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!
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TRADITIONAL BEACH ESCAPES
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.
Stay Here: John Yancey Oceanfront Inn
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.
Stay Here: Courtyard by Marriott Jacksonville
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.
Stay Here: Beaufort Hotel
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!
Stay Here: Wild Horse Inn
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.
Stay Here: Villas of Hatteras Landing by KEES Vacations
HAMMOCKS BEACH STATE PARK
Looking for outdoor adventure? Take the ferry to Bear Island and Hammocks Beach State Park 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!
Stay Here: Hampton Inn and Suites Swansboro
ADVENTURES 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.
Stay Here: Hampton Inn and Suites Jacksonville
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.)
Stay Here: Sleep Inn Bryson City Cherokee
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 Biltmore Estate, but it is so much more than that!
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.
Stay Here: The Residences at Biltmore
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.
Stay Here: Broad River Inn
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.
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.
Stay Here: Comfort Inn & Suites
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.
Stay Here: Linville Falls Lodge and Cottages
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!
Stay Here: Best Western Mountain Lodge at Banner Elk
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.
Stay Here: Top of the Beech Inn
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.
Stay Here: Hilton Garden Inn Gastonia
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!
Stay Here: Sleep Inn Bryson City Cherokee
BIG CITY DELIGHT
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.
Stay Here: Hyatt Place Charlotte Downtown
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.
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.
Stay Here: Beaufort Hotel
Just east of Winston-Salem, you’ll find the awesome town of Greensboro.
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 with a cocktail at Death & Taxes.
DAY TRIPS IN NC FAQ
Why is North Carolina a great vacation destination?
North Carolina is a great vacation destination because it has it all u002du002d mountains, beaches, big cities, small towns, and plenty of southern charm.
What is the closest beach to Charlotte, NC?
The closest beach to Charlotte, NC, is either Myrtle Beach, SC or Carolina Beach u002du002d they’re both about the same distance.
What is the most visited place in North Carolina?
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited place in North Carolina. This national park receives almost 12 million visitors a year, making it the most visited national park in the United States.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO NORTH CAROLINA
- YOUR NORTH CAROLINA VACATION
- UNIQUE NC RENTALS: 29 Unique North Carolina Rentals For Your Next Getaway
- NC RESORTS: 24 Resorts In North Carolina That Will Have You Packing Your Bags Tonight
- ASHEVILLE WITH KIDS: 9 Amazing and Fun Things to Do in Asheville With Kids
- HIKING ASHEVILLE: Kid-Friendly Hikes Near Asheville, North Carolina
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