North Carolina Road Trip: From the Mountains to the Sea in a Week

Scenic Road Trip Across NC

With a stunning array of sights from the majestic Appalachians to its sun-drenched Atlantic Coast, there’s something here for everyone. In just one week, it is possible to make a memorable journey from the mountain peaks in the west all the way to the sandy beaches of the east. Here are some tips on planning your very own North Carolina road trip so you can experience the beauty of this amazing state from top to bottom.

Experience North Carolina’s three distinct geographic areas – our mountains, heartland, and coast – all in an action-packed Grand Tour. We call it “From the Mountains to the Sea In a Week.” We first feature three unforgettable destinations: Boone, the Triangle, and Topsail Island. We continuing with an exciting new itinerary, showcasing three equally charming places for you to discover: Black Mountain, Asheboro, and Oak Island.

So fasten your seatbelts. It promises to be a fascinating ride.


Start your journey in Boone. Located on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this charming small town offers outstanding outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, and mountain biking. Don’t miss out on visiting Grandfather Mountain State Park, where you can take in spectacular vistas from 5,964 feet above sea level. Afterward, be sure to explore downtown Boone for some great restaurants and local shopping.

If you want to kick-start your adventure in the outdoors, then explore Julian Price Memorial Park—it offers stunning views of the area’s lush, green peaks. The famous Appalachian Trail even passes through here.

Boone NC
Boone NC by l.hutton

The downtown area of Boone is also a great place to get immersed in the local culture. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to explore, and you can listen to live music in nearby bars like Macado’s or Kid Cashew. For a dose of history, visit Historic Boone Tavern for a closer look at how the town used to look during the 19th century.

If you’re looking for unique sightseeing opportunities, then take part in Tweetsie Railroad’s Wild West Show, an hour-long performance featuring old-fashioned train rides with wild animals and cowboys rounding up cattle. As far as family fun goes, you can’t miss out on the Mystery Hill and Gravity House located just outside of town. Here, everyday laws of physics stop mattering which makes for some exciting exploration!

Topsail Island

Head south to Wilmington and Topsail Island for some rest and relaxation. On the island, you can spend your days soaking up the sun on one of its 26 miles of sandy beaches or exploring the quaint towns and villages along the coast. Take a boat ride out to nearby Masonboro Island for swimming and shelling or practice your skills as an angler at Wrightsville Beach.

Topsail Island
Topsail Island by tupton is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Visitors to Topsail Island can take part in activities such as surfing, paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing, boogie boarding, or just relax and enjoy the scenery. For those looking for a more relaxed experience, there are plenty of quaint shops, art galleries, and seafood restaurants to explore.

The area is steeped in history – from the wreckage of the Confederate Blockade Runner “Raleigh” to shipwreck discoveries on the ocean floor. Additionally, it’s important to note that the local wildlife – ranging from endangered turtles to fish to sea birds – can often be seen roaming the beaches or waters surrounding Topsail Island. With so much to explore, visitors could easily spend a day or two on Topsail Island and still feel as though they barely scratched the surface.

The Triangle

Continue east to the Triangle area, including Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. From art galleries to college basketball games, there’s something for everyone here. Make sure not to miss Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Begin your adventure in downtown Raleigh, where you’ll find plenty of history and landmarks to explore. Stroll through the streets of Old City Hall for a taste of local heritage, or take a tour of the state capitol to experience its awe-inspiring architecture. Then head to the open-air City Market for some shopping and dining.

Raleigh, NC
Raleigh, NC by James Willamor

Just a short drive away is vibrant Durham, known for its cultural diversity and rich variety of cuisine. Explore downtown’s thriving restaurants, cafes, and galleries before visiting the historic American Tobacco Campus. Here you can learn about the city’s tobacco industry past and present while enjoying a peaceful walk along the river’s edge.

Finally, Chapel Hill rounds out your Triangle tour with its charming college-town vibes and plenty of activities. Take a leisurely stroll through the UNC campus or spend the day touring the impressive Morehead Planetarium. You’ll also find world-renowned museums like Ackland Art Museum and North Carolina Botanical Garden. With so much to do and see in The Triangle, you could easily spend a week exploring this incredible area!

Black Mountain

Black Mountain has been called “The Front Porch of Western North Carolina.” And it’s easy to see why: So many of the alluring vistas our mountains have to offer to open up from here.

For example, there is an abundant number of hiking and biking trails within minutes of town. There’s fishing in the nearby lake and trout streams. There’s history to be explored. Craftspeople to meet. And so much more.

Black Mountain NC

A good place to begin your tour is at the Black Mountain/Swannanoa Visitor Center (just follow the signs at Exit 64 off I-40), where you’ll find maps, accommodation information, and more.

After you’ve gotten your bearings a bit, we suggest a nice leisurely stroll through town, during which you can take in the art galleries, the upscale gift shops, and the local craft stores where you might see a craftsman forging some ornate ironworks, or watch a lovely pot emerge from a seemingly prosaic lump of clay.

You might also want to spend a little time hanging out at the local old-fashioned general store and see what shopping was like in gentler, less hurried days. And after a meal at one of Black Mountain’s many fine restaurants (and/or a hand-dipped cone at the corner ice cream parlor), a walk around Lake Tomahawk might be in order.

A quaint city park, Lake Tomahawk provides a well-lighted, level path for safe strolling in the evening. And adjacent to the park is a children’s playground and lighted tennis courts.

For golf enthusiasts, a superb challenge awaits you at the Black Mountain links, home of the world’s first par six.

But if you prefer to take your hikes unencumbered by golf clubs, you might want to try the easy hike to Lookout Point – or perhaps the all-day trek across the Seven Sisters mountain range.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is just eight miles away via Highway 70.

Head north and you’ll find the Folk Art Center, home of the Highland Craft Guild with its dazzling collection of local works of art. Drive south, on the other hand, and you’ll discover Cold Mountain, made famous by Charles Frazier’s superb novel, and Mount Pisgah, home to the Graveyard Fields Trail, teeming with fascinating flora and fauna.

Asheboro & the North Carolina Zoo

In almost the exact middle of our state, you’ll find the city of Asheboro, home to one of the true wonders of the world: The North Carolina Zoo.

This happens to be the country’s largest and finest walk-through natural habitat zoo, with 5 miles of trails in its African and North American areas.

Asheboro NC Zoo

And so, during the course of your day, you can see over 1,100 animals and a staggering 60,000 different plants here.

To find out more, go to

Asheboro also happens to be nestled in the Uwharrie Mountains.

The Uwharries might be the shortest of North Carolina’s mountains – the highest peak here is only 950 feet. But they are also the oldest.

In fact, many geologists believe this is the oldest mountain range in North America.

The area is rich in Native American and colonial history (the first Indian habitation here has been dated to 12,000 years ago).

And because no major interstate highways have been cut through these ancient hills, even native North Carolinians are sometimes surprised by how unspoiled the rolling, bucolic landscape remains.

In his book Hiking North Carolina, Randy Johnson describes several worthy trails in the area, including Denson’s Creek Nature Trail: “Perhaps the forest’s easiest, most interesting trail [with] seventeen designated stops keyed to an interpretive brochure available at the information sign beside the Uwharrie Ranger Station.” (The station is located 1.7 miles east of where NC 24/27 meets NC134 in Troy.)

He also says that “The Uwharrie Trail is the area’s jewel of long-distance hiking [20.5 miles]…almost entirely on national forest land.”

A real treat for golfers is Tot Hill Farm, designed by acclaimed architect Mike Strantz. Bounded on three sides by the Uwharries, it features everything from giant boulders bordering the fairways to a 200-year-old farmhouse adjacent to the course.

Oak Island

Located about seven miles from Southport and approximately 30 miles from Wilmington, Oak Island is more than just a tranquil haven for weary vacationers; it’s a refuge for another breed of traveler as well: Atlantic sea turtles.

In fact, Greens, Loggerheads, and even rare Kemp Ridley turtles all return here every year to lay their eggs and propagate their species. (The town, in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers, recently completed a Sea Turtle Habitat Restoration Project to ensure the protection of these gentle giants for years to come.)

Oak Island NC

Until 1939, Oak Island was still undeveloped and was frequented mostly by fox hunters. Today, you’re more likely to see shell hunters along the wide, gently sloping beaches.

If the kids get a little restless, you may want to take them to the local Nature Center, located at 52nd NE and Yacht drive. Or let them “get their wiggles out” at the Oak Island Skate Park, open to all in-line skateboarders.

But as usual, the simple pleasures in this quiet community are almost always the best: like soaking up some rays on the beach; sampling some of the local seafood; and counting the shooting stars at night.

We can’t think of a better way to experience the glories of our “variety vacationland” than by traveling North Carolina from the mountains to the sea.

Happy exploring.

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