7 Summer Vacation Destinations to Check Out in North Carolina

The wild ponies of Shackleford Banks are one of North Carolina's most incredible sights. (Shutterstock)

By Leah Sherrell

June 27, 2023

From kayaking to wild ponies, exploring underground or floating down the world’s third oldest river, North Carolina has some pretty cool spots for your next summer vacation. 

Summer is here and school is out! As the days get hotter and the sun stays out longer you may be itching for a few days away from home. Luckily, North Carolina has a plethora of vacation destinations within its borders. 

We have beaches, lakes, rivers, and mountain-side towns with populations big and small.  So whether you’re looking for a full-out 7 day vacation or a long weekend getaway, here’s a list of seven spots to inspire your next North Carolina vacation. 

Heart of the Outer Banks

Bodie Island Lighthouse Shutterstock

The Outer Banks are consistently mentioned in the best places to vacation in North Carolina, and after spending time on the expansive beaches and immersed in beach town charm, it’s easy to see why. 

Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Kitty Hawk are three towns situated side by side, and close to attractions like the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial and Jockey’s Ridge State Park. For a more central location to restaurants, bars, and shopping, check out the “heart of the Outer Banks.”

From here you can take any number of day trips throughout the Outer Banks. Catch a ferry to Ocracoke Island and Cape Hatteras, or take a drive to Corolla and spot some wild horses. And if you’ve got a sweet tooth drive a few minutes to Duck, the location of the original Duck Donuts

Beaufort 

Wild Ponies of Shackleford Banks Shutterstock

Beaufort is your classic coastal town complete with a nostalgic main street, historical sites, beautifully preserved nature, and all a short drive away to Atlantic Beach

Along Front Street you’ll find mom and pop shops, local restaurants, and a picturesque view of the waterfront. The town is also the perfect getaway to Shackleford Banks and the Rachel Carson Preserve. Shackleford Banks is a popular beach to spend the day at, or even camp, and you may even see the famous wild Shackleford ponies. 

From downtown you can hop on a boat, or even a kayak, to visit the Rachel Carson Preserve. Established in 1966 to preserve the salt marshes, this activity is a great way to enjoy a day of bird watching, horse spotting, and a peaceful day in nature. 

Asheville 

Blue Ridge Parkway Shutterstock

U.S. News and World Report ranked Asheville as the #1 spot in the South for a weekend getaway. It’s a thriving, eclectic, mountain town filled with breweries, music, and a foodie’s paradise, all nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While we agree that it is an amazing weekend destination, we also think you could easily spend an entire week here. 

Starting off with the big hitters, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore Estate are classic attractions. The Parkway is a scenic drive with stunning views of the mountains and plenty of overlooks where you can park and enjoy the view. The Biltmore Estate is also a popular, on-of-a-kind historic attraction that visitors flock to year round. There are gardens, art exhibits, a winery, and a small village for dining and shopping. 

And of course there are and endless amount of outdoor activities to do during your stay. You can take the afternoon to explore downtown Asheville, go hiking, visit Sliding Rock, float down the world’s third oldest river, or go on any type of tour from biking to adventure

Carolina Beach 

Beach Front Homes Shutterstock

Carolina Beach offers yet another way to enjoy the ocean in North Carolina. It combines the best of both worlds in terms of being a laid back town while also providing plenty of entertainment. 

Much of that revolves around the vintage boardwalk. There are weekly fireworks, a selection of carnival rides, the locally famous Britt’s Donut stand (get there early), and you can usually catch some live music in the evenings. 

You can enjoy the beach during the day or take a drive trip to the aquarium, the historic Fort Fisher, or Carolina Beach State Park. Downtown Wilmington is also a 30-minute drive and a great way to spend your evening. There you can catch a beautiful sunset at the riverwalk, explore the shops and restaurants, or take a ghost tour!

Boone & Blowing Rock 

Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain Shutterstock

These mountain towns are perfect for a 2-4 day getaway. Only eight miles from one another you can stay in a secluded cottage in the mountains or in either of their walkable downtowns. Both places made it onto Southern Living’s “Best Small Towns in the South” and are known for their outdoor beauty. 

During your stay you can hike up Grandfather Mountain and cross the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. See the stalactites and stalagmites inside Linville Caverns, and take a tour of the Boone Area Wine Trail

Lake Norman

Lake Norman Shutterstock

Spend the week (or weekend) swimming, boating, and watersporting around Lake Norman. 45 minutes away from Charlotte, Lake Norman is North Carolina’s largest man-made lake encompassing 32,510 acres. It is a true “watersports paradise” for adrenaline junkies but also the perfect place to swim around, kayak, paddleboard, or simply sun tan. 

Lake Norman also boasts a growing wine and craft beer scene so popular they’ve even created a Beer and Wine Trail Map to guide you through all they have to offer. 

If you want to take a break from lakeside activities, being so close to Charlotte opens up a world of possibilities. Take the family to spend a day at Carowinds, a 407 acre amusement park, or the National Whitewater Center where you can hike on trails, zipline, go whitewater rafting, rock climb, and so much more. 

Bryson City 

Whitewater Rafting Equipment Shutterstock

Bryson City has that quintessential small town feel. There are cozy mountain lodges, a quaint downtown filled with local favorites, and it’s also a gateway to the outdoors. It backs up to the Great Smoky Mountains, offers scenic train rides, extensive hiking trails, quite a few waterfalls, and there’s whitewater rafting for adventure seekers. 

For day trips, Cherokee is only a short drive away. There you can stop by the visitor center in the early morning to see elk grazing in the fields, and then head over to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.  Lake Fontana is also a fun way to spend the day on the water, or spend a few hours of peace and quiet in the Lakeview Resort soaking tubs

Author

  • Leah Sherrell

    Leah Sherrell is a multimedia reporter for Cardinal & Pine. A graduate of UNC-Wilmington, she's a resident of Kernersville with a background in video production and communication. Leah uses many forms of media to explore the multifaceted lifestyles and cultures present in North Carolina.

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