The United States has 423 National Parks and 12 of them are in North Carolina. While 63 parks have “National Park” in their name, others fall into different National Park System categories like National Monuments, National Seashores, National Scenic Trails, and others.
North Carolina is home to one National Park, and 11 parks in additional categories. Regardless of their designation, all National Parks are areas set aside by the government to preserve and protect an area
- 12 National Park Sites in North Carolina
- Bonus Sites
- North Carolina's National Parks Wrap Up
12 National Park Sites in North Carolina
Quick Hits List
Closest National Park Site to Raleigh, NC
- Guilford Courthouse National Military Park 1 hour 45 minutes from Raleigh, NC
Closest National Park Site to Charlotte, NC
- Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site 1 hour 40 minutes from Charlotte
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park 2.5 to 3 hours from Charlotte
Closest National Park Site to Asheville, NC
- The Appalachian Trail National Scenic Trail Distance varies, but some of the most scenic areas of the trail in North Carolina run within an hour of Asheville including Max Patch and Lovers Leap
- Blue Ridge Parkway National Parkway 30 minutes from Asheville
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park 1 hour 20 minutes
- Guilford Courthouse National Military Park 2.5 hours
- Overmountain Victory Trail Historic Trail 2 hours
1. The Appalachian Trail
Designation: National Scenic Trail
The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs for 2200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 95.7 of those miles run through North Carolina with another 225 miles that teeter along the state lines of NC and TN.
The AT is co-managed by the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Every year, many people attempt to through-hike the trail from start to finish. However, much of the trail in North Carolina is perfect for day hikes and runs along some of the best scenery in the state.
Weekend backpackers can enjoy sections of the trail. With shuttle services readily available you can easily get a ride to a trailhead and hike back towards your car putting together as many miles and days as you’d like.
Some favorite locations along the AT in North Carolina include Max Patch, Craggy Gardens, and Lovers Leap in Hot Springs. One of my favorite backpacking locations, Carvers Gap to 19E is along the AT that skirts the NC/TN border.
2. Blue Ridge Parkway
Designation: National Parkway
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Along the way are overlooks offering a variety of mountain views, a photographer’s dream.
It’s a 2-lane road with a speed limit that rolls from 25 mph to a max of 45 mph in some areas, allowing for slow exploration.
Along the Parkway is Mount Mitchell State Park, home to the tallest peak in North Carolina. There are also nine campgrounds that line the parkway and tons of hiking trails.
It’s also the perfect place to see the fall foliage.
Some of my favorite locations along the parkway are the Moses Cone House, and Linn Cove Viaduct.
3. Cape Hatteras
Designation: National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore runs 70 miles from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island. It’s home to a diverse array of plant and animal life. Nesting turtles lay their eggs here every year and people flock to watch the hatching turtles make their way to the ocean.
Established in 1953, Cape Hatteras has the honor of being the first National Seashore. It was designated to protect three barrier islands, Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke.
Along the seashore are 3 historic lighthouses. While you can climb to the top of both the Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses, the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is not open to climbing the stairs.
4. Cape Lookout
Designation: National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore is a 56-mile stretch of coastline along the southernmost part of the Outer Banks. It’s further south than the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, more towards Morehead City.
The area stretches from Ocracoke Inlet to Beaufort Inlet and contains three barrier islands, North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks.
You’ll find the Shackleford wild horses and two historic settlements in this area. The most famous landmark is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse with its distinct black-and-white diamond design.
5. Carl Sandburg Home
Designation: National Historic Site
Located in Flat Rock, North Carolina, the house known as Connemara was the home of two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg. He was a poet, biographer, newspaper columnist, and author of American fairytales.
Although he wasn’t born in North Carolina, Sandburg and his family moved to Connemara in 1945 and stayed for 22 years. His wife, Paula, wanted space to raise her dairy goats and Flat Rock fit the bill. It’s estimated that Sandburg wrote more than a third of his works in this house.
The property contains the home, dairy goat farm, pastures, wooded areas, 5 miles of hiking paths, two small lakes, gardens, and an apple orchard.
6. Fort Raleigh
Designation: National Historic Site
Fort Raleigh is where the Lost Colony of Roanoke was established. If you’re intrigued by the story of the Lost Colony, Fort Raleigh is a must. The 14-acre site preserves what was left of the Roanoke Colony. Established by Sir Walter Raleigh, the colony famously disappeared in the 3-years it took for him to return from Spain with supplies.
Raleigh’s granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was the first child born to English parents in North America. She also disappeared.
While the story is interesting, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site also preserves the cultural heritage of Native Americans, European Americans, and African Americans who have lived on the Island.
7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Designation: National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is what most people think of when you say, National Park. It’s an area for hiking, camping, horseback riding, and exploring the outdoors. The park spreads across Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.
The park is located along the Great Smoky Mountains which is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Appalachian Mountains (there’s a whole thing here, don’t worry too much about it). Just know there’s a mountain area called the Great Smoky Mountains and the park is in a portion of this area.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the United States. While it is large, it can become crowded in spring and summer. While it’s a great place to visit in the winter, check the NPS site for road and entrance closings before heading out.
A fun fact about the Great Smoky Mountains is that they’re also part of a larger UNESCO Biosphere due to the diverse wildlife and botany.
8. Guilford Courthouse
Designation: National Military Park
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park was established in Greensboro, NC to remember the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781. It was fought between Major General Nathanael Greene’s Patriots and Lord Charles Earl Cornwallis’ British troops in the Revolutionary War.
The British were soundly defeated in the two-hour battle resulting in their surrender at Yorktown.
There are beautiful trails for walking and biking that run throughout the park making it one of the best places to hike near Greensboro. It’s an unexpected area, and definitely worth visiting.
The park is open from spring through fall. Check the hours before visiting.
9. Moores Creek
Designation: National Battlefield
The Moores Creek National Battlefield commemorates the 1776 victory of a thousand Patriots over 800 Loyalists. In the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge, the Patriots made their first significant victory in the American Revolution.
The outcome of this battle played a significant role in North Carolina becoming the first colony to vote for independence.
10. Overmountain Victory Trail
Designation: National Scenic Trail
If you do any hiking in the mountains of NC and TN, you may run across parts of the Overmountain Victory Trail (OVHT). It runs 330 miles from South Carolina, into NC, TN, and VA. Honoring the Overmountain Victory Men, it became a national Historic Trail in 1980.
The OVHT traces the path a group of Patriots known as The Overmountain Victory Men took on their way from Eastern Tennessee to fight the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina in 1780. At times, the OVHT passes, parallels, and merges with other known trails.
Part of the OMVT trail leads to the Overmountain Shelter, a 2-story red barn, that’s one of the most iconic shelters of the Appalachian Trail.
11. Trail of Tears
Designation: National Historic Trail
The Trail of Tears is a trail of sadness that remembers and commemorates the survival of Native Americans forcibly removed from their homelands in southern states and relocated to Oklahoma. The National Park Service refers to the trail as a “Journey of Injustice.”
Motivated by gold and land, Congress (led by President Andrew Jackson) passed the Act to remove approximately 100,000 indigenous people. It was devastating to Native Americans who suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation. Hundreds died before reaching their destination and thousands died later.
12. Wright Brothers Memorial
Designation: National Memorial
The Wright Brothers Memorial is a beautiful area in Kill Devil Hills, NC that commemorates the first sustained, powered flight in a heavier-than-air-craft. The Memorial has the flight area marked with stones noting each location and a large memorial to the brothers on top of the hill where they launched.
As you stand on top of the hill with the sweeping views of the beach below, it’s hard not to envision how scary it must have been to launch from that height.
For a break from the outdoors, there’s a small museum where you can learn about the history of aviation and see reproductions of the living quarters and hangar.
Heritage Areas are part of the National Park System, but not National Park Units. The National Park Service partners with and assists the entities managing these areas, usually non-profit organizations.
These areas are designated by Congress when cultural and historic resources create a nationally important landscape.
Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is a National Heritage Area. Established by Congress, it recognizes the history and culture of the Gullah Geechee people who resided in the coastal areas and islands of North Carolina and further south.
The Gullah Geechee are descendants of West and Central Africans enslaved and brought to the south. Because they were enslaved on isolated barrier islands, they retained many of their indigenous traditions.
When Congress designated the area in 2006, they also funded the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission to manage the area.
The area is not a specific park or site, it’s a series of sites in a long area.
Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area was designated to recognize Appalachian traditions in North Carolina. The area is known for its music, arts, crafts, foodways, and outdoors among other things.
It was officially designated as a National Heritage Area in 2003 and is overseen by the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership.
North Carolina’s National Parks Wrap Up
North Carolina has a lot to celebrate and remember and our 12 National Parks (and 2 Heritage Areas) remind us of our past and the people and cultures that helped build the state.
Some are fun, others are interesting, and a few are thought-provoking. Put one on your list the next time you visit!