A Quintessential North Carolina Bucket List
Maybe I’m biased, but I believe North Carolina is one of the best states in the country. The location is smack-dab in the middle of the east coast, offering a nice starting point for so many road trips.
However, venturing out of state is hardly necessary when there are so many amazing things to explore. Whether you have lived here for life or are a transplant, there are quite a few bucket list items to get a feel of North Carolina.
Enjoy the 25 North Carolina bucket list experiences below, and be sure to let me know what I missed in the comments. How many items can you cross off?
2018 North Carolina Bucket List
Tour the Biltmore Estate
The Biltmore House is certainly one of the most breathtaking attractions in North Carolina. Currently the largest home in America, The Biltmore Estate is an architectural dream. Plus, the decor changes with the seasons so there is always something new to discover!
Aside from touring the massive estate, there are over 250 varieties of roses to explore in the dreamy rose garden. If you are lucky, you might be serenaded by a harpist along the way. Impressive outdoor excursions, plus shopping and decadent dining options are available as well.
Taking a trip to tour the Biltmore Estate is essential to a North Carolina bucket list. To make the most of the trip, consider booking a room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. I consider it one of the most wanderlusty resorts in North Carolina. Read more about my incredible experience here.
For a unique experience through the Smokey Mountains, take a train ride on the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad.
Trips include excursions to the Nantahala Gorge and the Tuckaseegee River.
- Uncorked: This adults-only, first class ride includes a private attendant and a four course meal. A local, Western North Carolina wine sample is included with each course.
- The Polar Express: Sip on hot cocoa while traveling to the North Pole. Santa boards the train and hands out silver bells to children. How adorable!
Keep in mind that the most popular excursions sell out fast, so advance booking is strongly recommended.
Hang Glide Jockey’s Ridge
Jockey’s Ridge is home to the tallest natural sand dunes in the eastern United States. This State Park encompasses a whopping 420 acres of land. Measuring up to 100 feet tall, the sand dunes are quite humbling to stand behind.
Even cooler, hang gliding is allowed on certain dunes in the park. Kitty Hawk Kites is in partnership with the park and offers lessons starting at $99. Classes are no larger than five people and demo lessons include three flights.
Hang gliding in Jockey’s ridge offers flights anywhere from 30 to 100+ yards at 5 to 15 feet above the sand. Wow!
Corolla, North Carolina is home to the 100 remaining Spanish Mustangs in The Currituck Outer Banks. This nearly extinct breed is among the oldest and rarest strains in the entire world.
In my opinion, Wild Horse Adventure Tours is the absolute best tour company in the Outer Banks. Tours trek across scenic NC Highway 12 in an open air Hummer, including private roads. Four-wheel driving across the “highway” which is really the beach is a pretty extraordinary experience in itself.
Wild Horse Adventure Tours owns more private land than other tour companies, so you have front row access to otherwise private roads. Taking a tour offers amazing photography opportunities and incredible access to the horses in their natural habitat.
Four-wheel Drive in Corolla on scenic highway 12
As mentioned above, driving scenic NC Highway 12 is such a fun and unique experience. I would even be bold enough to suggest holding off on visiting the Outer Banks until you can bring or rent a 4×4 vehicle. You can even rent a house such as this one which is only accessible by 4×4.
No permit is required to drive in Corolla but there are definitely a few rules to familiarize yourself with before cruising the beach. Rules include staying 50 feet away from the wild horses, keeping certain equipment in the vehicle to prevent getting stuck in the sand and more. There are other areas in the Outer Banks to drive off-road but Corolla is most noteworthy thanks to the horses and year-round access.
Please make sure not to take a non-4×4 for a drive on the sand. A local once told me that the towing companies charge based on “stupidity” and “price of car” (gasp!). So maybe don’t attempt to bring a luxury town car onto the beach as the car will likely get stuck and local towing companies will have the last laugh.😳
Glide down Sliding Rock
Slide down a 60 foot, natural water slide and plunge into an 8 foot pool of water. Roughly 11,000 gallons of water per minute power Sliding Rock, creating a thrilling outdoor adventure.
Visit Sliding Rock during the hottest days of North Carolina summer as the water is ice cold. Experience this in season (Memorial Day through Labor Day) for just $3 per person – cash only. Enter at your own risk for free during off-season but no lifeguard is on duty.
Sliding Rock is open from 10am-6pm during staffed season. Pisgah Hospitality Partners recommend avoiding the peak time of 12-4pm to reduce wait times.
Raft & Play at the U.S. National Whitewater Center
The U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC) is the world’s largest man-made whitewater river. Whitewater rafting and kayaking plus flat water kayaking are just a few of the things to do at the Center. Since the USNWC is an official U.S. Olympic Training Center for whitewater racing, the water activities are a must for your NC bucket list.
Additional activities include climbing, ropes courses, jumps, trails and more. A highlight of the land activities is the arched, 45 foot tall climbing wall over a 20-foot pool. Guests climb this deep water solo complex without ropes or harnesses. Yikes!
If you want to spend time at the Whitewater Center but are not the active type, consider going to River Jam. There is a nice selection of craft beer plus several food options as well. River Jam runs May-September and the water looks gorgeous all lit up at night.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road at the Land of Oz
Beech Mountain is home to a magical theme park based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Visiting however, will have you feeling like you are part of the movie Wizard of Oz!
Perhaps the most enchanting part of Land of Oz is the Yellow Brick Road, surrounded by nostalgic details down to the ‘living” trees. Also, the only method of transportation to Land of Oz is via chairlift (with the exception of 2018 due to renovations).
Meet Dorothy, Scarecrow, TinMan and more at one of two annual events. Journey with Dorothy typically runs during the summer for 4 Saturdays. Autumn at Oz usually occurs 3 days in September. If you can’t make a festival, you can inquire about private tours and special events. How cool is that?!
Ski in the NC mountains
I am fortunate to have a dad who brought me skiing in the North Carolina mountains since childhood. Is skiing scary? Heck yeah. But SO much fun after getting past the fear.
There are some great places to ski in NC and all are worthy of their own visit. Below are just a few of the best places to ski in North Carolina:
- Beech Mountain Resort
- Sugar Mountain Resort
- Appalachian Ski Mountain
Snow boarding, tubing and ice skating are also options at most of the lodge resorts in NC. As a backup, there is always drinking in the lodge!
Walk the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain
The Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it is totally normal to see people hanging behind the line after getting cold feet upon seeing the bridge. Speaking of cold, be sure to layer up since the air is roughly 10 degrees colder at the bridge!
The bridge is a lot more sturdy now than it once was. In 1999, the Swinging Bridge was rebuilt, but adventurous locals say they liked the older version better.
The bridge is still perfect for thrillseekers since it is over one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level. The far side of the bridge offers panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Eat your way through the NC BBQ Trail
In North Carolina, BBQ is not just food, but a way of life. Just ask a local what the best North Carolina barbecue is and expect to get a strong opinion. NC even has a barbecue society- The North Carolina Barbecue Society (NCBS).
The NCBS has created a barbecue trail from eastern North Carolina to Tennessee. Only 23 restaurants were carefully selected with strict criteria for the trail as mentioned here. Head here to see the trail map details and restaurant directions.
Basically, there are two styles of barbecue to know – Lexington Style and Eastern Style. While North Carolinians typically have strong taste for one style or the other, I think both styles are delicious. Let me know your preference once you try both styles for yourself!
Wine with Llamas at Divine Llama Winery
I smile nonstop when I visit Divine Llama Winery. The name says it all – this winery is accompanied by llamas! Park and select tastings then walk down to the llama barn, cup in tow.
The ingenious combination of wine, llamas and other farm animals is a recipe for the best day ever for any animal fanatic. The llamas are so endearing with their toothy smiles and they are just full of personality!
Taste nine wines for just $8 and get souvenir glasses for only $2 each. Head here for more info and to read about my awesome experience.
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Fall
Without a doubt, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is a must for any North Carolina bucket list. The Blue Ridge Parkway is consistently viewed as one of America’s best road trips. For example, Travel + Leisure Magazine considers the Parkway one of America’s most iconic drives.
As a North Carolinian, I strongly believe the best time to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway is in the fall. Timing is essential for viewing the most color of the vibrant fall leaves. Appalachian State University offers a useful map for planning the perfect trip.
My tip is to catch the sunrise or the sunset at least once. Be prepared to not be alone, but there are less people than during peak times such as mid-day. With tons of overlooks, there is ample opportunity for astounding photography and dreamy picnics.
Ride the Ferry from Fort Fisher to Southport
For an unforgettable day trip on the east coast of NC, add a ferry ride to your bucket list. This is a great way to have a cruise-type experience for those who cannot take a long vacation. You can park your car on the boat then step out to take in the views.
Take a tour of the Fort Fisher Aquarium while waiting to catch the ferry. When you arrive in Southport, eat delicious food and explore unique shops. There is even a year-round Christmas store with some amazing Santa Claus photo ops.
Roughly every 45 minutes, a ferry runs from Fort Fisher, NC to Southport, NC. Head here for the 2018 schedule. This experience is definitely worth an add to the NC bucket list!
Travel down Pottery Way in Seagrove
Anyone with a love for the arts is sure to find Pottery Way absolutely mesmerizing! Seagrove, NC is home to a pottery lover’s paradise. Endless amounts of ceramics and pottery are available to explore thanks to over 100 working potters.
Native Americans were the first to discover natural clay deposits in the area and created functional objects and more. Immigrant potters eventually flocked to Seagrove upon realizing the value of the clay. Now, the Seagrove area is among “the largest communities of potters with the longest continual history of pottery making in the United States.” (Source)
All potters and studios are within a 20 mile radius. A map is available to download here or you can stop by the Seagrove Visitor’s Center for the most current version. You can also download a PDF with shop hours and phone numbers.
Trompse Blackbeard’s Old Stomping Grounds
If you are familiar with North Carolina history, you may be aware of the infamous pirate, Edward Teach…aka “Blackbeard”. Blackbeard arrived to Bath, North Carolina in 1718 and was supposedly treated like a celebrity at times.
Just five short months after arriving to NC, Blackbeard was cornered and killed on Okracoke Island. Decide for yourself about the truth of Blackbeard’s pirate legends and explore his old hangouts off the coast of North Carolina.
Consider this exciting itinerary from Visit NC to walk in Blackbeard’s Footsteps. Just a few ideas mentioned include Blackbeard walking tours, a visit to Bath and Okracoke, plus the Graveyard Museum of the Atlantic. How fun!
Dirty Dance and more at Lake Lure
Lake Lure, NC is home to several scenes from the original Dirty Dancing movie. People still get excited about visiting film locations and there is even an annual festival for fans. Take a boat tour for more film facts and Lake Lure history.
Even if you aren’t a big movie fan, Lake Lure is such a charming town to spend the day in. During the summer, Lake Lure Beach is open. Relax on the “beach”, swim, play in the water park and more. If you don’t picnic on the beach, there are several tasty, waterfront restaurants to try.
The dock around the lake is free to take a stroll on and makes for a fun day with dogs. An often overlooked activity in Lake Lure is the Flowering Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge is surrounded by blooming gardens planted by local volunteers and can be accessed just around the corner from the Lake Lure boat rentals.
Enjoy all things Sun Drop🍋🍒
I love the tastes of the south…especially a deliciously tart Cherry Lemon Sun Drop. It’s not unusual to find Cherry Lemon Sun Drop in a slushy form at gas stations – so good, too. Also, restaurants in NC often serve the beverage with a fresh slice of lemon and a cherry on top.
The restaurants that serve homemade Cherry Lemon Sun Drops typically have insanely delicious food, too. In Gaston County, a few places that come to mind are Neighbor’s Bright Star Grill, Tommy’s Drive In and R.O.’s BBQ. If you are ever in the Mooresville, NC area, venture into What-a-Burger for mouthwatering burgers and of course, a Cherry Lemon Sun Drop.
Sun Drop frequents NC bakeries in the form of pound cake and cupcakes, too. I can hardly remember an office party, baby shower or wedding without a Sun Drop Pound Cake present. Just be sure to ask for the recipe so you can re-create the desserts at home!
Photo Source: Old Salem Facebook Page
Eat Freshly Baked Goods & Moravian Cookies at Old Salem
Old Salem is a colonial heritage site that allows visitors to step back into the 18th century. Chat with costumed staff and participate in hands-on activities from the 1700s. Explore museums, gardens and shops for a memorable day that will take you away from stresses of modern life.
One of the most frequented spots is popular for a good reason – mouthwatering baked goods. Head to Winkler Bakery for unforgettable Moravian Cookies and freshly baked bread from the wood-burning, dome oven.
The bakery as well as the shops are free to visit (no admission ticket required). Another surprisingly free thing to do is to bring your goat (or other leashed pet) along with you. Stroll the streets and gardens of Old Salem and fill up on free water at the Salem Square pump off South Main Street.
Climb Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock is a 535 million year old monument at Chimney Rock State Park that towers 2,280 feet above sea level. Hiking to the top is well worth the panoramic view. Scenes from the movie Last of the Mohicans were filmed at the Park, making it a fun site for movie buffs.
Typically, you can even ride an elevator to the top of Chimney Rock but the elevator is currently undergoing renovations. The elevator is expected to reopen later this year (2018).
After climbing Chimney Rock, grab ice cream and shop in the village surrounding the Park. Hike down to the creek and rest your feet from the hike in the icy cold water. Seek out one of the massive rocks for a gorgeous picnic spot.
USS NC Battleship
Walk the living spaces of WWII crew of the USS Battleship and explore multiple decks of history. This incredible attraction is open year-round and serves as a memorial. Year-round access makes for a perfect attraction if you are visiting Wilmington during the holidays!
The ship is packed with information so you can fully immerse yourself in the history. Tight spaces and stair climbing adds excitement for some visitors. Even non-history buffs can appreciate the presence of the Battleship in the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, NC.
Consider the full tour to get the most bang for your buck although this is not the advised option for anyone with limited mobility. For disability accommodations, call four weeks ahead and request a Back Porch Tour for a unique experience from the observation deck.
Thrillseek at Carowinds
Charlotte, North Carolina gets to claim Carowinds’ address but the amusement park is actually next to the South Carolina state line too. Ride the world’s tallest and fastest giga coaster – the Fury 325. This terrifying, steel coaster dives through both state lines and reaches speeds up to 95 mph.
For a less hair-raising attraction, enjoy panoramic views of North and South Carolina on the Carolina Skytower. The tower reaches 262 feet off the ground and the air-conditioned interior is a nice break from the sweltering summer heat.
Another way to beat the heat is by relaxing at the massive water park- surprisingly included with admission. The lazy river runs through North & South Carolina plus the wave pool is a shark free alternative to the Atlantic.
Get Cultured in Cherokee
Cherokee, North Carolina, has so much culture and history to offer. Watch Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama about The Trail of Tears. The live show has been running since the 1950s and can be seen during summer months.
Pick up authentic, handmade art at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. Over 250 artists contribute to the traditional arts and crafts such as beadwork, finger weaving and stone carving.
Feeling lucky? After immersing in the Cherokee culture, you can even try your hand at gambling. If you want to stay in town overnight but there are no rooms available Harrah’s, there are plenty of cute cabins to rent (some even nightly!).
Photo Source: Carolina Tar Heels Facebook Page
Cheer for the Tarheels in a College Basketball Game
Or “another” team😉. Either way, North Carolinians are majorly passionate about college basketball. And basically everyone who has a team will be glued to their TV during rival games.
If you are the least bit interested in tickets, be sure to purchase them as soon as possible. Tickets sell out super quick…especially for home games. Even UNCC students must enter a student ticket lottery for many games and are not guaranteed to get tickets.
Watching the game, even from home is exciting when rival teams play. College basketball is really part of the culture in North Carolina, even for those not very interested in sports. When your team wins, the banter that follows is often as fun as watching the game. Go heels!
Lighthouse hopping in the Outer Banks
If you haven’t noticed by now, the Outer Banks is full of bucket-list worthy items. The lighthouses in the Outer Banks are no exception.
Five lighthouses stand tall in the Outer Banks, and each has a story to tell. If you don’t have a lot of time, pick the one that fascinates you the most. Cape Hatteras is quite impressive since it survived a nearly 3,000 foot move on steel mats.
Outer Banks lighthouses include:
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse
- Roanoake Marshes Lighthouse
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Okracoke Island Lighthouse