There are lots of things to see in all three physiographic regions of North Carolina: the coast, the Piedmont, and the mountains.
Jockey's Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is located near Nag’s Head. The sand dunes are the highest on the eastern seaboard, reaching a maximum of 130’. These dunes are an unbelievable place to walk and the views from the top are excellent. Time your visit at dawn or dusk to catch the best light, but check the park for hours. Entrance is free.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Owned and operated by the National Park Service, this site commemorates the location where the Wright Brothers took their experimental aircraft to the air in 1903. A monument at the top of the well-maintained dune marks the spot and yields unparalleled views. The park is open from dawn to dusk and is a few miles north of Jockey’s Ridge State Park. A visitor center and interpretive museum explain the history of the feat. This makes for an excellent day trip, especially from the Norfolk (Hampton Roads) area, and can be easily combined with a visit to Jockey’s Ridge. There is a fee at the gate. Check the National Park Service website for rates.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Don’t confuse this with Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is more populated with tourists, more developed, and accessible by car. Cape Lookout National Seashore is roadless, and you will need a boat or a chartered ferry to get to it. A good introductory day trip takes in the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, at the southern end of the national seashore, which is accessible by chartered boat service from Harkers Island. The hues of the water are brilliant but the surf can be rough and tricky. If you prefer calmer waters, try swimming in the sound on the other side of the barrier island. There is no fee to visit the national seashore, but there is a cost for the chartered boat.
Hammocks Beach State Park
Hammocks Beach State Park is located about halfway down the North Carolina coast and is accessible by boat from the town of Swansboro during the summer. Most of this unspoiled park is on a barrier island, known as Bear Island. This park remains mostly out of reach for the road tourist, and more the domain of the dedicated adventurer; it is a favorite with kayakers. Although it takes some work to get here, that shouldn’t dissuade the potential visitor. Plan to stay a night by bringing a tent to this unspoiled place where the water is beautiful shades of blue and the wildlife includes loggerhead turtles and dolphins. There is a cost to get there by chartered boat.
Although there are older towns in North Carolina (such as Bath, the state’s oldest, and Beaufort), Wilmington, in the southeastern corner of the state, has both the historical charm and size to make it a destination of regional interest. Founded in 1739, Wilmington offers a one-mile riverfront along the Cape Fear River. Surrounding points of interest make a dedicated trip worthwhile. The USS North Carolina, a vintage World War II era battleship, is permanently docked here and is interesting for history buffs. Wilmington is the largest city between Charleston, South Carolina and the Hampton Roads, Virginia. Close to Wilmington are a number of beaches, especially if you drive south down toward the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Southport, a once sleepy, now trendy town at this location, is a good place to explore. Ft. Fisher is located nearby and contains the remains of an earthen fortification used during the Civil War. Across the road from Ft. Fisher is the North Carolina Aquarium, one of three along coastal North Carolina. While it doesn’t have the largest collection of marine species it highlights fauna that live off or in North Carolina waterways and overall has a good assortment of marine species.
An interesting and less well-known historical place is the colonial ghost town of Brunswick Town near Smithville, south of Wilmington. It was occupied for fifty years before it was burned by the British during the War of Independence. A number of its ruined buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic places.
Close by is Orton Plantation, which contains a beautiful collection of flowering species native to the region. The botanical assortment, including live oaks that form “tunnels”, highlights the classic antebellum Orton House, built in 1753, and one of the oldest buildings in the county. The history doesn’t end here. If you want to take it all in, visit Moore's Creek National Battlefield, about 25 miles northwest of Wilmington, which preserves a battlefield from the War of Independence.
Read More from WanderWisdom
Fort Bragg (and Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve)
Fort Bragg, located near Fayetteville, marks the geographical boundary between the coastal plain and the Sandhills, a zone of sandy soils and pine and oak trees before the rolling Piedmont starts farther to the west. Fort Bragg is a US Army installation with restricted base access, so it is necessary to get a base pass. This can be done by registering at the front gate. Head to the various museums of this famous military base, home of the 'All American' 82nd Airborne (paratroopers), the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets), and the cryptic Delta Force, whose compound surrounded by razor wire is strictly off limits to the unauthorized. Sorry. Sort of like an 'Area 51': don't even linger near this compound, as you will run the risk of getting arrested without the benefit of due process (you are on a military base). Various military museums detail the histories of the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces. Drive within base speed limits as they are strictly enforced.
One of the most dramatic sights is to watch the columns of the entire division, close to 20,000 troops, of the 82nd on their morning PT run. The roads will be closed so pull over and close your eyes: You can feel the ground shake (really!) and it is something worth experiencing. You can also see the 82nd in action by driving to one of the drop zones and watching the paratroopers jump. Bleachers are there for spectators.
On the west side of Fort Bragg is the Weymouth Woods State Nature Preserve near the city of Southern Pines, which protects the fragile sandhills ecosystem. Beautiful flora and fauna are worth exploring along the self-guided nature trails. If nature isn't your thing here, you can try a round of golf at the world famous Pinehurst golf course, a site of the U.S. Open.
Morrow Mountain State Park
Morrow Mountain State Park is in the center of the state and the centerpiece of the Uwharrie Mountains. These mountains are not particularly high, less than 1000' above sea level. Compared to the Appalachians to their west, they are no more than hills. However, their location between the sand hills and the Piedmont is in itself an oddity, and their age is of greater significance. They are perhaps a billion years old, much older than the Appalachians, making them one of the oldest mountain ranges on the face of the earth. A scenic drive goes to the summit of unassuming Morrow Mountain, whose short stature belies Its geological significance. Free entrance.
Most people come to the gateway of the Blue Ridge Mountains to drive the famed Parkway or see the nearby Biltmore Estate, the gigantic faux chateaux built by the Vanderbilts as a summer retreat and one of the finest Gilded Age estates in the country. They make the mistake of bypassing Asheville, which has a burgeoning art community and is considered one of the best small cities to live in the United States, not to mention its beautiful setting. There is no shortage of things to do here year round, including skiing, hiking, and fishing.
Mount Mitchell State Park
No trip to North Carolina is complete without a drive to the highest point east of the Mississippi. The ideal time slot for the trip would include good weather in the fall, even though the park will be crowded with leaf watchers. The park is accessible from a spur road (North Carolina 128) along the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 355. There is an observation deck at the summit of Mount Mitchell (6684’). The parking lot and various shops below the summit are a bit disappointing, but the views and scenery, akin to the Canadian boreal forests, are remarkable and unique to the southern Appalachians. Free entrance.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Candidly, not all of the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) is worth driving. Some stretches through Virginia and North Carolina are rather boring. Head to the sections that have the best and most spectacular views, from south to north: Mile 467 to Mile 410; Mile 380 to Mile 350; and Mile 310 to 300 (Grandfather Mountain and Linn Cove Viaduct). These stretches have the highest elevations along the Parkway, at over 6000’, and take in highlights such as the Craggy Gardens, Black Mountains (Mt. Mitchell), Mt. Pisgah, and Waterrock Knob (6292’). Entrance is free.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This beautiful park, half in North Carolina and half in Tennessee, is the most-often-visited national park in the United States. Even if you don’t make it out of your car, you can drive to the top of Clingmans Dome (6648’), the highest point in the park, or pull over on one of the many pullouts.
For the hiker, there is no shortage of trails, some of which are short and others which are for dedicated backpackers. On the North Carolina side, the Heintooga Overlook takes in great views of the northern sections of the park along the Balsam Mountain Road. Scores of waterfalls, many within easy walking distance of the roadway, and others further afield are worth visiting on the North Carolina side: Toms Branch Falls and Juney Whank Falls, for instance. The Tennessee side has the better selection of falling water, however, including Abrams Falls, Laurel Falls, and Rainbow Falls.
The Great Smokies contain one of the most diverse ecosystems in the United States, if not the world. There are 10,000 documented species of flora and fauna in the park and 36% of the forest is said to be old growth. The mountains also receive the highest precipitation in the United States outside of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. It is no surprise that the park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a fee to enter the national park; check the website for the current rate.