The 10 Best National Parks in North Carolina to Visit

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With all of its natural beauty and rich (yet sometimes turbulent) history, it’s unsurprising to realize that so much of the state of North Carolina has been protected as U.S. National Parks. 
From outstanding swaths of biodiversity to Civil War battlefields and pristine coastlines, there are seemingly endless adventures to be found at the 12 North Carolina National Parks.
If you visit the National Parks in the Carolinas, you may find yourself deep in the old-growth forests of the Appalachian Mountains, or on perfect beaches far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life.
With so many National Forests and North Carolina State Parks also in the mix, we’re spoiled for beautiful places to visit in North Carolina.
Compiling this North Carolina National Parks list has inspired us to leave our homestead off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Elkin NC and explore the beauty of the eastern side of the state. 
Read on for our in-depth guide to the best National Parks in North Carolina, including National Scenic Trails, Historic Sites, Battlefields, and National Seashores.

Best National Parks in North Carolina Guide

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  2. Appalachian National Scenic Trail
  3. Blue Ridge Parkway
  4. Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
  5. Moores Creek National Battlefield
  6. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
  7. Wright Brothers National Memorial
  8. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
  9. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
  10. Cape Lookout National Seashore

READ MORE: 20 Best Things to Do in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina

View from the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina
View from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains NP, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Official Website

The magnificent ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains straddle the broader between North Carolina and the state of Tennessee.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the USA’s most visited parks, drawing around 15 million people annually. It’s the place to be if you’re seeking North Carolina national parks for camping.

This park is world-renowned for its diversity of flora and fauna, the Cataloochee Valley Elk, and its preservation of Appalachian history (see: Mingus Mill, the Mountain Farm Museum, etc).

We especially love the myriad Great Smoky Mountains Campgrounds, such as the Smokemont Campground  with its trailheads to the Smokemont Loop trail and Bradley Fork Trail.

Check out the Cades Cove Visitor Center, the Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

There are also magnificent Smoky Mountains waterfalls in and around the park. With so many things to see and do here, is it any wonder people like us return to visit the Smoky Mountains time after time?

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee NC
Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

2. Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Official Website

If you’re looking for National Parks near Charlotte NC, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is likely the closest, at just over 3 hours away.

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a world-renowned hiking trail that meanders through woodlands, pastures, and farmland for 2190 miles, from North Georgia to Maine.

Conceived in 1921 and completed in 1937, the trail is managed by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and hundreds of volunteers. 

North Carolina is home to 95.7 miles of the AT, but another 224.7 miles of the trail run along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee

The Appalachian Trail in North Carolina boasts the highest point on the entire route, with Clingmans Dome towering at a whopping 6,643 feet in elevation. 

It takes 6 to 7 days of hiking to complete the NC portion of the Appalachian Trail, passing through Bly’s Gap as you cross into NC and right through the tiny town of Hot Springs. 

READ MORE: The 10 Best Things To Do in Hot Springs NC

Autumn Leaves at the Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

3. Blue Ridge Parkway

Official Website

The Blue Ridge Parkway is distinct from the country’s many other National Parks.

It encompasses 469 miles of scenic road that takes visitors through some of the most jaw-dropping vistas in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This unique North Carolina National Park runs through Virginia as well, stretching from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

If you want to run the BRP milepost markers in numerical order, the parkway runs from north to south, starting in Waynesboro VA at Milepost 0 and ending on Cherokee NC at Milepost 469.

In our experience, there are a vast number of remarkable, unmissable stops on the North Carolina portion of the Parkway, including 132 scenic overlooks.

Our personal favorites include the town of Little Switzerland NCCrabtree Falls (MP 339.5), Craggy Gardens (MP 364), and a host of beautiful waterfalls and hiking trails along the way. 

READ MORE: The 15 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hotels & Cabin Rentals in NC & VA


North Carolina Historic Sites & Battlefields

Carl Sandburg Historic Site in Flat Rock NC
Carl Sandburg’s home at the National Historic Site, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

4. Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

Official Website

If you’re a fan of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, writer, and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, then a trip to his home site in Flat Rock (near Hendersonville NC) is a must!

While the home gave Mr. Sandburg the peace and tranquility he needed for his craft, Mrs. Sandburg used the rest of the 30 acres to raise goats

Guests of this National Park in North Carolina may take guided tours of the house itself, as well as the goat farm, flower and vegetable gardens, and an apple orchard

There are also 5 miles of hiking trails to be enjoyed on the property, as well as two lakes.

The historic site also hosts various events throughout the year, from music festivals to plays, which can be found advertised on the property’s Facebook page.

READ MORE: The Best Hendersonville Apple Orchards for Apple Picking & More

National Parks North Carolina - Moores Creek National Battlefield
Moores Creek National Battlefield, photo courtesy

5. Moores Creek National Battlefield

Official Website

The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge was instrumental in North Carolina’s fight for independence during the Revolutionary War. Shortly after NC’s independence was declared, 12 more states followed suit. 

On February 27, 1776, nearly 1,000 NC patriots were lying in wait to fire at the charging (and soon-to-be surprised) band of King George loyalists. 

After losing a few men, the Loyalists surrendered, which led to the end of British rule in the colony and inspired the vote for independence. 

Guests can head to the historic site’s Visitor Center to view a video and see exhibits depicting the battle. A number of the original weapons used in the battle remain on display. 

Visitors can tour the battlefield by following the 1-mile trail that connects all of the historic points, such as the loyalists’ campsite, to the Bridge Monument and the bridge itself.

While you’re there, don’t miss a chance to visit the Patriot Monument. It commemorates the only patriot soldier killed in the battle, Pvt. John Grady. 

READ MORE: 7 Covered Bridges in North Carolina You Can Visit in 1 Day

National Parks in the Carolinas - Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, photo courtesy of

6. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

Official Website

When visiting this NC National Park, you’ll find yourself on the grounds of another very important Revolutionary War battlefield

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was fought on March 15, 1781. This 2.5-hour battle between General Greene and Lord Cornwallis’ troops changed the course of the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. 

Even if you’re not a history buff, this park provides an abundance of beautiful nature for you to enjoy, with free self-guided walking and driving tours

Start at the Visitor Center, where you can speak to park rangers who can give you the lowdown on the battlefield, as well as other attractions in the park.

Informative exhibits at the Visitor Center include original artifacts from the important battle. 

READ MORE:The 10 Best Things to Do in Winston Salem NC

kitty hawk national park
Kitty Hawk Kite, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

7. Wright Brothers National Memorial

Official Website

Fans of Orville and Wilbur Wright, aviation, and/or magnificent feats in human history should visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in the Outer Banks.

This NC National Park is located in Kill Devil Hills, but it was once (famously) known as Kitty Hawk.

There’s a 60-foot granite monument that commemorates the moment when the Wright Brothers successfully achieved the world’s first controlled flight on December 17, 1903. 

The Kitty Hawk National Park offers tours, with markers pinpointing successful launching and landing points during their attempts. It also has a Visitor Center with several museums celebrating a century of flight.

This park offers a great blend of history, museums, and a beautiful beach-adjacent site that appeals to just about anyone. You can even go hang gliding on the famous dunes!

READ MORE: 10 Great Train Rides in North Carolina

National Parks near Raleigh NC - Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, photo courtesy of

8. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Official Website

Located in Manteo NC, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is packed with history and legends.

Managed by the National Park Service, this historic site was home to the mysterious Lost Colony of Roanoke which disappeared 400 years ago much to the bewilderment of current historians and archaeologists. 

There’s an extensive Visitor Center packed with ancient artifacts that were excavated nearby, plus mounds marked as the “resting place” of the fort that stood in the 1580s.

Visitors can also watch the Lost Colony theatrical production outdoors at Waterside Park, or wander around the Queen’s Rose Garden to get a feel for Elizabethan gardens

They also have impressive exhibitions on the Algonquian people, early English settlers, the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, and the Civil War Battle of Roanoke Island.

There is also a video to watch about the relationship between the English settlersand the Algonquian people.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Romantic Getaways in NC (Cabins, Inns & Resorts)


North Carolina National Seashore Parks

North Carolina National Seashore - Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore Lighthouse photo courtesy of

9. Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Official Website

If you visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you’ll witness one of the largest preserved parcels of land in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

This National Seashore stretches some 70 miles, and encompasses several villages along the way. 

Visitors can enjoy coastal cruises along this North Carolina National Seashore. Birding, fishing, and surfing are also popular activities here, as are taking long walks on the beach and scenic drives.

Over a million people visit the Cape Hatteras National Seashore each year, yet in our experience you often feel as though you have the beach all to yourself.

While exploring the sands, take a moment to think about the nation’s indigenous people, who lived here long before the European settlers came and ultimately forced them out.

READ MORE: The 20 Best NC Swimming Holes for Summer

Outer Banks National Park - Cape Lookout National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore photo by Joe Wilber courtesy of

10. Cape Lookout National Seashore

Official Website

From birding and camping to climbing lighthouses, fishing, and wandering around historic villages, there’s something for everyone on the barrier islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore.

One of several fantastic national parks in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Cape Lookout boasts 56 miles of beautiful coastline that is only accessible by passenger ferry or personal boat.

Established in 1966, the park was designated a North Carolina Natural Heritage Site 20 years later. Today, guests can find rustic campgrounds and an informative Visitor Center.

Note that if you do choose to visit, you’ll need to take all the essentials you might need with you, as there are no shops or commercial facilities here. 

But if “roughing it” isn’t an issue for you, be ready to experience nature’s  beauty at its most pristine!  -by Emma Gallagher, featured image of Newfound Gap by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett


Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

Born in Britain, writer/photographer Emma Gallagher lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC on a permaculture homestead with her husband, Jonathon. While traveling the world for 13 years, she fell in love with the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge region when she lived at an artist retreat in Burnsville NC before moving to Brevard. Today Emma lives near Stone Mountain State Park and Doughton Park volunteers at the Surry County Fiddlers Convention, and cares for the gardens at the Reeves Downtown School of Music in Elkin. She's also a volunteer for the Elkin Valley Trails Association, which maintains segment 6 of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.