North Carolina loves to brag about being the state that brought aviation to the world. Travelers, however, don’t seem to care too much. While they do visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, a site which draws just over 450,000 visitors each year, tourists seem to be drawn more to North Carolina’s other attractions. But perhaps that’s more because North Carolina has so much to offer.
It isn’t a surprise that out of 50 states, North Carolina ranks in the top eighth in tourism. Each year, about 65 million people come to this state to enjoy its natural beauty. North Carolina boasts three distinct tourist regions: the mountains, the “heartland” or Piedmont, and the coast. Each region can stand on its own, offering myriad choices for even the savviest of travelers.
Before the arrival of Europeans, North Carolina was inhabited by the Native Americans, among them the Cherokee. In 1585, the British attempted a settlement at Roanoke Island, their first in the New World. It failed and the colony mysteriously vanished. Eventually, the Cherokees were forced out of North Carolina by the U.S. government in the 1830s and relocated to Oklahoma.
During the 19th century, North Carolina permitted slavery but few residents actually owned any. Many of the freed blacks were welcomed into the state. North Carolina, in fact, originally supported the Union until Lincoln called upon them to volunteer troops. North Carolinians saw this as an impingement on their freedom and decided to join the Confederates. Many small and inconsequential battles were fought in North Carolina.
In the years following the Civil War, North Carolina struggled economically, although not as severely as its southern neighbors. Eventually, the state recovered by focusing on agriculture and manufacturing, especially of textiles. In the early 20th century, North Carolina launched an initiative to strengthen its education system. Today, the state remains reputed for its manufacturing of textiles and its fine universities, which include University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, Wake Forest University and North Carolina State University.
Attractions – Mountains
This region of North Carolina is comprised of mountains that belong to the Appalachian chain, which runs along the state’s western interior.
Great Smoky Mountains
In the southwest of this chain within North Carolina are the Great Smoky Mountains. Designated as a national park in the 1930s, the Smoky Mountains attract about 10 million people every year, easily the most popular national park in the entire United States. And winding through the Smokies in scenic fashion is the famous 470 mile Blue Ridge Parkway, more than half of which traverses within North Carolina. The road passes through a wonderland of wildflowers, foliage, craggy mountains, green valleys, ridges and peaks, cascading waterfalls and gorges, and panoramic vista bluffs. You can stop along dozens of state and memorial parks, or at the myriad designated hiking trails, waterfalls, and mountains along the way, and enjoy various outdoor treats: such as a nice picnic, a camp overnight, a scenic hike up to a vista point, a swim at the base of a dramatic waterfall, or a serious mountain climb up a peak like the 6,000-foot Shining Rock or the 6,685-foot Mount Mitchell.
Much of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina are forested by hardwood. The best time to visit may well be in the autumn or winter. In autumn, the foliage from the hundreds of different trees provides a mosaic of brilliant colors – the stuff of award-winning photography. In the winter, some of the mountains are dumped by more than 30 inches of snow, making skiing and snowboarding possible.
Be sure to stop by Grandfather Mountain near Linville. This 5,965 feet mountain is very popular among tourists, featuring the famous mile-high swinging bridge, which is the highest in the U.S. The mountain also hosts the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games each year, a celebration of Scottish games and music.
The main city in the Appalachian Mountains is Asheville, which features the Biltmore Estate, a 250-room French renaissance chateau encompassing 175,000 square feet. The mansion is the largest privately owned house in the U.S. and has been designated a historic landmark. It was built by George Vanderbilt and features a landscaped spring garden and winery. This fortress alone attracts one million visitors every year.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino
If you are a gambler, you can visit the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in the town of Cherokee. The town is part of the Cherokee Indian Reservation and a third of the population is Cherokee. You can visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, or the Qualla Arts and Crafts Center if you are interested in learning more about Cherokee history and culture.
Attractions – Piedmont
North Carolina’s Piedmont region, on the other hand, consists of pristine lakes, fertile farmland, and rolling plains and foothills interrupted only by the odd rock boulder. It is one of the most dynamic economic regions in the United States. The agricultural output of the Piedmont is impressive, producing tobacco, cotton, vegetables and peanuts. But the Piedmont is also home to the largest cities in North Carolina, the headquarters of major financial institutions and factories that churn out textiles and furniture.
The Piedmont is also the cradle of the North Carolina’s impressive system of state universities with campuses at Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Greensboro, among others. The main attractions of the Piedmont are more urban than natural. You’ll find the best golf courses, shopping complexes, and historic sites in the Piedmont. The main cities to visit include Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Chapel Hill.
If you are in the neighborhood, be sure to visit the town of Mount Airy, which is the town that inspired the TV show Mayberry, starring Andy Griffith.
Attractions – Coast
North Carolina’s coast features more than 300 miles of beaches and islands, offering fishing, boating, and other water-based activities. The coast is sunny most of the year, warmed by the Gulf Stream. The region is characterized by white sandy beaches, wetlands full of flora and fauna, giant sand dunes, and a series of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. This was also the site of the first British settlement back in the 16th century, which mysteriously vanished. In this region, you’ll also find the popular port and beach town of Wilmington and the town of Kitty Hawk, where the first successful flight by the Wilbur Brothers took place.
Lost Colony – Roanoke Island
The “must” attractions along the coastal region include the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, which is part of the barrier islands. In 1587, more than a hundred men, women, and children settled in the first British colony in North America. They mysteriously disappeared. Some believe they were killed by the Indians as the word “CROATOAN” is seen scratched on a tree, which could refer to the Croatoan Indians.
North Carolina Aquarium
At Fort Fisher in Kure Beach, the North Carolina Aquarium is another worthwhile attraction. The aquarium features sea horses, sea urchins, bass, box turtles, perch, red lionfish, cuttlefish, sharks, stingrays, moray eels, scorpion fish, hawkfish, cardinalfish, surgeonfish, anemones, and living corals, among other marine creatures. They all swim amid replica Cape Fear shoals and reefs. The museum’s purpose is to educate the public about the marine life found in the Cape Fear region.
Wilbur Brothers National Memorial
Of course, whether you are an aviation aficionado or not, you should visit the Wilbur Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devils near Kitty Hawk. It is the site of the first successful flight. The memorial features a granite monument dedicated to the brothers, and a museum that exhibits the artifacts related to the flight experiments including a replica of the gliders used by the Wilburs.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
If you are somehow fascinated by historic lighthouses, you may want to check out the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. It stands 208 feet high and is the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S.