I've Lived in North Carolina My Whole Life, and These Are the Most Underrated Destinations in the State

A North Carolina local shares some hidden gems in the Tar Heel State.

<p>Visit NC </p>

Visit NC

Compared to many other U.S. states, North Carolina is not particularly large, but it is deceptively wide. We Tar Heels often use the phrase “from Murphy to Manteo” — extreme western and eastern towns — when referring to something statewide. (The distance between the two is about 8.5 hours by car.)

One of the top benefits of living in such a broad state is its proximity to diverse geographic features. From my home, I can be relaxing in the sun on the coast in less than three hours, or head in the opposite direction and follow a waterfall trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains in just a little more. And with the Uwharrie Mountains on one end and the Sandhill peach farm on the other, I don’t have to leave my own county to experience the best of both worlds.

If you’re ready to venture out of the big cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro, these 10 underrated destinations in North Carolina will show you a different side of the Tar Heel State — a road less traveled, if you will — recommended by a lifelong resident. Remember, sometimes it’s OK to get a little lost.

Uwharrie Mountains, Montgomery County

<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

Montgomery County has to be one of the most underrated areas in North Carolina, and I should know because it has been my family’s home for generations. Rumored to be a hideout for Bigfoot, the Uwharrie National Forest, which covers approximately 51,000 acres, makes the perfect hiding spot for the elusive beast — or anyone else looking to get away from it all. If you come, you’ll need a car, but a four-wheel-drive vehicle is even better if you want to explore the forest. ATV riding, kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, and hunting are popular outdoor activities here. Those who prefer exploring by water can take a guided kayak tour with River Daisy Outdoor Co. or rent a pontoon at Tillery Boat Rentals and cruise Lake Tillery, a popular location for bass tournaments. After a day on the lake, visitors can pull right up to River Wild to dine.

A great way to hit the area's highlights is to complete the Uwharrie Passport Program offered through the Discover Uwharrie Welcome Center. A scavenger hunt of sorts, participants locate 10 places of significance in the region, including the Uwharrie Mercantile; the North Carolina Pottery Center in nearby Seagrove, and Starworks, a working art studio housed in a former school. My favorite has always been Town Creek Indian Mound, the state's only historic site dedicated to Native Americans.

The Uwharrie National Forest has several campgrounds, too, and those looking for more modern conveniences should check out the Wade-Arscott House or Star Hotel Bed & Breakfast.

Maggie Valley

<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

When I was a child, my family went to the Great Smoky Mountains for a few days every August. Maggie Valley was always our home base because the small mountain town, situated along Jonathan Creek, was quiet and reminded my dad of home. Today, it’s still a perfect jumping-off point for exploring. Within 30 minutes, you can explore Native American culture at the Museum of the Cherokee People as well as the "Unto These Hills" outdoor drama in Cherokee, or Judaculla Rock near Sylva. You can also ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Dillsboro and Bryson City.

Start your day with breakfast at Joey’s Pancake House, a classic breakfast spot, then explore the hiking trails that lead to stunning waterfalls and visit the Wheels Through Time museum, which houses a collection of more than 350 American motorcycles, vehicles, and rare memorabilia.

Some of my favorite memories include driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, horseback riding, and our annual visits to Mingus Mill and the Mountain Farm Museum. Stellar photo opportunities can be found at Waterrock Knob, Clingmans Dome — the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, at 6,643 feet — and the Cataloochee Valley, a thriving habitat for native elk. After our daytime adventures, we spent our evenings exploring stores filled with local crafts and leather goods, like Cabbage Rose Gift Shop, and playing rounds of putt putt at Maggie Valley Carpet Golf.

The Jonathan Creek Inn still welcomes travelers to Maggie Valley, and in the winter months, the Cataloochee Ski Area is ideal for skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing.

White Lake

<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

Of Bladen County’s nearly 1,800 freshwater bay lakes, only five contain water year-round and just one — White Lake — has the distinction of being the "nation's safest beach," thanks to its calm, crystal-clear waters and gently sloping white sand.

The top draw here is, of course, the lake, and visitors can bring their own boats, kayaks, and wakeboards, or rent a pontoon from White Lake Marina & Watersports. Sunset cruises are also available. Goldston’s Beach is something of a hub for the lake community, and has been for generations.

Here, you'll find the pavilion with classic arcade games like Skee-Ball and carnival rides such as the 1947 Allan Herschell carousel, which still operates, plus putt putt, shopping, a Dairy Queen, and Goldston’s Pier. Nearby, Elizabethtown has the White Lake Water Park, with waterslides and go-karts, making it a favorite among kids. Most people drive to the lake, but a local trolley also runs on the weekends with six stops.

White Lake is now a stop on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a welcome respite for hikers seeking a little relaxation. Cottage rentals, local motels, and RV parks are still the most popular lodging options, and hundreds of teenagers come to the North Carolina FFA Center at White Lake each summer, the second-oldest FFA camp in the country.

Pinehurst and Southern Pines

<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

Pinehurst is synonymous with some of the best golfing in the world, but with the exception of the U.S. Open events, the village of Pinehurst and the adjacent town of Southern Pines stay under the radar. A short drive from my house, Pinehurst — designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect behind Central Park and the Biltmore Estate, and home to the magnificent Pinehurst Resort — has always seemed a world away. The bottom line is if you think Pinehurst is just for golfers, you are missing so much.

One of my favorites places to visit is the Pinehurst Harness Track. The industrial tycoons who used to winter in the village have now been replaced by standardbred race horses. Before they return home in the spring, a matinee race day is held at the Fair Barn, with people dressing up in Derby-like attire. It’s fun to grab a quick breakfast or lunch at the Pinehurst Track Restaurant.

Make the short drive to Southern Pines and stroll through the shops along Broad Street on both sides of the train tracks. The Country Bookshop and R. Riveter, an American-made handbag store that provides jobs for military spouses, are not to be missed.

The Sandhills Trolley Company in Southern Pines offers fun, alternative transportation with themed routes, or you can take a Foodie Tour to sample multiple local restaurants. One of my favorite times to visit is early in the year during the Painted Ponies Art Walk, when the pony sculptures are displayed along Broad Street before being auctioned off for the Carolina Horse Park Foundation.

Those spending the night have plenty of options like The Jefferson Inn in downtown Southern Pines or Tanglewood Farm B&B, located on a 10-acre horse farm. And if you’re looking for luxury, it’s tough to beat the Pinehurst Resort properties — The Carolina Hotel, The Manor, The Holly Inn, and The Magnolia Inn. The dining options here are superb and the spa is world-class.

Oak Island, Southport

<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

For more than 20 years, Oak Island has been a second home for me. Summer days spent basking in the Carolina sun, ending with s'mores around a fire with family and friends, are some of my favorite memories. With popular movies like "Safe Haven" and "Iron Man" filmed in the area, it’s hard to say the island is completely undiscovered, but compared to nearby Myrtle Beach, it’s decidedly low-key. You won’t find high-rise condos or chain restaurants here, and there’s still enough space for peaceful evening strolls and kids to ride bikes.

Taking a kayak tour with The Adventure Kayak Company or renting a golf cart is a fun way to explore, and be sure to make it to The Point, the far western end of island where you can see Holden Beach and go shelling.

Multigenerational trips where families rent houses are popular here, too, and the biggest nightlife activity is stargazing under the unpolluted sky and looking for fiddler crabs on the beach. Golf carts are a favorite mode of transportation, while T-shirts and flip-flops are the ubiquitous attire.

Make the short drive to the fishing village of Southport to eat fresh seafood brought in right off the boats docked in the port. Provision Company and Fishy Fishy Cafe are popular casual dining choices — I always go for the former’s grilled yellowfin tuna sandwich. After having a bite to eat, stroll along the white-picket-fence-lined streets and do a little shopping at The Christmas House, Ocean Outfitters, or Bullfrog Corner, my daughter’s favorite toy store. If you’re like my family, you’ll want to stop in the North Carolina Maritime Museum to complete a scavenger hunt and look through the periscope before leaving town.

Kannapolis, Cabarrus County

<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

Less than an hour northeast of Charlotte, the Cabarrus County towns of Kannapolis, Midland, and Harrisburg are most often associated with Nascar and the Charlotte Motor Speedway, thanks to the area’s bootlegging roots and the birth of auto racing as we know it. Growing up in the North Carolina Piedmont, auto racing was everywhere, and names like Hendrick, Roush, and Dale Earnhardt were bantered about in casual conversation. Their racing teams are still the backbone of the area’s economy, but these days, Cabarrus County is much less "Smokey and the Bandit" and more family-friendly destination.

Although Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt may be gone, the Kannapolis native’s legacy can be found everywhere in his hometown. Stop at the corner of Main and West B streets to see the 900-pound bronze memorial statue of the Intimidator, dressed in his signature cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans. Grab a bite to eat at 1950s Punchy’s Diner and go by Hendrick Motorsports for a behind-the-scenes view of race preparations. Don’t leave town without taking in a show at the classic Gem Theatre or watching a Kannapolis Cannon Ballers baseball game at Atrium Health Ballpark.

For those less interested in racing, you can descend into the Reed Gold Mine in Midland and learn about the site of the first documented gold find in the U.S.

If you venture into the larger city of Concord, it’s hard to find a more kid-friendly resort than Great Wolf Lodge. The only Bass Pro Shop in the state is located here, too, along with the Sea Life aquarium inside the Concord Mills shopping center.


<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

Ocracoke is one of those places you don’t end up in by accident. To get there, you either have to take one of the four ferry routes operated by the NC Ferry Division, a private boat, or fly in on a small private plane. On my first visit more than 20 years ago, I was immediately enamored by the wild ponies. Descended from Spanish mustangs that were shipwrecked off the island hundreds of years ago, they have been managed by the National Park Service (NPS) since 1959. They once roamed all over the island, but can now usually be seen at the Ocracoke Pony Pens off Highway 12.

Getting there is a bit of a challenge, but once you've arrived, you won't need a car to get around. You can walk, bike, or take a golf cart just about anywhere. History is everywhere on Ocracoke. The 1823 Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in North Carolina and the second-oldest in the country.

The Ocracoke Historic District, on the National Register of Historic Places, is the ultimate family destination. Being completely isolated, Ocracoke was a popular hangout for pirates, including Blackbeard, who was captured nearby. Many families have stayed on the island for generations, and you’ll notice native islanders have a distinct accent that's a mix of Southern, Appalachian, Irish, and Scottish. Many can trace their families back to William Howard, Blackbeard’s quartermaster.

If you visit Ocracoke, you might want to drop a fishing line. With its proximity to the Gulf Stream, the island has some of the best inshore and offshore fishing on the East Coast. Tuna, bass, bluefish, flounder, and trout can all be caught here.

There are excellent accommodation options as well. The Ocracoke Harbor Inn has nautical-themed rooms that overlook Silver Lake and The Castle Bed and Breakfast is known for its antique furnishings and famous breakfasts.

Mount Airy

<p>Mount Airy Tourism</p>

Mount Airy Tourism

North Carolina native Andy Griffith is a recognized figure around the country. What many don’t realize, though, is the town of Mayberry from Griffith’s classic television show was based on the real-life town of Mount Airy, a connection the Surry County community embraces.

When I visit, I like to start with a Mayberry Squad Car Tour, departing from Wally’s Service Station. Some stops include the granite quarry and house in which Griffith grew up, where visitors can actually spend the night.

Afterward, there’s still lots to take in along Main Street. A pork chop sandwich from Snappy Lunch, mentioned in the show, is not to be missed. My favorite stops include Floyd’s City Barber Shop, where Andy used to get his haircut, and Walker’s Soda Fountain, where you can get an old-fashioned milkshake. If you're craving even more sugar, stop in at Opie’s Candy Store for classic sweet treats.

But even if you’re not a fan of Griffith, there's plenty to love about Mount Airy. Follow the Surry Sonker Trail to try varieties of the cobbler-like Surry County dessert. Oenophiles, meanwhile, will enjoy the Surry County Wine Trail through the towns of Dobson, Elkin, Mount Airy, and Pilot Mountain. Visit nearby Pilot Mountain State Park, a popular spot for hiking, horseback riding, and camping, and known as Mount Pilot on the show.

New Bern

<p>Visit NC</p>

Visit NC

One good way to get started in New Bern is to take a trolley tour along the waterfront and historic streets. In addition to the city’s colonial past, it was settled by immigrants from Bern, Switzerland, and is a center of African American history. Be sure to stop in at The Birthplace of Pepsi, first known as “Brad’s Drink” when it was invented in 1893.

Aside from the famous beverage, New Bern is gaining a reputation as a culinary destination. Morgan's Tavern & Grill is a local favorite, known for its specialty hamburgers; Moore's Olde Tyme Barbeque has been around for decades and serves vinegar-based barbecue and hushpuppies; and Persimmons has waterfront views of the Neuse River.

During your visit, you may have some déjà vu if you’re familiar with Nicholas Sparks’ novels. The New Bern author included the city in three of his novels: "A Bend in the Road," "The Wedding," and "The Notebook." Take a walking tour to check out some of the settings featured in the books, including Union Point Park and the Alfred Cunningham Bridge.

If you can stay a few days, the city makes a great base camp for the Inner Banks region. Day trips to Cape Lookout and Aurora, known for fossil digging and the Aurora Fossil Museum, are a lot of fun, and Captain’s Quarters Inn and Granville Queen Inn offer both historic and tranquil lodging options.


<p>Sean Busher</p>

Sean Busher

Located about 40 minutes from Asheville, Burnsville doesn’t draw nearly as much attention as its neighbor to the south, but with more than 100 miles of hiking trails and beautiful waterfalls, it's equally impressive. If you, like me, prefer smaller towns, Burnsville is a great alternative for a quick mountain getaway.

Stroll through the picturesque Town Square and Main Street, and check out one of the locally owned shops and art galleries. There's plenty to do for those who like to explore the outdoors as well.

Both Roaring Fork Falls and Setrock Creek Falls are easily accessible from North Carolina Highway 80, and Crabtree Falls, located a little further on the Blue Ridge Parkway, is the most photographed waterfall in the state. Don't leave without ascending the observation deck at Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.

For something a bit less strenuous, jump in the car and drive one or more of the quilt block trails in the area. With approximately 150 colorful quilt blocks found on barns, buildings, and churches, the area has one of the largest concentrations anywhere in the U.S. When night falls, make your way to the Bare Dark Sky Observatory for a peek at the Southeast’s largest telescope dedicated to public use.

Burnsville’s small-town charm makes it a good choice for multigenerational groups. Cottage and cabin rentals are popular, but next time I’m in town, I’ve got my eye on The NuWray Hotel. Established in 1833, the popular three-story colonial inn is North Carolina's oldest continuously operating hotel, and it has been undergoing a full restoration.

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