Are you planning an exciting North Carolina road trip? If so, you’re in the right place! This ultimate North Carolina road trip guide and itinerary will take you on an unforgettable adventure along the East Coast.
North Carolina is home to some of the most incredible places on the East Coast. It’s a state steeped with history, it’s home to the infamous Blue Ridge Parkway (which offers unmatched views), and its coast features pristine beaches.
With its endless gorgeous scenery, delicious food, kind locals, and excellent hikes, it can be tough deciding exactly where to go in N.C. However, since I’ve spent time living and travelling here, I put together this article to share all the best spots along the route.
Whether you’re looking to relax, explore, or both, North Carolina has it all. So get ready for the ultimate N.C. road trip to 8 unique cities along with their best sites and activities.
Let’s get to it and check out the ultimate North Carolina road trip itinerary.
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How Long for the Best North Carolina Road Trip?
I recommend 1-3 weeks for your N.C. road trip. To complete the exact itinerary below, I suggest having at least 2 weeks. Of course, time will vary depending on how much you have and how you like to travel.
I prefer slow travel to fully enjoy the experience and avoid tiring out. Whereas, I know many travellers prefer hopping from place to place to see as much as possible.
This North Carolina itinerary pictured above features stops that are all within two to five hours from the next. This makes it easier to skip a couple of places if you’re short on time or just make a quick stop.
If you have more than a few weeks for your road trip, you may want to settle in and hang out in one place for a while. You can also add in some other stops since North Carolina is home to many remarkable cities.
North Carolina Road Trip Itinerary
Are you ready for the fun part? Let’s take a look at the ultimate North Carolina itinerary for an epic road trip!
1. Charlotte: A Great Starting Point
Allow: 1-4 days – Charlotte, North Carolina’s most populous city, is the ideal starting point for your road trip.
If you’re flying in, you can land at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. But, don’t stop there because Charlotte is also an awesome city to explore before you head off to see North Carolina’s natural beauty.
While Charlotte is a business and financial hub, it lives up to its tagline: “Charlotte’s got a lot.”
You can find a lot to see and do in Charlotte – award-winning cuisine and beer, diverse neighbourhoods and activities, a deep history, and excellent shopping.
This 3-day Charlotte itinerary is perfect for seeing the very best that the city has to offer.
Things to Do in Charlotte:
- NoDa: the arts and entertainment district where you can find local fare, music venues, breweries, trendy galleries, and more.
- Freedom Park: a large lakeside park with trails, sports courts, and events.
- NASCAR Hall of Fame: one of Charlotte’s most iconic sites.
- Wing Haven Garden & Bird Sanctuary: lush gardens and bird sanctuary.
2. Brevard: Land of the Waterfalls
Charlotte to Brevard: about 2.5 hours; 130 miles
Allow: 1-3 days – The waterfalls in North Carolina are unmatched, and Brevard is where you can find many of them.
Brevard is referred to as ‘Land of the Waterfalls’ and boasts over 250 waterfalls. Some are popular destinations, while others are hidden gems and offer a secluded getaway.
What else makes Brevard such a special place? It’s a mountain biker’s paradise that’s home to the unique white squirrel. Not to mention it has some of the best hikes in North Carolina.
Things to Do in Brevard:
- Looking Glass Falls: 60-foot waterfall off of U.S. 276, popular amongst travellers.
- Rainbow Falls: moderate hike to a gorgeous waterfall on Horsepasture River.
- Bracken Preserve: peaceful city park with biking and hiking trails.
- Oskar Blues Brewery: popular brewpub with free tours and good beer.
Tip: If you have extra time, take a detour on The Blue Ridge Parkway for lookout points and jaw-dropping scenery.
3. Bryson City: Nantahala National Forest
Brevard to Bryson City: about 1.75 hours; 90 miles
Allow: 1-4 days – On your way to Bryson City, a nature enthusiast’s paradise, you’ll pass by Asheville (which you’ll come back to).
Bryson City is a small town but has no shortage of outdoor activities. Known for a popular stop off the Appalachian Trail and a gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s the perfect place to spend a couple of days.
If you’re into camping, you’ll love Bryson City. If you prefer not to camp, there are plenty of other accommodation options.
What to Do in Bryson City:
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: stunning national park with lush forests, vast wildflowers, hiking trails, waterfalls, and rivers.
- Juney Whank Falls: moderate 0.8-mile trail to a 90-foot waterfall.
- Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway Trailhead: bridge with breathtaking views; perfect sunset spot.
- The Nantahala River Gorge: enjoy whitewater rafting, kayaking, ziplining, fishing, and many more outdoor activities.
4. Asheville: Craft Beer and Outdoor Adventures
Bryson City to Asheville via The Blue Ridge Parkway: about 2 hours; 90 miles
Allow: 2 – 5 days – I recommended taking a whole day for your journey to Asheville to allow for time to stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
This infamous drive alongside beautiful mountains offers many stopping points, such as Grandfather Mountain (with a swinging bridge and museum) and other scenic overlooks.
Once you arrive in Asheville, you’ll find an exciting mix of city and nature. Asheville is an energetic mountain town with so much to see and do.
There is tons to see and do in Asheville for every kind of road tripper. From fantastic food and beer and gorgeous architecture to outdoor adventures and a vibrant art scene, Asheville is a must-see for any North Carolina road trip.
What to Do in Asheville:
- Downtown Asheville: a hip area that boasts galleries, food stores, boutiques, and breweries.
- Biltmore Estate: a charming, gorgeous historical landmark, where George Washington Vanderbilt II lived in the 1800s.
- Craggy Gardens: magical mountain scenery (especially at sunset) with hiking trails.
- Pisgah National Forest: an outdoor slice of heaven with mountains, waterfalls, and trails.
- The French Broad River: tubing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting with mountain views.
5. Blowing Rock: Picturesque Scenery
Asheville to Blowing Rock via The Blue Ridge Parkway: 2.75 hours; 94 miles
Allow: 2-5 days – The jaw-dropping mountain panorama continues in the cosy mountain town of Blowing Rock.
Blowing Rock is one of the best little mountain towns in North Carolina! Here’s the perfect opportunity to slow down, spend time in nature, and explore outstanding sites and views.
Blowing Rock is often overlooked for Boone, a nearby, similar city. If you’re looking for a larger-in-size destination, you may want to check out Boone instead.
Or, if you have the time, explore both! They’re only 15 minutes from one another.
What to Do in Blowing Rock:
- Grandfather Mountain State Park: huge mountain park that boasts picturesque scenery, various-levelled trails, rocky cliffs, and camping.
- Moses H. Cone Memorial Park: a country estate on gorgeous grounds with a stunning mansion, lake, and trails.
- The Blowing Rock: a million+-year-old rock that juts out 3,000 feet above the Johns River Gorge.
- Downtown Blowing Rock: quaint area with unique boutiques, shops, and galleries.
6. Raleigh: Cultural Hotspot
Blowing Rock to Raleigh: about 3 hours; 200 miles
Allow: 2-5 days – Raleigh is a small city with huge charisma. While Raleigh has grown over the years, it still offers a small-town southern charm. It’s also one of the most cultural cities in the area, which is why I love it so much!
What to Do in Raleigh:
- Downtown Raleigh: booming area with parks, historic neighbourhoods, diners, shops, and more.
- Brewery Bhavana: a trendy brewery that serves craft beer and dim sum.
- State Farmers Market: large market featuring tons of local entrepreneurs (open 7 days a week).
- William B. Umstead State Park: a perfect spot for campers, hikers, bikers, and anyone who enjoys time outdoors.
- Goodnights Comedy Club: fabulous venue for stand-up comedy.
7. Cape Hatteras: Tranquil Beaches
Raleigh to Cape Hatteras: about 4 hours; 240 miles
Allow: 1-3 days – If getting away from the hustle and running away to the beach sounds up your alley, don’t skip Cape Hatteras. This long, narrow barrier islands stretch offers peace and quiet alongside the ocean.
Honestly, I’m happy to spend my entire time at Cape Hatteras on the beach and relaxing, but there’s also even more to enjoy. And, if you’re camping, you’ll be happy to hear there are several campgrounds around Cape Hatteras.
What to Do in Cape Hatteras:
- Beach activities: fishing, swimming, and kayaking.
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: 1800s lighthouse (and the tallest in the U.S.!) you can climb for panoramic views of the ocean and scenic vistas.
- Buxton Woods Nature Trail: 3/4-mile trails through Buxton Woods (begins near the lighthouse).
8. Wilmington: History and Beaches
Cape Hatteras to Wilmington: about 5 hours; 275 miles
Allow: 2-4 days – Let the beaches continue, and take a trip to Wilmington to add some history and culture to the mix.
This lively riverfront city is a superb final stop on your North Carolina road trip itinerary and offers something for everyone.
What to Do in Wilmington:
- Arlie Gardens: gorgeous botanical gardens with colourful flowers and tons of old oak trees.
- Wilmington Riverwalk: scenic boardwalk filled with iconic landmarks, artwork, shops, and restaurants.
- Historic District: a downtown area with eclectic beer pubs, local restaurants, and intricate architecture.
- African-American Heritage Tour: sites that honour and share stories of African-American history (check out this self-guided tour).
- Wrightsville Beach: a beautiful, large beach in a laid-back beach town next to Wilmington.
Other Places to Include on a N.C. Road Trip
You’ve made it to the final stop of your North Carolina itinerary! Want to make your trip longer or switch up some stops? Here are some other worthy places to visit in NC:
- Waynesville: quaint, quiet mountain town (near Asheville).
- Fayetteville: rich history and culture (between Wilmington and Charlotte).
- Greensboro: parks and sporting events (near Raleigh).
- Kitty Hawk: small, popular beach town (above Cape Hatteras).
- Little Switzerland: An East Coast hidden gem with loads of things to see and do.
Tips for Your North Carolina Road Trip
Road-tripping offers a memorable experience no matter how you do it. But, if you’re new to road trips or visiting N.C., these tips can take your adventure up a notch.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
You’ll find that this North Carolina road trip itinerary takes you along the Blue Ridge Parkway en route to a few stops, and I highly recommend you take time to stop and explore. This adventure is like no other!
While you can take the highway to save time, I don’t recommend that as you’ll be missing out on something special. For this part of your trip, it’s best to start your travel day in the morning so that you can take the entire day to enjoy the journey.
This scenic winding road stretches almost 500 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. It takes you past long-range vistas, rocky mountains, and charming towns.
Most of the parkway in N.C. runs along the Blue Ridge Mountains, with plenty of stops to make along the way. Keep your eyes peeled for one-of-a-kind viewpoints that provide epic photography opportunities.
When to Go Road Tripping NC
North Carolina is a beautiful place to visit all year round. While I recommend taking your North Carolina road trip any time of year except for Winter, some may also want to avoid summer.
Winters in N.C. can get very cold, and there’s a good chance you’ll catch some snow. The snow is beautiful but not the best for driving. This is why I didn’t mention the skiing opportunities the Western North Carolina destinations have to offer.
If you want to go on a road trip in Winter and are prepared to stop and settle should you happen to get snowed in, go for it!
On the other hand, North Carolina summers can get hot – which as a Southern girl, I’m totally okay with. It allows you to check out the beaches and rivers and enjoy the water activities.
For the most pleasant weather, I suggest taking your trip in the fall or spring. If you can swing it during autumn, you’re in for a treat!
North Carolina’s fall foliage is stunning.
For the most amazing foliage colours, plan your trip for mid-October, and don’t skip the Blue Ridge Parkway!
Where to Stay
In North Carolina, you can find several options for stopping and resting for the night or even a few days. There are accommodations for all kinds of travellers, including campgrounds, hotels, vacation rentals, and parking for vanlifers.
During my road trips, I enjoy finding unique campsites. With so many parks in North Carolina, you can find many paid sites at campgrounds and the Hipcamp app.
If you prefer free self-contained vehicle camping, you can use the Free Campsites website or the iOverlander app.
If you’re interested in hotels or vacation rentals, you can certainly find these options during your North Carolina road trip. I love to use booking.com for the best deals!
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Enjoy Your North Carolina Road Trip!
There you have it – the ultimate North Carolina road trip itinerary. It’s been fun sharing all of my favourite N.C. spots with you, and I hope you’re excited about the journey!
Which destination are you most excited about checking out? Let us know! You can reach out to us in the comment section below.
Stay adventurous and happy travels.