chimney Rock, where some spectacular views can be found of nearby Lake Lure and the surrounding area. Not much of a hiker? No problem, because an elevator inside the mountain can lift visitors up to the top of Chimney Rock, so no one has to miss out on the view.
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Corolla, North Carolina, is located in the Outer Banks and has miles and miles of beachfront land full of rental homes great for family vacations, bachelor or bachelorette weekends, or gatherings of any kind. The town of Corolla has plenty to do, from climbing the stairs of the beautiful and scenic Currituck Beach Lighthouse to visiting the historic Whalehead Club. In town, visitors to Corolla will find an abundance of shops and restaurants to whet their appetites. The area is also home to a herd of wild horses, and visitors will love visiting their habitat and seeing them relax on the beach like tourists.
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The entire family will love the town of Emerald Isle, which is part of the Crystal Coast just south of Croatan National Forest. Emerald Isle is home to over 12 miles of sandy shorelines with some pretty spectacular views of the Atlantic, and its waters are great for boating, fishing, and watersports. From the wealth of activities on the beach, from sunbathing to paddleboarding to miniature golf to zipping down the waterslides at Water Boggan, it’s easy to find things to do on Emerald Isle, where the island places special emphasis on creating an atmosphere suitable for family fun.
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Near the military base of Fort Bragg lies Fayetteville, a historic town with a lot of passion. From its proximity to the largest military installation in the country to its roots as a town named for the Marquis de Lafayette, it’s no surprise that Fayetteville received the title of “America’s Most Pro-Military Town.” Patriotism certainly runs strong in this town, where visitors can explore the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry Armory and Museum, tour the Averasboro Battlefield and Museum, or check out some of Fayetteville’s nine historic districts to see evidence of the town’s proud past.
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»Grandfather Mountain State Park
Grandfather Mountain is the tallest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and this state park offers visitors the opportunity to see the towering mountain up close. Near the summit at exactly one mile above sea level is the Mile High Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge that extends for over 220 feet over a chasm that drops beneath. A walk across this bridge is sure to get the adrenaline pumping, and you’ll see some pretty spectacular views along the way. For a more rustic, backcountry view of Grandfather Mountain, visitors can use one of the many nature trails or hiking trails that lead around the park and to the summit.
Photo: Jill Lang/Fotolia
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» Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the area’s premier destinations for outdoor activities and natural beauty. It is the most popular national park in the entire United States, and within its borders visitors will find lush green trees, abundant wildlife, and of course, some truly awe-inspiring mountains. The hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are vast and numerous and even include a portion of the famous Appalachian Trail. Hikers will wind their way up mountainsides and across rivers to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.
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Highlands is a mountain resort town located along the southern border of North Carolina near scenic Highway 64. This town is so popular that during the summer its population grows by more than 600% on average, and one day in Highlands will tell you exactly why. The town itself is full of activity, from restaurants and shopping to galleries and the arts. The surrounding beauty of Nantahala National Forest offers hiking trails through peaceful woods and past waterfalls that are simply picture perfect, and fishing enthusiasts will find trout in the area’s many rivers.
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»Kill Devil Hills
The town of Kill Devil Hills on the coast of the Atlantic in the Outer Banks is a resort town with plenty of history and activities. Close to the famous town of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills is home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where visitors can explore the grounds and a reconstruction of the camp where the Wright Brothers built their first airplane, as well as a replica of their prototype. Out on the water, Kill Devils Hill is well known as a surfing destination and for being a great spot for kayaking, fishing, and boating. Equipment rentals are available on location.
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Lake Lure is a huge lake that approximates over 700 acres in Hickory Nut Gorge in the western part of the state. With over twenty miles of shoreline, Lake Lure is fed by the clear waters of Rocky Broad River as it makes its way through Hickory Nut Gap. The climate in the area is very warm, and Lake Lure and the surrounding region is well suited for hiking, boating, fishing, and swimming. In the charming town of Lake Lure, visitors will find plenty of shopping and dining options for when their day of play out on the lake comes to an end.
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»Mount Mitchell State Park
Mount Mitchell reaches 6,684 feet in elevation at its summit, making it the highest point in America east of the Mississippi, and the park surrounding the peak is certainly one of the most beautiful in the region. Via the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, visitors can even drive to the summit, where they will follow the mountain road through twists and turns to the observation deck for a spectacular 360 degree view of the park and surrounding peaks and region. For the more athletically inclined, Mount Mitchell is also accessible by hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties.
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Nags Head is a part of the Outer Banks known for its beautiful beaches, but there is so much more to this North Carolina town than that. Located near the famous town of Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers first achieved flight, and the resort town of Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head is a great spot for vacations or day trips alike. With a beach that is perfect for swimming, sunbathing, or surfing and a town with world class restaurants and stunning galleries for visitors to enjoy, Nags Head also offers options like snorkeling, finding and exploring old shipwrecks, kayaking, and hang gliding.
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Near the coast of North Carolina, along the Trent and Neuse Rivers is New Bern, one of the oldest towns in the state. Founded in 1710, New Bern boasts fame for the invention of Pepsi in 1898, and for being the home of famous author Nicholas Sparks – the area serves as the setting for many of his novels, including The Notebook. History buffs will enjoy the North Carolina History Center and the New Bern Fireman’s Museum, while nature lovers or those looking for some fresh ocean air can take a cruise along the rivers or the coast with one of the many charter cruise companies in the area. In town, New Bern’s main streets are filled with boutiques and attractions set along the banks of the scenic river. There are plenty of places to eat a delicious meal.
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Ocracoke Island is the southernmost island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, accessible by ferry. This idyllic place is perfect for a relaxing island vacation, with long stretches of sandy beachfront and a town filled with charming local businesses. The National Park Service owns most of the island, so Ocracoke Beach remains undeveloped, making it one of the most beautiful beach destinations in the US. Visitors to Ocracoke can sunbathe, swim, or get wild with watersports from surfing to waterskiing. On land, Ocracoke offers options for hiking, biking, and some amazing food at its restaurants, many of which have docks for guests coming by boat.
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The town of Boone, situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a historic area that, like many other towns on this list, offers countless opportunities for outdoor adventure. Visitors can go spelunking amongst the limestone stalactites and stalagmites of Linville Caverns or drive along the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway to get up close and personal with some of the most beautiful mountains in the region. There’s opportunity for hiking or biking on mountainsides, skiing and snowboarding in the winter, or spending a happy day sampling drinks along the Boone Area Wine Trail. There’s so much activity in Boone, it’s bound to be an unforgettable visit.
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Roanoke lives in infamy as the first attempted settlement in America by the English, a colony that was mysteriously lost. Today, Roanoke Island is a thriving place that draws people to its museums and historic site, as well as its current status as a fun town with plenty of attractions for tourists and locals alike. On Roanoke Island, visitors will find art galleries, a maritime museum, Elizabethan Gardens, Island Farm, and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. Throughout the year, the town hosts events like the Shallowbag Shag Beach Music Festival, a bluegrass festival, and much more.
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Wrightsville Beach consists of a four mile long island off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, as well as an interior island, and a few bits of the mainland. On Wrightsville Beach, visitors can escape from life by the white sands and sparkling blue waters which are perfect for swimming, fishing, surfing, and more. Visitors can explore the history and ecology of the region at the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History or take a guided cruise on the harbor. Accessible by an iconic drawbridge, Wrightsville Island is a close enough drive from the mainland to make a perfect day trip, with restaurants in the village that serve amazing seafood.
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25 Best Day Trips in North Carolina
- Asheville, Photo: Courtesy of jonbilous - Fotolia.com
- Carolina Beach, Photo: Courtesy of alexbuess - Fotolia.com
- Blowing Rock, Photo: Courtesy of Holly Michele - Fotolia.com
- Pisgah National Forest, Photo: Courtesy of skiserge1 - Fotolia.com
- Brevard, Photo: Courtesy of WideAwake - Fotolia.com
- Bryson City, Photo: Courtesy of Jill Lang - Fotolia.com
- Atlantic Beach, Photo: Courtesy of iofoto - Fotolia.com
- Chapel Hill, Photo: Courtesy of Jill Lang - Fotolia.com
- Cherokee, Photo: Courtesy of Jill Lang - Fotolia.com
- Chimney Rock, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Corolla, Photo: Courtesy of sbgoodwin - Fotolia.com
- Emerald Isle, Photo: Courtesy of bmwysm - Fotolia.com
- Fayetteville, Photo: Courtesy of Tim Markley - Fotolia.com
- Grandfather Mountain State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Jill Lang - Fotolia.com
- Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Photo: Courtesy of Ruth P. Peterkin - Fotolia.com
- Highlands, Photo: Courtesy of jonbilous - Fotolia.com
- Kill Devil Hills, Photo: Courtesy of PiLensPhoto - Fotolia.com
- Lake Lure, Photo: Courtesy of digidreamgrafix - Fotolia.com
- Mount Mitchell State Park, Photo: Courtesy of digidreamgrafix - Fotolia.com
- Nags Head, Photo: Courtesy of scottevers7 - Fotolia.com
- New Bern, Photo: Courtesy of lspi138 - Fotolia.com
- Ocracoke, Photo: Courtesy of sbgoodwin - Fotolia.com
- Boone, Photo: Courtesy of nickolya - Fotolia.com
- Roanoke Island, Photo: Courtesy of jiawangkun - Fotolia.com
- Wrightsville Beach, Photo: Courtesy of Rob - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Konstantin L - Fotolia.com
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