North Carolina Road Trip Itinerary: What to Eat, Drink, and Do in the Tar Heel State

The diversity of North Carolina makes it a top destination for tourism and the extra beautiful mountain region makes the the top of the list for places to visit within the state. The best way to see what North Carolina’s mountains offer is by experiencing them through scenic drives and stops in the cities that offer quaint places to stay, incredible restaurants, and lots of activities to fill your time. Below is a guide to help inspire your next North Carolina road trip. It all starts by landing in Asheville, the state’s most progressive and welcoming community, where you can pick up your car rental and head to town.

Day 1: Asheville

Arrive in Asheville and check into the Windsor Asheville, an all-suite boutique property with kitchens, living rooms, and a private bedroom located in the heart of downtown.

Biscuit Heads
Biscuit Heads

Food and Drink

    • Biscuit Head: If you’re a fan of biscuits, this might just be your nirvana. Options range from savory to sweet.
    • The Corner KitchenLocated in one of the historic Biltmore Village homes, Corner Kitchen is a favorite among locals and visitors. The corned beef hash and creamy grits are a signature breakfast item.
    • Buxton Hall: James Beard Award-winning chefs Meherwan Irani and Elliott Moss opened up their new place, which honors the mountain tradition of pit-cooked, whole-hog, slow-cooked barbecue. It’s everything you will have hoped for.
  • Rhubarb: The James Beard Foundation named chef John Fleer one of the “Rising Stars of the 21st Century” and his passion for Appalachian food traditions is reflected in his menus and revival of the Sunday night supper, a family-style meal experience.
  • Sovereign Remedies: Charlie Hodge, who creates beverage programs for restaurants across the country, has partnered with Asheville “Mushroom Man” Alan Muskat to create cocktails with foraged ingredients.
  • Top of the Monk: Top of the Monk has been named one of the best pre-Prohibition era craft cocktail bars in the country. Once you order your drink, make sure to get a key to receive a special bar bite in an old post office box!
north carolina road trip guide biltmore estate

What to Do

  • Asheville Bee CharmerThe two locations of Asheville Bee Charmer showcase local and regional bee-themed skincare products, housewares and gifts, sweet treats, and, of course, honey.
  • Battery Park Book Exchange: An eclectic vintage bookstore that serves Champagne — you can’t really go wrong here.
  • Ben’s Penny Mart: Grab an incredible deli sandwich or hot dog from local vendor Foothills Meats at the Ben’s Penny Mart bodega. While in the area, hit up some of the breweries, including Burial Brewing, Catawba Brewing, Green Man, Hi-Wire, Twin Leaf, and the Funkatorium (Wicked Weed’s sour beer headquarters). Try a bottle of Ben’s house-made sake back at the Penny Mart.
  • Biltmore: It’s hard to pass up a trip to the Biltmore estate, the largest private home in America. There’s more than just the house tour: the property offers a winery tour and tasting, as well as two hotels.
  • Herbiary: This downtown shop offers organic and pesticide-free herbs and teas, phthalate-free skincare, and great gift ideas.

Day 2: Waynesville

Depart for Waynesville, a 40-minute drive from Asheville. Upon arriving, check into The Swag, perched 5,000 feet above the cares of the world. This bed-and-breakfast offers breathtaking views from the mountaintops complemented by luxurious accommodations, award-winning service and cuisine, and a private entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s important to note that The Swag is located in “dry country” but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring a few libations that you picked up in Asheville with you!

north carolina road trip guide swag

Food and Drink

  • Joey’s Pancake HouseEven people who never order pancakes anywhere else swear by the ones served here, so they are worth a visit.
  • Bourbon BarrelLook forward to a wonderful selection of all-natural steaks from local farms as well as microbrews and ales from local brewers.
  • Sweet Onion: The regional cuisine here includes everything from southern fried chicken to pastas to fresh mountain trout.
  • Haywood Smokehouse: Expect true mountain barbecue, smoked fresh every day — just don’t get there late because once it’s gone, it’s gone!
  • The Chef’s Table: Fresh, seasonal, local foods and produce paired with wines from around the world.
  • Cataloochee RanchThis nearby guest ranch has trails for horseback riding or mountain hiking.
  • Boojum Brewing: One of Haywood County’s best craft microbreweries, it has its tasting room/restaurant next door to the Waynesville Visitor Center.
  • Wheels Through Time: Even if you don’t love motorcycles, this museum is pretty incredible. Home to the world’s premier collection of rare American vintage motorcycles, the museum more than 300 rarities and classics from Harley-Davidson, Indian, Excelsior, Crocker, Henderson, Flying Merkel, and more.
  • The Swag: Breakfast specialties include cider-simmered oatmeal, omelets made to order, breakfast breads, bacon, country sausage, and fresh juice. The dinner bell rings at 7:00 p.m.; enjoy a four-course meal in the candlelit dining room and get to know the other lucky guests staying there.

Day 3: Waynesville

Today is all about driving and exploring the scenic mountain roads. Start off with a hefty breakfast and load up on snacks or stop along the drive as you wish to grab a bite. This is what you came for, so spend less time worrying about food and more time taking in the views.

blue ridge parkway
Pierre Leclerc Photography/Getty Images

What to Do

  • Blue Ridge Parkway Loop: Enjoy the morning exploring “America’s Favorite Drive.” Haywood County’s 46 miles of the 469-mile parkway is the highest elevated section, so get your camera ready for some epic photographs. Hop onto the Blue Ridge Parkway via U.S. 19, just outside of Maggie Valley, which will start you at Mile Marker 455. As you head north toward Asheville (note that marker numbers decrease), make a point to stop at Waterrock Knob (MM 451.2) for 365-degree views and Richland Balsam (MM 431.4), the highest peak on the parkway at 6,411 feet. You can hop off the parkway at three places: Mile Marker 443.1 Balsam Gap US 74-23 Crossover; Mile Marker 423.3 Beech Gap. NC 215 Crossover; Mile Marker 412.2 Wagon Road Gap US 276 Crossover. If you choose to explore all 46 miles, which will take you several hours with stops, here are few other points of interest: MM 417 Looking Glass Rock; MM 418.8 Graveyard Fields Overlook; and MM 422.4 Devil’s Courthouse Parking Area.
  • Cataloochee Valley: One of the most remote areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the valley provides a look back in time to one of the area’s original pioneer settlements. The winding trails also lead to hikes as well as to views of the elk, which are most commonly seen at dusk, and have flourished, with more than 100 now living in and around the valley.

Day 4: Highlands

Depart for Highlands (about 90 minutes away) and check into the Old Edwards Inn & Spa, a European-style retreat. The main inn takes over four city blocks and includes the spa, their signature restaurant, shops, cottages, and even a heated outdoor mineral pool.

north carolina road trip guide old edwards inn

Food and Drink

  • Bistro on Main: You’ll find salads, sandwiches, and entrees at the Main Street Inn’s restaurant.
  • Madison’s: The Old Edwards’s signature restaurant, spearheaded by chef Johannes Klapdohr, is considered the classiest place in town and with good reason. Let the staff guide you through the extensive menu.
  • Wild Thyme Gourmet: Expect American cuisine with an Asian influence.
  • Wine Garden: This spot promises al fresco dining with a menu of salads, sandwiches, and entrees, as well as an assortment of local craft beer.
north carolina road trip guide highlands botanical garden and nature center

What to Do

  • Highlands Botanical Garden and Nature Center: Part of the Highlands Biological Station research facility, the center features some of the area’s natural wonders.
  • Hike to Sunset Rock: Leave the car at the nature center and walk over to what leads to a natural amphitheater along the cliffside.
  • Satulah Mountain Brewing Co.: Beyond the local brew, Satulah boasts the largest local draft beer selection in town.
  • The Ugly Dog Pub: This classic tavern will make you feel right at home.
  • Waterfall drive: See Bridal Veil Falls on US 64/28, which cascades 120 feet over the highway. Dry Falls, also on US 64/28 W, is a 75-foot waterfall that visitors can walk behind. Glen Falls, on NC 106 S, is a series of three large falls, dropping about 60 feet each.

Day 5: Asheville

Wake up today and start the 90-minute drive back to Asheville. On the way, make sure to stop at neighboring Cashiers or Brevard, two other small mountain towns that are charming and worth exploring before heading home.

Article originally published on April 5, 2019.


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