Some might say that America first began in the humble state of North Carolina. Aside from the state’s historical ties to the first English colonies, North Carolina is also the origin point of the world-famous Krispy Kreme, Mt. Olive Pickles, and Pepsi. It was also in North Carolina that the Wright Brothers tested their aerial crafts and prototypes in Kitty Hawk. In the island-fringed coast of Roanoke Island to the northeast, the site of the enigmatic “lost colony” that disappeared after the original landing in 1587 continues to enthrall visitors and locals alike.
However, it is the top-rated small towns in the Tar Heel State that truly captures the region’s natural and cultural splendors, drawing visitors with historic charm and outdoor sceneries.
Located one hour west of Asheville, the town of Bryson City is a laidback mountainous retreat embraced by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Roam through the forested trails of the Smoky Mountains and visit the majestic trio of falls at Deep Creek, including Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls, and Indian Creek Falls. Stroll along the Upper Nantahala Cascades or Fontana Lake, where you can find the Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the area. Or, catch a ride in the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad for steam and diesel train travels from the historic depot in Bryson City.
You can also venture into Cherokee, an entranceway to the Blue Ridge Parkway, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Native Americans. Popular attractions include the Oconaluftee Indian Village, Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama, and Harrah's Cherokee Casino. Afterward, settle beneath the Smoky Mountains’ long shadows in the Nantahala Village Resort, Fryemont Inn, and Fontana Village Resort.
On the soft shores of the Albemarle Sound and Edenton Bay, the 18th-century structured masterpiece called Edenton charms visitors with its waterfront culture and simplicity reminiscent of the early American colonial life. Edenton was the first colonial capital of North Carolina and where the first political action by women in America’s history took place. Take a vintage trolley tour that will guide you through 300 years of Edenton’s history, from the oldest-operating Colonial Courthouse in America, the Chowan County Courthouse (circa 1767), to the Maritime Underground Railroad where slaves and figures like Harriet Jacobs, abolitionist writer of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, found an escape.
Many more Victorian estates and architecture can be explored, such as the Cupola House, the Roanoke River Lighthouse, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, and even the local lodgings like Couch House and Hampton Inn. Whether you are venturing along the Civil War Trail to learn more about Edenton’s rugged past or gallivanting along bodies of water like Bennett’s Millpond or Edenton Bay, you will feel like living in the Garden of Eden in Edenton.
Blowing Rock is only about 18 miles from Banner Elk and two hours northwest of Charlotte. The town gets its name from the famous windy cliffs in the Blue Ridge Parkway and a love story titled "The Blowing Rocks," where two lovers from the rival Cherokee and Catawba tribes in the region sought to defy their tribes’ taboos for the sake of love. Along the mountainous trails, one can capture scenic views of Grandfather, Table Rock, and Hawksbill Mountains, explore Bass Lake Trail, or gaze at the vastness of the forest-cloaked summits in Thunder Hill Overlook.
In the town itself, visitors can learn more about Blowing Rock’s history at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, or sample the conservationist attractions in Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. Most importantly, treat yourself at Chetola Resort, for excellent accommodations along with the option to attend an annual symphony performance.
If you want to start your adventure through Roanoke Island, the first English settlement in America, then the coastal town of Manteo is a good place to start. Take a peek at early settlement life in the Outer Banks by touring veritable sites like the Roanoke Island Festival Park, where one can celebrate the establishment of the first English colonies on North American soil; the Island Farm, for reenactments; or the Elizabethan Gardens, located within the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and just yards away from the mysterious Lost Colony.
You might also enjoy seeing the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in the Shallowbag Bay or exploring the town’s history in the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum. Another popular attraction is the Manteo Weather Tower in downtown Manteo, which, during weatherman Alpheus W. Drinkwater's stewardship, sent news of the Wright Brothers’ aerial experiments to news agencies across the country. Last but not least, freshen up in the Hotel Manteo, Scarborough Inn, or the Tranquil House Inn.
An hour away from Asheville and with elevations exceeding 5,000 feet, Sylva is one of the highest towns to hike towards if you enjoy sights from up high. Adjacent to the high-altitude town is the 1,400-acre Pinnacle Park, where some of the most challenging hiking trails in Western North Carolina can be traversed. Furthermore, similar to Bryson City, Sylva is the entranceway to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Balsam and to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, both of which are only 20 minutes from Sylva.
If you prefer to explore the town itself, so named after a wandering Dane—as told in John Parris' "Roaming the Mountains" series—then wander Freedom Park, where life-sized replicas of America’s founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, can be perused next to the Jackson County Courthouse, the oldest courthouse in the area. You might also be interested in seeing the Judaculla Rock, a soapstone rock etched with Native American symbols with deep associations to the Cherokee legends of Tsukalu or Judaculla, the hunting god. When satisfied with the atmospheric attractions, sleep splendidly in the Comfort Inn of Sylva or Clarion Pointe of Sylva.
Only 40 miles from Raleigh, visitors can roam through over a hundred 18th to 19th-century homes, churches, and other structures in Hillsborough. Among the many buildings you can visit are William Hooper’s house, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the Alexander Dickson House, where General Joseph E. Johnston was headquartered during the American Civil War. In addition, the town was also a favorite place for American jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington.
One can also learn about Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a freed slave, successful seamstress, and confidante of President Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, at Burwell School. Hillsborough is also set near Eno River State Park and Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, giving visitors the opportunity to explore numerous trails and riverwalks in the footsteps of John Lawson, an explorer who visited the Occaneechi Village in 1701. Remember to book rooms at the Inn at Teardrops, Historic Colonial Inn, or Holiday Inn Express.
Not Washington DC, but the quaint and quiet small town along the Pamlico River in North Carolina's Inner Banks was the first location named after the famous American president. Beside the town is the Goose Creek State Park, which offers over 1,672 acres of wild lands to traverse. The park is in a region once occupied by the Secotan and Pamlico Native Americans, members of the Tuscarora people, and which legendary pirate Blackbeard once called home.
Washington also contains the North Carolina Estuarium, the second largest estuary in the US (measuring 12,500 square feet), located along the Pamlico River and featuring 200 exhibits dedicated to the Pamlico/Tar River estuary. Though not as monumentally popular as its bigger, more metropolitan brother, "Little" or "Original" Washington is a pleasant small town, especially with fine lodgings like Econo Lodge North, Red Roof Inn Washington, and Little Inn at Washington.
As the name implies, Highlands rises in the midst of the Nantahala National Forest with an elevation of around 4,000 feet. With a magnificent environment rich in biodiversity and habitats in the Highlands Plateau, the southern Appalachian Mountains, one can explore the crystalline rivers, lakes, and waterfalls all warmed by the Nantahala National Forest’s temperate atmosphere. Pay a visit to the Highlands Historical Museum and Archives to learn all about the town’s historic rise to small-town prominence, as well as tour one of the oldest libraries in the state, the Hudson Library. Lastly, luxuriate in the lively accommodations of the Highlands Inn and the Old Edwards Inn.
Banner Elk is often called the ski capital of the South, and rightly so. With its prime location to Grandfather Mountain, a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, and Boone in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Banner Elk is brimming with wildlife and outdoor adventures. For example, the Linville Caverns in Humpback Mountain or the 13-acre-long Wildcat Lake are excellent destinations to fondly remember. Take a ride on the historic Tweetsie Railroad, situated between Boone and Blowing Rock, for a chance to spot elk and bear in your meandering trek around the tree-topped summits.
To meet other animals closer to home besides elk and bears, you can always stop by the Apple Hill Farm, where aside from pigs, chickens, and ponies playing about, you can also find alpacas and llamas hanging around. Afterward, clean yourself up in the Best Western Mountain Lodge or Little Main Street Inn & Suites.
Anyone who has ever watched The Andy Griffith Show might wish to one day visit the humble and resplendent town of Mayberry. Fortunately, you are in luck: the town of Mount Airy, located about 40 minutes from Winston-Salem, is the real-life location of the fictional Mayberry, as it was the hometown of actor Andy Griffith during the 60s. In this friendly city, fans of the classic show or just simple visitors can venture into iconic locations from The Andy Griffith Show, like Floyd’s City Barber Shop, the Old Mayberry Courthouse and Jail, Snappy Lunch, and even Andy’s Homeplace. You can see memorabilia of the show in the Andy Griffith Museum.
For travelers not interested in sightseeing TV locations, you can always enjoy Flat Rock, the town’s historic granite quarry and largest open-face granite quarry in the world since 1889, or traverse the natural trails of Westwood Park or Veterans Memorial Park. When Mount Airy’s simplicity lulls you to relaxation, find a nice place to stay in Hampton Inn Mount Airy, Comfort Inn Mount Airy, or even the Andy Griffith Parkway Inn.
Hendersonville is a pedestrian-friendly getaway from the city bustle south of Asheville. This town in Apple County offers sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Jump Off Rock. In this "City of Four Seasons," you can traipse along the popular Cheers! Trail, aptly named from the hit TV show since it is the only trail in North Carolina that showcases five different types of craft beverages that Hendersonville is renowned for. Visitors can also survey the Henderson County Heritage Museum, where exhibits of Civil War artifacts and a replica of a 1900s general store can be perused at your leisure, or take a gander at the Wolfe’s Angel Statue as artfully depicted in author Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Finally, treat yourself to fine lodgings at the Charleston Inn and The Henderson.
It is no small wonder why many people visit the breathtaking mountains and dynamic isles of North Carolina. The Tar Heel State, given the moniker from the state’s production of tar, pitch, and turpentine extracted from the endless swathes of pine forests, is a region of sinuous trails and historical relevance, where a bygone past coalesces with the culturally nuanced present. From high-altitude towns like Highlands and Sylva to TV-worthy hamlets like Mount Airy, you will be lost in the state where the mysterious "lost colony" vanished like mist in the forests. So visit these top-rated towns in this land and on Roanoke Island, where the Cherokee people thrive and where America first took root.