Last Updated on September 14, 2022
Last Updated on September 14, 2022
From the mountains to our coast, we’re blessed with beautiful green spaces and protected public lands. This includes our amazing state parks and the 12 beautiful national parks in North Carolina that we will feature in this guide.
We’ve explored and driven all around the state and have thoroughly enjoyed the things learned at these National Parks Service units. Some are inspirational and others more tragic, with each offering insight into the very fabric of North Carolina.
Some you can see from the comfort of your car, but more than a few of these places offer a physical challenge. A couple of them require hopping on a boat to enjoy fully.
Either way, we think these national parks in North Carolina are worth a spot on your NC bucket list.
National Parks in North Carolina
Many of these are among the best National Parks units in the entire US, and we’re excited to share them with you! For this guide, we’ve listed these national parks in North Carolina in alphabetical order.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail
This guide’s national parks in North Carolina start with the Appalachian Trail (AT).
The famed hiking trail runs 2,181 miles through 14 states, including North Carolina. The AT stretches from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia.
Here are a few major AT spots in North Carolina:
- Max Patch along the NC-TN border in Madison County.
- Wayah Bald Tower in Franklin.
- Roan Mountain along the NC-TN border, near Bakersville and Burnsville.
- Fontana Dam in Graham County. Cross it like Bill Bryson (and Robert Redford) did in A Walk in the Woods.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the NC side. On the latter, we’ll mention the most visited of our national parks in North Carolina shortly.
Covering 469 miles, 252 miles–over half!–of this well-known winding drive is in North Carolina.
Some of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway stops include the beautiful Crabtree Falls, the epic Linn Cove Viaduct, the easy-to-reach Craggy Gardens, and the Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the southern end.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Protecting 70 miles of pristine Outer Banks shoreline, Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the first protected seashore in the United States!
In addition to protecting the Outer Banks, this national parks unit also includes the barrier islands of Bodie, Hatteras, and parts of Ocracoke.
Visit the islands’ historic lighthouses or hop on these Outer Banks hiking trails for some of the best birding and wildlife viewing in North Carolina!
Some awesome spots along this road include the following:
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Ocracoke Lighthouse (technically not part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore)
Read More: Beautiful Outer Banks Vacation Rentals
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Starting south of Ocracoke on Portsmouth Island, Cape Lookout National Seashore is a 56-mile stretch of beaches and barrier islands. Of our national parks in North Carolina, this is the only one that requires a boat ride to reach.
The iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse draws many people here, as do all the fishing and camping opportunities that await. This national parks unit also includes Shackleford Banks, where you’ll find some of North Carolina’s wild ponies.
All of this is within a boat ride from Beaufort, Harkers Island, and other coastal spots.
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
Once home to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and writer, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site now protects the area known as Connemara, remembering the life of Carl Sandburg.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the house, hike the trails, and say hello to the dairy goats once owned by Mrs. Sandburg.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves the English colony of Roanoke, also known as the first preserved English settlement in the US. Founded in July 1587 by John White and sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, Roanoke is famous for its mysterious disappearance in 1590.
Visit the site’s hiking trails, learn from fabulous exhibits, and take in outdoor performances of The Lost Colony.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits on the Tennessee and North Carolina border. Of all the national parks in North Carolina, this one is the most visited.
While the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited NPS unit, GSMNP is the most visited National Park in the United States.
With over 900 miles of hiking trails, historic sites, and its label as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the biodiversity in this park is protected to the point that even dogs are not allowed inside.
Here are a few of our favorite hikes on the NC side of the Smokies:
- Clingmans Dome Observation Tower (the western terminus of the Mountains to Sea Trail)
- Deep Creek Trail (a 3-waterfall hike)
- Big Creek Trail (leads to Mouse Creek Falls and more)
Read More: The Road to Nowhere near Bryson City
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
Commemorating the Revolutionary War Battle of Guilford Courthouse, today’s Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro is one of our favorite national parks site in North Carolina to visit.
Often considered the beginning of the end of the Revolution, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place on March 15, 1781, when British General Cornwallis defeated Colonial Army leader Major General Nathanael Greene.
Today, you (and your kids) can walk, run, drive, or bike around the site’s monument- and tree-lined paths and learn more about the battle as you do. We think this is an excellent living museum, one of the best in Greensboro.
Moores Creek National Battlefield
Moores Creek is another of our national parks in North Carolina from a Revolutionary War battle.
On February 27, 1776, North Carolina Patriots defeated a group of Loyalists at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, the first significant victory for Patriots in the American Revolution.
Visitors to the Moores Creek National Battlefield can explore the history of this battle and walk a short one-mile trail.
Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail
The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail is the final reminder of the Revolutionary War among national parks in North Carolina. It runs north to south (or south to north) for about 330 miles through four states, including North Carolina.
The trail follows the paths of the patriot militiamen who eventually fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. This pivotal battle was a decisive victory for the Patriots and turned things around after many losses in the Carolinas.
In North Carolina, you’ll see trail markers in a few places. They include:
- The Elkin and Allegheny Rail Trail in Elkin
- W Kerr Scott Dam in Wilkesboro
- The Catawba River Greenway in Morganton
Have you also traveled along the Overmountain Victory Trail? Where have you spotted signs for it?
Trail of Tears
The most tragic of our national parks in North Carolina is the Trail of Tears. It stretches way beyond our borders to western states such as Oklahoma, but there are ways to remember and commemorate the forced removal and survival of the Cherokee people here.
Here are seven prominent places to learn about the Trail of Tears in North Carolina:
- The Cherokee County Historical Museum in Murphy
- Cherokee Welcome Center on the Cherokee Indian Reservation
- Fontana Dam in Graham County
- Hiwassee Reservoir in Cherokee County
- Junaluska Memorial and Museum in Robbinsville
- Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee
- Oconaluftee Visitor Center inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Wright Brothers National Memorial
There’s a fascinating fact behind the “First in Flight” that you see on many of our license plates! The Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorated the namesake two’s famous flight on December 17, 1903.
It’s arguably one of the best national parks in North Carolina, not just because of its location on the Outer Banks.
Detailing the failures and successes of the Wright Brothers, this Memorial features many of the original tools and models of the first plane.
Read More: The Best Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Ready to Visit These National Parks in North Carolina?
The 12 national parks in North Carolina are so engaging and informative, each a truly unique treasure!
The beautiful and historic lighthouses of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the rich biodiversity of the Great Smoky National Park, and the commemoration of Revolutionary War history are just some of our beautiful protected spaces.
In case you haven’t visited them all, we hope you’re able to in due time! Out of all these national parks in North Carolina, we’re curious to know which you’ll be visiting first.
If you’ve made your way out to these amazing places, we’d also love to hear about your favorites! So let us know in the comments or by email.