From museums and restaurants in North Carolina’s big towns to the beaches and mountains of her small towns, there is just so much to do here. Take an adventure with multiple families, friends or on your own as a couple. Regardless of your ideal excursion style, North Carolina has much to offer. Check out these 23 incredible day trips in NC, and let us know your favorites!
300 miles of barrier island beaches make the quaint towns along the coast a peaceful respite for a day trip or weekend getaway.
Outer Banks has long been 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 and fishing…and tour Portsmouth Village.
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.
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
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
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.
Wilmington also offers the 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!
Biltmore in Asheville remains one of our favorite hidden gems. Yes, most people know it for the Estate..but it is so much more. 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
Enjoy a climb 500 stairs to the top of Chimney Rock State Park, and take in a gorgeous 75-mile panoramic view. 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 and 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 and 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 – said to be the best place for rock climbing in all of North Carolina.
A little further Northwest is Grandfather Mountain, amazing biodiverse range with formations thought to be over 1 billion years old. The mile-high swinging bridge is a must!
The Emerald Outback trail system here has a seven 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 lakeshore hiking and connector trails are unmatched.
Bryson City is where to go for a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Pair this with a Wildwater ropes course and zipline adventure for tons of fun. 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! You can’t drive through here, but an easy 2-mile hike will offer breathtaking reward.
Big City Delight
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 there you can tour Reed Gold Mine, which is home to the first documented gold find in the US…and tour Rocky River Vineyard, 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 you’re sure to enjoy “America’s Favorite Town” of Beaufort. Dine on the water at Spouter Inn, and visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Little known fact: Albemarle Sound also represents a stop on the maritime underground railroad! Be sure to follow the Harriet Jacobs trail when you visit.
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…as well as the Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, the Museum of History and so much more.
Or take a food tour, including stops at Bida Manda, ranked the best restaurant in North Carolina and serving Laotian eats…or 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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After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking in the mountains or checking out Atlanta’s culinary scene, whiskey in hand.
Lesli has two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- plus two bonus kids currently at UGA, and she’s happily married to her soul mate.