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The Best National Parks In North Carolina To Visit

  • By Kate Moore
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A mix of oceans and mountains makes visiting North Carolina’s National Parks an unforgettable experience. The state is home to a wide variety of plant species including dense forests which make the journey colorful and unique throughout each season.

North Carolina has four National Parks and Seashores. Plus, seven National Historic Sites and Military Parks operated by the National Park Service.

North Carolina National Parks And Seashores

endless mountain ridgelines in the great smoky mountains national park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest protected area on the east coast.

Visitors from all over the country come here to experience the panoramic mountain views, hike amongst rivers and waterfalls, and enjoy the diverse array of plant and animal species. The Great Smoky Mountains span 500,000 acres and offers an endless supply of outdoor activities for adventure seekers.

hiking in the great smoky mountains national park

Some of the most popular activities including hiking along one of the 800 trails, showering in the waterfalls, and taking auto tours around the gorgeous landscape. Horseback riding, fishing, and visiting the areas historical buildings are other fun things to do.

Plenty of animals call the National Park home which makes it a great place for wildlife viewing or photography. You can keep an eye out for white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, elk, turkey hens, barred owls and more.

Getting There

There are three main entrances to the Great Smoky Mountains so you can get in from all sides. On the Tennessee end, you can come in through Gatlinburg or Townsend.

From North Carolina, you can enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park through the town of Cherokee.

tent camping in the great smoky mountains national park


One of the highlights of a Great Smoky Mountains trip is spending the night among the trees. Ten campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains make the trip accessible for both tent and RV campers.

There is also plenty of opportunity for backcountry camping and primitive camping both within the park and in the surrounding area.

For those who want a luxury stay with more accommodations, consider spending the night in a North Carolina treehouse.


Unfortunately, there are only two short walking trails available to pets in the Great Smoky Mountains: the Gatlinburg Trail, and the Oconaluftee River Trail. That’s because there is a huge amount of wildlife in the park and dogs can threaten and scare the residents.

Leashed pets are allowed within the campgrounds and along roads.

driving to a camping site in the great smoky mountains national park

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a road that stretches 469 miles and connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

The relaxing and slow-paced route winds through numerous mountain ridge lines and dense forests. Along the way tourists get to take in distinctive mountain views and catch glimpses of wildlife.

Many people choose to spread this journey out over the course of three days to really take in the landscape. 369 miles of hiking trails stem from the roadway. Short and long routes make it easy for any type of hiker to enjoy. Some of the most popular routes include Humpback Rocks, Otter Creak, Roanoke Valley, Rocky Knob, Linville Falls, Crabtree Falls, Craggy Gardens and Mount Pisgah.

hiking across a bridge in great smoky mountains national park north carolina

The Blue Ridge Parkway changes with the seasons so it’s worth visiting multiple times throughout the year. In the winter, some road closures take place on the highest mountains because of heavy snowfall. In the spring and summer, you have the best opportunity to see quickly flowing waterfalls.

Autumn is one of the best times to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway. Auto tourists can experience a huge range of colors with the leaves changing from green to yellow, red, and orange. Landscape photography is also one of the most popular activities during this time of year as you might imagine.

Campsite at smokemont campground in the great smoky mountains national park


Along the parkway, eight campgrounds are located just off the road and are open from May through October.

In addition, there are plenty of backcountry camping opportunities for those who wish to try boondocking for free.


Due to the large amount of wildlife in the area, pets are not able to experience trails along the parkway. However, you can take leashed animals within the established campground perimeters and along roadways.

north carolina national seashore park at sunset

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Located on the far east side of North Carolina along the Atlantic Ocean is Cape Hatteras National Seashore. This series of islands are shaped by the wind, water and storms. The area is continuously adapting so no visit is the same.

For those who love water, there are more than enough activities to keep you occupied at Cape Hatteras. Swimming, fishing, surfing, kayaking the sound, or picnicking on the beach are among the favorites.

Throughout the year, visitors can encounter a variety of wildlife including winter seals, summer turtles, dolphins, whales, lizards, snakes, and an array of bird species.

One of the most prominent features of the seashore is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Visitors can climb 257 steps to the top of the lighthouse and get a birds-eye view of the area.

nc national park lighthouse at the seashore

Getting There

Multiple routes make getting to Cape Hatteras easy. You can get in from the north entrance at the junction of US-64 and NC-12 in Nags Head.

The south entrance is located just north of Ocracoke Village on NC-12. To get in from the west side, follow US-64 east to junction NC-12 south which will lead you to the north entrance.


Four established campgrounds at Cape Hatteras National Park make spending the night near the ocean an exciting experience. You can rest your head and fall asleep to the sound of waves. Pitch black night skies also make this the perfect place for stargazing or astrophotography.

outer banks national park lighthouse in north carolina

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Located on a barrier island 3-miles off-shore, most of Cape Lookout National Seashore is only accessible via watercraft. Privately operated ferries are the most popular way of getting around.

There are five barrier island destinations to explore including:

  • Light station
  • Shackleford Banks
  • Great Island Cabins
  • Long Point Cabins
  • Portsmouth Village

If you can make it to the islands, you’ll get to experience a quiet, and relatively secluded seashore. Water activities are, of course, some of the most popular things to do.

Visitors typically enjoy watching the nesting shorebirds, searching for seashells, kayaking or canoeing along the islands, fishing, or looking for wildlife.


Spending the night upon the islands is the perfect way to go stargazing under the dark skies. Primitive beach camping is permitted in a variety of areas.

The island also offers rustic cabins for those who want a few more amenities.

North Carolina National Historic Sites And Military Parks

historic sites and national military parks in the north carolina national park system

Blue Ridge National Heritage Area

As an homage to the age-old traditions of the Cherokee Indians, the Blue Ridge National Heritage area celebrates traditions of craft, music, and agriculture.

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

Explore the childhood home of Carl Sandburg, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and poet. Sandburg  spent most of his time in this 264 acre area where you can visit over 50 historical structures including the Sandburg residence.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

This cultural heritage center pays tribute to the Native Americans, European Americans, and African Americans who live on Roanoke Island in the past. Learn what life was like in North Carolina during the sixteenth-century; and take a look at some of the accessories from the 1584 voyage as part of England’s first New World settlement.

historic buildings in north carolina national park

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

The Guilford Courthouse National Military Park allows you to step back in time, and remember the battle that took place on March 15th, 1781 during the American Revolution. The historic battle was fought outside the courthouse and reversed the course of the Southern Campaign.

Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

This cultural heritage corridor pays tribute to the Gullah Geechee people who traditionally lived on the sea islands and coastal cities of the Carolinas. You can learn more about their African cultures and enjoy their distinctive arts, music, crafts, and language.

Moores Creek National Battlefield

This location marks the Patriot’s first significant victory during the American Revolution. The battle was fought on February 27, 1776 against the Scottish Highlanders. At the park you can hear stories of the battle, go hiking, birdwatching, and fishing in Moores Creek.

wright brothers national memorial in north carolina

Wright Brothers National Memorial

The first successful airplane flight in 1903 took place in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. This is the site of the Wright Brothers National Memorial; a museum which commemorates the successes and failures of the Wright Brothers as they worked to launch their first plane.

North Carolina National Scenic And Historic Trails

National Parks In The Surrounding Area

Wanna get away?

Try glamping: In these North Carolina treehouse rentals

Kate is the lead content creator for and has spent over two years living in a camper van conversion. She has traveled through 48 US states and writes about van life, camping and RV living.

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