We are so lucky to have some of America’s most storied highways. And before we share our favorite North Carolina road trips with you, I first have to admit that creating this guide was a bit overwhelming.
Luckily, the NC Department of Transportation created this brochure with a collection of all scenic byways in our state. With their help and based on our own experiences, we’ve come up with 20 scenic byways made up of US and North Carolina highways
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed some of them already. Even if you haven’t, we’re confident that you’ll agree upon these being the best North Carolina road trips that one can take. That’s what quite a few places featured here also grace our bucket list.
This post is part of our series on all the awesome places to visit in North Carolina. We originally created it on March 10, 2020.
The Best Scenic North Carolina Road Trips: Byways, Highways, and More
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
45 Miles | 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 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
More than half of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 469 miles run through North Carolina. From its start just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park through Asheville to Cumberland Knob at the Virginia border, there’s so much to explore just on the North Carolina side.
We could go on forever about our favorite places to visit along this iconic road, and plan to do so in the near future.
Until then, some of our must-see spots include Cumberland Knob (MM 217), Linn Cove Viaduct (304), Linville Falls (316), and Craggy Gardens (364). Alright, we need another sentence to share more places: Moses H Cone Memorial Park (294), the Rough Ridge Trail (302), and always awesome Little Switzerland (333).
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.
18 Miles | 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!
Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
18 Miles | NC 215, US 276, US 64
If you’re looking for a quick collection of waterfalls and an excuse to visit Brevard, check out the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. It starts just before the Sycamore Flats Picnic Area.
The road runs past Looking Glass Falls, Moore Cove Falls, and Sliding Rock, a few prominent waterfalls near Brevard. You’ll also pass the Cradle of Forestry and rhododendron-heavy Pink Beds before running into the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Indian Lakes Scenic Byway
60 Miles | US 129, NC 28
Many folks will be curving their way into 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.
18 Miles | 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. 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
52 Miles | 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.
43 Miles | 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.
You’ll spend time running parallel to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and your time on the Nantahala Byway means passing through Bryson City, too.
Less than halfway into the trip, you might notice a familiar road, the Nantahala Byway intersects with the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway at Topton.
Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway
47 Miles | NC 181, NC 183, SR 1238, NC 126, SR 1254/SR 1240
Start north on NC 181 from Morganton to get started on the Pisgah Loop Scenic Byway. You’ll be following the same path used by Kirk’s Raiders during the Civil War.
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.
Note: We’ve crossed the unpaved sections with a four-door sedan. I’d recommend 4WD capability if you’re feeling unsure.
Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway
16.5 Miles | 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 Oconoluftee Visitor Center.
This byway will also pass Clingmans Dome Road, which leads to the awesome observatory offering epic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
98 Miles | US 64, US 23, US 441, SR 1135, SR 1564
Speaking of waterfalls, this route is the most complete showcase of the area most commonly known as “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, 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
65 Miles | US 21, 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 in interstate (I-77), 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. Brushy Mountain Winery, RagApple Lassie Vineyard and Winery, and Shelton Vineyards are just a few of the names you’ll be sharing with friends after returning from this journey.
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
Colonial Heritage Byway
92 Miles | 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 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!
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.
43 Miles | 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.
Sandhills Scenic Drive
46 Miles | NC 24, NC 27, 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.
Uwharrie Scenic Road
50 Miles | NC 49
If you’re ever traveling north or south on I-85 and need a break from the pace past Charlotte or Greensboro, hop-off 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) and Lick Creek Baptist Church, known as one of Davidson County’s oldest landmarks.
And of course, if you keep driving into Asheboro and brought kids with you (or not), the NC Zoo is waiting for the whole family to enjoy.
Eastern North Carolina
Alligator River Route
71 Miles | NC 94, US 64
Folks who travel to the Outer Banks from the west might be familiar with this. That’s because US 64 portion 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.
Meteor Lakes Byway
39 Miles | NC 242
NC 242 between Elizabethtown the highway’s intersection with US 421 is also known as 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 of the four 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 Meteor 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.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway
138 Miles | NC 12 & 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 and back to the mainland, where it meets US 70.
The lighthouses of Bodie Island and Hatteras Island are two of the most recognizable places on this road. There’s also the wonderful Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge that appears just after leaving Bodie Island.
A variety of 4WD-accessible beaches pop up along the way, too, in between the lovely small towns that include Waves, Rodanthe, and Buxton, to name a few.
Pamlico Scenic Byway
127 Miles | 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 Thoughts and Yours, Too!
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 much awesome road there is to explore.
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 that you’re looking forward to seeing first.