From cloud-cradled peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to pastoral Piedmont to the Atlantic Ocean, North Carolina is a land of diversity. The state is home to some of the most spectacular stretches of shoreline on the East Coast, preserved by natural seashores, wildlife refuges, and state parks. Further inland, North Carolina is home to massive national forests, including the Pisgah National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest, along with the biodiversity-rich Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The staggering landscape even inspired a long-distance hiking route, the aptly named Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which traverses the entire state. Whether it is an outdoorsy getaway to the mountains, a sun-soaked summer beach trip, or a weekend of museum-hopping, North Carolina’s cutest small towns have something for everyone.
Blending natural wonders and creature comforts, the picturesque town of Sylva is a charming getaway. The town is anchored by the photogenic Jackson County Courthouse, a commanding Italianate building built in 1914, which now serves as Sylva’s public library. The town’s Main Street extends from the courthouse and offers cafes, boutiques, and craft breweries. The Jackson County Visitor Center, with detailed information on the region’s offerings, is also situated along the town’s main drag. Just beyond town, 1,530-acre Pinnacle Park is bisected by a 3.4-mile trail that climbs more than 3,000 feet to the Pinnacle, a panoramic knob offering unsurpassed views of the Scotts Creek Valley and the town of Sylva.
At the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City is the base camp for outdoor lovers. Just outside town, the Nantahala Gorge, a part of the massive Nantahala National Forest, is one of the East’s premier whitewater destinations, and a number of local outfitters offer guided trips. The town is also surrounded by some of the most spectacular trout streams in western North Carolina, highlighted on the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail. For a taste of the area’s heady scenery, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroads offers scenic tours of the region, departing from a historic train depot located in Bryson City.
Anchoring North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, the town of Beaufort has been a bustling seaport for more than three centuries. Founded in 1709, the town is one of the oldest colonial settlements in the state. Plenty of vestiges of the region’s history remain. For visitors, the Beaufort Historic Site offers a recreation of life in the seaside town during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with historical interpreters and a collection of restored buildings. The town also displays its extensive maritime history at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. For an even more intimate glimpse of the past, the town’s atmospheric Old Burying Ground preserves an 18th and 19th-century headstone, shaded by live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Offshore, the Rachel Carson Reserve protects a smattering of atolls. This includes Carrot Island, which is still roamed by a band of wild horses, introduced to the island in 1940.
The first tourist destination on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the seaside village of Nags Head has been accommodating beachgoers since the 1830s. The town’s first beach cottages, built in the 1850s, were partially constructed with materials harvested from shipwrecked vessels. Today, some of these weathered seaside houses remain. Preserved as the Nags Head Beach Cottage Row Historic District, they are on the National Register of Historic Places. Beyond the water, the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve protects one of the largest patches of maritime forest remaining in the eastern United States. About a mile north of Nags Head, trail-threaded Jockey’s Ridge State Park preserves the highest sand dune system remaining on the East Coast. It is not far from the lofty sand dunes in Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers launched their famous inaugural flight in 1903.
A quintessential High Country town, outdoorsy Banner Elk is the perfect Blue Ridge basecamp. During the winter, the nearby Sugar Mountain Resort draws skiers and snowboarders, while in the summer, the slope becomes a playground for mountain bikers. Post-adventure, the town has many taprooms, wineries, bistros, and homey inns. Grandfather Mountain is just 15 miles south of the mountain town. The highest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 5,964-foot Grandfather Mountain is also UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. For visitors, the peak is the centerpiece of the Grandfather Mountain Nature Park and Swinging Bridge.
Just two miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, the artsy Blowing Rock has been attracting travelers for more than a century. The town takes its name from a nearby geological anomaly, the Blowing Rock. This craggy outcrop overlooks the Johns River Gorge, famed for its drafty flume, which has a reputation for returning dropped objects (although to prevent littering, the practice is no longer permitted). By the early 1900s, Blowing Rock was a bustling resort community frequented by the families of the country’s wealthiest industrialists. Drawn by the jaw-dropping scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains, tourists flocked for ample recreational opportunities. The town still caters to visitors year-round, featuring a Main Street lined with boutiques, art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants. Just outside town, the Moses Cone Memorial Park provides a blend of local history and mountain scenery. Anchored by the Moses Cone Manor, an opulent mountain getaway constructed for textile magnate and philanthropist Moses Cone in 1901, the memorial park features more than 25 miles of hiking trails.
The oldest town in the Tarheel state, Bath dates back to 1705. As such, the town has an exceptionally rich history. Prolific Atlantic pirate Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard briefly inhabited the town, before being killed just southeast of Bath in the Ocracoke Inlet, in 1718. Today, most of the town comprises a collection of historic sites, including centuries-old homes, and the St Thomas Church, which dates back to 1751. Beyond the diversity of historic sites, the town’s central Main Street is also dotted with restaurants, gift shops, and waterside inns. Just west of town, Goose Creek State Park features a medley of avifauna-rich wetlands and cypress swamps, along with hiking trails, a paddling launch, a riverside swimming beach, and a primitive campground.
The highest town in the eastern half of the United States, Beech Mountain has rightfully earned a reputation as a wonderland for winter sports lovers. Lured by the slopes at the Beech Mountain Resort, winter sports enthusiasts can enjoy a reliable seasonal snowfall. However, the high-elevation hamlet has plenty to offer when the snow melts too. The town’s Emerald Outback park includes eight miles of trails for hikers and bikers. Buckeye Lake is ideal for paddlers (and the adjacent Buckeye Recreation Center offers kayak and canoe rentals). Beech Mountain is also home to the Land of Oz, a half-century-old amusement park inspired by the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Although Land of Oz officially closed in 1980, the park still opens briefly every autumn.
From historic colonial towns and seaside villages to high-elevation mountain resorts, North Carolina’s small towns offer travelers a diverse range of experiences. The combination of jaw-dropping mountain scenery, extensive Atlantic coastline, and rich cultural assets mean there is always a reason to plan a trip to one of North Carolina’s small towns, no matter the season.