The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in North Carolina

From secluded island getaways to epic mountainscapes and the South’s only rainforest.

Looking Glass Falls, Brevard, North Carolina
Looking Glass Falls, Brevard | Photo courtesy of
Looking Glass Falls, Brevard | Photo courtesy of

When it comes to epic landscapes and scenic getaways, North Carolina truly has it all. Within a four-hour drive, roadtrippers can find themselves at a secluded beach or atop a snow-capped mountain skiing—with white squirrels, waterfalls, island ferry rides, and charming towns marking the miles along the way. The hardest part? Narrowing down where you want to go first. These are the 14 most beautiful destinations the Tar Heel State has to offer.

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Springer's Point on Ocracoke Island Sunset
Springer's Point on Ocracoke Island Sunset | Photo courtesy of

Outer Banks
You’ve been to the Outer Banks, sure, but have you been to the off-the-beaten-path part of the Outer Banks? Accessible only by ferry, Ocracoke Island sits at the region’s southern tip where you’ll spot dolphins and sea turtles in their natural element. The island is home to about 1,000 year-round residents, a picturesque village, and 16 miles of idyllic, secluded beaches along the breathtaking Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Snap a pic of the Ocracoke Lighthouse, which dates to 1823 and stands as the second oldest operating lighthouse in the country, en route to Springer’s Point. There’s also a 122-acre nature preserve linking to a trail overlooking Teach’s Hole, the spot where Blackbeard, the notorious pirate, met his fateful end back in 1718.

The Swag
The Swag

Stationed nearly a mile above sea level at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mind you—this high-altitude retreat comes equipped with unparalleled views of North Carolina’s tallest peaks. And it’s much more than just a luxury getaway—it’s like having the park completely to yourself, as there’s a private entrance with ample trails to keep you occupied during the day (and amazing lunches to-go). Don’t miss out on social hour when hors d'oeuvres flow freely on the front porch, and cross your fingers you’re there on a Wednesday or Saturday so you can catch the chef’s picnic at Gooseberry Knob. The waitlist is booked for upwards of a year in advance, so don’t wait too long to reserve your bucket list stay.

Main Street in Downtown Boone
Main Street in Downtown Boone | Photo courtesy of

Most people seek out Boone for technicolor fall foliage or plethora of winter sports—AKA shredding Beech Mountain at 5,506 feet up, the highest ski resort east of the Rockies—but there’s actually so much more to this hilly oasis. Sought-after mountain bike trails, zipline courses, and white water rafting opportunities aside, Downtown Boone offers an eclectic mix of shopping (don’t sleep on the iconic Mast General Store), local art, breweries, tasty restaurants, live Bluegrass music on the regular, and lots of quirky scenery. Grandfather Mountain and Tweetsie Railroad are also huge draws.

Mill Shoals French Broad Falls
Mill Shoals French Broad Falls | Photo courtesy of

Located at the entrance to the Pisgah National Forest, Brevard is one of North Carolina’s hidden gems, so often overshadowed by its bustling big bro, Asheville. Reason number one? There are over 250 striking waterfalls to marvel at, which you may recognize from their appearances in movies like The Hunger Games and Last of the Mohicans. Each May, the White Squirrel Festival shines a light on the unique critters, usually spotted around Brevard College. For avid climbers, Looking Glass Rock is a must, and if that sounds a little too daunting, there’s a walkable trail, as well. Brevard also boasts a quaint downtown area with all the coffee shops, restaurants, and shopping you need for a well-rounded weekend getaway.

Washington, NC on the Pamlico
Washington, NC on the Pamlico

This tiny waterfront charmer situated along the Pamlico River is bursting with personality. Head out on a hike in Goose Creek State Park, learn how to set sail courtesy of Little Washington Sailing School, or rent a paddleboard or kayak from Inner Banks Outfitters and swing by Runyan Creek to scope out marine life and take in the sights from a different viewpoint. After a day of activities, post up at The Hackney, a British-influenced restaurant utilizing local North Carolina ingredients, complete with an attached distillery crafting 1000 Piers Gin, a modern take on London Dry Gin.

Raffaldini Vineyard and House
Raffaldini Vineyard and House | Photo courtesy of

Yadkin Valley
Nine times out of 10, folks will shake their head if you mention North Carolina and “good wine” in the same sentence. However, Yadkin Valley, located just outside of Winston-Salem, is home to rolling hills and pastoral vineyards, Blue Ridge mountain panoramas, and several successful operations known to show up on some of the state’s most discerning restaurant wine lists (looking at you, Herons in Cary). Transport yourself to Napa Valley without leaving the South with a whirlwind trip through Raffaldini Vineyards, Jolo Vineyards, and Jones von Drehle Vineyards, among others.

Biltmore Walled Gardens
Biltmore Walled Gardens | Photo courtesy of

Coined the “Paris of the South” for its striking architecture and electric arts scene, Asheville stands in a class of its own. Highlights include the Biltmore Estate, a 250-room Château-like mansion constructed for George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 1800s (dwarfed only by the similarly styled McDonald's Biltmore Village—trust us on that one). Elsewhere, the city is also home to a dialed-up restaurant scene and more breweries than any certified beer nerd could count. Explore the River Arts District (RAD), a buzzy creative pocket perched along the French Broad River, or peruse the hip shops lining West Asheville. If you find yourself wanting to stay longer than a day, check into the Chestnut Street Inn, a charming B&B where owners Emily and Arturo won’t lead you astray when it comes to recommendations for eating, drinking, and adventuring.

Highlands Mountains
Highlands Mountains | Photo courtesy of

Highlands is one of two rainforests in North America (the other is in the Pacific Northwest, figures), and receives on average around 80 inches of rainfall each year. What’s more, according to the Highlands Biological, the Southern Appalachian Mountains are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the temperate world. There’s no shortage of activities here, like fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, tubing, shopping, dining, and more. Schedule an overnight at shiny new Skyline Lodge, a mountaintop hotel offering views for days.

Visit The Outer Banks
Visit The Outer Banks

Formerly known as the Serendipity House, the seaside inn strikes a whimsical, haunting balance that led to its cameo in the 2008 film Nights in Rodanthe, based on Nicholas Sparks’ 2002 novel by the same name. Since its Hollywood moment, the house was moved to a more erosion-protected locale and renovated to mimic the interior sets from the film. And yes, you can stay in it.

Hanggliding at Jockeys Ridge 9
Hanggliding at Jockeys Ridge 9 | Photo courtesy of

Nags Head
The tallest natural sand dune system on the East Coast, Jockey’s Ridge State Park offers a welcome reprieve from the constant “STAY OFF DUNES” signs of your childhood beach visits. Instead, you can seasonally hike, sand board, and even hang-glide among the massive ridges.

Bryson City, Swain County, North Carolina
Bryson City, Swain County, North Carolina

Bryson City
It’s kind of a good news-bad news situation with this one. After a six-mile scenic drive into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the originally named “Lakeview Drive” just, well, stops. The good news, though, is that when you go through the dark quarter-mile tunnel and emerge on the other side, you’re met with a labyrinth of hiking trails spanning the park. The bad news? The tunnel symbolizes a broken promise from the local government that a road would be built for Swain and Graham County residents dislocated due to the construction of the Fontana Dam (see below).

Fontana Lake
Fontana Lake | Photo courtesy of

Fontana Dam
The tallest dam east of the Mississippi, the 480-foot-tall Fontana Dam is a sight to behold in itself, having brought critical resources to the region since 1942. Beyond the dam, though, Fontana Lake is a welcome retreat for kayakers and fishing enthusiasts, and serves as the surprising setting for multiple houseboat rentals. Imagine waking up on the water, surrounded by mountain vistas—what’s not to love?

Shackleford Banks
Shackleford Banks | Photo courtesy of

Outer Banks
Any destination only accessible by boat immediately ups its cool factor. Free-roaming “banker ponies” have ruled this Outer Banks barrier island for more than 400 years, and nearby locals and visitors consider it a privilege just to swing by and say hello—or, actually, wave hello from afar, as you really shouldn’t approach the horses.

Brunswick Islands
Brunswick Islands | Photo courtesy of NC’s Brunswick Islands

Brunswick Islands
Part of North Carolina’s storytale Brunswick Islands, this coastal escape is famous for family-friendly beach rentals, endless sandy shores, and enchanting dining and shopping opportunities. Pro tip: Stick around into the evening to take in the true wonder of this 10-mile seaside stretch, when twinkling stars blanket the night sky at incredible, unpolluted depths. Because it’s a sea turtle nesting area, residents are required to keep their outdoor lights turned off even during peak summer season.

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Jenn Rice is a contributor for Thrillist.