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12 EPIC North Carolina National Parks (A Helpful Guide + Photos)

North Carolina National Parks include historic sites, scenic parkways, gorgeous parks, national seashores, legendary trails, and so much more.

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North Carolina National Parks

We'll give you 12 reasons why you'll want to make North Carolina your next vacation destination | North Carolina National Parks
We’re giving you twelve reasons why you’ll want you’ll want to make North Carolina your next vacation destination | Mingus Mill at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

North Carolina National Parks! We’ve got twelve incredible national park sites for you to see on your next visit to the Tar Heel State.

North Carolina National Parks includes historic sites, scenic parkways, gorgeous parks, national seashores, legendary trails and so much more.

We’re going to give you twelve reasons why you’ll want to make North Carolina your next vacation destination.

1. Appalachian National Scenic Trail | North Carolina National Parks

Appalachian National Scenic Trail | North Carolina National Parks
Appalachian National Scenic Trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Need a good stretch of the legs? Check out the longest hiking trail in the world.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a marked hiking trail that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Just how long a hike is that? Approximately 2,200 miles. You don’t have to do it all however.

I’m a retired history teacher who loves learning about the history of places. I realize that not everyone shares my passion so I’ll try to keep my history lessons short and to the point. And, I promise there’ll be no homework assignments.

The original concept for the Appalachian Trail was the brainchild of Benton MacKaye. MacKaye was a forester, planner and social reformer who wrote a 1921 article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects first proposing it.

Benton MacKaye & The Appalachian Trial

The longest trail in the world was the brainchild of forester, planner and social reformer Benton MacKaye | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In MacKaye’s original vision, the Appalachian Trail would put back together the various parts of American life that were rapidly coming undone in the early 20th century.

It would fuse leisure and industry, environment and labor, community development and wilderness preservation into an interrelated project.

“Let us assume the existence of a giant standing high on the skyline along these mountain ridges, his head just scraping the floating clouds. What would he see from this skyline as he strode along its length from north to south?”

-Benton MacKaye

Giving City Dwellers An Escape

Benton MacKaye wanted to give city dwellers an escape | North Carolina National Parks

MacKaye wanted to give city dwellers an escape from their humdrum urban existences. His bold proposal was nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of social life, economic organization, and land use.

The trail was built by private citizens and completed in 1937. It is managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, numerous state agencies and thousands of volunteers.

It’s a truly magnificent hiking trail traversing the scenic, wooded, pastoral and wild lands of the Appalachian Mountains.

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You’re Never Too Old Or Young To Hike The Appalachian Trail

At 83, M.J. “Sunny” Eberhart has become the old person to complete the Appalachian Trail | Courtesy of the Associated Press

Think you’re too old for the Appalachian Trail? M.J. “Sunny” Eberhart strode into the record books as the oldest hiker to complete the Appalachian Trail. Eberhart is an 83 year old from Alabama who is best known for by his trail name Nimblewill Nomad.

At the other end of the age spectrum, we have five-year old Harvey Sutton who completed the Appalachian Trail over the summer. Nimblewill and Harvey prove that you’re never too old or young to complete this amazing trek.

Josh Sutton on the Appalachian Trail | North Carolina National Parks
In July of 2021, five year-old Harvey Sutton became the youngest ever to hike the complete Appalachian Trail | Courtesy of Josh Sutton

2. Blue Ridge Parkway | North Carolina National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway | North Carolina National Parks
Hiking Along the Blue Ridge Parkway | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Believe it or not the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited single unit in the U.S. National Parks System. While you can drive through it in only 10-12 hours, if you want to see and do all of the wonderful things available along the way then be prepared to set aside five to seven days.

The parkway spans 469 miles. There are more than 450 mileposts along the way. So, what is one to do? I’m someone who likes to do a “reconnaissance mission” before I go out into the field. This means that I like to gather as much ‘intel’ as I can.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center near the beautiful city of Asheville is a great place to gather information about all of the things there are to see and do. Now that having been said, I’m going to give you some recommendations based on a few of my favorites.

But first, a short history of the parkway.

History of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway | North Carolina National Parks
Shield for the Blue Ridge Parkway | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway began September 11, 1935. It was part of the massive public works programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal which was the original program to build back better. Construction on the parkway was not completed until 1987.

Now, how’s that for a short history!

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things | Blue Ridge Parkway

Cascades Overlook | North Carolina National Parks
Visitors stand by the Cascades Overlook located at Milepost 271.9 of the Blue Ridge Parkway | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Think of the parkway as a magic portal that can take you to some very magical places. Of course there’s biking, camping, fishing, hiking, wildlife watching, etc. It’s all there depending on what you want to do and where you want to go.

Cumberland Knob is a great place to begin. It’s where construction began on this magnificent parkway. If you love to hike or just went to soak up some beautiful nature, there are find 1,000 acres of recreation, including the easy Cumberland Knob Trail.

If it’s music you love there are special events and concerts along the parkway. They include Humpback Rocks (Milepost 5.8), Roanoke Mountain Picnic Area (Milepost 120.4), and Mabry Mill (Milepost 176).

There’s Music To Be Enjoyed On The Blue Ridge

Blue Ridge Music Center | North Carolina National Parks
The Blue Ridge Music Center hosts a wide range of musicians every afternoon during the season. Artists also perform in the outdoor amphitheater as part of the summer concert series. Courtesy of the National Park Service

While we’re on the subject of music, the Blue Ridge Music Center at milepost 213 highlights the musicians of the Blue Ridge. It’s a great place to visit while soaking up some wonderful tunes.

It includes an outdoor amphitheater, an indoor interpretive center/theater, and “The Roots of American Music,” a free interactive exhibition highlighting the historical significance of the region’s music. (Source: NPS)

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Amazing Hiking Trails Near Asheville | Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Hiking Trails | North Carolina National Parks
There are some beautiful hiking trails off of the Blue Ridge Parkway a short distance from Asheville, NC | North Carolina National Parks

Within an hour of Asheville, North Carolina, there are some amazing hiking trails. They include:

  1. At milepost 364 there’s Craggy Pinnacle at Craggy Gardens. It’s a beautiful 1.2 mile round trip hike where you’ll see some amazing rock formations.
  2. Another great hike is at Rattlesnake Lodge. It’s the former summer home of Asheville physician and outdoor activist Dr. Chase Ambler. This 3 mile hike  This follows the Mountains-to-Sea Trail connecting the Great Smoky Mountains to the North Carolina Outer Banks.
  3. If you’re feeling more ambitious then how about a 4.8 mile hike that begins at Craven Gap. It’s a good introduction to Asheville’s mountain scenery.  In 2010, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama made this hike.
  4. If you love a great panoramic view then there’s a 2.6 mile hike at milepost 407.6 It will take you to the top of Asheville’s most recognizable mountain–Mount Pisgah.

3. Cape Hatteras National Seashore | North Carolina National Parks

Cape Hatteras National Seashore | North Carolina National Parks
Typical beach scene at Cape Hatteras National Seashore | Courtesy of the National Park Service

What’s more fun than a trip to the beach? At the Cape Hatteras National Seashore you’ll feel the fine grains of sand between your toes as you head out to the best surfing location in the eastern United States of America.

There are nearly 70 miles of beautiful beach. You can enjoy an ocean swim during the day and a warm beach fire at night. There’s opportunities to fly kites, enjoy a picnic along the seashore, search for sea shells washed ashore, build castles in the sand or just relax.

Ready to try your hand at some Cape Hatteras sand art? Courtesy of the National Park Service

Fishing At Cape Hatteras

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Fishing | North Carolina National Parks
Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers the angler a variety of excellent fishing opportunities | Courtesy of the National Park Service

I started fishing as a boy. Some of my fondest memories are of fishing along the Delaware River. There’s a much better selection of fish at Cape Hatteras than there was for me along the Delaware. I had to settle for little Crappies (such an appropriate name if you ask me).

Many different types of fish can be taken from the surf, piers, and freshwater ponds as well as from boats in the inlets, the sound, and offshore in the Gulf Stream.

The best fishing is in the spring and fall.

Enjoy your day fishing, but remember that any person aged 16 and older who wants to fish recreationally in any water designated as coastal and joint waters of North Carolina must purchase a Coastal Recreational Fishing License.  

This license can be purchased on a 10-day, annual or lifetime basis, or combined with a variety of licenses issued by the Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC).  (Source: National Park Service)

Hiking At Cape Hatteras

Buxton Woods Trail | North Carolina National Parks
Boardwalk along the Buxton Woods Trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

I have three sons who also double as personal fitness trainers at least when it comes to me. “Did you get your steps in today, Dad?” I typically hear that at least two to three times a week from one if not all three of them.

You won’t have to worry about getting your steps in at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore as there are some wonderful hiking trails which will give you both the exercise you need and the nature you desire.

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There are three designated hiking trails which include:

  1. Buxton Woods Trail-It’s a .75 mile loop where you will see the diverse maritime forest ecosystem up close. You will traverse some of the highest points on Hatteras Island and can celebrate completing your trek with a picnic since both the start and end of the loop is at the Buxton Woods Picnic Area.
  2. Open Ponds Trail-It’s 4.5 miles (one direction) and 9 miles (round trip). That’s a lot of steps! Why so long? Because it goes from the mountains to the sea. You’ll see dunes, shrub thickets, and the forests of Hatteras Island as you wind your way between the British Cemetery near the Buxton Woods Picnic Area and Trailhead and the Frisco Campground.
  3. Hammock Hills Trail-It’s a .75 mile which takes you past dunes and scrub thickets, through a maritime forest, and to the salt marsh. You will have some wonderful views of the Pamlico Sound, before you loop back through the forest.

Enjoy The Water At Cape Hatteras

Blue crab caught during a ranger-led crabbing program | Courtesy of the National Park Service

At Cape Hatteras, there are a number of wonderful aquatic activities. They include:

  1. Canoeing
  2. Crabbing
  3. Kayaking
  4. Kiteboarding
  5. Snorkeling
  6. Surfing
  7. Windsurfing

Three Historic Lighthouses At Cape Hatteras

Bodie Island Lighthouse | North Carolina National Parks
Sunrise at the Bodie Island Lighthouse | Courtesy of the National Park Service

You don’t have to travel to New England to see those historic lighthouses. There are three historic lighthouses located at Cape Hatteras.

Both the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Bodie Island Lighthouse are open seasonally for self-guided climbs. The third lighthouse, the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse, is not open for climbing.

RELATED: ALL of Florida’s National Parks Ranked

4. Cape Lookout National Seashore | North Carolina National Parks

Cape Lookout National Seashore | North Carolina National Parks
Looking for beautiful lighthouses, look no farther than Cape Lookout National Seashore | Courtesy of the National Park Service

North Carolina offers you not one, but two national seashores. At Cape Lookout National Seashore, there’s everything from birding, to camping, to fishing, to learning about the rich history of Cape Lookout Light Station. It’s all there waiting for you!

I’m a strong believing in gathering information when I arrive to make sure that I’m able to see and do all of the things I want to. A great place to gather that information is the Harkers Island Visitor Center. You’ll find interactive exhibits and informative materials to help you get the most out of your stay.

Speaking of visitor centers, there’s also the Beaufort Visitor Information Center. There you’ll find exhibits on island ecology and history; map of the park; informational materials and more.

Things To Do At Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout National Seashore | North Carolina National Parks
Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are some wonderful things to do while at Cape Lookout. They include:

  1. Boating-Canoeing, Kayaking, paddling, windsurfing and more. You can even rent a houseboat if you want to have an aquatic adventure.
  2. Camping-There is camping though it is primitive. Be prepared for the natural conditions to be found at the park.
  3. Bird Watching-You can see terns and herons are best seen in the summer. In the spring and fall seasons you can see shorebirds, hawks, and songbirds. If you go in the winter then ducks and geese are most common. 
  4. Fishing-Most of the beach is open for fishing. Fishing regulations, including seasons and licensing requirements are set by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries
  5. Horse Watching-It’s not only the birds that you can see at Cape Lookout. More than 100 wild horses, living in groups called harems or bands, roam free along the entire length and width of Shackleford Banks island.
  6. Hiking-There are no trails on the seashore, but many people do backpack or hike the islands.
  7.  Sea Shells-When I was a kid, I loved looking for and collecting sea shells. But you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it.  Cape Lookout is an excellent place to explore for shells. A limit of two gallons of shells per day can be taken off the seashore. 

And Let’s Not Forget The History At Cape Lookout

North Carolina Maritime Museum | North Carolina National Parks
A horse drawn carriage in front of the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a retired history teacher, I’m always interested in the stories behind the places that I visit. And you can learn about those stories at Cape Lookout. There are some fascinating local museums and other historical sites. They include:

  1. Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center-It highlights the traditional lifestyle of those living “Down East” through exhibits and demonstrations.
  2. North Carolina Maritime Museum-This waterfront museum preserves the tradition of wooden boat building as well as other facets of North Carolina’s maritime heritage.
  3. Rachael Carson Reserve– It’s a part of the North Carolina National Estaurine Research Reserve. The islands of the reserve serve as a living laboratories for research, education and coastal management.
  4. The History Place-This is a museum and research library operated by the Carteret County Historical Society.
  5. Beaufort Historic Site-Here visitors can see 18th and 19th century life in Beaufort. The site includes six restored buildings which are open for tours.

RELATED: Whose Island Is It Anyway | A History & Guide To Cumberland Island

5. Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site | North Carolina National Parks

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site | North Carolina National Parks
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in North Carolina |Courtesy of the National Park Service

Most authors can only dream of winning a coveted Pulitzer Prize in literature. Carl Sandburg won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln.

During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as “a major figure in contemporary literature”, especially for volumes of his collected verse, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920).

As a man who devoted a good portion of his life to teaching history, I have to confess that I never read Sandburg’s poetry. But I did read his Lincoln. Both the Prairie Years and the War Years.

I have never read a better biography of our nation’s 16th and arguably greatest president. Sandburg’s Lincoln is and always will be the “gold standard.”

Things To See & Do At Carl Sandburg’s Home

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site | North Carolina National Parks
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in North Carolina | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The park is located on 264 acres in western North Carolina. Visitors can tour the Sandburg Home They can also hike on over 5 miles of trails. 

While there, you can visit the farm and dairy goats, and much more. The average visitor spends two hours at “Connemara.”

And the best news of all is that it’s free to enter the park, access the bookstore and information in the ground floor of the Sandburg Home, walk the trails and visit the barn. If you’re planning on touring the house there is a fee for that.

Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2021, C-SPAN asked a group of distinguished presidential historians to rank our nation’s presidents from worst to best. At the top of their list, with a total score of 897 points, was Abraham Lincoln. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt came in second and third respectively.

Why is Abraham Lincoln ranked as the greatest president of all time? Simply put, he saved the Union. In the process of saving the nation, Lincoln managed to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him.

In its review of Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln, The New York Times noted that “What Mr. Sandburg has done, cannot well be repeated; his achievement is an intensely individual one, suffused by the qualities which are peculiarly his own as a poet.”

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years & The War Years (Six Volume Set) is the definitive biography of America’s 16th President. If you’re a history buff like I am, it’s definitely worth reading.

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“His great achievement, historians tell us, was his ability to energize and mobilize the nation by appealing to its best ideals while acting ‘with malice towards none’ in the pursuit of a more perfect, more just, and more enduring Union.

No President in American history ever faced a greater crisis and no President ever accomplished as much.”

-Michael Burlingame, Professor Emeritus of History
Connecticut College

To Learn More About The Civil War

So many books, so little time! If you’re looking to learn more about the war in its entirety then I’m recommending three of the best Civil War authors on the planet. I’m also going to recommend three of my favorite books when it comes to the Battle of Shiloh. The author and book recommendations are courtesy of me while the photo (above) is Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So many books have been written about the Civil War and the various battles that took place. Of course, the big three authors when it comes to war are, in my humble opinion, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and James M. McPherson.

What these three have written are the best collections of books encompassing the war as a whole. You can’t go wrong with any of these authors. My personal favorite is Shelby Foote. I have read his fabulous three volume history of the Civil War–twice!

When it comes to Civil War historians, you can’t go wrong with Shelby Foote (pictured on the right). Here he is giving then President Jimmy Carter a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield. President Carter really knew how to pick his tour guides! (Courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

When it comes to the Civil War in Kentucky, I would recommend The Civil War In North Carolina by John G. Barrett. Barrett explores the complexities of the war in North and the role played by the state in the war’s outcome.

RELATED: 30+ Best National Parks Books (Great Books For Parks Lovers)

6. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site | North Carolina National Parks

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site | North Carolina National Parks
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Go armed with the information that you need to succeed! In other words, begin your visit to the Fort Raleigh National Historical Site with a visit to the Lindsay Warren Visitors Center.

At the visitors center you’ll be able to explore exhibits on the Algonquian, the English, the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, the Civil War Battle of Roanoke Island, and Reginald Fessenden.

There’s also a 17-minute dramatic video on the interaction between the Algonquian and the English is displayed in the visitor center’s theater.

Things To See & Do At Fort Raleigh

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site | North Carolina National Parks
The original earthen fort was likely built in 1585, though its exact purpose and time of construction remain a mystery. Courtesy of the National Park Service

At Fort Raleigh, you can learn the story of England’s first New World settlements from 1584 to 1590. You’ll take a journey back to the Roanoke of the 1500s. Roanoke Island became known to the English on an exploratory voyage in 1584.

Shrouded in mystery and suspense, the establishment of a military colony in 1585 and a settlement colony in 1587 would become famous as the “Lost Colony of Roanoke.” Roanoke was an attempt by Sir Walter Raleigh to found the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Following the failure of this settlement, a second colony arrived in 1587.  It landed on the same island and became known as the Lost Colony due to the subsequent unexplained disappearance of its population.

Hike The Freedom Or Thomas Hariot Trail At Fort Raleigh

Freedom Trail | North Carolina National Parks
The Freedom Trail offers an excellent view of the Croatan Sound | Courtesy of the National Park Service

If you want to get your history and your exercise there are some excellent hiking opportunities at Fort Raleigh. There’s the Freedom Trail which takes hikers through a maritime forest. It’s a 1.25-mile trail that ends with views of the Croatan Sound on the western edge of the park. 

There’s also the Thomas Hariot Trail. It’s a 0.3-mile loop through the island’s maritime forest to the sandy shores of Albemarle Sound. Along the way hikers will see interpretive signs describing the forest habitat, the Algonquian methods for gathering food.

There’s also a reconstructed earthwork which includes copper nuggets, charcoal, antimony ore and furnace bricks. These could be the workshop site of Joachim Gans, a metal expert on the 1585 expedition.

And there’s the First Light of Freedom monument. It commemorates the Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony that was set up during the American Civil War. The colony provided a safe haven and education for the formerly enslaved to help prepare them for a new life.

RELATED: 6 Epic Kentucky National Parks To Visit On Your Visit To The Bluegrass State

7. Visit The Great Smoky Mountains National Parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park | North Carolina National Parks
Great Smoky Mountains National Park | North Carolina National Parks

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the is the most visited national park in the country and a true monument to the beauty of the Appalachians. Established in the depths of the Great

Depression by generous local communities, wealthy philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the U.S. government, this pristine area was spared from further logging and development and is now a premiere outdoor destination belonging to all Americans.

Nestled in the misty mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains is easily one of the most beautiful national parks on the planet. If you don’t believe me, visit in the fall and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about – more on that later!

If you’re wondering how crowded the park is considering it’s the most visited national park in the country – you might be surprised by the answer. While it certainly depends on where you go in the park and what time of year you visit, Great Smoky Mountains doesn’t see anywhere near the crowding that parks like Zion or Yosemite do these days.

To find out when, where, and why to go in this Appalachian wonderland – read on!

About The Pattiz Brothers Travels to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Jim Pattiz at the Great Smoky Mountains | North Carolina National Parks
Jim Pattiz at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Pattiz Brothers first traveled to the Smokies with a friend back in 2015 to capture the park during peak fall color. Fall peaked late that year and they ended up going towards the end of October and staying into November.

The nights were cold and the morning frost was a bit unfriendly after a night spent in a tent, but the views and the memories are some they’ll keep forever.

The fall color here was absolutely spectacular, some of the best they’ve ever seen. Wildlife can be seen in nearly every corner of the park, from river otters to elk to black bears, the Smokies really does have it all.

About Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains | North Carolina National Parks

Nestled in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is a place where time seems to have stood still. Here are the last remains of the ancient forests that once dominated the Eastern United States.

In the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, “there are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them.”

These misty mountains are home to America’s most visited national park, a land of vast hardwood forests, clear mountain streams, frontier cabins, and iconic wildlife. This is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Things to Know Before You Visit

Entrance Fees: There are none!

Getting Around: Great Smoky Mountains is a very accessible park with roads taking visitors through much of the park. Most any vehicle will do throughout the park and prepare for some scenic driving! The park does get very busy in the Summer so be prepared for long lines of cars and so-called bear-jams.

Sunscreen: For many of us visiting national parks in the summer means lots of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.

Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.

Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent just in case.

Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.

The History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

FDR at Great Smoky Mountains
President Franklin Roosevelt speaks at the dedication of Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Courtesy of the National Park Service

While I would love to tell you a story about Franklin Roosevelt championing the cause of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which he certainly did, the credit for this park really belongs to the people of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee who banded together to preserve this spectacular slice of Appalachia. Oh, and one extremely generous man with a famous name and a penchant for conservation.

An Eastern Oasis

Appalachian Loggers
Loggers strip the bark from trees | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The widespread practice of clear-cutting (an extremely destructive type of logging) had decimated much of the eastern United States once-grand forests by the late 1800’s. But in the rugged mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee there were still largely untouched swaths of forests, rivers, meadows, and creeks.

By the turn of the century locals began to realize the importance of preserving this rare and pristine landscape and started clamoring for the government to do something.

A Grassroots Park

smoky mountains workers
Courtesy of the National Park Service

By the 1920’s the National Park Service was itching for a national park in the eastern United States but didn’t have any money to do it. Congress went so far as to authorize the creation of a national park in the area in 1926, but didn’t provide any money or mechanism to acquire the lands needed to create the park.

Whoops! So the state legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina each appropriated $2 million for the acquisition of land to create the park. Civic-minded citizens donated what they could and school kids even donated pennies. By 1928 $5 million had been raised for the park, but it still wasn’t enough to save the area.

John D. Rockefeller Jr.

john d rockefeller jr
Mr. & Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. enjoy a boat ride on Jenny Lake at Grand Teton National Park | Courtesy of the Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum

Enter John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of perhaps the richest man in history (Standard Oil magnate John D Rockefeller) and himself a fervent conservationist. Seeing the park’s creation within reach, Rockefeller Jr. swooped into action and promptly donated an additional $5 million, thereby ensuring the purchase of all the land needed for the park.

Rockefeller Jr. went on to donate massive sums of money throughout his life helping to establish numerous national parks like Grand Teton, Yosemite, Shenandoah, and many others.

More Than Just Parks Great Smoky Mountains Video

MTJP | Smoky Mountains is a visually stunning journey through Great Smoky Mountain National Park during peak fall color.

This video is the culmination of two weeks exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. More Than Just Parks chose Great Smoky Mountains as our second park because of it’s extraordinary display of fall colors, it’s incredibly diverse wildlife population, and it’s importance as the most visited national park in the country.

This film was shot entirely in 4K UHD.

Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

fontana lake - more than just parks
Fontana Lake at Great Smoky Mountains National Parks

Go Leaf Peeping

great smoky mountains more than just parks
Great Smoky Mountains in the fall

Fall in the Great Smoky Mountains is simply spectacular with burning red oaks and brilliant yellow and orange maples. The park is home to many varieties of deciduous trees which turn fantastic colors in the fall.

Overlooks and creeks are ablaze with the colorful greetings of autumn and everywhere is a great spot to see this once-a-year feast for the eyes.

Take in the View from Clingmans Dome

clingmans dome - more than just parks
Clingmans Dome – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The observation tower at Clingmans Dome provides sweeping views of the entire park and the surrounding mountains and lakes.

On clear days you can see over 100 miles in any direction. This highest peak in the park is easy to access for visitors of all ages and abilities and a must for any visit.

Tour the Historic Cabins and Mills

A cabin in fall - more than just parks
Historic Cabin at Great Smoky Mountains

The historic cabins and buildings that dot the park are part of what makes Great Smoky Mountains National Park so great if you’ll excuse the pun. Seriously though, these beautiful rustic pioneer structures hearken back to the hard scrabble life forged by early settlers of the area and add to the beauty of the park.

There’s lots of great information on these historic structures in the park visitor centers and many are staffed by volunteers and interpreters who can tell you all about what life like for the people who built these frontier settlements.

Ditch the Tourists and Head for Cataloochee

newfound gap overlook
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Far from the hustle and bustle of Gatlinburg and the tourists you’ll find this peaceful mountain valley. Known as Cataloochee, the valley was formerly home to a small mountain community before the park was established.

Now you can explore the remaining historic homes and buildings and take in the peaceful mountain charm that once made this an ideal place to settle.

There is also a herd of elk that can be commonly seen grazing the pastures of this peaceful valley, some of the bull elk can grow to immense sizes with very large antler racks. You can also spot wild turkeys and a number of other interesting wildlife in this scenic and quiet part of the park.

RELATED: 9+ Mississippi National Parks For Your Dixie Bucket List (Expert Guide)

8. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was considered a victory within a defeat. It was on of the pivotal battles of the American Revolutionary War. It took place on March 15, 1781.

The British troops under Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) scored a tactical victory at Guilford Courthouse over American forces under Major General Nathanael Greene (1742-86). Nevertheless, the British suffered significant troop losses during the battle.

Afterward, Cornwallis abandoned his campaign for the Carolinas and instead took his army into Virginia, where in October of that year he surrendered to General George Washington (1732-99) following the Battle of Yorktown, the last major land battle of the war.

“I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.” 

– Lt. General Charles, Earl Cornwallis

Things To Do At Guilford Courthouse

The Hoskins Farmstead | Courtesy of the National Park Service

I recommend that you begin your tour at the Visitor Center where you can pick up a map of the battlefield. There are self-guided cell phone walking and driving tours.

You can explore the inner trails of the battlefield and visualize the events of March 15, 1781 as you listen to the Park Ranger’s narration.

The walking tour begins at the Hoskins Farm parking area. The entire walk is 1.75 miles. The tour last approximately 1.5 hours.

While you’re there you can visit the Hoskins Farmstead. It’s a late 18th and early 19th century farmstead, telling the story of Joseph and Hannah Hoskins, two colonists who fled the war during the Northern Campaign and settled in the Carolina backcountry planning for a peaceful life.

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9. Moores Creek National Battlefield | North Carolina National Parks

“King George and Broadswords!  shouted loyalists as they charged across partially dismantled Moores Creek Bridge on February 27, 1776. Just beyond the bridge nearly a 1,000 North Carolina patriots waited quietly with cannons and muskets poised to fire. This dramatic victory ended British rule in the colony forever.  (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

The Battle at Moores Creek Bridge was the first battle of the Revolutionary War to take place in North Carolina. This was a battle in which a group of North Carolina Patriots defeated a group of North Carolina Tories thereby thwarting a British invasion of the southern colonies.

Things To Do At Moores Creek

Moores Creek Boardwalk in Fall | Courtesy of the National Park Service

At Moores Creek, you can learn about history while getting into shape. There’s a one mile trail where you can enjoy a quiet walk through a 244-year-old battlefield. It doesn’t get any better than that!

If you’re thinking of hosting a special event of your own then the beautiful natural landscapes which are perfect venues for a variety of special activities. 

Be advised that most special events and activities held in the park require a special use permit, issued only after the National Park Service (NPS) determines, from the applicant’s information, that the activities involved will not impair park values and resources. (Source: NPS)

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10. Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail |North Carolina National Parks

Signs for Biggerstaff Hanging Tree and for the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail traces the route that was used by the Patriots during the Kings Mountain Battle of 1780. The route is 330 miles and it goes through four states (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina).

You can explore this route by following a Commemorative Motor Route which uses existing state highways. It is marked with a distinctive trail logo and includes 87 miles of walkable pathways.

The Battle Of Kings Mountain

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It was a battle which pitted Patriots against Tories. No British soldiers participated as this was a fight strictly between those who wanted to break free of British rule versus those who didn’t.

A force of 1,800 backcountry or “Overmountain” men defeated a force of 1,000 Tories at King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780.

According to British commander Henry Clinton, the American victory “proved the first Link of a Chain of Evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”

What You Can See In North Carolina | Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

Trod the same ground traveled by American Patriots | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The following sites along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail are in North Carolina:

  1. Trail #308 & Road #5545 – Yellow Mtn. Gap, Avery Co. – 1.5 Miles
  2. Overmountain Victory NHT – Elkin, NC – 3.75 Miles
  3. Yadkin River Greenway – Wilkesboro, NC – 7 Miles
  4. Overmountain Victory NHT – W. Kerr Scott Dam & Reservoir – 11 Miles
  5. Yadkin River Greenway – Caldwell County, NC – 1 Mile
  6. Patterson School Overmountain Trail – Caldwell County – 1 Mile
  7. Gillespie Gap – Blue Ridge Parkway, NC – 5.75 Miles
  8. Rose Creek Trail – West Side of Blue Ridge Parkway, MP 326 – 1.4 Miles
  9. Black Bear Tract Trail – North Shore of Lake James – 2.1 Miles
  10. Trail #308G & Road #1238 – Pisgah National Forest – 4.1 Miles
  11. 1780 Community – North Shore of Lake James – 1 Mile
  12. Paddy’s Creek Trail – New Part of Lake James State Park – 2.3 Miles
  13. Overmountain Victory NHT – Lake James State Park – 1.5 Miles
  14. Catawba River Greenway – Morganton, NC – 5 Miles
  15. Overmountain Victory NHT – Rutherfordton, NC – 3 Miles
  16. Alexander’s Ford Trail – Polk Co., NC – 2 Miles
  17. Overmountain Vineyards – Polk Co., NC – 1 Mile (Source: NPS)

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11. Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail | North Carolina National Parks

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The Trail of Tears map shows one of the most shameful episodes of American history, today preserved as the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

As a former history teacher, I believe no study of American history is complete without an understanding of the Trail of Tears. This history lesson begins in 1830. Don’t worry there’s no homework assignment. It was in that year that Congress passed the Indian Removal Act.

This infamous piece of legislation forced various Native American tribes to relinquish their lands in exchange for federal territory.

Most of the major tribes – the Choctaws, Muscogee Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws – agreed to be relocated to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma). 

The Trail Of Tears

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In 1838, the Cherokee people were forcibly taken from their homes,  incarcerated in stockades, forced to walk more than a thousand miles, and removed to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died and many are buried in unmarked graves along “The Trail Where They Cried.” (Source: Museum of the Cherokee Indian)

As the National Park Service reports, “U.S. Army troops, along with various state militia, moved into the tribe’s homelands and forcibly evicted more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia.”

“The impact of the resulting Cherokee “Trail of Tears” was devastating. More than a thousand Cherokee – particularly the old, the young, and the infirm – died during their trip west, hundreds more deserted from the detachments, and an unknown number – perhaps several thousand – perished from the consequences of the forced migration.

The tragic relocation was completed by the end of March 1839, and resettlement of tribal members in Oklahoma began soon afterward.” (Source: National Park Service)

“I could not but think that some fearful retribution would come upon us. The scene seemed to me like a distempered dream, or something worthy of the dark ages rather than a present reality.”

-Lieutenant John W. Phelps, who assisted with the removal

The Trail Of Tears Today

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Hikers retrace the Trail of Tears | Courtesy of the National Park Service

This incredible trail stretches 5,043 miles across nine states. You can follow the trail on foot, by vehicle, over water, by bicycle or by horse. Along the way, you will see sacred sites which tell the story of death and suffering as well as survival.

While in North Carolina, check out the North Carolina Museum of History which has an excellent exhibit on the Trail of Tears and its impact in North Carolina and elsewhere.

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Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave old nation. Women cry and make sad wails. Children cry and many men cry, and all look sad like when friends die, but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards West. Many days pass and people die very much. We bury close by Trail.

—Survivor of the Trail of Tears

12. Wright Brothers National Memorial | North Carolina National Parks

The Wright Flyer reproduction in the visitor center of Wright Brothers National Memorial | Courtesy of the National Park Service

History is replete with monumental moments that change the trajectory of humankind. One such moment occurred on December 17, 1903. Orville & Wilbur Wright, otherwise known as the Wright Brothers, ushered in the aerial age with their successful first flight of a heavier-than-flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

This airplane, known as the Wright Flyer, was the product of a sophisticated four-year program of research and development conducted by the brothers beginning in 1899.

Together, these two aeronautical visionaries pioneered many of the basic tenets and techniques of modern aeronautical engineering, such as the use of a wind tunnel and flight testing as design tools.

The impact of the airplane on the 20th century is beyond measure. The Wrights not only solved a long-studied technical problem, but also helped create an entirely new world. 

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through.”

-Orville Wright

Things To Do & See At The Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers National Memorial visitor center shortly after completion, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, USA. Part of the Mission 66 program. Courtesy of the National Park Service

Visitors can relive the epic adventures of two intrepid brothers from Ohio. Visitors can see the reconstructed hangar and living quarters offer a glimpse of what camp life was like for the Wrights in 1903.

Stand at the place where Wilbur and Orville Wright first took to the air in their 1903 flyer and landed. You can climb Big Kill Devil Hill to see the nation’s monument commemorating the brothers’ historic achievement.

List Of North Carolina National Park Sites

  1. Appalachian National Scenic Trail
  2. Blue Ridge Parkway
  3. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
  4. Cape Lookout National Seashore
  5. Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
  6. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
  7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  8. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
  9. Moores Creek National Battlefield
  10. Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail
  11. Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail
  12. Wright Brothers National Memorial

Map Of North Carolina National Park Sites

Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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