Our Favorite Places in North Carolina

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North Carolina is a state of great contrasts. In the west, there are smoky blue mountains, hippie towns with craft breweries, and rural poverty in the gaps and hollows along narrow, twisting mountain roads. In the central part of the state, you’ll find financial centers and the “Research Triangle.” In the east, along the coast, are salt marches, white sandy beaches, and colorful condos on stilts. There’s a lot to be discovered in this diverse state. Ian and I spent a couple of weeks traveling through North Carolina in February. Here are our favorite spots!

The history of North Carolina is apparent in the architecture of its buildings.

The history of North Carolina is apparent in the architecture of its buildings.

Some of our favorite roadside attractions are in North Carolina.

Some of our favorite roadside attractions are in North Carolina.

We found a lot of incredible art in North Carolina. This artist also has a tree in the Smithsonian sculpture garden in DC.

We found a lot of incredible art in North Carolina. This artist also has a tree in the Smithsonian sculpture garden in DC.

Western North Carolina

Art Loeb Trail

The 30-mile Art Loeb Trail is one of the most popular backpacking trails in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Ian and I decided to do an overnight backpacking trip on the Black Balsam Knob portion of the trail (section 3). We started our hike at the Black Balsam Knob trailhead, beginning with a climb through a dark pine forest. It was a cold 30 degrees and once we emerged onto the smooth rock above the treeline, we realized how incredibly foggy and windy it was.

The hike on the Art Loeb Trail begins in a sheltered and dark pine forest.

The hike on the Art Loeb Trail begins in a sheltered and dark pine forest.

As soon as we emerged above the trees, we quickly found out how foggy and windy it was on top of the highest portion of the Art Loeb Trail.

As soon as we emerged above the trees, we quickly found out how foggy and windy it was on top of the highest portion of the Art Loeb Trail.

In a few minutes we were at the summit of Black Balsam Knob, the tallest point on trail at 6,124 feet. The view was totally socked in by fog, and it was painfully cold. Fog is beautiful in its own way, but by the time we reached the next peak, Tennent Mountain, we had decided that due to the cold, we would only be doing a day hike and head back to the van for the night. We hiked a bit further along the exposed ridge and through rhododendron tunnels. We hiked past Investor Gap into the Shining Rock Wilderness before turning around for a total of about eight miles. By then it had cleared a bit and we were treated to sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are especially blue and soft looking in winter.

The fog was really beautiful, yet bitterly cold.

The fog was really beautiful, yet bitterly cold.

The Art Loeb trail is really popular, so it’s very eroded in some places.

The Art Loeb trail is really popular, so it’s very eroded in some places.

At some points on our hike we actually climbed above the clouds.

At some points on our hike we actually climbed above the clouds.

For the first three-quarters of the hike we didn’t get any views of the mountains.

For the first three-quarters of the hike we didn’t get any views of the mountains.

The fog did eventually clear though, giving us an amazing look out over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The fog did eventually clear though, giving us an amazing look out over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It was easy to see why this trial is so popular, and it was pleasant to have the trail entirely to ourselves in the winter weather, but our cozy van waiting at the trailhead was just so much more appealing than a tent! Still we’d recommend the trail for anyone looking for a backpacking trip North Carolina. Here’s a good map if you are interested in hiking the Art Loeb Trail.

There are many places along the Art Loeb Trail that would probably be beautiful in June when the Rhododendrons are blooming.

There are many places along the Art Loeb Trail that would probably be beautiful in June when the Rhododendrons are blooming.

The rock along the Art Loeb Trail is really unique and beautiful.

The rock along the Art Loeb Trail is really unique and beautiful.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina. The 460-mile parkway, managed by the National Park Service, is America’s longest linear park. Since 1946, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been the most visited national park unit for every year except three. If you’re spending time in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, chances are you’ll drive this beautiful road without even realizing it. The road passes many stunning view points. In winter as you drive up and down the peaks you’ll likely witness the changing of the seasons, with flowering trees and verdant green buds in the valleys and gray barren branches in the highlands.

There are many quaint little farms in hollows along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

There are many quaint little farms in hollows along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The views along the Blue Ridge Parkway are beautiful, and remarkably blue!

The views along the Blue Ridge Parkway are beautiful, and remarkably blue!

A gas station bathroom complementary Bible along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A gas station bathroom complementary Bible along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Much of the land surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway is National Park Service land or Forest Service land—with lots of trails for exploring. Plus there is plenty of free dispersed camping in the national forest. If you do stray off the Blue Ridge Parkway, be prepared for narrow twisting mountain roads. Some of the worst roads we have encountered have been in Appalachia, not the Rocky Mountains or the mountain ranges of Alaska!

Hillman Beer, Asheville

We prepared for our unsuccessful trip on the Art Loeb Trail with a trip to Hillman Beer. Located in the town of Asheville, a city known for it’s outdoorsy hippie types, Hillman beer serves up a killer imperial stout aged on bourbon and maple syrup barrels. The brewery has a nice outdoor seating area as well. While you’re there, try a pig missile—a pretzel stuffed with a brat, mustard, and sauerkraut. You won’t regret it!

We’d definitely recommend Hillman Beer, especially if it’s warm enough to enjoy their outdoor seating.

We’d definitely recommend Hillman Beer, especially if it’s warm enough to enjoy their outdoor seating.

I still dream about this delicious pig missile…

I still dream about this delicious pig missile…

Free Camping in Western North Carolina:

There is plenty of free camping in Western North Carolina. We spent a night in our van at the Black Balsam Knob Trailhead of the Art Loeb Trail. The Pigsah National Forest also has countless other free dispersed camping options.

Prepping for our Art Loeb backpacking trip while parked overnight at the trailhead.

Prepping for our Art Loeb backpacking trip while parked overnight at the trailhead.

The Art Loeb trail was completely deserted when we were there, so overnighting at the trailhead was no big deal.

The Art Loeb trail was completely deserted when we were there, so overnighting at the trailhead was no big deal.

Central North Carolina

Metalmorphosis, Charlotte

Hidden in a business park in the nation’s second largest financial center is a mesmerizing installation of kinetic art—Metalmorphosis. The seven, segmented pieces of a massive silver disembodied head rotate above a circular fountain. Every few minutes the pieces all align and pause so you can see the giant head in full. Created by Czech artist, David Černý, the 14-ton sculpture seemed to be the only bit of life on a Saturday in the dull business park. If you cant’ make it in person, you can watch the head rotate on a 24-hour live webcam.

You might feel like you are headed in the wrong direction when looking for Metalmorphosis, because this stunning sculpture is in the middle of a financial park.

You might feel like you are headed in the wrong direction when looking for Metalmorphosis, because this stunning sculpture is in the middle of a financial park.

This moving sculpture in Charlotte, North Carolina in hypnotic.

Mallard Creek Greenway, North Charlotte

One of the great parts about traveling in our van is that we often discover lovely urban trails and city parks that you probably wouldn’t discover while traveling on a vacation. Mallard Creek Greenway is one of those pleasant places. We were just looking for a place to run and to cook lunch, and we discovered a lovely trail through a forest and wetland. The trees were just beginning to leaf out and some of the bushes were flowering.

The Mallard Creek Greenway makes it easy to forget that you are in the middle of a very urban area.

The Mallard Creek Greenway makes it easy to forget that you are in the middle of a very urban area.

Ian went for a bike ride on the Mallard Creek Greenway while I was running.

Ian went for a bike ride on the Mallard Creek Greenway while I was running.

The paved trail is 7.4 miles one-way making it an excellent place for a run or a short bike ride. You’d never know you were in the midst of one of North Carolina’s largest cities. We also met a nice group of guys who let Ian try out their one-wheels (those electric skateboards with only one wheel.)

Somehow he didn't fall.

The World’s Two Largest Chests of Drawers, High Point

High Point, North Carolina’s claim to fame is that they are the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World.” As such they have not one, but the world’s two largest chests of drawers. The original chest of drawers was built in downtown High Point in 1926. This gray chest of drawers, known as the Bureau of Information, is 36 feet, and it has two pairs of colorful socks hanging out of one drawer. The largest chest of drawers is an 80 foot tall Behemoth located at Furnitureland South (a massive furniture store) about five miles away. Both chests are fun photo-ops if you’re passing through the area.

We loved the massive colorful socks hanging out of the original Bureau of Information in High Point, NC.

We loved the massive colorful socks hanging out of the original Bureau of Information in High Point, NC.

It’s pretty awesome that our van could almost fit in one of these drawers on the World’s Largest Chest of Drawers.

It’s pretty awesome that our van could almost fit in one of these drawers on the World’s Largest Chest of Drawers.

William B. Umstead State Park, Raleigh-Durham

William B. Umstead State Park offers 6,000 wooded acres to the residents of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Tucked along the Graylyn Multi-Use Trail is a beautiful piece of chainsaw art. An ornate scene of woodland animals is carved in a mammoth fallen red oak. For directions on how to find the chainsaw art, read our blog post about Raleigh.

The carved red oak log in William B. Umstead State Park is a really unexpected sight.

The carved red oak log in William B. Umstead State Park is a really unexpected sight.

There are lots of interesting walking and biking trails to explore in William B. Umstead State Park.

There are lots of interesting walking and biking trails to explore in William B. Umstead State Park.

North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

The North Carolina Museum of Art was one of the first free admission museums funded by state legislation. The collection is expansive, ranging from ancient Egyptian art to contemporary works from North Carolina artists. Our favorite part of the NCMA was the outdoor museum park, which has two miles of trails and many sculptures, including a camera obscura large enough to enter. For more details on the museum and our recommendations for cheap eats in the area, check out our Raleigh blog post.

The North Carolina Museum Art Park is a really interesting place to spend an afternoon walking around.

The North Carolina Museum Art Park is a really interesting place to spend an afternoon walking around.

Our very favorite piece of art was a camera obscura that you can actually walk inside.

Our very favorite piece of art was a camera obscura that you can actually walk inside.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Wilson

In downtown Wilson, North Carolina, there is an unusual city park. A local of Wilson, Vollis Simpson created 40-50 foot tall whimsical, colorful, kinetic sculptures, which he called “whirligigs.” From age 65 to 94, Simpson transformed reclaimed metal into fanciful, rotating scenes of animals, people, planes, and vehicles. The whirligigs have been recognized as American Folk Art appearing in the collections of several museums. The whirligigs once resided on Simpson’s farm, but today 30 of the whirligigs are the centerpiece of downtown Wilson.

Ian photographs one of the most absurd city parks that we have ever visited.

Ian photographs one of the most absurd city parks that we have ever visited.

The sheer number of whirligigs that Vollis Simpson created is impressive—this is only a fraction of his collection.

The sheer number of whirligigs that Vollis Simpson created is impressive—this is only a fraction of his collection.

Downtown Wilson, North Carolina has the most unique public park.

Free Camping in Central North Carolina:

We were able to find a decent camping spot at a kayak launch along the Haw River, about 30 minutes from Raleigh. There is a bit of highway noise from 64, and it might make you question, “Am I really living in a van down by the river?” If you’re not traveling in a van you could probably even pitch a tent along the shore here!

We actually really like this campsite near the Haw River. It was surprisingly quite.

We actually really like this campsite near the Haw River. It was surprisingly quite.

There was a really pretty sunset on this evening by the Haw River in Central North Carolina.

There was a really pretty sunset on this evening by the Haw River in Central North Carolina.

Eastern North Carolina

The Outer banks

The Outer Banks are probably one of North Carolina’s most famous vacation destinations. They are a narrow barrier island along North Carolina’s eastern coast. With long white sandy beaches stretching along the thin band of land, it’s a beautiful place to visit. Highway 12, or the Outer Banks Scenic Byway, which runs along the Outer Banks, is a very unique drive, because in many places there will be water on either side. When we visited in February, it was very cold and raining and most of the places close for the winter. There aren’t a lot of free camping options either. For more about our visit to the Outer Banks, read our blog post about it.

We loved driving along the Outer Banks, because in so many places there is water on either side of the road or the road is even just a bridge.

We loved driving along the Outer Banks, because in so many places there is water on either side of the road or the road is even just a bridge.

The trees in the Outer Banks are so gnarled, because of years of storm seas and hurricanes.

The trees in the Outer Banks are so gnarled, because of years of storm seas and hurricanes.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a slender black and white tower with a very nautical look. It’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the US, and the second tallest in the world. In summer, you can climb the tower, but in winter it’s closed. However you can visit the lighthouse’s museum and learn about the fascinating maritime history of the light.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is very picturesque with its black and white barbershop stripes.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is very picturesque with its black and white barbershop stripes.

Standing at the base of the enormous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Standing at the base of the enormous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Ocracoke Island and Ferry

Ocracoke Island is the only accessible by ferry. If you’re coming from the north (Hatteras) like us, the 45-minute ferry ride is free for any size vehicle. This was the first time we had taken the van on a ferry, and we thought it was pretty fun. Once on Ocracoke Island, a 13-mile drive leads you to the quaint, unincorporated village of Ocracoke. Most businesses were closed for the winter, but we paid a visit to the quaint and quirky Magic Bean Coffee Bazaar to warm up on a rainy winter day. We also visited the charming white Ocracoke Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina.

We took our van on a ferry for the first time in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

We took our van on a ferry for the first time in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Visiting the very quaint Ocracoke Lighthouse while visiting Ocracoke Island in February.

Visiting the very quaint Ocracoke Lighthouse while visiting Ocracoke Island in February.

Outer Banks Brewing Station, Kill Devil Hills

If you’re looking for a great beer and delicious seafood, pay a visit to Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills. Plus it seemed to be one of the few decent places open in winter. This brewery is a bit pricier than the places we would typically recommend, but Ian and I celebrated Valentines Day here. The bourbon barrel stout is incredibly rich, and we’d highly recommend splitting the seared tuna.

Look how fancy this seared tuna is! The Outer Banks Brewing Station was a perfect (early) Valentine’s Day spot.

Look how fancy this seared tuna is! The Outer Banks Brewing Station was a perfect (early) Valentine’s Day spot.

Ian stands on the deck of the (closed) Ocracoke Visitor Center. So many places were closed when we visited.

Ian stands on the deck of the (closed) Ocracoke Visitor Center. So many places were closed when we visited.

Free Camping in the Outer Banks:

Good luck! We had a terrible time finding free camping here and left the Outer Banks earlier than we planned because of it.