North Carolina

I have visited North Carolina three times now on three separate road trips. One along the coast and the others through the middle into the mountains. Beautiful scenery and super friendly people in all the places I have been. Unfortunately I don't have many pictures from my first trip, but at least I included what I remember to convey my general impressions.

My Favorites

1. Blue Ridge Parkway

Craggy Gardens

Highlights: Mountains, streams, waterfalls, hiking, nature
Suggest Staying: 3-7 days
Stay Around: Asheville
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The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile beautiful scenic road through Virginia and North Carolina. Curvy mountain roads and beautiful scenery make this my second favorite drive in the continental U.S. just behind the Pacific Coast Highway along the West Coast. The scenery is truly spectacular and you can spend weeks exploring all the turn offs, corollary roads, hiking, small towns, and other various attractions along the way. Although I haven’t driven all 469 miles, in my research and what I did see, the area around Asheville is the best. Particularly about 2 hours northeast and southwest of Asheville. You can pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway at the edge of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive. I skipped the part through Virginia and picked up the parkway at Fancy Gap. From there it doesn’t take long to start seeing stuff.

See & Do

  • Blowing Rock. Small, quaint, artsy town.
  • Grandfather Mountain. Must see. Spectacular. Privately owned, so can’t use National Parks Pass. Cross the suspension bridge for amazing views. Also a habitat setup feature a few of the local animals including bears, eagles, otters, and some others.
  • Julian Price Memorial Park. Beautiful lake with cabins. No park fee.
  • Linneville Falls. Small waterfalls and forest hiking.
  • Chimney Rock. Beautiful views of the mountains. Also hike down to Hickory Nut Waterfall which is where they filmed some of Last of the Mohicans. The park is surrounded by a small town with good restaurants and some souvenir shops.
  • Mount Mitchell. Must see. Highest point east of the Mississippi. Summit offers spectacular views. There is a restaurant there, tent camping, and also a couple hiking trails. The Balsam Trail is a 0.75 mile loop through thick green vegetation, forest, and all kinds of exotic mushrooms growing from the ground and on trees. Kind of like walking through Endor from Star Wars.
  • Craggy Gardens. Definitely one of my favorite viewing spots, especially at sunset. There are two scenic overlook trails that offer stunning views beyond the parking lot. Walk the Pinnacle Hike to the upper summit for an incredible sunset.
  • Mount Pisgah. Hike 1.5 miles to the summit. The TV tower on the top kind of ruins the serenity, but also kind of an interesting experience. Can have lunch at the restaurant. I saw a rattlesnake that had to be carried away and tossed down the mountain. It’s a nice hike, but if you’re short on time, it can be skipped.
  • Sliding Rock. Natural rock water slide with a pool at the bottom for swimming. Gets crowded on the weekend.
  • Looking Glass Falls. Nice waterfall.
  • Looking Glass Rock. Giant rock out into the distance that can be seen from the parkway. Looks coolest in winter with snow and ice, but impressive to take a picture anytime. There is a neat hike across the road from the overlook with a waterfall and swimming area.
  • Devil’s Courthouse. Hike to summit for nice view.
  • Graveyard Fields. Nice hike to a waterfall.
  • Courthouse Falls. Semi-secret waterfall located off a dirt road. Heard about this from a local while ordering a burrito. Definitely off the beaten path, difficult to find, and not many people. Definitely worthy of the adventure if you’re up for it.


  • Wildlife. If you’re going to be out hiking, be VERY cautious of snakes. There are poisonous rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths.
  • Where To Start. If heading south from Virginia, pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway at route 77 in Fancy Gap.
  • Chimney Rock. Cost $20. Plan to spend 1-2 hours for hike to the top and to Hickory Nut.
  • Craggy Gardens. The Pinnacle Hike is 0.75 roundtrip to the top or lower summit. The parking lot for it is just past the park’s visitor center going northbound. No more than 5 minutes to the wrap around parking lot scenic overlook. Follow the stairs into the shrubbery.
  • Courthouse Falls. Take the parkway to 215 south about 10 miles past route 1756 and turn on the dirt road (route 140 or 104). It’s the only road to turn on past the bridge and is easy to miss. Go another 3 miles or so past several (3?) bridges and on the left just after the bridge is the start of the trail. Just park your car on the road along the river. There is a post near the bridge marked for the trail to Courthouse Falls about 0.5 miles or so. You’ll see a log with writing for the direction to the falls on it that’s also easy to miss. Keep an eye out for the waterfall, which you you can see from the trail. Leave yourself at least a few hours to find, hike, and enjoy this place.

2. Great Smoky Mountains

Clingman’s Dome

Highlights: Mountains, hiking
Suggest Staying: 2-3 days
Stay Around: Smokemont Campground
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This free national park is a great scenic drive through North Carolina on to Tennessee, or vice versa. Spend the day, or ideally a couple days to do some hiking and take in the beautiful early morning mist-filled views over the mountains. The park is not huge, but some places take some time to drive out to due to the roads. After all it is the mountains.

See & Do

  • Clingman’s Dome. Walk up to the platform overlook for panoramic views of the smokies. Early morning is best when you can see the mist over the mountains, presumably which give the great smokies its name.
  • Cove Hardwood Loop. Old non-logged 0.75 mile forest hike. Located in Chimney’s Picnic area. Something a bit more serene and off the beaten path from the crowds.
  • Cades Cove. One of the park’s most popular attractions where you drive a loop around several historical cabins/churches of old settlers as well as open meadows where you can see wildlife like birds, bears, deer, etc. The loop itself is flat, mountain driving only getting there. There is a slow speed limit though due to the roads and wildlife.
  • Cherokee Indian Museum. Technically not part of the Great Smokies, but just south in the city of Cherokee which is very beautiful. The Museum is probably the best I’ve seen among several museums highlighting Native American culture. Not a lot to do in the town, but beautiful streams, great museum, and replica old Cherokee village.


  • Time Management. I would recommend 2 days if you want to see both Clingman’s Dome and Cades Cove. It takes 2-3 hours to get to and then drive the Cades loop. We left at 7:30am on a Sunday while the locals were at church and didn’t experience too much traffic, but afternoons are supposedly packed. There are also several hikes not really highlighted by the park that might interest you also.
  • Clingman’s Dome. Go early in the morning to see the mist covering the mountains. A 30 minute drive from main road 441 and 1 mile roundtrip, very steep hike to observation tower. I would expect sunrise to be wonderful, but plan to reach the top before 8:30am when the mist disappears.
  • Lodging. If you can’t secure a campground inside the park, stay in either Cherokee (more low key on the North Carolina side) or Gatlinburg (more touristy and attractions on the Tennessee side).

3. Asheville

Blue Ridge Parkway

Highlights: Artsy, hipster town, nature
Suggest Staying: 1-2 days
Stay Around: River Arts District or Downtown
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Asheville is a great, hip little city. The downtown area is fairly sprawling with lots of art and restaurants. The best thing to me was how much nature there is so close by, including hiking, mountain ranges, rivers, waterfalls, and forests. If you like the outdoors with a little bit of progressiveness, this is the place for you. I expect it’s what places like Portland, Austin, and San Francisco were like before they exploded. You’ll want to get out of your car and walk around, as there are little pockets and new things popping up all the time that are easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or used to really big cities.

See & Do

  • River Arts District. Small little area with a bunch of artsy shops and cafes. Find unique local paintings and ceramics.
  • Downtown. Plenty to see in the way of shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Also a few music stores. On Friday nights there is a drum circle you can watch or participate in.
  • West Asheville. Another semi-artsy area, very local, live music and nightlife.
  • Grove Arcade. Old time building with shops.
  • Biltmore Estate. Massive 8,000 acre estate with a winery, village, inn, house, and adventure activities. Boasts to be grander than castles in Europe. Rivals Hearst Castle. Grand rooms, thirty something guest suites, impressive engineering for the time, one of the first elevators, gardens, views. You can stay overnight or visit for the day. Cost is expensive at $65, but the grounds, the house, and the village with winery and free wine tasting is pretty spectacular, not to mention sweeping views of the mountains from the gardens. It gets extremely crowded, so buy your tickets in advance online.
  • Grove Park Inn. Old stone lodge massive in size and incredible views. Stay, although it’s pricey, or just go for the view and a meal.
  • WNC Farmer’s Market. Giant barn with local fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, snacks, soap, beauty products and more. Check hours for when it’s open.
  • North Carolina Arboretum. Beautifully laid out arboretum designed by the guy who designed the landscape for Biltmore. Includes the second largest bonsai exhibit in the U.S.

Food & Drink

  • Ultra Coffeebar. Good coffee, tea, bagels and other breakfast food.
  • Battery Park Book Exchange. Drinks and cool old-time looking library next to champagne bar.
  • The Market Place. My favorite restaurant in Asheville. Great food, casual live music.
  • Tupelo Honey. Good farm to table type of restaurant.
  • Thirsty Monk. Belgium style craft brewery.
  • The Odditorium. Live music venue and bar.
  • The Orange Peel. Live music and drinks.

4. Outer Banks (OBX)

One of the most popular beach vacation destinations on the East Coast, the Outer Banks, or OBX as some call it, has a mix of family friendly and adult attractions from long stretches of beach to bars and restaurants. If you plan to go, rent a house with a group of friends and do so early. Most vacation rentals are weekly from Sat-Sat. People make plans far in advance. Stay around Nag's Head. Also visit Kitty Hawk, Duck, and Hatteras.

5. Charlotte

Charlotte is a nice, clean, friendly city. I didn't spend much time there, but the few people I interacted with were very friendly, like much of North Carolina.

Other Considerations


Another nice, clean, friendly city. I spent just an afternoon, but it seemed more of a place geared towards businesses. As a side note, this is a popular stop for some airlines that may have a hub there.

Cape Fear

Pretty beach area just south of Wilmington. I thought this was the same Cape Fear as in the 1991 Scorcese film Cape Fear, but apparently are not related.


Didn't seem to me to be much going on in this small city, but if you're driving through it makes a nice place to stop for a break or meal.

General Tips

  • Snakes. If you're going to be hiking in the woods or mountains, watch out for snakes. Apparently poisonous snakes are pretty common around all of North Carolina. These include rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths at least from what I read. I saw a couple and hear about others. Sometimes there are particular areas that have a high concentration of them. So ask around, especially at the parks. And if you can, hike with a buddy. Otherwise, definitely stay on trails and consider more populated hikes.

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