Here are the 50 best summer vacation spots in Carolina – the ultimate destinations to make your summer one to remember. Plus, a bonus list of exactly where to stay.
Make the most of these long summer days. Whether you’re looking for a short day trip, a languorous long weekend, or a full week’s escape, this list has a place for you. Or, hopefully, over the course of the summer, several places.
Best Summer Vacations in the Carolinas: The Lake
North Carolina’s largest lake is mere minutes from the Queen City. Lake Norman is a summer playground for multimillionaires and locals alike. Hop in a boat and cruise past lakeside mountains, carve through Norman’s many coves atop a pair of water skis, or refuel at one of the area’s many lakefront restaurants, like Joe and Katy Kindred’s Hello, Sailor.
The undeveloped banks of this lake make for a restful retreat for the more rustic traveler. Stay on one of the many campgrounds for constant communing with nature and quick lakeside access. Pass an afternoon on the Bald Eagle Observation Deck, keeping an eye out for America’s regal representative. Finally, for a change, carve out time for a meal at the iconic and elegant Fearrington House Restaurant. It’s just 20 minutes north of Jordan Lake near Pittsboro.
South Carolina’s Lake Marion is a fisherman’s dream, positioned halfway between Columbia and Charleston. Drop a line for largemouth bass, white perch, striped bass, white bass, crappie, channel catfish, bream, sunfish, and the Arkansas blue catfish. However, keep an eye out for alligators. Over a hundred call Lake Marion and the surrounding Santee National Wildlife Refuge home.
Lake Jocassee rests at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the shadows of South Carolina’s Jocassee Gorges. The lake is fed by cool, clear river water that streams down the mountains and into the lake, in some cases via waterfall. Accessible only through Devils Fork State Park, the famed filming location of The Hunger Games, Lake Jocassee offers a one-of-a-kind experience. Spend a few days in this hidden world. Stay at Three Points View, a luxury mountain retreat surrounded by the beauty of the Jocassee Gorges.
High Rock Lake
Just an hour from the center of Charlotte, High Rock Lake is the second-largest lake in North Carolina. It is just north of Uwharrie National Forest. It’s the perfect destination for a girls’ getaway by virtue of its many boating opportunities and location smack dab in the middle of North Carolina’s wine country.
This lake has a few differentiating features, including its status as the highest lake east of the Mississippi and its location within a mountain rain forest. It boasts a little something for everyone: boat rentals, waterfalls, a sandy beach, and plenty of fishing. Expect to catch large and smallmouth bass, walleye, yellow perch, crappie, rainbow and brown trout, large brim, and a few catfish. Plan to spend the night at the charming Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands, which is only half and hour from the lake.
Lake Lure is possibly North Carolina’s most famous lake. Its claim to fame is its frequent use as a filming location for movies like Dirty Dancing, The Last of the Mohicans, Thunder Road, and A Breed Apart. Ideal for a family vacation, Lake Lure amenities include a water slide into the lake and water park, a sandy beach, watersport rentals, and a nearby toy train museum. Adults can enjoy the pristine setting, nearby public golf club, and views of Chimney Rock, green mountaintops, and sheer cliffs above. This is one of our favorite vacation spots in Carolina.
Western Northern Carolina’s Lake James, located not too far off I-40, boasts clear water and a beautiful shoreline. Warm up on 25 miles of surrounding trails and then take a dip in Lake James’ crisp blue water. Or gently float across the lake’s surface in a canoe or kayak. No matter how you spend your time on Lake James, end your day with a beer at Fonta Flora’s Whippoorwill Farm.
The Nantahala National Forest is one of the most beautiful corners of North Carolina. Better known for Great Smokies’ peaks and exceptional whitewater, this area keeps one of its treasures more secret: drive to the top of the Nantahala Gorge and you’ll find a deep, blue pool of crisp lake water. Nantahala Lake is a scenic oasis perfect for both relaxation and play.
Sandwiched between the southern border of the Smokies and the northern border of Nantahala National Forest, Fontana Lake attracts fishermen from around the country in pursuit of smallmouth bass, muskie, and walleye. Plus, only 10% of the shoreline is developed. The rest is owned by the National Park Service or US Forest Service. This means visitors can enjoy a serene retreat immersed in nature.
Just a hop and a skip west of Columbia, Lake Murray is a popular day trip location for Carolinians. With 600 miles of shoreline, Lake Murray offers a bounty of activities, from quiet walks along Dreher State Island State Park to raucous boat rides from one lakeside restaurant to another.
Best Summer Vacations in the Carolinas: The Beaches
The Southern Outer Banks—known as the Crystal Coast—makes the decision to escape town easy. This 85-mile stretch of beaches has the best of it all, from quiet, relaxing coves to energetic beach town hangouts. The Crystal Coast is the obvious choice for those who want to spend their summer experiencing everything the NC shore has to offer.
Kiawah Island is one of the Carolinas’ most exclusive beachfront destinations. Known for its top notch golf courses—Kiawah Island Golf Resort hosted the 2012 PGA Championship and is scheduled to host again in 2021—Kiawah is also a place of tranquility. Head straight to Kiawah Island Beachwalker Park. Ten miles of public coastline tempt park goers from within Beachwalker Park, along the western edge of the island. Visitors can also veer off for a gentle stroll through old oaks, pines, iconic palmettos, and yucca plants.
Edisto prides itself on being one of South Carolina’s last uncommercialized beaches. Nearly everything—from the restaurants to the lodging—is all locally-owned. Visitors can experience the island in its natural splendor. Or challenge your mind and learn something new at the town’s famous Edisto Island Serpentarium. Eco tours are available at the island’s state park to take you around the island, and there are scores of cozy rentals perfect for a quiet weekend on South Carolina’s coast. It’s also well located, with Isle of Palms, Sullivans, and Mt. Pleasant nearby, too.
Topsail Beach, NC
Topsail Beach, NC provides lots of opportunities for private beach access; expect less crowds, and a pristine shoreline. For those who want a taste of Topsail living, stop by one of the area’s many local restaurants for fresh seafood. Or even visit the Missiles and More museum to see a bit of forgotten history.
Emerald Isle Beach, NC
Emerald Isle is best known for its uniquely gorgeous green waters, due to the proximity of the Gulf Stream. This proximity also means Emerald offers a warmer option to the cold waters often found along other parts of the Outer Banks, and the isle waters are home to many interesting and beautiful marine creatures. If you go scuba diving, you may even get to explore a shipwreck or two!
Isle of Palms
Neighboring Sullivans Island, Isle of Palms is home to two well-known golf courses, the Links Course and the Harbour Course. Isle of Palms is the perfect beach getaway; it offers premiere golf for those who’d rather work on their game than their tan lines, luxurious spas and boutique shopping, and is only a 20 minute drive from downtown Charleston. This is one of the best vacation spots in Carolina.
Kure Beach, NC
For those looking for a beach that’s a little more secluded, the one at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is an excellent choice. About a half hour away from Wilmington, NC, this beach is maintained in conjunction with the historic Fort Fisher area. Visitors can spend the day at the nearby Fort Fisher Aquarium, then relax by the serene waves.
Hilton Head Island
This island is known for year-round beautiful weather and, of course, the lighthouse. Hilton Head is also home to a beautiful beach and world-class golf courses. This is a luxurious beach getaway perfect for the whole family.
Wrightsville Beach, a short drive from Wilmington, is known as “one of the best beaches in the South” for its crystal blue water and great surf. This four-mile stretch of beach is the closest beach to Charlotte with the best watersport activity potential. This lively beach is the go-to spot for watersports enthusiasts. Take a surfing lesson, learn how to windsurf, or take the paddleboard out for a swim.
Sunset Beach belongs to the Brunswick Islands, some of the most beautiful beaches in the Carolinas. It’s a small beach with an even smaller permanent population: This coastal destination encompasses both mainland and barrier island terrain. Sunset Beach got its name from its stunning views and serenity, and is also well known for its wildlife and seafood.
Ocean Isle, part of Brunswick county, is a little beach town off the coast of North Carolina. This smaller barrier island is famous for its beautiful 4.5 mile beach, and is the perfect quaint spot to take the family with great dining options and private rental stays. It also happens to be one of the closest beaches to Charlotte on our list, so be sure to add it to yours.
It’s hard to say what Folly is better known for: legendary sunsets or killer surfing spots. In fact, it seems Folly Beach has a little something for everyone. Home to several endangered species, including loggerhead sea turtles and Wilson’s Plover, naturalists will find something to delight in, while the more urban-oriented will appreciate the beach’s close proximity to downtown Charleston. Drop a fishing line off the Folly Beach pier or take in the sights from a beachside bar.
On the sandy shores of Corolla, wild descendants of colonial Spanish mustangs roam freely, grazing in the saltwater cordgrass and galloping along the sloping shores. Visitors flock to Corolla to witness these majestic creatures in a natural habitat. This, in essence, is the magic of Corolla, where visitors come for the wild horses, but stay for the upscale and recently developed amenities. If you love horses this sure to be one of your favorite vacation spots in Carolina.
Nags Head and Jockey’s Ridge
Nags Head is one of the Outer Banks’ most established tourist destinations; since the 1960s, this gorgeous destination has catered to guests with a wide selection of restaurants and conveniences. As comfortable as Nags Head proper is, you’d be remiss not to wander further afield to Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic Coast. Perch atop hills of sand and feel like you’ve landed on a distant planet.
Bald Head Island
Bald Head is for the traveler seeking a serene retreat. Accessible only by a private water vessel or a 20-minute ferry ride across the Cape Fear River, Bald Head Island feels miles from its nearby neighbor of Wilmington, both in terms of geography and tempo. This remote getaway elevates beach life, boasting intimate vacation rental neighborhoods, beach, maritime forest, and marshland, and, remarkably, very few hotels or commercial developments looming over beachgoers.
Like Bulls Island, Capers Island attracts visitors with a penchant for natural settings and seclusion. Accessible only by boat, Capers is an uninhabited, state-owned barrier island. In fact, visitors would never guess it was mere miles from Charleston, given the density of wildlife, such as alligators, white tailed deer, snakes, bottlenose dolphins, and many species of birds (including ospreys and bald eagles) that call this tiny island home.
There are myriad reasons to put Sullivan’s Island at the top of your Carolina destination list this summer. First discovered by English explorers in the 17th century, Sullivan’s Island was well established as a busy shipping port by the 18th century. The setting of a now famous battle, celebrated regionally on ‘Carolina Day,’ was Fort Moultrie. It’s been carefully preserved and is a popular landmark for visitors and residents alike. Visitors who aren’t compelled by Sullivan’s Island’s rich history can instead spend their time in the handful of galleries and restaurants or on the shores and enjoying breathtaking views of Charleston Harbor and quiet beaches.
When you head east to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, visiting Duck Beach is a must. Quirky name aside, Duck is a thriving coastal community with an expansive stretch of beautiful beach. Kayak through its unique wetlands, then head back into town to visit the local hotspots. Free of the summer tourists, Duck’s calming waterside boardwalk and local shops will make you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a hidden island ripe for exploration.
Best Summer Vacations in the Carolinas: The Mountains
Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Blowing Rock was named after The Blowing Rock formation, which offers stunning views of the mountains. The town also is home to Tweetsie Railroad, Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, and various hiking trails with scenic views. This winter, you can also visit Appalachian Ski Mountain, one of the most popular spots to ski in North Carolina.
If you’re looking to enjoy nature, Brevard is the place to be. Located at the entrance to Pisgah National Forest, Brevard is home to many waterfalls and other natural rock formations, including Looking Glass Falls, Connestee Falls, Batson Creek Falls. It is also the home of Sliding Rock, a natural water slide that ends in a 60-ft deep pool of water.
Located in Ashe County, North Carolina, West Jefferson is a quirky town with a lot to offer. When you visit, head over to Carolina Country Wines for a wine tasting, CatchLight Gallery for professional photos of the Blue Ridge and beyond, or Ashe County Cheese, a cheese plant that allows you to experience the whole process. With a perfect balance of modern culture and history, West Jefferson is a charming piece of the Blue Ridge.
Located between Beech Mountain Ski Resort to the north and Sugar Mountain Ski Resort to the south, Banner Elk is quite a popular place to be in the fall and winter seasons. But, it’s also the perfect place to be outdoors in any season, whether it’s by Wildcat Lake, or just a few miles away at Grandfather Mountain. It’s also known as the culinary hotspot of the High Country. It’s home to many of the best chefs in the state.
Located in Mitchell County, Spruce Pine is a little town with a lot of personality, just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s home to a variety of different festivals throughout the year, including Fire on the Mountain, which celebrates the work of local blacksmiths, and the Spruce Pine BBQ & Bluegrass Festival in July. This fall, look out for Toe Jam, a twelve hour rock ‘n’ roll event, and the Spruce Pine Potters Market.
Cherokee is a town on the reservation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. It’s full of history, with attractions like Oconaluftee Indian Village, which offers a look into the lifestyle of the 18th-century Cherokee people. A visit to Cherokee offers the opportunity to pay respect to long traditions, and connect with the outdoors like never before.
Considered the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City is rich with natural beauty. With rafting and kayaking on the Nantahala River, biking on the Tsali trails, and boating and fishing on Fontana Lake, it doesn’t get much better. Another great attraction is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. This attraction offers picturesque views of the mountain valleys and a deep river gorge.
Well-known in the Carolinas for its beautiful Jackson County courthouse, Sylva is a fun and charming little town to visit. Sylva is also a top Christmas Town in western North Carolina, and boasts fantastic holiday shopping. With scenic mountain views and a hoppin’ brewery scene, Sylva is worth a visit.
Known as a friendly city with a small-town charm, Maggie Valley has great opportunities for activities in nature, including hiking, biking, camping, and whitewater rafting. You can also see the elk in the Cataloochee area of the town, where they have been successfully reintroduced.
Best Summer Vacations in the Carolinas: The Waterfalls
Offering dramatic, close-up views, Linville Falls is perhaps the most popular waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Get there early on a nice day. It’s about a 1.6 mile hike and the skill level is easy.
Bee Cove Falls
Bee Cove Falls is a multi-tiered, backcountry gem with one large stream of water and four smaller ones. It’s about a 2.1 mile hike and the skill level is difficult.
Hickory Nut Falls
This 404-foot natural wonder is so lovely it was featured in the film “The Last of the Mohicans.”
It’s about a 1.4 mile hike and the skill level is moderate.
Looking Glass Falls
The 60-foot tall Looking Glass Falls gets its name from the mirror effect created when water freezes on its sides in the winter and then glistens in the sunlight. It’s about a 5 mile hike and the skill level is easy.
Also known as Upper Cullasja Falls, this 65-foot tall waterfall has a path under the rocks that offers a unique view of the waterfall. It’s part of a series of waterfalls on an 8.7-mile (14 km) stretch of the river. The skill level is easy.
High Falls offers breathtaking views and is a jaw-dropping 125-feet tall. It’s a short 1 mile hike and the skill level is easy.
Sliding Rock is one of North Carolina’s most popular waterfalls. It offers a small plunge pool visitors can slide down the waterfall into. It’s a quick 0.3 mile hike and the skill level is easy.
Triple Falls was featured in the movie The Last of the Mohicans, making this 120-feet tall waterfall a popular tourist attraction. It’s a short 0.5 mile hike and the skill level is easy.
Hooker Falls is also featured in The Last of the Mohicans and offers two views. One view is of the plunge pool and the other overlooks the falls from above. It’s a quick and easy 0.25 mile hike.
Moore Cove Falls
This 50-foot tall waterfall allows visitors the chance to go behind the waterfall, for a unique experience. It’s a nice 0.75 mile hike and the skill level is moderate.
Turtleback Falls, also called Umbrella falls, has a deep swimming pool at the bottom where visitors can safely swim. It’s a 3.5 mile hike and the skill level is easy.
BONUS: OUR FAVORITE SUMMERY STAYS
White Doe Inn
Located on Roanoke Island in Manteo is the charming White Doe Inn. Owned by Bob and Bebe Woody, this Outer Banks gem offers unique designs for each room, complimentary breakfasts, and is pet friendly. Located in the center of the island, you only have to walk a block in either direction and you’ll find yourself on the Croatan or Roanoke Sound. The White Doe Inn is perfect for a quiet summer getaway so book early.
Well worth the drive every time, The Sanderling is a luxury, Four-Diamond rated resort. It sits on the shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. With three pools, an award-winning spa, and oceanfront views, The Sanderling promises guests a tranquil getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Oasis Suites Hotel
Situated on the Roanoke Sound, the Oasis Suites Hotel is the only boutique resort in the area. This unique spot is equipped with a dock that runs the length of the hotel and an outdoor saltwater pool. It is conveniently located just minutes from the beach.
Anderson Ocean Club and Spa
The Anderson Ocean Club and Spa sits oceanfront at Myrtle Beach. The upscale resort offers its guests personalized spa treatments at their Awakening Spa, and also features indoor and outdoor pools, onsite dining, and a fitness room. Enjoy an adult beverage while watching the tides roll in at B-Bar, located directly on the pool deck.
Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort
Looking for the ultimate golf getaway? Well, look no further: The Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort is perfect for enthusiasts of the sport, offering guests a range of different golf experiences and courses. Litchfield Beach is renowned for its mouthwatering seafood, its serene coastal setting, and, of course, its proximity to Myrtle Beach.
The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
You can find this South Carolina luxury beach resort just 21 miles from downtown Charleston. The Sanctuary delivers Forbes 5-star service with 255 room options spanning from guest, king, or suites to Presidential Suites. Go experience a resort that has found the perfect balance of grace, elegance and Southern hospitality.
Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island
If you were hoping for a view of the coast during your South Carolinian getaway, gathering or business trip, you’ve come to the right place. You won’t even have to leave the resort to experience the beach, multiple restaurant options, zero-entry lagoon style pool, tropical gardens or spa.
The Inn & Club at Harbour Town
Enjoy the South Carolina Lowcountry with the best of service and elegant details at the boutique luxury Inn & Club. The famed Harbour Town Golf Links can be viewed with a meal and drink in hand. With sixty seamless guestrooms, a spacious suite, boutique pool and clubhouse, this is the perfect getaway.
Montage Palmetto Bluff
Set within a striking 20,000-acre community between Hilton Head and Savannah, Montage Palmetto Bluff rests along the picturesque May River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The resort encompasses two villages featuring nine Southern dining choices, a marina, two idyllic villages, and a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course.
Located on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Grand Bohemian invites guests to immerse themselves in mountainy moodiness. A delightful combination of rustic and antique decorations line the walls of this distinctive hotel. Relax next to a crackling fire with a handcrafted cocktail from the Red Stag Grill. Or wander through the hotel’s carefully curated collection of local artwork.
Island House of Wanchese
At the end of Roanoke Island is the historic Island House of Wanchese, which dates back to the early 1900s. Purchased and renovated by its owners in the 1990s, this charming B&B is decorated with antiques, and each room offers an en-suite bathroom. Island House also offers a freezer for your fishing catches, and is pet friendly for small dogs. For a slow-paced vacation, head to the Island House of Wanchese this summer.
On the outskirts of the Outer Banks is Beachwoods Resort, located in Kitty Hawk, NC. Overlooking the Atlantic on one side and the Currituck Sound on the other, this resort is perfect for the outdoor vacationer. Offering watersports, horseback riding, beach volleyball, fishing and the largest outdoor pool in the Outer Banks, this resort is a great destination to shake off that quarantine restlessness.
Beau Rivage Golf & Resort
For the discerning golfers looking to experience a challenge with their vacation, Beau Rivage Golf & Resort might be the perfect solution. Offering a full 18-hole course with water obstacles, wooded areas, and hills, this is any golfer’s dream. Not only is this course just minutes away from Historic Wilmington, but you don’t even have to leave the resort for a fantastic meal. Veranda Bar & Grill offers an extensive selection of savory classics that will suit everyone in the family. For a luxurious vacation overlooking the Cape Fear River, head to Beau Rivage.
Head upstream on Cape Fear and you’ll find another Wilmington Gem: Hotel Ballast. If you want a modern Wilmington experience, you truly can’t skip this hotel. With three restaurants, a 24-hour fitness center, complimentary Wi-Fi, and concierge services, this truly is the all-inclusive vacation experience for any family, honeymooners, or business traveler. Be sure to check out their inclusive travel packages before you book!
Cedar Island Resort
Surrounded by water on all sides, the Cedar Island Resort is an untouched and natural beach perfect for nature-lovers. Mere steps away from the Pamlico Sound, the Cedar Island Bay, West Bay, and if you’ve traveled by boat—the Atlantic Ocean! This is the ideal setting for the outdoorsy and do-it-yourself type. Most of the accommodations in this resort are suited for camping, hunting, and other outdoor activities. Don’t worry about getting a great meal if you can’t catch it yourself. Bay Breeze is open five days a week to cater to you.
Atlantic Beach Resort
Located in beautiful Atlantic Beach, the Atlantic Beach Resort hosts a variety of amenities to make your stay relaxing. With two pools, complimentary Wi-Fi, a separate play area for the kids, and an onsite hot tub, your vacation will be over before you know it! There are plenty of amenities in the surrounding areas. Visit wild horses roaming the Rachel Carson Reserve and the nearby North Carolina Aquarium, which is sure to be a hit with younger vacationers.
Fripp Island Golf & Beach Resort
Offering a wide expanse of villas, golf cottages, and more, Fripp Island Golf & Beach Resort is the ideal vacation destination. It’s the all-inclusive getaway you’ve been looking for. With more than three and a half miles of Atlantic Ocean shoreline, you’re more likely to run out of energy than things to do at this beautiful resort. There’s the Fripp Island Marina, Lowcountry Golf, and even Camp Fripp for the kids.
Shell Island Resort
Shell Island Resort is a beachfront hotel located in Wrightsville Beach, NC. This resort offers quick access to all the amazing sights in Wilmington, NC. With suites featuring balcony views of the ocean and both indoor and outdoor pools, this resort is a must for anyone who is a lover of water.