Writer Walter Stegner once called the National Park System “America’s best idea.” Considering millions of people take to parks across the country every year to relax, have an adventure and take in the great outdoors, it’s hard to argue with that statement. With placid beaches, rugged mountain chains and over four centuries of accumulated history, it’s no surprise that North Carolina is home to some of the best national parks in the country. If you’re planning to travel through the Tar Heel State, be sure to make time for these top 10 national parks to visit in North Carolina.
1. The Appalachian Trail
Perhaps the most famous hiking trail in the world, the Appalachian Trail stretches a staggering 2,184 miles through the beautiful terrain of the Appalachian Mountains. In North Carolina, the trail runs largely along the Tennessee border, extending from Clay County in the south to Avery County in the north. With bucolic farmland, gently rolling hills and rugged mountain terrain, the trail offers scenic hiking that you can enjoy regardless of your skill level and ability. Even if you can’t spare the time to hike the entire length, you’ll find plenty of great trails to spend a day or a weekend enjoying nature.
2. The Blue Ridge Parkway
You may not expect a roadway to be a must-see attraction, but make no mistake: the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s most beautiful drives. Winding through 469 miles of stunning countryside, the parkway meanders from Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, Virginia, to U.S. 441 north of Cherokee, North Carolina. In addition to being a relaxing and memorable drive, the parkway also features hiking trails, an abundance of natural wildlife, campgrounds, picnic areas and many other interesting and attractive destinations.
3. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Whether you’re a nature lover, an avid angler, a surfing fanatic or you’re just looking to relax and enjoy the sounds of the sea, Cape Hatteras National Seashore has something for you. Located along a 70-mile stretch of the Outer Banks from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island, the seashore is a diverse and beautiful place. It offers some of the best fishing and surfing conditions on the entire East Coast, and it also provides an opportunity to learn about the area’s rich maritime and colonial history. There are several historic lighthouses to explore, and the park also features diverse wildlife that includes many species of birds, dolphins, sea turtles and more.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Sprawled across more than half a million acres on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a sight to behold. It’s the most visited national park in the United States, and it isn’t hard to see why. Beginning at the entrance near Cherokee, North Carolina, you’ll be greeted to vast stretches of mountain peaks populated with old-growth forests, peaceful streams and creeks and a rich diversity of wildlife. In addition to hiking and sightseeing, you can also enjoy excellent fly fishing, water tubing and horseback riding.
5. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
Located just northwest of downtown Greensboro, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park commemorates one of the most important episodes of the American Revolutionary War. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, which took place on March 15, 1781, was a pivotal event that led to the British abandoning control of the Carolinas and ultimately helped to set the stage for American victory in the war. Today, the national park features a variety of exhibits, monuments, educational activities and tours that shed light on this important but relatively little-known battle.
6. Cape Lookout National Seashore
Stretching along a pristine section of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, the Cape Lookout National Seashore is composed of a trio of undeveloped barrier islands that extend from Ocracoke Inlet in the north to Beaufort Inlet in the south. The park is accessible by a three-mile boat ride, which will bring you to a beautiful natural landscape that remains virtually untouched. Watch wild horses, birds and other animals, go shelling or fishing, camp out under the stars, climb the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, learn about the fascinating local history or just sit back and enjoy the area beaches. At Cape Lookout, there’s always something to enjoy.
7. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
The Roanoke Colony was established in 1585 as England’s first settlement in the New World. Within a few short years, the colony’s inhabitants had mysteriously disappeared. It’s not entirely clear what happened to these early pioneers, but take a trip to Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks and you can explore the mystery for yourself. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is dedicated to preserving this first English foothold on American soil, and it offers the opportunity to explore a reconstruction of the original 1585 earthwork, take in a variety of monuments and exhibitions, wander through the gorgeous Elizabethan Gardens or just take a hike along one of the area’s scenic trails.
8. Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail
In 1780, a ragtag bunch of men from the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas fought and won one of the most important battles of the American Revolutionary War. This group, referred to as the “Overmountain Men,” heeded the call to arms and marched to war on a campaign that ultimately led to a victory at the pivotal Battle of Kings Mountain. The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail commemorates this campaign, featuring a Commemorative Auto Route that begins near the town of Elkin, a variety of historic sites scattered throughout western North Carolina and an abundance of hiking trails that trace the soldiers’ journey over the Appalachians and the Piedmont plateau.
9. Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
Centered in Asheville and encompassing the 25 westernmost counties in North Carolina, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is dedicated to preserving the rich cultural and natural history of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the people who have called it home for generations. You’ll find many miles of stunning hiking trails, several historic small towns that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, an assortment of festivals and celebrations and dozens of museums that pay homage to the unique music, crafts, culture and history of this vibrant area.
10. Moores Creek National Battlefield
North Carolina’s brave men and women played an essential role in the Revolutionary War, and few of their actions were more memorable than the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge on February 27, 1776. The battle helped to boost recruitment efforts and raise support for the revolution, but it’s also notable for a different reason. The engagement was led by about 500 Scottish Highlanders charging and wielding broadswords, which marked the last known instance of such a charge. Today, several living history programs at the park bring this unusual and important event to vivid life, allowing you to experience the battle and gain insights into the day-to-day lives of the people involved. You can also walk along parts of the preserved road from 1776, along with the site of the historic bridge for which the battle was named.