With a number of beautiful mountainscapes, state parks, and natural wonders to explore, taking a scenic drive through the state of North Carolina is an absolutely unforgettable experience.
North Carolina, also known as the “Old North” state, is only the 28th largest state in the United States but comes in as the 9th-most populous. With popular destinations such as Carolina Beach, Cherokee National Forest, Hanging Rock State Park, and Pisgah National Forest, there is so much to see and do in the beautiful state.
In this guide, we’ll provide the details and everything you may need to know about these six North Carolina scenic byways and any helpful tips you may need to ensure a successful drive.
1. Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway
- Distance: 76 miles
- Time Needed: 1-2 days
The Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway is a stretch of road that will take you through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, giving you the opportunity to explore the breathtaking mountain scenery along the way. There are a number of outdoor activities and scenic views to explore along the way, including the Pisgah National Forest, Looking Glass Falls, and more.
While if you are driving straight through this byway could be driven in just a few hours, we recommend taking a day or two to make stops along the way and enjoy the nature around you. Some of the most notable stops include Sliding Rock, a great stop for swimming, Looking Glass Rock, and Sunburst Falls. In addition to these sights, you can enjoy a number of hiking trails, including John Rock Hike, Moore Cove Falls Hike, quiet lunch at the Coontree Picnic Area & Restrooms, and spend some time at Lake Logan.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay during your visit, consider Davidson Campground, there are 160 campsites available for visitors, and the campground is available all year round.
- Pro tip: Due to some of the high elevations throughout the mountains, it may be difficult to navigate if traveling by RV or mobile camper.
When to go: The weather conditions of Pisgah National Forest are particularly beautiful during the Spring and Summer months.
2. Mountain Waters Scenic Byway
- Distance: 61 miles
- Time Needed: 1-2 days
The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway will take you from Highlands, North Carolina, to Almond, North Carolina, and travels through the Nantahala National Forest. As you travel through the forest, you will come across a number of attractions and sites that make for excellent stops along your route.
As you begin your travel, about 4.5 miles outside of Highlands, you will reach Cliffside Lake Recreation Area. If your family enjoys the outdoors and fun activities, you could potentially spend hours or even a full day just here alone. The area offers swimming, fishing, and picnic areas to enjoy a packed family lunch.
Additional popular attractions along the way include Bridal Veil Falls, Van Hook Glade, Rufus Morgan Trail, and the Nantahala River. In the Nantahala River, you can partake in trout fishing and white water rafting in the Nantahala River Gorge. Stop for a picnic lunch at the Ferebee Memorial Picnic Area and enjoy the views while you relax and recharge to continue exploring.
As you come to the end of the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, you will run into Fontana Lake, where you can enjoy a number of additional water activities, including swimming, water skiing, and kneeboarding.
When to go: Because of the amount of time that you may spend in and around water on this scenic drive, we recommend visiting during the warmest months of the year, June-August.
3. Ocoee Scenic Byway
- Distance: 30 miles
- Time Needed: 1-2 days
The Ocoee Scenic Byway is the first designated National Forest in the nation as it takes you through the Cherokee National Forest. Along this drive, you will see a number of natural wonders, including the mountainscapes of Chilhowee Mountain, Lake Ocoee, and the whitewater Ocoee River.
As you travel through Cherokee National Forest, you will encounter a number of attractions and stopping points, including Big Frog, Chilhowee Mountains, and Sugarloaf Mountain Park. As you make your drive, you can take in the sights, and with several pull-offs along the route, you will be sure to get some great pictures with your family and friends.
If you are looking for fun outdoor activities to enjoy, popular options include Parksville Beach, where your family can enjoy swimming and lounging on the beach and whitewater rafting and kayaking in the Ocoee River.
When to go: North Carolina temperatures are rather comfortable year-round, with the coolest months averaging in the 50s and the warmest months peaking in the 90s, so you can enjoy this drive at any time of the year, but remember that river temperatures can be very cold in the cooler months of the year so if you plan to get into the water it is best to visit during the Summer months.
4. Indian Lakes Scenic Byway
- Distance: 75 miles
- Time Needed: 1-2 days
The Indian Lakes Scenic Byway is a 75-mile stretch that will take you through the Nantahala National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This 75-mile route is in Western North Carolina along the Tennessee border.
Along the drive, you will see beautiful scenery and a number of stunning lakes, and at the end of the byway, you will come into the quaint town of Robbinsville, where you will enjoy some great local eats.
As you drive through the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, there are a number of can’t-miss stops along the way, including Fontana Lake, Lake Santeetlah, and of course, the Fontana Dam. The Fontana Dam is the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Here, you can also enjoy the world-famous Appalachian Trail and catch an incredible view of the Dam from the Observation Deck.
Looking for somewhere to stay? The Fontana Village Resort offers an excellent family-friendly environment for a comfortable place to stay and a number of fun activities such as outdoor pools, hiking trails, and even a lazy river.
As you complete the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, you will end up in Robbinsville. Robbinsville offers its own number of activities and adventures, such as Graham County Park, the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. If you are hungry after your explorations for the way, you can enjoy some delicious eating at The Hub or the Moonshiners Steakhouse.
When to go: Because the main focus of the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway is the scenery and views along the way, this drive makes for an excellent adventure at any time of the year. Seeing the leaves change in the forests in the Fall is a particularly special view.
5. Outer Banks Scenic Byway
- Distance: 138 miles
- Time Needed: 2-3 days
The Outer Banks are the islands off the coast of the state of North Carolina that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland. The Outer Banks Scenic Byway is a scenic drive that will take you along the North Carolina Coast.
Simply driving along the coast is an adventure to enjoy all on its own, but there are a number of fun attractions and stops to make along the way that will really amplify your experience. Popular stops along the route include the Bodie Island Lighthouse, the Canadian Hole, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, and the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center.
In addition to these attractions, you can embark on two ferry rides as you travel the Outer Banks Scenic Byway. One of these ferry rides is completely free for riders. This ferry will take you from Hatteras to the Ocracoke Islands. The other ferry ride will take you from Ocracoke Island to Down Easts Cedar Island, but there is a toll on this ride.
When to go: Because the Outer Banks is primarily beach-focused, it is best to travel this byway during the Summer months to enjoy the full experience.
6. Blue Ridge Parkway
- Distance: 469 miles
- Time Needed: 3-4 days
While we have certainly discussed some incredible scenic drives in North Carolina, we have saved the best for last (in our opinion).
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a long stretch of road that travels along the Blue Ridge Mountains and is part of the National Park Service as it connects the Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Blue Ridge Parkway has become known as “America’s Favorite Scenic Drive.”
While traveling the entire 469-mile distance will certainly prove to be an incredible adventure, the great thing about the Blue Ridge Parkway is that you can have an unforgettable experience along any stretch of the parkway, no matter the distance.
A drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway opens the opportunity to enjoy a number of fun outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, and stops along the way to enjoy scenic views. There are a number of can’t-miss stops on the Blue Ridge Parkway, including Craggy Gardens, Mount Mitchell, the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, Mount Pisgah, and the Folk Art Center.
When to go: The Blue Ridge Parkway is an excellent drive at any time of the year. The best part is that depending on the season you visit, you will have an entirely different experience each and every time.
More East Coast Driving Inspiration
Want to continue your east coast adventures further? You may also be interested in the following:
- The Best Family Vacation Spots on the East Coast
- Sensational Scenic Drives & Byways in Virginia
- 7 Scenic Drives in South Carolina
- Scenic Drives in Tennessee
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