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20+ Great Things to Do in Johnston County (JoCo’s Best Places!)

Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on April 18, 2024.

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Johnston County (also known as JoCo) was one of our first day trips, and we’ve been hooked ever since. With a lovely mix of small towns, fun attractions, great food (including NC barbecue), and more, we know you’ll have a soft spot for JoCo.

If you’ve never been, we’ve created this guide that features things to do in Johnston County NC, throughout the year, including this weekend. Here’s how we’ve organized the guide:

  • Where is Johnston County NC?
  • Johnston County Towns
  • Where to Stay
  • Annual Events
  • Things to Do This Weekend (and Year-Round!)
    • Museums
    • Outdoor Activities
  • Where to Eat
  • Beer, Wine, and Shine
  • More Things to Do (Additional NC Travel Guides)

Whether you’re a new visitor, a local, or looking for a fun day trip near you, we know this guide will help you.

Read More: Eastern North Carolina (and 100+ Awesome Places to Visit)

Where is Johnston County, NC?

Map of North Carolina highlighting Johnston County by David Benbennick Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: David Benbennick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Johnston County is located at the crossroads of I-95 and I-40 in Eastern North Carolina. It is an easy day trip from Raleigh (and Durham!) and the perfect place to stop on your way to North Carolina’s beaches

JoCo borders 7 NC counties, including the following:

You can visually plan your trip to Johnson County with our North Carolina Travel Map and our Eastern North Carolina Map.

Read More: 58 Excellent Day Trips from Greensboro (Within a 2-Hour Drive)

Johnston County Towns

Smithfield NC

When considering places to visit in Johnston County, we start with its incredible towns. Overall, there are 11 incorporated towns in Johnston County, followed by nearly 20 townships and 16 unincorporated communities.

The community of Willow Spring partly resides in western Johnston County and southwestern Wake County.

A few of our favorite towns in Johnston County include:

  • Benson is near the Harnett County line and one of many JoCo towns near I-40 and I-95. Broadslab Distillery in Benson is home to North Carolina’s first spirits that go from farm to distillery, owned by a family that’s steeped in the history of moonshining. You can also learn more about the area at the Benson Museum of Local History, and don’t forget about Mule Days, which we’ll detail in the Annual Events section.
  • Clayton is the largest town in Johnston County, just southeast of Raleigh. Its downtown has some of the area’s best restaurants (Crawford’s Cookshop) and places to grab a drink (Revival 1869). Clayton is also home to the Clayton Center, and outdoor attractions like Clemmons Educational State Forest and the River Walk on the Neuse Greenway.
  • Smithfield is the county seat and sits above the I-40/I-95 split. The Ava Gardner Museum is here, as is Carolina Packers, which makes the red Bright Leaf Hot Dog a very famous North Carolina food.
Selma Johnston County NC

Honorable mentions go out to Selma and Kenly. Honestly, one of our favorite reasons to visit Johnston County is for these towns and all the others throughout the county.

Regardless of your choice, prepare for exceptional local businesses and people.

Read More: 40+ North Carolina Gifts from Amazing Local Businesses

Where to Stay

Johnston County is full of unique places to stay, from cozy bed and breakfasts (McWade’s Inn in Clayton) to campgrounds (Howell Woods in Four Oaks).

A variety of brand-name hotels await off I-95 in Benson and Selma, if you prefer something closer to the interstate.

Annual Events in Johnston County

If you’re wondering when to visit Johnston County, these are the major events that keep people returning each year.

  • March: Bentonville Battlefield hosts reenactments every third weekend in March. Skyfest is a festival with professional aerial demonstrations, including parachute team jumps, flyovers, helicopter rappelling, and more.
  • May: Smithfield’s Ham and Yam Festival celebrates the best of these culinary delights! It is held annually on the first Saturday in May.
  • June: The oldest Southern Gospel convention happens every June during the State Annual Singing Convention in Benson.
  • September: Benson Mule Days is a four-day family festival held each September, with mule competitions, rodeos, carnival rides, and family entertainment. Carl attended one as a kid; it’s just another sign that this place will bring you back for more.
  • October: Selma Railroad Days in October celebrates the rail heritage of this small town with a 5k, parade, crafts, and food. The Clayton Harvest Festival is one of the largest annual events in Johnston County dating back to 1951. Enjoy midway rides, games, a singing competition, and local performances.
  • November and December: Benson’s Meadow Lights is the area’s premier Christmas lights display. A great way to enjoy them is via the Old Country Store. For a small fee, you can take a train through the lights, which is something all of us train enthusiasts love.

Read More: The NC Tripping Events Calendar

Johnston County Agritourism

When to Visit: Spring to Fall

    Strawberry picking at Smiths
    Strawberry Picking at Smith’s Farm Market

Johnston County has a long and proud history of agriculture. Rolling farmland spreads across the county in between the pockets of bustling downtowns.

Whether you are looking for strawberry picking or to frolic in sunflower fields, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to reconnect with the farming roots!

Here are some JoCo farms and producers that we love:

Do you have a favorite farm in Johnston County that we should know about? Let us know in the comments!

Read More: Blueberry Picking in North Carolina (and 20+ Great Farms to Find Them!)

Things to Do in Johnston County NC This Weekend

Shops in Smithfield NC

Keep those annual events on your calendar but rest assured that you can enjoy these places in Johnston County pretty much any time of the year. Be sure to call ahead before you visit, as hours and days of operation are subject to change.

Museums

We start JoCo’s museum lineup with one of North Carolina’s best-known museums, dedicated to a local legend.

  • Ava Gardner Museum
  • Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site
  • Tobacco Farm Life Museum

Ava Gardner Museum

Address: 325 E Market St, Smithfield, NC
Website

Ava Gardner Museum

Hollywood starlet Ava Gardner grew up 7 miles east of Smithfield in rural Grabtown. She would rise to fame in the 1940s and star in movies alongside Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, and Richard Burton. 

The Ava Gardner Museum commemorates her five-decade career in film and television, with exhibits including costumes and history.

It is widely regarded as one of the best things to do in Smithfield and Johnston County.

Read More: 100+ Unique Things to Do In North Carolina (Your NC Bucket List)

Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site

Address: 5466 Harper House Rd, Four Oaks, NC
Website

The Battle of Bentonville, fought from March 19-21, 1865, was the largest battle ever fought in North Carolina. It was also the last full-scale action of the Civil War and remains a piece of history today.

The Confederate defeat during this battle convinced General Ulysses S. Grant to leave General William T. Sherman in North Carolina and focus on Confederate armies elsewhere. 

A visit to Bentonville Battlefield includes a tour of the restored Harper House, which was used as a field hospital. The visitor center has interactive exhibits that focus on the battle.

There are 5 miles of trails that follow along the original trenches built during the battle. 

Read More: 125+ Important Facts About North Carolina You Should Know (History, Geography, and More!)

Tobacco Farm Life Museum

Address: 709 Church Street, Kenly, NC
Website

The Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly was founded by volunteers who wanted to preserve the history and culture of Eastern North Carolina farming.

The museum is 6,000 square feet and features exhibits on farm life, southern medicine, and rural social life, and shows you what it is like to raise a family on a tobacco farm. 

Outdoor Activities

Those museums offer wonderful learning opportunities about the area’s rich history. Johnston County is also blessed with beautiful natural spots and here are a few of them.

Clemmons State Educational Forest

Address: 2256 Old U.S. Hwy 70, Clayton, NC
Website

Clemmons State Educational Forest Johnston County

Clemmons State Educational Forest is a hidden gem in Johnston County that everyone needs to visit. There are over 800 acres of wooded trails that the North Carolina Forest Service maintains.

Tall pines and gentle hills make this an excellent outdoor experience for families! 

Clemmons State Educational Forest Johnston County talking tree trail

We love the Talking Tree trail, which features educational stops along the path that explain the different types of trees and special tidbits about them.

Our kids love the exhibits, and it always leads to interesting discussions as we go from one stop to the next! 

Read More: DuPont State Forest (Waterfall Hikes and More of the Best Things to Do!)

Trails and Greenways

Johnston County NC Sams Branch Greenway

Johnston County is also packed with trails and greenways, many of which start from local parks. The Mountains to Sea Trail (from Clingmans Dome to Jockeys Ridge) runs through JoCo, connecting many of these trails and greenways to North Carolina’s massive network of trails.

Here are a few of our favorite Johnston County trails, along with info about where they can be found:

Read More: Hiking Near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill (25 of the Best Trails for All!)

Where to Eat in Johnston County

With all of these wonderful things to do in Johnston County, fill your belly with some delicious bites at these restaurants and eateries.

  • Crawford Cookshop
  • Old North State Food Hall
  • The Redneck BBQ Lab
  • Revival 1869
  • SoDoSoPa
  • White Swan Bar-B-Q

Crawford Cookshop

Address: 401 E Main St, Clayton, NC
Website

Crawfords Cookshop in Johnston County

Chef Scott Crawford is revered in Raleigh and a five-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist. He is known for innovative dishes that elevate the Southern experience and displays these skills at his Clayton restaurant, Crawford Cookshop.

Johnston County patrons taste the artistry you’d expect from Scott Crawford’s other restaurants (Jolie and Crawford & Son) but in a family-friendly casual environment.

A large outdoor seating area and a large menu cater to a wider audience at Crawford Cookshop. Think delectable smoke and grilled wings, roasted bone marrow with a bacon jam, and fall-apart braised short ribs. 

Read More: How to Spend Christmas in North Carolina (25 Holiday Events)

Old North State Food Hall

Address: 67 Jr Rd Suite 300, Selma, NC
Website

Old North State Food Hall 1

10 restaurants under one roof! Old North State Food Hall is located in Selma, only 36 miles from Raleigh. It is America’s first roadside food hall and can be found at exit 97 off of I-95.

There are a mix of cuisines: from smash burgers, Neapolitan pizza, and barbecue to Cuban, Jamaican, and Indian! Sit at your table, scan a QR code, and wait as the food comes to you! 

Old North State Food Hall 2

There is also a full-service bar with drink specials and creative cocktails. We sampled food from all the vendors and can attest that there is something for everyone at Old North State Food Hall. 

Read More: 50+ Easy Day Trips from Fayetteville (Great Getaways!)

The Redneck BBQ Lab

Address: 12101-B NC Hwy 210 Benson, NC
Website

If you know NC Tripping, then you know that we are giant barbecue fans! And The Redneck BBQ Lab is one of our favorites. Jerry Stephenson and his barbecue scientists carefully smoke meats from brisket to pork to some of the best sausages you’ll ever have.

It’s not North Carolina barbecue that you’ll find, though. Jerry is an accomplished barbecue competition winner, and hungry diners will see everything on his board beyond pork.

We highly recommend The Fat Redneck and plan your visit during burnt ends days! (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday… and yes, we didn’t have to look that up because this information is seared into our brains!)

Want a taste of JoCo closer to the Triangle? Check out Jerry’s second location, The BBQ Lab in North Hills.

Read more: 25+ Restaurants in Raleigh (Date Night & Casual Bites)

Revival 1869

Address: 222 East Main Street Clayton, NC
Website

Revival 1869 Clayton Johnston County NC

We aren’t too ashamed to say that Revival 1869 popped up on our radar because of TikTok. Thus, we just knew it was a place in Johnston County that we wanted to highlight.

Located in the heart of downtown Clayton, they are known for their library wall of over 300 whiskies and spirits worldwide. The menu always changes and offers seasonal delights- but they can also make you a mean Old Fashioned! 

Enjoy live jazz, shareables and charcuterie, and frequent art pop-ups! Revival is the place to hang with friends over a quality cocktail. 

Read More: Things to Do in Moore County (Annual Events and Year-Round Attractions)

SoDoSoPa

Address: 146 S 3rd St Smithfield, NC
Facebook Page

SoDoSoPa Smithfield NC

While looking for where to eat in Smithfield, I came across SoDoSoPa, an elevated barbecue joint with an expansive menu. Everything is smoked and delicious! If you’re wanting a larger meal- go for the ribs!

But I, of course, had to have the smoked pork and really enjoyed the flavor. My top recommendation is to order the Hog Cakes! Think crab cakes but with hushpuppies and pork. 

White Swan Bar-B-Q

2 Locations in Smithfield
Website

White Swan Bar B Q Smithfield Johnston County NC

We are always on the lookout for good barbecue–and Smithfield didn’t disappoint! White Swan is a popular barbecue place that’s been around for a long time, with two very good locations.

They serve homestyle breakfast but the star to us is the lunch and dinner menu. Order a plate of barbecue, fried chicken, and sides and you’ll be hooked.

We certainly are!

Johnston County Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail

The Johnston County Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail takes you to eight makers of fine alcohol. Whether it’s fermenting hops, grapes, or grain, taking a trip on the trail will surely be both delicious and adventurous!

  • Beer
    • Deep River Brewing
    • Double Barley Brewing
  • Wine
    • Gregory Vineyards
    • Hinnant Family Vineyards
  • Shine
    • Broadslab Distillery

Please remember to consume responsibly.

Deep River Brewing

Address: 700 W Main St #102, Clayton, NC
Website

Deep River Brewing is dubbed Johnston County’s first legal brewery, and the setting could not be any better. The history cotton mill is beautiful, with reclaimed wood from a former tobacco shed adorning the walls and bar.

It is family-friendly brewing and often hosts local food trucks and live music. 

Double Barley Brewing

Address: 3174 US Hwy 70W, Smithfield, NC
Website

Double Barley Brewing

Double Barley Brewing is located in Smithfield and is known for its high APV beers! In a convenient location along US Hwy 70, Double Barley has great community events and food trucks.

I am particular to the Thrilla in Vanilla Porter, and Wilma’s Wandering EyePA. 

Read More: 80+ Tasty North Carolina Breweries (The Best of the Best!)

Gregory Vineyards

Address: 275 Bowling Spring Dr, Angier, NC
Website

Gregory Vineyards Johnston County

Gregory Vineyards started as Lane’s Seafood & Steak House in 1987. But in 2011, the 140-acre farm was bursting with grapes in the heart of Johnston County.

Serving both fortified and unfortified wines, Gregory Vineyards has the entire wine-to-bottle production facility as well as stunning views. 

Come for dinner at the restaurant, or stop by for a tasting! This North Carolina winery offers dry and sweet muscadine sips in a beautiful setting. 

Hinnant Family Vineyards

Address: 826 Pine Level Micro Rd, Pine Level, NC
Website

Hinnant Vineyards Drone

Growing muscadine grapes since 1971, Hinnant Family Vineyards is a wonderful place to escape the city and enjoy a glass of wine.

Hinnant Family Vineyards

With more than 100 acres and 17 varieties of muscadine grapes, soak up the beautiful views from the back patio! If you prefer a drier wine, Hinnant does produce reds and whites using grapes from Washington State. 

Read More: 22 of the Best Yadkin Valley Wineries to Sip and Savor Now

Broadslab Distillery

Address: 4834 NC-50, Benson, NC
Website

DSC 0171

Boadslab Distillery is one of the only dirt-to-bottle distilleries in North Carolina. When you pull in, you’ll see rows of corn fields, the exact corn that is mashed, distilled, and poured right into your glass!

Owner Jeremy Norris has moonshine in his blood. His grandfather had a still by age 13, and today, Norris has kept the tradition of five generations of whiskey producers alive. 

Broadslab Distilling Johnston County

True whiskey drinkers will appreciate the smooth oaky finish with no artificial colors or sweeteners. 

Read More: 25+ Fun Things to Do in Wilkesboro (+ North Wilkesboro and Nearby!)

Ready to Enjoy Johnston County NC?

As you can see, we really enjoy Johnston County and can’t wait for our next trip that way. If you’ve never been, we’d love to know about where you’re headed first.

We’d also be interested to hear about your favorites if you know this awesome county. Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to share your JoCo adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.

More Things to Do in JoCo and Nearby (NC Travel Guides)

We’ve featured many of these Johnston County attractions and nearby places in our massive North Carolina travel guides collection. Here are a few of them.

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