Essential RV North Carolina:
Ridgeline to Coastline
by Jeanenne Tornatore
From national parks to NASCAR, travelers looking for variety in their RV trip will have no problem finding plenty of it in North Carolina. This southern state takes road trippers from the mountains to the coast with miles and miles of history, culture and hospitality in between.
The westernmost corner of the North Carolina is covered with the natural beauty of Great Smokey Mountains National Park, home to two not-to-miss National Forests – Nantahala National Forest and Pisgah National Forest and the ancestral home of the Cherokee tribe. With scenic drives, hidden waterfalls and roaring rapids, travelers with a taste for adventure will want this small but mighty region at the top of their itinerary.
Nantahala is the largest national forest in the state, covering over 531,000 acres with more than 200 hiking trails, dozens of waterfalls and its namesake River Gorge, with ample opportunity for year-round exploration. The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway winds 61 miles through the forest hitting many of its attractions along the way. Two campgrounds lie within forest boundaries—Standing Indian Campground and Van Hook Glade Campground. Both accommodate RV camping from April through October, though sites are primitive with no hookups. Numerous RV parks with full hookups can be found within 10 – 20 miles, including the Smokey Mountain Meadows Campground near Bryson City, NC.
With no shortage of ways to experience the mountains, the Pisgah National Forest has come to be called the “Grand Canyon of the East” with its challenging hikes that traverse 6,000 ft peaks, a natural water slide and miles of single-track for mountain bikers. Nearby accessibility to the communities of Brevard and Asheville make overnighting easy. In the forest, Black Mountain Campground literally rests in the shadow of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the U.S. and is a popular, yet primitive option (no hookups here). Plenty of other choices, like the Davidson River Campground (144 sites, full hookups) are available in and around the forest.
A trip to the Smokey Mountains isn’t complete without time spent learning about the culture and history of the Native American Cherokee. Established as its own sovereign nation, the town of Cherokee is the hub of activity, home of the Museum of the Cherokee and full of living history in the Oconaluftee Indian Village. There are many RV camping options right on the reservation with full hookups such as Indian Creek Campground and the Happy Holiday Campground.
Heading west into the foothills, travelers will want to stop in the bustling, eclectic artisan community of Asheville. Put on the map by the Vanderbilt family with the construction of their larger-than-life Biltmore Estate (worth a tour!), this charming town has evolved into a community of local artists and makes for a relaxing afternoon spent strolling the shops and galleries. Food is also an appreciated art in Asheville and the perfect reason for a culinary pit stop to indulge in the local farm-to-table flavors. While in the foothills, a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 469-mile National Park Service byway that connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Smokey Mountain National Park, is a must. If only for 10 to 20 miles, it’s well worth the detour. Staying in town is easy with RV parks like family-owned Asheville Bear Creek RV Park at the junction of Interstates 40 & 240 and the French Broad Riverfront Campground with waterfront spaces and tubes for floating.
Before leaving the region, take a drive into the lakeside scenes of one seriously iconic 80s movie. Lake Lure, best known as one of the backdrops for Dirty Dancing, is not only a beautiful place to park for the night, but it’s also full of nostalgia for fans of this cult film. Visitors should plan for a stop at the 1927 Lake Lure Inn & Spa where guided tours can be booked, and nearby Chimney Rock State Park for spectacular mountain views from its 535-milllion-year-old outcropping. Overnighters will find many RV Park options in the area, from the luxury Apple Valley Farm Motorcoach Resort in Lake Lure to the Hickory Nut Falls Family Campground in Chimney Rock.
East of the more mountainous destinations is the Piedmont region, dotted with the state’s largest cities and a little bit of everything in between, from golf, NASCAR, wineries, breweries and much more of the natural attractions that make this state so special.
A stop in Charlotte proves that North Carolina cities can be as big on hospitality as they are bustling. While there’s enough here to stay busy for an entire week, road trippers can hit the highlights in just a few days. Fans of fast cars can fill up on all things NASCAR with a stop at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and a behind-the-scenes tour at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Outdoor adventure seekers will want to leave time to experience the U.S. National Whitewater Center with more than 30 activities from water sports, ziplines, ropes courses, yoga and mountain biking. Travelers can take their pick when it comes to dining and drinking: this city is big on culinary creativity and craft beer. South of the city lie parks like Crown Cove RV Park with a 126 full hookup sites; northward is Lake Norman Motor Coach Resort with waterfront access and 60 sites.
A drive through Pinehurst country is a prime opportunity to go off course: to play a round a golf, take a step back in time at historic landmarks, or tour a military museum. For golfers, the fabled Pinehurst Resort is just one of the 30 courses within a 15-mile radius, giving visitors plenty of tee times from which to choose. This area of the state is also rich in military history with Revolutionary and Civil War sites, a WWII battleship and museums including the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. Ft. Bragg is one of the largest military installations in the world, home to more than 57,000 personnel. The many campgrounds in this area make an overnight stop an easy decision, from Airport RV Park, one of the closest to Pinehurst, to Lazy Acres Campground with full hookup pull-through sites. Both are near to Fayetteville attractions.
To the north, in the areas surrounding Greensboro and Winston-Salem, travelers can sip wine, shop pottery and visit the nation’s largest natural habitat zoo. The Yadkin Valley is home to more than 20 wineries and an abundance of outdoor activities. With the Blue Ridge Parkway running through this region, it makes a perfect pit stop for those driving the scenic byway. Families can experience animal encounters and engage in animal conservation education at the North Carolina Zoo. This area of the state is also home to the nation’s largest pottery community with shops, galleries and opportunities for visitors to learn the skill of the wheel themselves. RV parks are in close proximity to many of the local attractions, including the Greensboro KOA and Tanglewood RV Campground, set within a 1,100-acre park on the banks of the Yadkin River outside of Winston Salem.
On the western side of the Piedmont region is the thriving modern-meets-historic area known as The Triangle, a relaxing respite from a road trip with spas, fine dining and cultural experiences. The city of Raleigh is home to many museums, including the North Carolina Museum of Art, Museum of Natural Sciences, and Museum of History. The town also boasts a burgeoning foodie scene and the internationally-recognized JC Raulston Arboretum, featuring 6,000 types of plants from around the world. For nearby accommodations, the Raleigh Oaks RV Resort & Cottages offers amenities that include two pools and a spa while the well-maintained Triangle RV Park is near all the main attractions in Durham.
One of North Carolina’s main attractions—the beautiful coastline—is where travelers find more than 300 miles of barrier island beaches and quaint towns to explore. From historic battlefields, lighthouses, TV and film sites, and even wild horses, the variety of activities here takes visitors far beyond the typical beach vacation.
For travelers coming from the west, the inner coastal plain region awaits. Known for its competitive barbeque scene, it’s the place to stop to fill the tank and the stomach. This area is also the site of several Civil War battlefields. Highway 70, Interstate 95 and the Blue-Gray Scenic Byway will connect history buffs to the towns of Kinston, Goldsboro and Bentonville, all three having seen some of the bloodiest battles, offering visitors a glimpse at life as a Civil War solider.
Along the northern coast, visitors will want to stop in the areas of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, where they can walk in the footsteps of pirates and explore the film sights for some of Nicholas Sparks’ most popular books. With a Maritime Museum, pirate tours and ghost walks, the 300-year-old legacy of one of the most infamous pirates—Blackbeard—is alive and well, and makes for fun and intrigue for the entire family. For a different look at local landmarks, visits to the picturesque towns of New Bern, Williamston and Washington offer both a historic look at the area and a glimpse into their roles in modern-day films. In New Bern, for example, self-guided Heritage Walking Tours, offered by the Visitor’s Center, are a great way to see and learn about the town.
The popular shoreline known as the Outer Banks is both a playground for beach activities and steeped in history. From kiteboarding to beach biking and offshore fishing, there’s plenty to experience here—and the quaint towns dotting the sandy landscape each offer their own unique charm. Visiting America’s first colony and the coastal lighthouses of this area make for great day trips, all while keeping an eye out for the wild Spanish Mustangs that call the northern beaches of the Currituck Outer Banks their home. Staying near the sand is easy here with three National Park Service campgrounds along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore: hookups are available only at the Oregon Inlet Campground’s 47 sites, plus a handful of private RV Parks in the area.
A little further south is 85 miles of coastline made up of 11 unique communities known as the Crystal Coast. This area is home to Cape Lookout National Seashore, creeks and marshes for kayaking, and undeveloped beaches accessible by ferry for viewing more wild horses, sea turtles and dolphins. A top diving destination in the U.S., scuba divers will find plenty to explore here underwater as well, including shipwrecks of the acclaimed Graveyard of the Atlantic. Overnighters can choose from campgrounds along the Intercoastal Waterway like the Goose Creek RV & Camping Resort or along the White Oak river such as White Oak Shores Camping & RV Resort.
For those in need of a quiet respite from the road, the Topsail area—a once-popular pirate hideaway —is the perfect place for some rest and relaxation. Visitors come here for the low-key beaches filled with days of boating, fishing and watersports. For those looking to stay and enjoy the tranquility of Topsail, highly-rated RV campgrounds include Surf City Family Campground with easy access to the beach and Topsail Sound RV Park with full hookups and a variety of amenities including a fishing pier.
Finally, along the southernmost shores of the state, a stop in Wilmington is a must—offering a stroll through its historic district, a tour of Battleship North Carolina and an afternoon of surfing the family-friendly beaches. Down the road, some 45 miles of shoreline make up the Brunswick barrier islands for signature seafood, a round of golf and a lighthouse climb. This area is a great place for catching and cooking seafood, stealing a sunset at one of its five famous piers and even swinging through the Green Swamp Preserve for a closer look at local plants and wildlife. Plenty of local RV camping options dot these islands from the Brunswick Beaches Camping Resort to Oak Island Campground just one mile from the beach.