Exploring North Carolina: Road Trips in the Tar Heel State

By Kimberly Graf. Published on August 5, 2023

North Carolina is an interesting state, not least of all for its nickname of unknown origin. No one knows why it's called the Tar Heel State, but there are a few things we do know about the state. It's absolutely beautiful for one, but it's also where the Kittyhawk took its first flight. It's the home of Coca-Cola and Krispy Kreme donuts, and the Blue Ridge Highway, one of America's favorite roads!

Blue Ridge Highway

The Blue Ridge Highway is one of the great American highways that is any road tripper's dream! It runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina, from an elevation of 600 ft up to a stunning 6,000 feet! Though the length of the road is significantly longer, the portion that runs through North Carolina is about 240 miles until it makes it resting place at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Blue Ridge Mountains Attractions

Every community along the road flourishes from the wealth of tourism present during any season, most notably the spring (for the wildflower displays), and the fall for the foliage opportunities. The portion of the road that runs through North Carolina is separated into two regions: the Highlands Region and the Pisgah Region to the south. Even further south is the Great Smokies Region if you have the time or want to extend your trip.

The only real destinations along this road are Asheville, which is a great tourist spot that you have to visit at least once in your lifetime, and the Smoky Mountains National Park. Otherwise, the road is full of small parks, outdoor recreation, and plenty of pull-off points. The change in elevation offers a lot of different seasonal features. The higher elevated parts of the road (around the middle of North Carolina) get snow in the spring, so take that into account.

Blue Ridge Parkway Photograph - Asheville North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway Scenic Sunset

Overall, this is a great road trip to take when you just want to enjoy the road and love the views you're getting. If you're more into stuff to do, or attractions, there's still a fair share of that going around.

It's about 2 hours and 40 minutes between the Virginia State Line and Asheville, and that entire drive is filled with small communities that welcome travelers of any kind to the road. Wildflowers are in full bloom during the warm months and in the fall, you'll find golden and scarlet leaves.

Scenic photo of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the best national parks

Take some time to explore all the wonders Asheville has to offer and then strap in for another two-hour drive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, you can witness a variety of wildlife and take the opportunity to explore, go hiking or visit some of the older buildings in the area.

Regardless of which way you're going or which portion you're visiting, the Blue Ridge Highway will always be one of the greatest road trips in America.

North Carolina Ghost Towns

(6hr, 254 miles)

What could be better than taking an isolated trip through some of the most beautiful countrysides in America? Taking those backroads to find some of the smallest, oldest, most abandoned towns nestled right into the scenery. Please remember that exploring abandoned buildings might be dangerous, or it might be trespassing. Always be aware of your surroundings and make sure you're allowed to be there.

abandoned Henry River Mill Village

The Henry River Mill Village is a great place to start, because it's still got a very strong sense of community. It used to be a water-powered town that slowly trickled away, although the people who have lived here throughout the years (since 1860, to be exact) have always been proud to live here. Now, you can see the rows of abandoned houses and buildings that were once filled with families and mill workers.

Mortimer, North Carolina is an hour away. It used to be a mill town as well. The population boomed at around 800 people, but in 1940 it flooded and people just never really came back. Some of the buildings show extensive water damage, but most are still standing, silent sentinels to the town that used to be here.

Lost Cove – Ghost Town in the National Forest

Lost Cove is an amazing little town with spread-out, isolated properties that include rusted-out cars and other notable structures. It's about 2 hours away from Mortimer. It was habituated until about 1957, when the last remaining family left the area. When passenger railroads stopped coming here, the town effectively died. Now, you can still wander among the husks of buildings that date back to the Civil War.

Our last stop really is a treat. Where else in the country can you observe a flooded ghost town that still stands? Fontana Lake and its flooded towns are almost three hours away, but they are more than worth the drive. Proctor, the most intact of the two flooded ghost towns, can still be seen when the water is low. The cemetery and a lot of buildings are above the waterline until Fontana Lake decides to flood, but most of the time they are still visible. The mine offices, and therefore the town's livelihood, are hidden beneath the waters of the lake.

Overlooking the vast mountainous region around Fontana Lake near Bryson City, North Carolina

Remember, be careful when exploring these areas! It's really amazing to see some of these old buildings clinging to stay upright, even when overtaken by water.

North Carolina is always an amazing trip through the best of the unguarded wilderness that made people from all over fall in love with this country. Take one of these road trips and discover it for yourself!

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