Last Updated on September 21, 2022
Last Updated on September 21, 2022
During our years of North Carolina road trips, we’ve traveled through all of NC’s 100 counties. After traversing some of America’s most storied highways and lesser-known roads, we’ve come up with this guide that features more than 25 NC scenic byways from the mountains to the sea!
We include US highways, NC state roads, and a few main thoroughfares through multiple small towns and cities. You’ll also pass a few natural wonders, including some of our best State Park-managed lands.
All of these scenic roads are full of twists, turns, and something special seemingly around every corner.
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed some of them already. Even if you haven’t, we’re confident that you’ll agree that these are the most beautiful North Carolina road trips that one can take.
Read More: The NC Bucket List
List of the Best Scenic North Carolina Road Trips
You can jump to any of our favorite NC scenic byways via this list.
- Appalachian Medley
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- Cherohala Skyway
- Fontana Byway
- Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
- Highlands of the Roan
- Little Parkway
- Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive
- Nantahala Byway
- Newfound Gap Road Scenic Byway
- New River Valley Byway
- Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway
- Upper Yadkin Way
- Waterfall Byway
- Yadkin Valley Scenic Byway
Note: We’ve left out city streets when breaking down the roads that make up these byways. Also, some of these routes are NOT recommended for buses and RVs. Please keep that in mind when planning our road trips.
Of course, you can also pack a smaller car to haul on the back of your larger vehicle!
Western North Carolina Road Trips
These scenic roads run through the heart of Western North Carolina and near popular mountain towns like Asheville and Boone (and more).
- Distance: 45 miles
- Drive Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
- Location: Haywood County and Madison County)
- Roads: US 25, US 70, NC 209, NC 213
As if you needed a reason to hop off I-40 in Western North Carolina, the Appalachian Medley provides an excellent excuse. It starts at NC 209 (Exit 24) and if you’d like to hold off on starting, spend a little time in nearby Lake Junaluska.
Of course, this post is about road trips in North Carolina, after all, so keep moving north. You’ll cross the Pigeon and French Broad rivers and pass through the towns of Crabtree and Hot Springs, among others.
Max Patch Trail (to the top of Max Patch Mountain) and the Appalachian Trail await hikers and Rocky Bluff Recreation Area is a nice place to stop, a little more than halfway through this awesome byway.
Blue Ridge Parkway
- Distance: 469 miles (252 miles in North Carolina)
- Drive time: 7 hours
- Location: Alleghany County, Ashe County, Avery County, Buncombe County, Burke County, Caldwell County, Haywood County, Henderson County, Jackson County, McDowell County, Mitchell County, Surry County, Swain County, Transylvania County, Watauga County, Wilkes County, and Yancy County
More than half of the Blue Ridge Parkway‘s 469 miles run through North Carolina. From its southern terminus just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park through Asheville and the High Country, to Cumberland Knob at the Virginia border, there’s so much to explore just on the North Carolina side.
Until then, some of our must-see spots include:
- Cumberland Knob (Milepost 217)
- Moses H Cone Memorial Park (294)
- Rough Ridge Trail (302)
- Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304)
- Linville Falls (MP 316)
- Craggy Gardens (MP 364)
- Little Switzerland (MP 334)
- Crabtree Falls (MP 339)
And if you want to combine the Blue Ridge Parkway with other byways during your North Carolina road trip, you can. Keep reading and you’ll see that some of these roads connect with the Parkway.
Read More: The Best NC Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes
- Distance: 41 miles (18 miles in North Carolina)
- Drive Time: 30 minutes
- Location: Graham County
- Road: NC 143
You’ll only spend 18 miles on the Cherohala Skyway before crossing over into Tennessee, but this high road is well worth noting. On the North Carolina side (NC 143), it begins near Lake Santeetlah and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
Scenic overlooks are scattered throughout the route, with Huckleberry Knob and Santeetlah Overlook a couple of the best. Plan quite a bit of time to enjoy Cherohala and try to see how long you can make it before crossing the border!
- Distance: 54 Miles
- Drive Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
- Location: Graham County, Macon County, and Swain County
- Roads: US 129, NC 28
Many folks will be curving their way into the Fontana Byway (formerly the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway) via the famed Tail of the Dragon from Tennessee. The two meet and Indian Lakes takes the wheel as the curves die down a bit.
Fontana Dam and the nearby Fontana Village are the road’s first major landmarks. You’ll also pass the Stecoah community (look for pipes on the mountainside) and by the Needmore tract, which offers incredible vista views.
Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
- Distance: 65 Miles
- Drive time: 2 hours
- Location: Haywood County, Jackson County, and Transylvania County
- Roads: NC 215, US 276, and US 64
If you’re looking for some of the best waterfalls in North Carolina and an excuse to visit Brevard, check out the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. You can access it from Brevard, but in a few other spots that we detailed here.
The road runs past Looking Glass Falls and Moore Cove Falls, just before Sliding Rock. The collection of French Broad Falls (Mill Shoals Falls) and Bird Rock Falls (aka Cathedral Falls) is also along this byway, the last of a few waterfalls near Brevard we’ll mention.
We also mentioned Moore Cove Falls and the Pink Beds Hike, and other Forest Heritage Scenic Byway highlights, in our guide to hikes near Asheville.
Along this road, you’ll also pass the Cradle of Forestry and rhododendron-heavy Pink Beds before running into the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Read More: Airbnbs in Asheville
Highlands of the Roan
- Distance: 31 miles
- Drive Time: 1 hour
- Location: Mitchell County and Yancey County
- Roads: US 19E, NC-80, NC-226A, NC-226, and NC-261
Highlands of the Roan Byway runs north to south from the Yancey County town of Micaville to Carvers Gap on the Tennessee Border. You’ll pass through Bakersville, cross the Toe River, and climb multiple winding, steep mountains.
A variety of cultural stops await along this scenic byway, including art studios, churches, and historic sites. There are also Christmas tree farms to spot as you drive toward Roan Mountain, another reminder of Western NC’s bountiful lands.
At the Tennessee border, you’ll notice a lot of cars parked and people waiting to cross the road. This is where North Carolina and Tennessee’s portions of Roan Mountain meet, and this is easily one of our favorite places to go hiking.
During the summer, you’ll find beautiful collections of catawba rhododendrons and flame azaleas. Throughout the year, panoramas of Pisgah National Forest and the Black Mountains await, whether you’re hiking east or west on Roan Mountain.
- Distance: 18 miles
- Drive Time: 35 minutes
- Location: Avery County, Caldwell County, and Watauga County
- Road: US 221
If you find yourself on US 221 between Blowing Rock and Linville, you’re on the Little Parkway. This short and curvy stretch of highway uses the side of Grandfather Mountain to connect the two mountain towns.
Along the way, you’ll pass the entrance to Grandfather Mountain State Park and the entrance to the nonprofit-owned portion that contains the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. The roadside Green Mountain Creek Falls sits along this way and is definitely worthy of a stop. It’s one of our favorite waterfalls near Boone, Blowing Rock, and Banner Elk.
Continue on and you’ll pass Westglow and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park before reaching the end at downtown Blowing Rock.
Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive
- Distance: 52 Miles
- Drive time: 1 hour 20 minutes
- Location: Madison County and Yancey County
- Roads: NC 128, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC 80, US 19
Reaching the top of Mount Mitchell requires taking one of the best road trips in North Carolina. You’ll climb thousands of feet in your car through the South Toe River Valley on the way up, too.
Before that, the journey begins on US 19 while driving through Madison and Yancey counties. Your journey also includes some time on Blue Ridge Parkway before turning onto NC 128 for the final ascent.
- Distance: 43 Miles
- Drive time: 1 hour 10 minutes
- Location: Cherokee County, Jackson County, Macon County, and Swain County
- Roads: US 19, US 74, US 129
The Nantahala Byway is named for the river it crosses, but also the massive gorge that it passes through. The towns of Marble and Whittier. are the endpoints of this beautiful stretch of roads.
Less than halfway into the trip, you might notice a familiar road, the Nantahala Byway intersects with the Fontana Byway at Topton.
Newfound Gap Road Scenic Byway
- Distance: 16.5 Miles
- Drive time: 30 minutes
- Location: Swain County
- Road: US 441
Also known as Newfound Gap Road and US 441, the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway meets the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and continues on to the Tennessee State Line.
If you arrive early in the morning or late afternoon (especially during fall), you might be able to spot some elk around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
This byway will also pass Clingmans Dome Road, which leads to the awesome observatory offering epic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
New River Valley Byway
- Distance: 39 miles
- Drive time: 1 hour
- Location: Ashe County and Watauga County
- Roads: NC-194, US-221, NC 16, and NC-88
We mentioned Christmas tree farms earlier but the New River Valley Byway from Boone to Laurel Springs is the perfect showcase for them. This scenic road cuts through Ashe County, which is home to the largest concentration of Christmas tree farms in the state.
The scenic byway crosses mountains, rivers, and streams that characterize the New River Valley of Northwestern North Carolina. The NC 194 was once known as the “Old Buffalo Trail,” a popular buffalo migration path.
Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway
- Distance: 48 miles
- Drive time: 1 hour 50 minutes
- Location: Burke County
- Roads: NC 181, NC 183, SR 1238, NC 126, SR 1254/SR 1240
Your ears may start popping as you ascend into Pisgah National Forest. Both Hawksbill and Table Rock Mountain will appear. After crossing the Linville River, the Byway will continue onto the Kistler Memorial Highway.
The road remains unpaved in many spots and don’t worry. You’ll want to keep going to explore Linville Falls and Wisemans View. There are a couple of our favorite High Country hikes for a lot of reasons.
Note: We’ve crossed the unpaved sections with a four-door sedan. I’d recommend 4WD capability if you’re feeling unsure.
Upper Yadkin Way
- Distance: 26 miles
- Drive Time: 35 minutes
- Location: Caldwell County and Wilkes County
- Road: NC-268
The Upper Yadkin Way Byway quickly grew on us when we first traveled south from Wilkesboro toward Lenoir in Caldwell County. Its vast flower-filled fields and farmland colorfully greet you around just about every corner.
The route follows the Yadkin River before twisting away from that prominent waterway. You’ll pass through the town of Ferguson, known as the resting place of Tom Dooley and for the Whippoorwill Academy and Farm.
- Distance: 98 miles
- Drive time: 2 hours 30 minutes
- Location: Cherokee County, Clay County, Jackson County, Macon County, and Transylvania County
- Roads: US 64, US 23, US 441, SR 1135, SR 1564
Speaking of waterfalls, the Waterfall Byway is the most complete showcase of the area most commonly known as the “Land of the Waterfalls.” 200 of them, to be exact, surround this route that runs between Rosman and Murphy.
You’ll pass through the towns of Cashiers, Highlands, and Franklin. Toxaway Falls, Bridal Veil Falls (not the one inside DuPont State Forest), and Dry Falls are just a few of the many beautiful waterfalls that make this worthy of this guide to road trips in North Carolina.
Yadkin Valley Scenic Byway
- Distance: 65 miles
- Drive time: 2 hours
- Location: Surry County and Yadkin County
- Roads: US 21 and Old US 421
If you enjoy a little wine to go with your scenic road trips, then North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley Scenic Byway is THE perfect option.
While the route does require a little bit of time on the interstate (I-77) in Surry County, it’s a great mix of farmland and mountainous terrain with some foothills in between.
The drive starts in Elkin and US 21 across the beautiful Yadkin River before meeting Old US 421. Spend some time in Downtown Elkin if you didn’t start from here and thank us later!
McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, RagApple Lassie Vineyard and Winery, and Shelton Vineyards are just a few of the amazing North Carolina wineries you’ll be telling friends about later. McRitchie is one of a few kid-friendly wineries you’ll encounter, which is a great pairing for family road trips in North Carolina.
It’s one of a few that features on the Surry County Wine Trail, by the way.
Of course, the drive is more than vineyards, as splendid as they may be. You’ll find a couple of Amish-owned general stores and even sightings of Pilot Mountain along the way.
Central North Carolina Road Trips
Central North Carolina is home to some of our busiest cities but also some beautiful scenic byways.
Colonial Heritage Byway
- Distance: 92 Miles
- Drive time: 2 hours 50 minutes
- Location: Caswell County, Durham County, Guilford County, Orange County, and Rockingham County
- Roads: US 70, NC 57, NC 62, NC 86, NC 150, NC 751
Of the best road trips we’ve included, Central North Carolina‘s Colonial Heritage Byway feels like the most elusive. However, if you stick with us here, it will lead to some truly interesting places. It starts at US 70 in Durham or Scalesville Road near Summerfield.
The towns of Locust Hill, Yanceyville, and the border town of Milton are a few of the highlights of this route. When you head back south, Semora, Hightowers, and Prospect Hill are also along the way. And eventually, you’ll reach the historic town of Hillsborough and Durham.
Before leaving Hillsborough, though, spend some time strolling through the town, especially along its Riverwalk. Fall walks are great there but it’s really nice pretty much any time of year.
We’re also fans of the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail, which was once a NASCAR dirt track that hosted legends like Richard Petty! Speaking of Occoneechee, we highly recommend a visit to Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, too!
Note: There’s an unofficial addition that I’ll endorse and that is NC 751 that runs from US 70 through Duke Forest in Durham. Drive through it and at the roundabout, you can continue straight onto the tree-line Academy Rd or take a right to Erwin Rd toward Chapel Hill.
- Distance: 25 miles
- Drive time: 35 minutes
- Location: Moore County and Randolph County
- Road: NC 705
Pottery Road includes the well-known potters of Seagrove and Randolph County, but also those in Pinehurst and Moore County. Of course, the main draw is the former, and you’ll want to start at the NC Pottery Center.
The folks there can help with information about specific potters and studios that you can visit. From the NC Pottery Center, continue onto NC 705 toward the Whynot community. The people there couldn’t decide on a name for their local post office, so they agreed on “Why not!”
Makes sense, right?
You’ll then pass through the towns of Westmoore and Robbins. Both have an interesting history, with the area’s first potters arriving nearby the former. The rest of Pottery Road will take you through the tree-lined Cedar Road and Eagle Springs before ending up in Pinehurst.
Read More: The NC Zoo (All the Tips!)
Sandhills Scenic Drive
- Distance: 46 miles
- Drive time: 55 minutes
- Location: Montgomery County, Moore County, and Stanly County
- Roads: NC 24, NC 27, and NC 73
A series of highways make up the Sandhills Scenic Drive between Carthage and Albemarle. You’ll cross Pottery Road at Garners Store but continue on toward the Little River.
The town of Troy and Uwharrie National Forest awaits on the other side. You’ll pass through it via NC 24/27 before reaching the Pee Dee River and Lake Tillery.
Morrow Mountain State Park isn’t far from here and is a great side trip full of hikes that are not far from this byway. The Scenic Drive ends at Albemarle, but there is plenty to explore inside Uwharrie National Forest and its surroundings to keep you busy.
Sauratown Mountains Scenic Byway
- Distance: 83 miles
- Drive time: 2 hours 10 minutes
- Location: Stokes County and Surry County
- Roads: NC-89, NC-8, Hanging Rock Park Rd (SR 1001), NC-66
The Sauratown Mountains Byway (previously the Hanging Rock Scenic Byway) takes you through a region we refer to as the “Mountains away from the Mountains.” You can start on either side of this road, but we suggest Mount Airy (aka Mayberry) for food and a downtown stroll.
Of course, this road is named for mountains, two of North Carolina’s most iconic in fact. Hanging Rock is one of them, one of our favorite NC State Parks sites and home to a host of hikes to peaks, overlooks, waterfalls, and much more.
The historic small town of Danbury is your gateway into Hanging Rock, and we think you’ll love climbing between its friendly shops and cultural stops.
Finally, you’ll drive around the famed Pilot Mountain. Big Pinnacle is the one we all know and love and this scenic road will familiarize you with it on multiple occasions.
Uwharrie Scenic Road
- Distance: 51 miles
- Drive time: 1 hour 20 minutes
- Location: Cabarrus County, Davidson County, Randolph County, Rowan County, and Stanly County
- Road: NC 49
If you’re ever traveling north or south on I-85 and need a break from the pace past Charlotte or Greensboro, exit around Concord and Cabarrus County onto NC 49. It’ll lead you to Asheboro and in between, is known as the Uwharrie Scenic Road.
Highlights along the way, besides the Uwharrie Mountains, include:
- Mount Pleasant (Southern Grace Distilleries)
- Midland (Reed Gold Mine)
- Lick Creek Baptist Church, one of Davidson County’s oldest landmarks
And of course, if you keep driving into Asheboro and bring kids with you (or not), the NC Zoo is waiting for the whole family to enjoy.
Read More: Things to Do in Kannapolis
Eastern North Carolina
Alligator River Route
- Distance: 71 miles
- Drive time: 1 hour 15 minutes
- Location: Dare County, Hyde County, and Tyrrell County
- Roads: NC 94, US 64
Folks who travel to the Outer Banks from the west might be familiar with this. That’s because US 64 runs into the Alligator River Route when it meets NC 94. However, you can follow the latter and remain on it for more than 40 miles until you reach Swan Quarter.
On this byway, you’ll cross Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina’s largest natural lake. This road will also take you to where the Alligator River meets the Albemarle Sound.
The Croatan Sound and bridge to Roanoke Island is where the Alligator River Route ends.
Of course, you’ll pass a turn that leads to The Lost Colony, the Elizabethan Gardens, and Fort Raleigh. This is where the first English people attempted (and failed) to colonize North America.
Carolina Bay Lakes Byway
- Distance: 38 miles
- Drive time: 45 minutes
- Location: Bladen County, Cumberland County, and Sampson County
- Road: NC 242
NC 242 between Elizabethtown and the highway’s intersection with US 421 is also known as the Carolina Bay Lakes Byway (formerly the Meteor Lakes Byway). The road crosses the Cape Fear River and passes through Bladen Lakes State Forest.
That’s where you’ll find three Carolina bays or meteor lakes. They are believed to have formed following meteor showers many many years ago. The bays give this Eastern North Carolina byway its name and include Jones Lake, Singletary Lake, and White Lake inside the park and Lake Waccamaw just outside it.
Aside from the beautiful lakes, the Carolina Bay Lakes Byway takes you through the Turnbull Creek Valley and across the South River.
For additional fun, you can combine this road trip along with North Carolina’s Green Swamp Byway. Just continue west on NC 242 from Elizabethtown and you’ll meet the Byway east of Bladenboro. It runs for about an hour on NC 211 between there and Supply.
Green Swamp Byway
- Distance: 51 miles
- Drive time: 40 minutes
- Location: Bladen County, Brunswick County, and Columbus County
- Road: NC 211
The Green Swamp Byway gets its name from the Green Swamp Preserve which it passes, but there’s much more to explore along this scenic road in Eastern NC. You’ll drive through swamps and pocosins that dominate this part of the state.
Lake Waccamaw sits just off this route and adds a little Carolina bay variety to this route. Much of the land along the Green Swamp Byway was popular for the timber and paper industries but today, preservation is the name of the game here.
- Distance: 170 miles
- Drive time: 3 hours 40 minutes
- Location: Gates County, Halifax County, Hertford County, Northampton County, Pasquotank County, Vance County, and Warren County
- Roads: US 1, US 401, US 158, NC 58, NC 43, NC 561, US 301 Business, US 258
The Lafayette’s Tour Byway follows the path of the Revolutionary War hero General Marquis de Lafayette during his 1825 US tour.
You won’t travel to Fayetteville but to northeastern border counties and towns like Henderson, Halifax, and Scotland Neck.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway
- Distance: 140 miles
- Drive time: 6 hours 45 minutes
- Location: Carteret County, Dare County, and Hyde County
- Roads: NC 12 and US 70
This is one of the first highways that comes to mind when thinking about North Carolina road trips to feature.
The NC 12 portion of the Outer Banks Scenic Byway starts at Nags Head and runs all the way down through Hatteras before hopping on ferries to Ocracoke Island and back to the mainland, where it meets US 70.
The lighthouses of Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras are two of the most recognizable places on this road. There’s also the wonderful Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is where you’ll find a couple of our favorite Outer Banks hiking trails.
Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station also sits off this scenic road and is a great place to stop and learn some important history.
Read More: Outer Banks Vacation Rentals
Pamlico Scenic Byway
- Distance: 122 miles
- Drive time: 2 hours 25 minutes
- Location: Beaufort County, Dare County, and Hyde County
- Roads: US 264, NC 32, NC 45, NC 92, NC 99
The Pamlico Scenic Byway between Washington and Manns Harbor is connected by multiple highways, including US 264. You’ll pass through Bath, North Carolina’s oldest town (incorporated in 1705).
There’s plenty of natural beauty to explore, too, as the byway passes Goose Creek State Park, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and Lake Mattamuskeet.
For us, this is a great side trip away from the Outer Banks, if you’re looking for some exploration beyond the beach.
Our Top 5 NC Road Trips
We picked our favorite NC road trips and would love to compare notes with you. Until then, here’s what we think are the best of the best:
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
- Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway
- Sauratown Mountains Scenic Byway
- Outer Banks Scenic Byway
We also discussed these North Carolina road trips during this episode of NC Travel Chat.
Ready for Your Next Road Trip in North Carolina?
Whether you’re prepping for a road trip or never thought about taking on North Carolina in this way, we hope this guide shows you just how many awesome roads there are to explore.
This guide covers our favorite North Carolina road trips but you can download this book for free from the NC Department of Transportation. It features all the scenic byways in our state.
When you do make it out for your next trip, we’d love to know about it. You can also feel free to share any plans you have and any questions you have.
We’ll leave you to that but have just a few questions before letting you go. Have you ever driven on any of these awesome scenic byways? If so, we’d love to know your favorites! And if you haven’t yet, tell us which one you’re looking forward to seeing first.