Visit historic sites, the beach, and carefree towns before exploring America’s most visited national park from its North Carolina entrance.
Start: Baltimore, Maryland
This airline hub has more inexpensive flights than DC airports and has seafront attractions worth an overnight. Stroll the arts district then gobble up the city’s delicacies as Baltimore is ranked second on Zagat’s list of top food cities.
Drive from Baltimore, MD to Gettysburg, PA – 59 miles
Gettysburg is the first of three U.S. history stops. Famous for a bloody Civil War battle and President Lincoln’s “four score” speech, the town has many historical sites and tours. After a colonial meal at the Dobbin House Tavern (http://www.dobbinhouse.com/) stroll down to Sunset Ice Cream Parlor and order the peanut butter flavor.
Drive from Gettysburg, PA to Washington, DC – 81 miles
Join millions of people each year who make the pilgrimage to the National Mall and Memorial Parks. Wind your way around the reflecting pool and the shores around Tidal Basin to visit an impressive selection of monuments to presidents and veterans. Then head down the grassy mall to the Smithsonian, a collection of museums exhibiting art, history, science, and culture. A favorite stop is the Apollo moon landing display at the Air and Space Museum. In the evening take a bus tour of the favorite Washington sights all lit up. Should you stay an additional day, pick from lesser-known yet elaborate museums such as the Spy Museum, or the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Drive from Washington, DC to Charlottesville, VA – 116 miles
Thomas Jefferson, third U.S. president, philosopher, scientist, historian, and author of the Declaration of the Independence, helped establish the foundations of self-government and individual freedom in the United States. Monticello was his home and a working plantation with a large community of workers of many races, both enslaved and free. Stroll around the grounds and take a guided tour of the architecturally unique home and cellars to get a picture of life in the 1700s.
Nearby in Charlottesville, have dinner at the Michie Tavern where they are stuck in time in the 18th century. If you have time, make a side trip to Shenandoah National Park northwest of town.
Virginia Beach, VA
Drive from Monticello to Virginia Beach – 179 miles
Get ready for two days of beach time. This town with reality-TV fame is full of opportunities for fun both on the water and the beachfront. Go fishing, paddleboarding, swimming, or just relax on the beach with a good book. Major attractions include an aquarium, whale watching cruises and sailing adventures.
Outer Banks of North Carolina
Drive from Virginia Beach to Kinnakeet via Nags Head – 126 miles
The Outer Banks (OBX) is a 200-mile long strip of islands along most of the coast of North Carolina. It is famous for its massive, open beachfront and for the location of the Wright Brothers’ pioneer airplane flight near the seafront town of Kitty Hawk. A little further down the road is Nags Head, established in the 1830s as North Carolina’s first tourist colony. Beach house rentals and hotels abound but this popular vacation spot requires reservations made well in advance. Favorite things to do in the OBX include air tours, kiteboarding, and visiting the Roanoke Marsh Lighthouse.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Drive from Kinnakeet, NC to Winston-Salem, NC – 320 miles
Salem, meaning peace, dates back to 1753 when Protestants from the Czech Republic established the colonial town in 1766. Sometimes mistaken for the the location of the Salem witch trials (that’s Salem, Massachusetts), you’ll find more colonial history than hocus pocus here. Take a tour of Old Salem and its historic gardens to engage with costumed actors demonstrating what life was like for residents during the 18th and 19th centuries. Must-see roadside attraction: the only remaining shell-shaped Shell gas station is at the corner of Sprague and Peachtree Streets.
Asheville, North Carolina
Drive from Winston-Salem to Asheville, NC – 145 miles
Asheville is known for its arts scene, historic architecture, and more recently, craft breweries. The number one attraction is the Biltmore Estate, a castle-like mansion built by George Vanderbult. The 75-acre estate includes the nation’s most-visit winery and hiking trails. In town, stroll the River Arts District to visit galleries and artist studios, then have libations at one of 25+ breweries including Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Highland, and Wicked Weed.
End: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Drive from Asheville to the remote Cataloochee Entrance – 42 miles
Drive from Asheville to the Cherokee Entrance – 52 miles
See our list of the Top 10 Things to Do in Great Smoky National Park