7 Best National Parks in North Carolina

There are a dozen National Parks Services in the state of North Carolina. The state’s one and only National Park is the Great Smoky Mountains. The rest of the national park services are made up of incredibly beautiful National Scenic Trails, Parkways, and National Seashores. The state is also home to National Historic Trails and National Historic Sites. There’s also National Military Parks, National Battlefields and National Memorials. So, whether you are into mountains or beaches, history, hikes or landmarks,  The Tar Heel State has a national park service to suit your interests. Ready to embrace the great outdoors? Here’s our pick of some of the best national parks in North Carolina.

7 Best National Parks in North Carolina

1. Great Smoky Mountains, National Park

The Smokies are named for the blue mist that seems to always linger around the peaks and valleys. The Cherokee word for the Great Smokey Mountains is shaconage meaning “land of the blue smoke”. That blue haze that slightly blurs the long ridges and rounded peaks is in fact an “optical result of a natural photochemical process“. The forest-clad range straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and is a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains. Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on 2nd September 2 1940. Today, it is the most visited National Park in America.

2. Appalachian, National Scenic Trail

The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. The 2,200-mile (3,500km) public footpath stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. The first section of the trail opened in 1923 and construction finished in 1937. Due to rerouting and modifying, the trail’s length varies from time to time. The scenic footpath crosses “wooded, pastoral, wild, and culturally resonant lands of the Appalachian Mountains.” Approximately three million people visit the Trail every year. Some 3,000 people a year attempt a thru-hike. Those who manage to complete the entire Appalachian Trail in one go become 2,000-milers. Only about one in four make it all the way.

best national parks north carolina

3. Blue Ridge, Parkway

Looking for an epic American road trip? Then head to Oconaluftee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and start driving north on U.S. Highway 441. This is the southern terminus for the Blue Ridge Parkway, the longest linear park in America. The road stretches for 469 miles (755km) and passes through the states of North Carolina and Virginia. The parkway links the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park. This All-American Road is famous for its sweeping scenery, including stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains. The ribbon of road flows through the colourful, rolling landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands.

4. Cape Hatteras, National Seashore

National seashores are preserved and protected areas of natural and recreational significance. There are just 10 national shorelines in the whole of the United States. Two of them are in North Carolina. The first-ever national shoreline was Cape Hatteras, located in the Outer Banks. Cape Hatteras is known for its Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses. It’s also famous for its wonderful wildlife watching opportunities, for example, the area provides refuge for the endangered piping plover, seabeach amaranth, and sea turtles. This is a wonderful place to relax to the sounds of the ocean, stargaze and explore the salt marshes. 

5. Cape Lookout, National Seashore

Also located on the Outer Banks is Cape Lookout, which is made up of three islands that are accessible only by boat. Famous for its wild horses, historic villages and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, this is a scenic, unspoiled area with plenty of things to do, for instance, you can enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and birdwatching. The beaches here are perfect for sunbathing and swimming, and you’ll see plenty of people out on the water on kayaks or canoes. You can camp on the beach or rent a rustic hut and spend the night stargazing in the dark sky area. 

best national parks north carolina

6. Overmountain Victory, National Historic Trail

The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail is 330 miles long and passes through portions of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The Historic Trail traces the route used by patriot militia during the pivotal Kings Mountain campaign of 1780, which was during the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. The term ‘overmountain’ describes the fact that these men came from west of, or “over”, the Appalachians. These men crossed the Unaka Mountains to fight in the war. The trail allows you to discover the natural and cultural heritage unique to this beautiful part of the country, for instance, your journey takes you through walkable pathways, a Commemorative Motor Route, affiliated historic sites and museums, and wayside exhibits. You’ll also pass through four National Park Service areas, two National Forests, an Army Corps of Engineers Dam & Reservoir, plus several state and county parks.

best national parks north carolina
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7. Trail of Tears, National Historic Trail

The Trail of Tears takes you on a journey of injustice, as it follows the route that American Indians took when they were illegally forced to move from their ancestral homelands in the Deep South to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. During the Cherokee removal, historians estimate that 3,000–4,000 of them died during the passage – this is how the route got its name the Trail of Tears. Today, the 5,000-mile Historic Trail passes through nine states (N.C., Ga., Tenn., Ill., Mo., Ala., Ky., Ark. and Okla.) and marks the forced removal of Cherokee people, for instance, there are dozens of certified sites are dotted along the route. It is a beautiful way to learn more about American Indian culture and heritage and this dark period in history.

By Acroterion – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Melanie May

Melanie is an intrepid solo traveller, endlessly curious about people, places and food. She is a fan of slow travel and loves exploring the world by mouth, discovering a culture through its food. Having backpacked her way around the world she turned her wanderlust into a career and is now a full-time travel writer.

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