Road Trip in North Carolina

The Tar Heel State gets its moniker from the Civil War, when North Carolina soldiers were said to stick in their battle lines against fearsome odds as if they had tar on their heels.

It's this kind of history—as well as the state's abundance of beaches, state parks, and even popular movie and television show film locations—that attract many to the idea of a North Carolina road trip.

Driving in North Carolina

Out-of-state adult drivers legally can drive in North Carolina if you possess a valid driver's license.

However, out-of-state teen drivers might face an obstacle when it comes to the state's Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) system. Many states use some form of GDL program, but each program's requirements and restrictions vary. Rather than risk any repercussions, it's best to contact the North Carolina DMV for specific details.

NC State Traffic Rules

The quickest and most accessible place to find information about North Carolina's traffic laws is the state's driver handbook.

The North Carolina driver's manual provides a quick but thorough rundown of the state's traffic laws including, but not limited to:

  • Interpreting traffic signals, signs, and road markings.
  • Safely driving in hazardous weather conditions.
  • Legal ramifications of driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Additionally, check out our guide to NC safety laws to understand the legal precautions you must take while behind the wheel in the Tar Heel State.

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Major North Carolina Roads

Here are a few of the major roads you'll need to know to navigate NC. Interstates (I) and U.S. Routes (US) connect North Carolina cities and frequently cross into neighboring states.

  • I-26
    • Runs north-south through Mars Hill, Weaverville, Asheville, Hendersonville, and Flat Rock. Links to Tennessee and South Carolina in western North Carolina.
  • I-40
    • Travels east to west through Wilmington, Warsaw, Raleigh, Durham, Burlington, Winston-Salem, and Asheville. Connects to Tennessee.
  • I-74
    • Runs north to south through Pine Ridge, Winston-Salem, High Point, Asheboro, Rockingham, and Lumberton.
  • I-77
    • Travels north to south through Crooked Oak, Statesville, and Charlotte. Connects to Virginia and South Carolina.
  • I-85
    • Running north to south, Interstate 85 jogs through Henderson, Durham, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Gastonia. Connects to South Carolina.
  • I-95
    • Travels north to south through Rocky Mount, Smithfield, and Fayetteville. Connects to Virginia and South Carolina.
  • I-485
    • Rings Charlotte's suburbs through Woodford Green, Highland Creek, Mint Hill, Matthews, Piper Glen Estates, and Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
    • Running north to south, this road is maintained by the National Park Service and runs along Virginia and North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, connecting Smoky Mountain and Shenandoah national parks.
  • US 64
    • Traversing nearly the entire state east to west, US Route 64 runs through Murphy, Franklin, Hendersonville, Salem, Statesville, Asheboro, Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Columbia, and the Outer Banks.
  • US 421
    • Travels north to south through Greensboro, Sanford, and Wilmington. Connects to Tennessee and South Carolina.

NC Road Trip Destinations

Again, North Carolina is overflowing with beaches, lakes, state parks and mountains, arts and culture, and history sites—making it an extremely popular road trip destination.

Here are a few sites and activities you'll enjoy:

  • Beaches:
    • Emerald Isle. Situated on the Bogue Banks, Emerald Isle is the perfect beach getaway.
    • Outer Banks. Towns like Duck and Kill Devil Hills make the Outer Banks—a string of islands along NC's Atlantic Coast—as quirky as they are beautiful. Come for the fishing, surfing, and swimming, and stay for the barbecue.
    • Topsail Beach. Situated in southern North Carolina, Topsail Beach is a great destination for history, with a view. From pirate days to its status as a WWII lookout over the Atlantic, Topsail Beach is full of life to explore beyond the shore.
  • The great outdoors:
    • Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the National Park Service's most-visited destinations, “The Smokies" protect old-growth U.S. forests seldom seen east of the Mississippi. Camping, backpacking, hiking, swimming, and photography are popular activities.
    • The Blue Ridge Parkway. This road, running through the Appalachians in western North Carolina, is one of America's most scenic, providing views of rolling ridgelines and verdant valleys. Use the pullouts to snap photos.
    • Stone Mountain State Park. Protecting a granite dome named—imaginatively—Stone Mountain, this park is a great place to camp, climb, hike, and mountain bike.
  • North Carolina culture:
    • You can't travel through North Carolina without visiting some of the state's most culturally rich cities packed with locally sourced dining, eclectic shops, and popular craft beer breweries. Some of the most prominent include:
      • Asheville, home to the famous Biltmore Estate.
      • Fayetteville, packed with museums and art galleries.
      • Beaufort, home to the film set for A Walk to Remember.

For more help planning your trip, visit North Carolina's official travel website, VisitNC.

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