21 Things to Do in North Carolina
By Janet Benoir – December 21, 2023
North Carolina offers an abundance of experiences, from the thrill of mountain escapades to the tranquil relaxation on sun-kissed beaches. Your journey could lead you to witness the majesty of the Atlantic’s highest sand dune, explore the historical Wright Brothers’ first flight location, or take a leisurely drive along one of America’s most beloved routes.
As you map out your adventure, consider adding Pullen Park to your list for a blend of outdoor activities and amusement rides, including a spin on a classic carousel — fun for all ages. Wilmington, NC, enchants with its rich history and coastal charm, inviting visitors to delve into both its cultural heritage and culinary delights. While planning, stay updated with the latest from health organizations and local guidelines to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience amidst the current conditions.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Spanning over half a million acres along the border of North Carolina, the revered Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and biodiversity admirers. Among the towering peaks of the eastern United States, 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome stands out, offering you breathtaking panoramic views that can extend up to 100 miles on clear days.
This area is not just about the views; the terrain brims with biological diversity. The park’s extensive trail network, including over 850 pathways, meanders through a forest filled with Fraser firs, wildflowers, and, seasonally, edibles like blackberries and raspberries. For those less inclined to camp among nature’s raw beauty, numerous alternative accommodations are available in nearby Bryson City and Cherokee.
Nestled in Asheville within the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Biltmore Estate stands as a testament to opulent architecture and American history. Completed during the late 19th century, this French Renaissance-inspired manor is the largest private residence in the United States. Sprawling across 8,000 acres, the impressive abode features 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms.
Visiting this landmark offers an array of experiences, from exploring the extensive library to admiring antique tapestries. The meticulously landscaped gardens are a work of master landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for creating New York City’s Central Park. On-site, the winery beckons with tastings, offering a perfect complement to the visual feast.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Spanning 469 miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway serves as a stunning connection between Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Your journey through this roadway, especially around Asheville, North Carolina, presents a chance to witness the tallest mountains of the eastern United States. You’ll find a bevy of access points along the stretch through southern Virginia and northern North Carolina, and there’s no fee to experience the winding path of natural splendor.
For those inclined towards biking or hiking, you have myriad trails to choose from, varying in difficulty and scenery. Graveyard Fields is a nearly three-mile loop leading you to not one but two majestic waterfalls, fit for families and casual explorers. Meanwhile, seeking a more arduous adventure propels you towards the Mount Pisgah Trail.
In the heart of western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville stands out as a hub for craft beer enthusiasts. With the highest brewery per capita ratio in the United States, this locale caters to a variety of tastes, particularly if you appreciate the complexity of a hoppy IPA or the nuance of a fruit-infused sour ale.
In need of guidance? Consider the Asheville Brews Cruise bus tour, where the joys of exploration and brewing excellence converge. This approximately three-hour journey takes you to up to four distinguished breweries, where you can indulge in the city’s finest without the hassle of planning the trail yourself.
North Carolina Museum of Art
In 1947, the state of North Carolina embarked on an unprecedented initiative, allocating $1 million of public funds to establish an art collection. This initial investment resulted in the acquisition of around 150 pieces of European and American artwork, laying the foundation for what would flourish into a dynamic museum with a vast array of exhibits.
The North Carolina Museum of Art, occupying approximately 130,000 square feet, today unveils a tapestry of human history through its art. Your exploration may lead you from ancient Egyptian artifacts to a significant Rodin sculpture collection, unique to the Southern United States. Notably, the outdoor Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park merges art with nature across 164 acres of gardens and wooded trails adorned with sculptures.
Chimney Rock State Park
At Chimney Rock State Park, located near Asheville, you can witness the grandeur of the North Carolinian mountains. Ascend the iconic 315-foot Chimney Rock to capture a panoramic 75-mile view on clear days, featuring the expansive Lake Lure and the surrounding Hickory Nut Gorge.
In search of a more exhilarating challenge, you might consider the park’s variety of hiking trails. These trails cater to different levels of adventure and expertise, ranging from the family-friendly Great Woodland Adventure with its engaging nature exhibits to the demanding Four Seasons Trail that boasts a 400-foot climb through a lush hardwood forest.
Grandfather Mountain State Park
Perched in the high country of northwestern North Carolina, Grandfather Mountain State Park beckons adventurers with its majestic elevation, rising nearly 6,000 feet as the pinnacle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, the terrain is known not just for its altitude but also for the intensely variable climate it hosts.
Embark on the Grandfather Trail for a demanding yet rewarding 2.5-mile journey that will test your mettle with its 18 strategically placed ladders aiding your way over rugged cliffs. This path is revered as one of the most challenging in the Southeast. Should you prefer a less strenuous hike, the Nuwati Trail, spanning a manageable 1.2 miles, might be your route of choice.
Nestled within the expansive Pisgah National Forest and roughly 60 miles from Asheville lies the majestic Linville Gorge. This deep canyon is flanked by Jonas Ridge on the east and Linville Mountain on the west, with the Linville River carving its path through the center to the valleys below. Your journey here can lead to various hikes that showcase breathtaking mountain vistas; one such adventure is the trek to the often-photographed Linville Falls.
For those keen on rock climbing or seeking elevated panoramas, the ascents to Table Rock Mountain and Hawksbill Mountain are in high demand. The 2.2-mile trail to Table Rock Mountain culminates with rewarding panoramic views from its peak at 3,930 feet.
Nestled within the lush surroundings of Pisgah National Forest lies Sliding Rock—a natural water slide spanning 60 feet that culminates in a refreshing 8-foot-deep pool. Imagine sliding down, propelled by the 11,000 gallons of water rushing over the rock every minute into the invigorating waters, which maintain a crisp temperature ranging from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s no wonder that this spot is a favorite retreat during the toasty summer months.
As you prepare for this exhilarating experience, rest assured during the peak season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, attentive lifeguards are present to ensure safety. Outside of these months, the adventure still awaits, though without lifeguard supervision. Should you prefer to stay dry, spectator decks provide a perfect vantage point to watch the action. Once you’ve had your fill of the thrill, the surrounding area beckons with more to explore.
U.S. National Whitewater Center
At the heart of Charlotte’s adventure landscape, the sprawling U.S. National Whitewater Center provides a diverse array of outdoor activities over its extensive 1,300-acre property. Among its standout features is a human-engineered whitewater course—recognized as the largest on the planet—catering to thrill-seekers with rapids ranging from moderate Class II to intense Class IV.
Further diversifying its portfolio, the center offers seasonal yoga classes, extensive zip line adventures, and an intricate ropes course. Land enthusiasts can take advantage of over 50 miles of trails suitable for hiking, mountain biking, and trail running. Visitors frequently suggest selecting a few activities to fully immerse in rather than sampling them all.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
The Wright Brothers National Memorial, situated within the Outer Banks, marks the historic location where Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first successful powered flight. As you stroll through this site, you’ll come across accurately recreated versions of the brothers’ workshop and living areas, providing insight into their 1903 lifestyle during this groundbreaking era in aviation.
Perched upon Big Kill Devil Hill is an imposing monument honoring the pioneering efforts of the Wright brothers. This spot is not only significant for the memorial but also because it was the testing ground for their initial gliding endeavors. To fully grasp the Wright brothers’ quest for flight, make a point to visit the visitor center, a distinguished National Historic Landmark bustling with interactive displays.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Spanning 426 acres in Nags Head, within the scenic Outer Banks, this park hosts the highest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States. The dunes in Jockey’s Ridge State Park tower over the surrounding landscape, some reaching heights of over 60 feet. For a comprehensive view, you can walk along the 360-foot boardwalk or embark on a journey via the two available hiking trails. Be alert for native wildlife sightings, including ospreys, foxes, and even coyotes.
The region is also known for its exceptional conditions for airborne activities. Prevailing winds throughout the year make it a hotspot for flying kites and model airplanes. If you’re seeking more of an adrenaline rush, take advantage of the hang-gliding lessons offered through a partnership with Kitty Hawk Kites, conveniently located near the visitor center. Combine your adventure with a trip to the nearby Wright Brothers National Monument, less than five miles north, ideal for a full day of exploration.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
As you explore the Outer Banks, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers a vast expanse of over 70 miles of shoreline. The golden sands provide an inviting setting for relaxation. Beaches at this preserved stretch of coast are prime spots for sunbathing and seaside strolls.
The coastal haven is not just a beachgoer’s paradise. It is a sanctuary for over 400 species of birds, making it a prime destination for birdwatching. Moreover, the seashore is a hub for recreational activities. Fishing, boating, and observing nesting sea turtles are popular among visitors. If you seek an immersive experience, consider staying at one of the four campgrounds along the shoreline.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Your adventure on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is incomplete without visiting Cape Lookout National Seashore. This pristine 56-mile stretch of beach is untouched by development, offering you an authentic encounter with nature. The area is famed for its iconic lighthouse, known affectionately as the “Diamond Lady” for its unique diamond-patterned facade, this beacon stands as a picturesque sentinel over the landscape.
The barrier island of Shackleford Banks, part of the seashore, is home to over 100 wild horses. Witness these majestic creatures grazing along the dunes or basking in the grasslands—a truly remarkable sight. For those interested in avian life, the area is a treasure trove, playing host to over 250 bird species, making it a superb location for birdwatching.
When you venture east of Wilmington, you discover the captivating charm of Wrightsville Beach, renowned for attracting both families and enthusiasts of various water sports. You can immerse yourself in numerous aquatic adventures such as stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and the ever-popular surfing, with several shops nearby offering equipment rentals like the acclaimed Wrightsville SUP.
Onshore, you can explore the scenic 2.5-mile Loop, a perfect route for cycling, jogging, or a leisurely stroll, showcasing views of the Intracoastal Waterway and picturesque salt marshes. For an enchanting nature experience, the sprawling Airlie Gardens presents a blend of lush local plant life, spanning over 67 acres, which includes the majesty of a historic 500-year-old oak tree.
Bald Head Island
Nestled at the Cape Fear River’s entrance, the secluded Bald Head Island is a serene refuge, reachable solely via a ferry ride from Southport, which lies roughly 35 miles beneath Wilmington. The island is a cherished sanctuary with over 14 miles of expansive, sandy shores and a stretch of nature preserves that comprises more than 80% of its area.
For an immersive experience into the island’s diverse ecosystems, which include beachfronts, swamps, and maritime woodlands, you’re encouraged to engage with the Bald Head Island Conservancy. They organize educational golf cart tours, the island’s favored transportation mode. To delve deeper into Bald Head’s aquatic trails, consider paddling through the creeks by kayak or canoe, with guided journeys available through the conservancy and The Sail Shop, a local establishment.
North Carolina Arboretum
Located within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, just a breath away from Asheville and the meandering Blue Ridge Parkway, the North Carolina Arboretum expands over 434 acres. Your exploration of this horticultural paradise will reveal over 65 acres of meticulously curated gardens. Marvel at the intricate artistry of the bonsai collection—one of the finest in the country.
This serene oasis features more than 10 miles of hiking trails, effortlessly guiding you to the neighboring Lake Powhatan, Pisgah National Forest, and the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway. Alongside the natural splendor, the arboretum stages both indoor and outdoor exhibitions, showcasing sculptures from local and national artists. Although the garden’s tranquility is pervasive, consider obtaining a map upon entry to navigate the extensive grounds with ease and ensure a fulfilling visit.
NASCAR Hall of Fame
At the heart of Charlotte’s vibrant Uptown district, the NASCAR Hall of Fame offers an immersive experience for all visitors, whether you’re a die-hard racing enthusiast or just looking for an interactive adventure. Inside, you’ll discover a remarkable collection of iconic vehicles including Jack Ingram’s celebrated 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Wendell Scott’s historic 1962 Chevrolet Impala.
The Hall of Fame isn’t just about viewing, it’s about doing. Step into the Pit Crew Challenge and see if you have what it takes to jack up a car and change a tire using an authentic air gun, or simulate the intense pressure of a real pit crew by fueling a race car. Additional features of this national treasure include a theater that seats nearly 300 guests, an equipped gear shop, and a broadcasting studio.
Battleship North Carolina
While touring Wilmington, one notable landmark is the venerable USS North Carolina. Launched in 1941, this battleship was a powerhouse of naval strength during its wartime service, actively participating in every key naval offensive in the Pacific Theater and earning a distinguished 15 battle stars. Its hallowed decks now serve as a memorial to World War II veterans from North Carolina and commemorate the 11,000 residents who lost their lives during the conflict.
The opportunity to explore this National Historic Landmark is provided through a comprehensive self-guided tour encompassing nine levels. Your journey through maritime history will take you through the crew’s living quarters, galley, engine room, and the commanding view from the bridge. While navigating the vessel, be mindful of the ship’s original narrow staircases. Visitors often suggest bringing water and wearing appropriate protection against the sun, as the battleship’s steel structure can absorb heat, especially during the warmer months.
Nestled within southwestern North Carolina’s scenic bounds, near the cusp of the Georgia frontier, lies a mountain town distinguished by its serene heights and natural beauty. Highlands beckons with its perch at 4,118 feet above sea level, claiming the prestige of being among the loftiest settlements east of the Mississippi.
The town’s abundant waterfalls add to its idyllic allure, with many nestled along U.S. Route 64. Among them, Dry Falls stands out, plunging 75 feet and featuring a unique pathway that allows you to experience its majesty from behind its veil of water without getting wet. After a day spent in the embrace of the wild, Highlands offers indulgent comfort with plush accommodations like the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, alongside the rustic charm of its sibling, Half Mile Farm.
North Carolina Zoo
Spanning an impressive 2,600 acres with 500 acres dedicated to animal habitats, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro is recognized for its extensive representation of animal life in naturalistic environments. As you traverse the landscapes of North America and Africa within the zoo’s confines, you’ll encounter diverse wildlife, including the regal African lion, the sturdy grizzly bear, sleuthing ocelots, and striking polar bears.
To enhance your venture, the zoo offers unique attractions such as a whimsical carousel, an immersive butterfly garden, and an adventurous ropes course. Take note to dress comfortably as the sprawling zoo requires ample walking to fully appreciate its offerings.