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Ready to get out of town and explore, but don’t want to stray too far from home?
North Carolina is a great neighbor to have, and perfect for a day trip destination. From big cities to small towns, and from in-town museums and restaurants, to the more secluded beaches and mountains — there is just so much to do in North Carolina!
Road trip to NC with family, friends, on your own, or with a significant other. Regardless of your ideal excursion style, North Carolina has much to offer.
Check out these 23 incredible day trips in North Carolina, and let us know your favorites!
Relax and Renew Yourself in Onslow County, NC
Want to get away from it all? Head to Onslow County, NC and explore all there is to offer in this sweet, coastal town. Go fishing! Take a hike! Enjoy some amazing food and spend time soaking up the sun on the beach. If you love the outdoors and are looking for a unique place to savor the beauty of nature, Onslow County, NC is the place to go!
Three hundred miles of barrier island beaches make the quaint towns along the coast a peaceful respite for day trips in NC or a weekend getaway.
THE OUTER BANKS
Outer Banks has long been a vacation escape for families, but it also makes a pleasant day trip. The Northern beaches were home to America’s first colony and the Wright Brothers’ first flight. This is a great place to try kiteboarding and experience the wind like Orville and Wilbur.
You’ll want to take a break from the beach, if even for a moment, to explore their National Memorial and the four Coastal lighthouses in this region.
Looking for something less “developed?” Did you know that (with a permit) you can drive your 4WD onto the beach at the Northern-most point of Topsail Island? Just pull up your SUV and park it for the day!
Lounge at North Topsail Beach, or try your hand at a big catch at Seaview Fishing Pier.
Carolina Beach, south of Wilmington, is a delightful mix of beach and vintage seaside boardwalk. Explore the vibrant shops, restaurants, and amusements. Then, walk out to the sandy shore for a relaxing dip in the ocean.
If you want calmer waters, then head over to Carolina Beach State Park. Lounge on the beach, rent jet skis, or take a surfing lesson.
CAPE LOOKOUT NATIONAL SEASHORE
Grab a ferry from Beaufort to explore Cape Lookout National Seashore and Lighthouse. Besides climbing the lighthouse, you can enjoy shelling, swimming, fishing, and tour Portsmouth Village, and other outdoor activities.
Don’t miss a ferry to the smaller island of Shackleford Banks, where you share the undeveloped shoreline with the “Banker Ponies” – feral horses whose ancestors are believed to be shipwrecked Spanish Mustangs from the late 1500s.
The wild horses are also famous for their habitat in Corolla, where you can take a guided Jeep tour to see them.
Visit the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, tour the Whalehead Mansion (paranormal enthusiasts will love it!), explore the historic Corolla Village, or hike the banks of the Currituck Banks National Estuarine Reserve while you’re there!
CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE
A little further South in the Outer Banks is the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. You can drive a vehicle here to access both the Sound and Ocean.
Watch for sea turtles, climb the lighthouse, and – if you can extend your day trip – see the stars here like nowhere else on earth.
HAMMOCKS BEACH STATE PARK
Looking for outdoor adventure? Take the ferry to Bear Island where you can bask in the sun, collect shells, and explore.
Hike a trail with a ranger, or explore a kayak trail around one of the islands.
And always keep an eye on the fun ranger activities going on here. They’ll teach you to fish, and then show you how to cook it up!
ADVENTURE ON THE WATER
There are so many awesome water activities in North Carolina that you won’t want to miss!
CRUISING IN ONSLOW COUNTY
We absolutely love a half-day excursion with Marsh Cruises, which is super affordable! You’ll explore Hammocks Beach State Park and the surrounding islands looking for sand dollars, sharks teeth, and whelk. This is your opportunity to see the rivers and ocean from a unique perspective.
Or take a private yacht charter with Bayonet Enterprises (pictured above). Head out for a half-day of fun that includes lunch, snacks, beverages, and time to kayak.
When you say white water rafting, I think of the Nantahala River in Bryson City.
It’s one of North Carolina’s favorite water adventures, and with good reason. It brings in over 200K paddlers every year!
(There’s also more fun to be had in this picturesque town! You’ll find out more about it in our Mountains section below.)
Wilmington offers an Eagles Island Cruise and the Down River Maritime History Cruise for a taste of the city from the water.
And Wilmington Water Tours’ Pirate Cruise is a MUST if you have kiddos.
We also give two thumbs up to Cape Fear Riverboats’ 4-hour nature cruise!
And don’t forget the Cape Fear Museum which preserves and interprets objects relating to the history, science, the Civil War, and cultures of Lower Cape Fear.
Explore the mountains of North Carolina! You can even adventure into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — easily accessed from Cherokee, NC.
The Biltmore in Asheville remains one of our favorite hidden gems. Yes, most people know it for the estate, but it is so much more than that! And don’t forget the famous Biltmore Estates.
There is bike riding, sporting clays, and floats down the French Broad River. You can enjoy horseback riding or fishing – all this, plus the activities at Antler Hill Village and Winery.
CHIMNEY ROCK STATE PARK AND LAKE LURE
Climb 500 stairs to the top of Chimney Rock State Park, and take in a gorgeous 75-mile panoramic view! (There’s also an elevator that can take you most of the way up, if 500 steps isn’t for you!)
See the falls made famous in Last of the Mohicans. Walk the miles of trails, and behold the work of Mother Nature. We were in awe with each step from the breathtaking views of Lake Lure (featured in Dirty Dancing), to the gorgeous mountain vistas.
While there, don’t skip the few extra steps up Skyline Trail, the highest peak in the park with an elevation of 2,480 ft, overlooking Chimney Rock.
If you are looking to explore Chimney Rock further, there are multiple trails for hiking, including kid-friendly trails near the entrance. There is also a trail to the mountain’s waterfall.
Great Woodland Adventure Trail features discovery stations for kids, each showcasing a locally-made sculpture. The trailhead is just beside the Animal Discovery Den, which houses several live animals for kids to enjoy.
PISGAH NATIONAL FOREST
Pisgah National Forest, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is 500,000 acres – with plenty to do including biking, scenic driving, camping, horseback riding, fishing and more.
But most visitors, and a fair share of locals, find themselves at Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock.
LOOKING GLASS FALLS
Coming from Brevard, Looking Glass Falls is a must-stop on your way to Sliding Rock. It is a gorgeous waterfall visible from the highway, making it one of the most photographed waterfalls in the east.
Back in the car, head a few miles up the road to Sliding Rock. There is a small admission fee (cash please), which presumably covers the cost for the seasonal lifeguards on duty in this recreation area.
Take a plunge down the 50-foot natural water slide into an eight-foot pool of icy water.
There is usually a crowd, but the line moves fast and the wait is short. The water temperature in this area, in summer, hovers in the 50s, which doesn’t seem to detract the frolickers.
LINVILLE FALLS GORGE
The high country of North Carolina is primarily known for its winter activities, but truly offers something year-round.
Try Linville Falls within Pisgah, or master your rock climbing skills at Linville Gorge, which is said to be the best place for rock climbing in all of North Carolina.
A little further northwest is Grandfather Mountain, an amazing biodiverse range with formations thought to be over 1 billion years old.
The mile-high swinging bridge is a must!
Beyond Grandfather Mountain is Beech Mountain. This is a fantastic getaway in winter for skiing — it’s North Carolina’s highest elevation — or in summer for mountain biking.
The Emerald Outback trail system here has a 7-mile network designed by former National Mountain Bike Series Champion Todd Branham from Long Cane Trails. It’s available for both hikers and bikers. The trails vary in difficulty and length, from easy to difficult and from under a mile to four-and-a-half miles.
CROWDERS MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
Crowders Mountain State Park is another rock climbing favorite. The peaks are great, with views for over 25 miles.
And with kids, the state park offers lakeshore hiking and connector trails are unmatched.
Bryson City is where to go for a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad through the Nantahala Gorge. Their Zip and Rail packages (April-October) are awesome, and include a train ride to Wildwater’s Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours so you can get some zip lining in too!
We also love the Deep Creek waterfall loop within GSMNP, and the trees at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest are old-growth — some of them are over 400 years old, 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall!
BIG CITY DELIGHT
You can’t drive through here, but an easy 2-mile hike will offer breathtaking reward.
North Carolina’s home to some big city fun, too!
Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina, and home to NASCAR. Take a tour of the racetrack, eat at The Speedway, and attend an event here.
Also, just a few miles from the speedway, you can tour Reed Gold Mine — which is a North Carolina Historic Site and home to the first documented gold find in the U.S.
Wrap up your day with a tour of Rocky River Vineyards, a family-friendly wine tasting venue that is just breathtaking.
Wilmington might look familiar, even if you’ve never been; it’s been the star of over 400 TV and movie productions. There are gardens and museums, galore!
Tour Battleship North Carolina, one of the most highly decorated battleships of World War II, or experience a hands-on adventure at Sea Turtle Camp.
And for heaven’s sake – get lunch at Doc Street Oyster Bar!
The center of the NC shoreline offers untamed beauty, and you’re sure to enjoy “America’s Favorite Town” of Beaufort.
Beaufort is a community where history and coastal charm are found around every downtown corner, and where top restaurants are found side-by-side with historic residences and museums.
Just east of Winston-Salem, you’ll find the awesome town of Greensboro.
Visit the Children’s Museum, catch a Greensboro Grasshoppers baseball game, or tour the Greensboro History Museum.
Just south of Greensboro you’ll find the North Carolina Zoo – the nation’s largest natural-habitat zoo! It’s a day trip by itself, or you can mix it with the Greensboro Science Center’s Zoological Park.
Want to head to the Raleigh/Durham Triangle? This region is known for its culinary delights and cultural experiences. Stop in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, or the Museum of History.
Or take a food tour, including stops at Bida Manda — ranked the best restaurant in North Carolina and serving Laotian eats. Or grab a bite at one of Chef Ashley Christensen’s restaurants. She is a James Beard award-winning chef, with plenty of eateries to choose from. I say start at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and end at Fox Liquor Bar.
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She relishes the discovery of obscure, offbeat and unwonted places, and she will chat up any willing stranger to uncover a new secret locale. If she’s not exploring in the RV, she’s either hiking the trails or checking out the whiskey scene at their current location.
Lesli lives and travels with her two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- and her soul mate, husband and business partner, Dan. They call Colorado home, at least for the moment.
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