With museums, outdoor activities, and theme parks on offer, there are plenty of things to do in North Carolina no matter what the season. Mountains in the High Country provide opportunities for great skiing and tubing during the winter months, hiking during the warm months, and amazing foliage in fall. Beaches and coastal attractions tempt for relaxing weekends throughout the year. And the entire state has a history all its own, from the famous flying Wright Brothers to the expansive Baltimore Estate and WWII-era Battleship North Carolina.
1 Blue Ridge Parkway
Nicknamed “America’s favorite drive,” the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway was designed by landscape architect Stanley Abbott whose vision was to create a road that was far more than just a way to get from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, with its scenic hiking trails. The drive itself has incredible views of the Blue Ridge mountains and the surrounding landscape, and the road is popular with motorcyclists and bicyclists for its endless scenery. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails that branch off from the numerous pull-offs, picnic areas, and campgrounds that line the road. Tourists will find the parkway most crowded in October during foliage season, while summer visitors can enjoy the colors of flaming azaleas and rhododendrons.
In addition to the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is home to several visitor centers and museums, some of which are open seasonally. In the summer and autumn, Maury Mill (Milepost 176) has demonstrations that include grinding corn in the original mill, cutting boards in the sawmill, and the art of blacksmiths. The Folk Art Center (Milepost 382) is open year-round and includes a gallery of folk art as well as demonstrations by local craftspeople, and the Museum of North Carolina Minerals (Milepost 331) has detailed exhibits that look at the region’s mineral resources and mining industry. Between the months of November and March, tourists should be sure to check for weather-related road closures prior to setting out.
2 The Baltimore Estate
One of North Carolina’s must-see attractions is the Baltimore Estate, one of the top attractions in Asheville. At the center of an 8,000-acre compound, the Vanderbilt Mansion is the largest private home in the United States. The mansion has 250 rooms with impressive artwork, antiques, and architecture, as well as collections of vintage clothing and accessories. The estate’s gardens are expansive, including the Italian Garden, with its ornate pools and sculpture, and the Rose Garden, which features more than 250 varieties. The grounds also include the first managed forest in the country, a deer park, and miles of level paths and walking trails throughout. There are many dining options throughout the estate and shopping and entertainment in Antler Hill Village.
3 More head Planetarium and Science Center
The More head Planetarium and Science Center, located at the University of North Carolina in the heart of Chapel Hill, has been a stop for more than seven million guests since first opening in 1949. The center presents more than 15 planetarium shows on a rotating schedule, including fun and educational topics like black holes, Galileo, and astronauts. Permanent exhibits in the Science Center explore a variety of topics, including the planetarium’s proud history as a training center for astronauts. From 1959 through 1975, more than 60 astronauts learned about celestial navigation here, including the majority of those who walked on the moon. Other exhibits include Water in Our World, which looks at the importance of clean and accessible water as the earth’s most important resource, and Firsts in Flight, which illustrates the important contributions that African Americans made to the progress of aviation and space exploration.
4 Neville Gorge and Falls
Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Neville Gorge is the deepest and one of the most scenic gorges in the eastern United States. Located in the Pisgah National Forest, the Neville River enters the gorge at Neville Falls and drops 90 feet, continuing for 12 miles within the steep rock walls. The trails are accessed at Milepost 316 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, offering a total of four overlooks on an easily-traversed 1.6-mile round-trip hike. While visiting the Neville Falls Visitor Center, it is worth the short hike (.3 of a mile) to the small but beautiful Daggers Creek Falls. Other nearby spots include Crab-tree Falls and incredible views from Table Rock Mountain and Handbill Mountain.
5 Battleship North Carolina
Located in Wilmington, the USS North Carolina was the first of 10 battleships to join the American fleet in WWII having been commissioned on April 9, 1941. The vessel is well armed: there are nine 16-inch, 45-caliber guns in three turrets, and 20 five-inch, 38-caliber guns in ten twin mounts. She was the world’s greatest sea weapon, but today tourists can wander through the ship to visit the mess hall, tour the sailor’s and officer’s quarters, and wander the expansive deck to see the intimidating guns up-close and personal.
6 North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Dedicated to the natural history of North Carolina, this is the oldest museum in the state. The museum has two buildings: the Nature Exploration Center and the Nature Research Center, both of which are filled with exhibits, interactive learning opportunities, and educational presentations. Permanent exhibits at the Nature Exploration Center include topics from the coastal regions of North Carolina to an exhibit that explores the history of gemstones in the state. You can also find sections that explore the habitats of the tropics and rain forest, where you can hang out with the resident two-toed sloth. This is also where you will find the “Terror of the South,” the only genuine Brontosaurus skeleton on display in the world, which is the centerpiece of the Prehistoric North Carolina exhibit. Next door, the Nature Research Center focuses on the science and exploration that are crucial to learning about the natural world. Exhibits here cover everything from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the exploration of deep space and include the study of things as small as DNA to the massive science of weather patterns.
7 North Carolina Aquarium
The North Carolina Aquarium has four coastal locations at Roanoke Island, Pine Knoll Shores, Fort Fisher, and Jeanette’s Pier. While Jeanette’s Pier is not an actual aquarium, it does offer views of marine animals like humpback whales in their natural habitat. (Check with the aquarium to find out what marine life might be passing through during your trip.) The Roanoke Island location, situated close to Jeanette’s Pier, features the largest collection of sharks in the state. At Pine Knoll Shores, visitors learn about the state’s varied marine life, while Fort Fisher introduces the freshwater streams, swamps, and open ocean of Cape Fear.
8 North Carolina Zoo
Strolling five miles of shaded pathways, tourists can see more than 1,600 animals and 52,000 plants at North Carolina Zoo. (Wear comfortable shoes.) Located in Seborrhea, the animals represent species from Africa (elephants, rhinos, ostriches, lions, chimps, zebras, and giraffes) and North America (cougars, alligators, bobcats, red wolves, bison, elk, roadrunners, and grizzly and black bears). Exhibits are designed to resemble the natural habitat.
9 Outer Banks
With beach erosion and shore damage, the future of the Outer Banks is unknown – which is why it’s an important area for visitors to explore now. This 200-mile stretch of barrier islands offers natural beauty, rich history, and lovely towns. Tourists can learn about the region at the Outer Banks History Center and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and enjoy a drive on the outer Banks Scenic Byway. Visitors to Roanoke Island can learn about the lost colony, visit a living history museum about farm life, and learn about the island’s importance in the Underground Railroad Network. Other sightseeing attractions in the area include historic lighthouses, Elizabethan gardens at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, and the Frisco Native American Museum
10 Cape Hatteras
Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the country’s first coastal preservation area and includes the important barrier islands along North Carolina’s coast in the Outer Banks region. Visitors to the area come for the beaches, but also for the unique wildlife and rich history. Bird-watchers can get a peek at the threatened piping plovers that nest on the beach, as well as the American Oyster-catcher, gull-billed tern, and black skimmer. The beaches here are also the nesting ground of several types of sea turtles, including the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, and in the winter months, you may see seals resting on the beach. Another favorite activity is climbing historic lighthouses, like the 1872 Dodie Island Light Station, which is on its third incarnation after the first became unstable and the second was destroyed in the Civil War. The Cape Hatteras Light Station was first built in 1803 and rebuilt in 1870, serving as a crucial beacon on one of the most dangerous stretches of the Atlantic coast where the Gulf Stream meets the Virginia Drift, the site of hundreds of shipwrecks. Although it is not open to the public, the Corncrake Light has been in operation since 1823 on the island that is also known for its unique breed of Corncrake Ponies.
11 Chimney Rock State Park
Twenty-five miles southeast of Asheville, a 315-ft granite spire rises to an elevation of more than 2,280 ft in Chimney Rock State Park. There is a 26-story elevator built inside the mountain, making the trip to the top an easy excursion for tourists. Also within the park, the Hickory Nut Falls Trail is a moderate, mostly-level trail to the base of the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls