Pack up the car with your best adventure gear, strap in your most lovable travel companions, stash some snacks and road candy in the glove box, and hit the road for the ultimate NC mountain road trip.
Take Highway 74 due west for just under two hours to land at your first stop on this ultimate NC mountain road trip: Lake Lure.
This beautiful hideaway is nestled in the Hickory Nut Gorge. Crystal blue water pools at the base of rounded mountains and rugged granite cliffs. Hike up Chimney Rock or tackle the Buffalo Creek Trail for an aerial view of the lake. Alternatively, take a dip in the lake at the town beach. Or explore at lake level in a rented canoe or kayak. Dine at La Strada before tucking yourself in at The Lodge on Lake Lure.
The next morning, drive 30 minutes southwest along Highway 64 to Hendersonville. Stop here for breakfast on Main Street, either at Arabella or 1950s-style Mikes on Main Street. Then pick up a sandwich or wrap to go from Three Chopt Sandwich Shop. Take a moment to appreciate the first of many excellent western NC small town main streets before hopping back aboard and jetting north to Looking Glass Falls.
If you’re feeling industrious, navigate to the Looking Glass Rock Trail, which chugs up 1,700 feet in a little over three miles. The trail offers multiple vantage points from which to view the falls, as well as trailside rhododendron. On the other hand, if your legs are tired from hiking Chimney Rock the day before, opt instead to continue straight past the turnoff for Looking Glass Rock Trail directly to the Looking Glass Falls parking area. Descend the stairs to a breathtaking swimming hole that pools beneath a 60-foot cascade of thundering water. Take a dip and then sunbathe on the rocks while enjoying your picnic lunch from Three Chopt.
From here, head back south to the charming small college town of Brevard, located only 15 minutes from Looking Glass. Spend the afternoon exploring Brevard’s galleries, shops, and craft breweries, then commit to an evening of good food and live music. If you have the wiggle room in your itinerary, tack on an extra day in the Brevard area to explore the many waterfalls and hikes of DuPont State Forest. Or link up with Davidson River Outfitters for an exceptional fly fishing expedition.
It’s nearly the midpoint of this North Carolina mountain road trip. As all well-seasoned travelers know, it’s important to build rest and recovery time into any grand adventure to avoid burning out. To this end, head to Highlands, a cozy, small town that has a population of about 3,000 year-round residents and perches atop a plateau. If you’re still feeling spunky, there’s plenty to do, like exploring Whitewater Falls. It’s the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies. Or, head out to fish the Nantahala and Cullasaja. But if you need a day’s rest, book some time at The Spa at Old Edwards Inn. Expect European elegance articulated through wood and stone, a robust menu of services, and precisely the rejuvenation needed to launch into the next trip leg with a bit of spunk and curiosity.
From Highlands, head north to Sylva. Walkable and quaint, Sylva is saturated with breweries. You’ll find over 100 beers on tap just on Main Street and less than 3,000 residents around to drink them. Indulge with care, because this college town is the perfect springboard for a whitewater adventure that you won’t want to miss. Neighboring Dillsboro not only offers the charm of a bygone railroad town and small business shopping haven. It also provides convenient small boat access to the Tuckasegee River and a number of nearby outfitters offering whitewater rafting excursions.
Dry off and head north to Cherokee, where 11,000 years of tribal history are on display just a few miles from the present-day, vibrant home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. By virtue of its location at the edge of Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee is also a great location from which to explore this wilderness. The Smokies are America’s most visited national park and with good reason. Fog-shrouded ridges stretch for miles and miles, teeming with incredibly diverse ecosystems of flora and fauna. If you can spare the time, spend a few days exploring this wilderness by foot or by car.
Sufficiently tuckered out by a few days spent deep in the forest, return to civilization by way of Asheville. With a buzzing live music scene and brewery presence rivaled only by Charlotte, Asheville is a hip hub for the weird and funky. Pop into its galleries and unique shops. Sample its award-winning restaurants like Cúrate, Chai Pani, and Rhubarb. Catch a concert at the Orange Peel, and raise a craft brew to your ultimate North Carolina mountain road trip.
Blue Ridge Parkway
When the time comes to say goodbye to Asheville, soften the sting of your departure by hopping on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This one-of-a-kind roadway may not be the most direct path to your destination, but it will offer the greatest journey. The Parkway will transport you through Pisgah National Forest and deliver unparalleled views of Blue Ridge vistas. Pull off the parkway and detour to Linville Gorge. You’ll encounter a dramatic outcropping of crags with zigzagging trails and staggering views. Then, complete a short hike to Linville Falls and cool off in a pool at the base off the falls.
Depending on how much gas you have left in the tank (both yours and your car’s), proceed to Roan Mountain for one last adventure. hike along the mountain’s spine, bordered by lush rhododendron gardens. Then camp in the highlands, which is arguably the most scenic area along the Carolina stretch of the AT.
Or, continue on to Banner Elk for one last dose of small-town mountain charm. Visit the Banner House Museum for a glimpse of 19th-century mountain life, or sample high country wines at Banner Elk Winery and Grandfather Vineyard and Winery before winding down at The Lodge at River Run.
Return home, intrepid traveler, feeling perhaps weary after taking the ultimate NC mountain road trip, but also wide-eyed with wonder at all that western North Carolina has to offer.