On this 430-mile trip from Charlotte, N.C., to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll experience the best of the South from food and history to gorgeous wilderness including waterfalls and autumn colors.
Start: Charlotte, N.C.
Start your epic road trip loop to the Great Smoky Mountains in Charlotte, North Carolina. Maybe you’re a resident of the Queen City and already know the fun that’s in store. But if not, Charlotte touts an international airport, so you can fly from your home city and then rent a car or RV to start your journey.
Before you do anything else, you’ll want to get a taste of the city with a tour. There are options for every audience. If you’re interested in the city’s darker past, check out the lantern-led Carolina History and Haunts Tour. If you’re looking for a cozy experience, head to the city center where you can catch a 20-minute to one-hour horse-drawn carriage ride through Uptown. Find yourself stifling giggles on most stuffy tours? Jump on the Funny Bus Comedy City Tour and you can laugh out loud. Choose from a PG-13 or R-rated tour and BYOB.
Local tip: Look for tours, especially historical tours, that allude to hornets. This might be in the form of a hornet’s nest symbol or the word “hornet” in the company or tour name. The hornet’s nest is Charlotte’s secret symbol of American spirit. The symbology comes from a supposed statement during the Revolutionary War made by British General Cornwallis. He called Charlotte a “hornet’s nest of rebellion” and the term stuck, becoming an icon of local pride. You’ll find it in everything from the city’s NBA team name to police badges.
Potentially the most important thing to know about the Carolinas is that the people who live there are very passionate about their barbecue and that the topic is very controversial. Don’t ask if mustard belongs in Carolina Barbecue Sauce. If you’re from a place where barbecue isn’t a topic to be avoided at parties like religion and politics, you’ll be delighted by any of Charlotte’s stops for the fare. For those who speak barbecue as a second language, we won’t pick favorites.
There’s nothing controversial about classic Southern food, luckily. For the most down-to-earth meal of your trip, head to Dish (1220 Thomas Avenue) in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. You’ll be greeted by a cozy atmosphere and the best Southern classics of your life. Think fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits and pimento cheese.
For a day jam-packed with adventure, head to the U.S. National Whitewater Center. The world’s largest man-made whitewater river, this center is where the U.S. Olympic team practices. You don’t have to be an Olympian to enjoy it, though. Encompassing 1,300 acres next to the Catawba River, you can stand-up paddleboard (also known as SUP), kayak, adventure raft or rodeo raft on everything from class II to IV water. The Whitewater Center is perfect for the whole family. Kids ages 4 and up can hop in a tandem kayak with an adult and kids 8 and up can kayak or SUP. If land is more your forte, hit up the climbing wall, ziplines, ropes courses or mountain biking trails. One-day, two-day, and single activity passes are available.
Whether you’re a NASCAR buff or you played with Hot Wheels as a kid, you’ll appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame. See cars from all generations that hit the track and tributes to the world’s best drivers before immersing yourself in the experience. Watch a film in the surround-sound equipped theatre to feel like you’re a part of the action, or jump in a replica stock car, equipped with the same iRacing virtual software the pros use to train. The simulators update weekly based on the real time race schedule, so you’ll be driving the same tracks as the pros, competing against other participants.
Chimney Rock State Park, N.C.
Two hours east of Charlotte lies Chimney Rock State Park. The park is named for a beautiful rock outcropping that gives visitors incredible views of up to 75 miles of Lake Lucre and Hickory Nut Gorge. Getting to the view is the real adventure, however. Take the Outcropping Trail, where you’ll ascend 491 stairs to get to the viewpoint. Your heart will be pounding at the top.
North Carolina State Parks knows that not everyone is up for this kind of climb, so a seasonal elevator offers a milder route. At the elevator’s top, only 44 stairs separate you from the viewpoint. The elevator itself is an adventure, carved into the solid rock and terminating in the Sky Lounge, a gift shop in the air.
Chimney Rock is also the perfect place to see the fall colors. Peak leaf-peeping season is mid-October. Look for hickories, poplars, white oaks and birches turning gold and yellow and red oaks, sourwoods and maples in hues of red and orange.
Forty-five minutes west of Chimney Rock State Park, you’ll find yourself in the city of Asheville, N.C.
George Washington Vanderbilt II, American businessman of the prominent Vanderbilt family, felt the pull of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He built the largest home in America there in Asheville in 1895. The Biltmore Estate is more than 8,000 acres featuring beautiful gardens designed by the same mastermind behind Central Park in New York City, a vineyard, a working farm, the country’s most complete collection of azaleas and a castle with over 650 rooms. The estate is one of the biggest attractions in Asheville. Certain peak season days are reservation-only, and tickets sell out quickly, so advance purchase is highly recommended. Spend the day exploring the estate from an audio-tour of the castle to complimentary wine tastings in the vineyard. The 8,000-acre estate offers horseback riding, fly-fishing, river-rafting, mountain biking and more on 22 miles of trails. Make sure to stop by Antler Hill Village to meet the farm animals and get a taste of what life was like for workers at Biltmore. Six restaurants, a multitude of shops and three lodging options on-site make it easy to spend a whole weekend there. Make sure to check the calendar for special events like summer concerts and Christmas at Biltmore.
If you’re a foodie, Asheville is the place for you. Start by getting hyper-local and experiencing the bounty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Join a No Taste Like Home tour offered daily, year-round to learn how to identify and forage local wild plants and mushrooms. These tours will also teach you about cooking with wild foods, home remedies and home brews.
While we promised we wouldn’t get into the barbecue debate, a stop at Buxton Hall is a must. Named one of Bon Appetit magazine’s best new restaurants in 2016 and rated Southern Living’s best barbecue in North Carolina in 2019, we won’t sing the praises of their meats and sauces. The number one, must-try item on the menu? The collard greens. This humble side is amped up a notch with pork fat and pork broth and a finishing touch of cider vinegar. Don’t forget to try the desserts.
Asheville and craft beer go together like peanut butter and jelly. To really sample all the city has to offer in the form of brews, jump on a pub-cycle, a human-powered engine to get you from craft brewery to craft brewery.
Ashville is a haven for creatives of all types. After experiencing architectural, food and drink wonderment, head to the River Arts District, known to locals as RAD, to take in the arts scene. Full of working art studios and galleries, you’ll be inspired as you trek through the district. Start with a coffee from Ultra Coffee Bar to fuel your journey and pop in and out of spaces, watching makers create and perusing finished pieces. If you’re feeling ambitious, stop by the Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts for a drop-in class.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a beautiful area of the Appalachian Mountains spanning from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia south to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Join the parkway at mile marker 364 and enjoy the diverse scenery, beautiful any time of the year, as you drive to Cherokee,N.C., gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Much of the land you see along the parkway was first inhabited by Native Americans. The Cherokee tribe in North Carolina still live on a reservation in the area, which the parkway passes through. Stop at the Lickstone Parking Overlook to learn more about their influence on the land.
Along the way, make sure to stop at Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, from which two short and beautiful trails will give you an up close and personal taste of the country you’re driving through. The Craggy Gardens Trail is a 0.8 mile loop through beautiful rhododendrons, hardwood forests and blueberry patches. The Craggy Pinnacle Trail is a 0.7 mile hike, located at a mile above sea level, that yields 360-degree breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
At the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ll stop in Cherokee, N.C. before heading into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Stop by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to learn more about the first people to inhabit the national park. You may be surprised to hear a very different perspective on the history of the Trail of Tears and the Indian Removal Act than you’ll find at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, operated by the National Park Service; a reminder to always keep an open mind and listen to all viewpoints.
Oconaluftee Islands Park gives you an opportunity to stretch your legs and relax after a long drive. Float down the river in an innertube or cross over a bridge to the grassy island the park is named for and fish from the docks or eat lunch at a picnic table. The park is easily accessible from downtown Cherokee, so you can stay until sunset before heading back to town to grab a bite to eat.
Get an early start to hike to the popular Mingo Falls – you’ll avoid crowds and the heat of the day. The 120-foot ethereal cascade is not technically in the park. It’s on the Cherokee Reservation. It’s a 0.4 mile walk to the falls, but beware, it’s steep. It’s one of the tallest waterfalls in the southern Appalachians.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The moment you’ve been waiting for – Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Check out our Top 10 Things to Do in the park to make the most of your visit.
Head back out of the Cherokee entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and head north to the remote Cataloochee park entrance. This valley surrounded by 6,000 foot peaks is filled with historic buildings preserved from when the town was one of the most prosperous settlements in what is now the park, and is home to a herd of elk. The rustic, narrow road is open seasonally.
Hot Springs, N.C.
Hot Springs, N.C. is home to the only hot springs in the state. For a truly unique soaking experience, book a mountain cabin at Broadwing Farms, which includes access to hot springs-fed tubs. Otherwise, head to Hot Springs Resort and Spa, which has hot tubs available by the hourly rental.
This destination is popular with Appalachian Trail through-hikers to soak their weary bones. Strike up a conversation with your fellow travelers and you may hear some interesting stories about life on the trail.
If you’re up for a hike, park downtown and do the two-mile loop to Lover’s Leap, a rocky outcropping with beautiful views of the French Broad River and surrounding area. The name refers to an old legend of a lovesick woman leaping from the rocks. It’s not a place to jump in the river, so don’t be fooled.
End: Charlotte, N.C.
End your road trip with a three-hour drive back to Charlotte and get ready to start sorting through pictures of your amazing trip.