North Carolina’s Must-See Destinations

A trip to North Carolina wouldn’t be complete without some outdoor exploration!  With some of the most diverse ecosystems in the eastern United States, North Carolina is the place to be for wildlifers.  We encourage you to add a few extra days to your conference trip – either come a few days before or stay a few days after – to explore our beautiful state. 

To help plan your pre- or post-conference trips, local TWS members have pulled together some itinerary ideas (by region) just for you!  Whether you’d prefer to spend time on the sandy beaches of the Outer Banks or in the high elevation forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we’ve got the place for you!

For questions or more information, please check out the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Visit Raleigh website or call the Visitor Information Center at 1-800-834-5900.
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Northern Coastal Plain

Outer Banks (North) and Roanoke Island
The meeting is over, but there’s still so much to see and do!  In just a 3 hour drive from Raleigh you can get in on the last couple days of the 20th Annual Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival (October 18-23, 2016) for birding, paddling, photography, art and natural history trips, tours and programs – including a red wolf howl.  The Wings Over Water website lists activities and schedules; it’ll be updated in May for 2016.  Drive a little farther to see awe-inspiring sunsets at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast!  The dunes and winds in this kite-flying and hang-gliding destination (with rentals and lessons through vendors nearby) are part of the birth of aviation, which you can experience at the nearby Wright Brothers National Memorial. More amazing views of the ocean, sound, and Outer Banks are just 220 steps up the spiral staircase of Currituck Beach Lighthouse and Museum.  Great beach access and saltwater fishing (with equipment rental) can be found at Jennette’s Pier.  Bring the kids for hands-on wildlife and outdoor educational experiences at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island.

A trip to the northern Outer Banks can take you to and through other habitats than estuaries and sandy beaches.  You can walk through maritime forests at Nags Head Woods and maybe see black bear in the peat-based pocosin wetlands at Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges.  So, come check-out the northern Outer Banks and think about these other natural history and cultural resources along the way:


Outer Banks (Middle)
A visit to the Outer Banks would not be complete without a stop at the Bodie Island Lighthouse.  It was fully restored in 2013 and now you can climb to the top and see the marshes of the Pamlico Sound as well as the ocean front.  To charter a fishing boat and experience deep sea fishing or fishing in the Pamlico Sound, stop at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.  Across the Bonner Bridge, you enter Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, replete with waterfowl impoundments and unspoiled oceanfront beach.  On the many trails you will see an abundance of birds and native plants.  From Pea Island, head south on Highway 12, and you get to Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Hatteras Lighthouse. The lighthouse was moved in 1999 due to the ever-changing shoreline of this narrow barrier island.  Enjoy the beach, surf fishing, many shore- and seabirds, and see how many protected sea turtle nests you can spot.  To the west, on the Pamlico Sound, you can enjoy kite boarding, paddle boarding, and sail boarding, among many other outdoor adventures in this coastal treasure.

Here are some other suggested destinations in this area:


Outer Banks (South)
When you travel to the central portion of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, you won’t want to miss the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harker’s Island.  From expertly carved decoys to boat making and Down East heritage, you’ll want to spend hours at this site. The visitor’s center for Cape Lookout National Seashore is a short walk away, however, so you’ll want to schedule time there as well as taking a ferry to South Core Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.  The Cape Lookout string of islands are the most natural along the Atlantic Coast.  Returning from Harker’s Island toward the small towns of Beaufort and Morehead City, will lead you to Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium.  The aquarium focuses on education and conservation, especially of threatened and endangered species of amphibians, sea turtles, and sharks.  Check their website for special events and activities for families.  This aquarium is on a long barrier island called Bogue Banks, and includes several communities that are bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Bogue Sound.  Plan a long weekend in this intriguing area of coastal North Carolina.

Check out these other cool places to visit in this area too:


Southern Coastal Plain
Just 3 hours’ drive from Raleigh, the southern coast of North Carolina is a popular getaway destination, known for its natural resources and rich history.  This section of the coast hosts some of the northernmost extent of the nesting beaches for sea turtles, and is therefore home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehab Center in Surf City.  The center is open to visitors, and allows viewing of turtles stunned by cold waters or otherwise recovering from injuries.  This region also hosts many parks, including Carolina Beach State Park with camping options, six miles of hiking trails, and fishing opportunities.  This park is a prime example of beach and coastal scrub/shrub habitats and one of the only places in the world where you can find the Venus flytrap in its native habitat.  Just a few miles south, the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area offers beach access as well as hiking trails on walkways through the bay side marsh habitats – a great birding opportunity with over 139 species recorded in the month of October.  If the weather is less than ideal, pop in to the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher.  In addition to a 306,000-gallon main tank, a touch tank, and exhibits highlighting the marine habitats off the coast, the aquarium also hosts a conservatory with native reptiles and amphibians.  Wilmington, the big city at the heart of the region, has a historic river district suitable for an afternoon of strolling and shopping.  Just over the river, you can visit the WWII battleship USS North Carolina.

For those with a little more time, plan a day trip to Bald Head Island.  This unique private island is open to daytime visitors (or renters), hosting Old Baldy Lighthouse and the associated Smith Island Museum as well as Bald Head Woods.  Plan ahead though, the ferry ride takes 20 minutes from Southport, and departs every 30 minutes beginning at 7am.

Other options in the region:



Greater Raleigh Area

For those of you who may only have a day or an afternoon of free time around the conference, you’re in luck!  The Raleigh metro area is home to several natural preserves, state parks, and other natural wonders.  Definitely the closest option for conference attendees is a free tour of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences – the largest institution of its kind in the Southeast and one of the nation’s most amazing museums about the natural world.  Although the conference has an official behind-the-scenes field trip to the Museum, there are many other cool exhibits, live animals, and other educational displays here too.  Come explore 7 interactive exhibit spaces that span two city blocks in downtown Raleigh!  Be sure to check out the Living Conservatory, a live recreation of a tropical dry forest, where you’ll see tropical butterflies fluttering overhead and maybe even spot a two-toed sloth.  Or, stay another two days after the conference and check out the special exhibit “The Secret World Inside You” starting October 21.

The North Carolina State Fair is also coming to Raleigh October 13-23!  Only 5 miles from the Raleigh Convention Center, the State Fair is the largest 11-day event in North Carolina attracting more than 800,000 attendees from all over the world!  Come see livestock shows, petting zoos, arts and craft shows, antique farm machinery, musical concerts, and flower and garden shows, or ride carnival rides and play games, nosh on fried dough or all sorts of fried goodness (oreos, candy bars, and much more!), and watch the nightly fireworks display.

Right across the street from the State Fair is the PNC Arena, home of the Carolina Hurricanes, North Carolina’s own NHL team.  Be sure to check out their game schedule closer to the conference.

Only 8-9 miles from the Raleigh Convention Center are three other excellent sites, all of which offer unique ecosystems with great birding and wildlife-viewing opportunities within minutes of downtown Raleigh.  Prairie Ridge Ecostation is managed by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, and includes 45 acres of Piedmont prairie, forest, ponds, a stream, and sustainable building features integrated with a wildlife-friendly landscape.  Right across the street is Carl Alwin Schenck Memorial Forest – a 245-acre forest managed by NC State University as a teaching and research forest to demonstrate the multiple benefits generated by an actively- managed forest.  And just up the road is William B. Umstead State Park, featuring camping, 22 miles of hiking trails, 13 miles of mountain biking trails, three large lakes for fishing and paddling.

A visit to Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is sure to captivate and delight, with approximately 3 miles of mulched nature trails, multiple scenic overlooks, excellent bird and wildlife watching opportunities nestled in downtown Cary and just 14 miles from the Raleigh Convention Center.  Hemlock Bluffs is a 140-acre nature preserve, managed by the Town of Cary, to preserve a population of eastern hemlocks, galax, and other vegetation more typically found further west in the Appalachian Mountains.  Although conference attendees will have a chance to take a special field trip to Hemlock Bluffs, be sure to check out this hidden gem on your own too!

Another local hot spot in the Greater Raleigh area, and only 25 miles from the downtown Raleigh, is Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, where you can watch bald eagles soar over the 13,940-acre lake, and enjoy camping, fishing, boating, hiking, canoeing, and picnicking in the Recreation Area or hunting on the Jordan Lake Game Lands.

Nineteen miles east of the Raleigh Convention Center, you’ll find Robertson Millpond Preserve, an 85-acre refuge for nature lovers, canoeists and kayakers, reminiscent of the Great Dismal Swamp!  Visitors can paddle around the only bald cypress blackwater swamp habitat in Wake County, hike along a short boardwalk to an interpretative display next to the mill site foundation, and enjoy bird watching and exploring the natural wonders of this unique site.

Head south 39 miles from downtown Raleigh and you’ll end up at Raven Rock State Park, home of Lanier Falls, the Fish Traps rapids, and the massive Raven Rock, an ageless landmark for Cape Fear River travelers.  Hikers will experience steep terrain, piedmont scenic vistas, montane plant species (mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets), and tumbling creeks.

Other sites within the Greater Raleigh metro area include:

Carolina Sandhills
Travel just over an hour south from Raleigh for a relaxing getaway at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Bring the entire family for free hiking and educational activities. Explore the many hiking trails, search for cat-faced trees (old turpentine trees), or visit the oldest documented longleaf pine tree in the world (470 years old)! From September-November, join the staff as they set up mist nets and band birds – just be sure to phone or email ahead as banding locations and times often change.

While you’re in the area check out Southern Pines, Aberdeen, and Pinehurst – the Home of American Golf.  Home to 17 of the top 100 best golf courses in North Carolina, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable golf experience in North Carolina’s Sandhills.  From duffers to professionals, you’re sure to see “birdies” and “eagles” everywhere!

Right up the road from Weymouth Woods is the Walthour-Moss Foundation, a slice of longleaf pine heaven covering over 4,000 acres virtually unspoiled by progress and development.  The Foundation was originally known for its equestrian use, which continues to attract world-class riders and drivers to its sandy lanes and trails.  However, the implementation of proper silviculture and ecological practices have made the Walthour-Moss Foundation a true environmental preserve.  The Walthour-Moss Foundation is open to the public from sunrise to sunset, every day, free of charge.  Take a hike around, and you might find some rare plants, including bristly lady’s thumb, pine barren gentian, water-spider orchid, Sandhills blazing-star, and two carnivorous plants – the yellow and purple pitcher plants.  Although this location is also one of the official conference field trips, be sure to spend some time here on your own.

Roughly 14 miles south of Southern Pines lies the Sandhills Game Land covering over 64,000 acres in the heart of longleaf pine ecosystems.  Managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and open year round, the game land is one of the few publicly accessible places in the state to see an intact longleaf pine ecosystem, including most of the unique plant and animal species associated with the habitat.  Contact the NCWRC for possible access restrictions during October.  Stop by for a chance to see gopher frogs, Sandhills lilies, red-cockaded woodpeckers, tiger salamanders, Michaux sumac, fox squirrels, chicken turtles, brown-headed nuthatches, and more!  Sandhills Game Land is also open to hunting and fishing.

For those history buffs out there, we also recommend stopping by the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville or the Rankin Museum of American Heritage in Ellerbe.

Uwharrie Mountains
After brushing up on your golf swing, travel an hour west to visit the Town Creek Indian Mound State Historic Site in Mt. Gilead.  This unusual site has been the focus of a consistent program of archaeological discovery for more than half a century.  Come explore the site where Native American inhabitants built earthen mounds for their spiritual and political leaders, engaged in widespread trade, supported craft specialists, and celebrated a new kind of religion in the 11th century A.D.

Now that you have explored the ancient artifacts and the Pee Dee Indian culture, drive north and discover 51,000 acres of the National Forest System.  Uwharrie National Forest has activities for the entire family to enjoy! Bike, camp, geocache, fish, hike, picnic, and swim all in the forest.  A list of day activities and camping locations can be found here.  For more information and to obtain fishing and camping permits, stop at the Uwharrie Ranger District Office, located at 789 NC Highway 24/27 East, Troy, NC 27371.  In addition, be sure to explore the Birkhead Mountain Wilderness located in Uwharrie.  They are considered to be the oldest mountains on the North American Continent!  Bring your gear and hike Hannahs Creek Trail, Robins Branch Trail, or the Thornburg Trail.  Or check out the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail, which includes the 20-mile Uwharrie Trail and 11.5-mile Dutchman’s Creek Trail, and passes by old gold mines, home sites, and cemeteries while offering beautiful vistas, unique wildlife, and fun hiking opportunities.

Another excellent spot to stop by is Morrow Mountain State Park – one of the places where Native Americans lived more than 10,000 years before European settlement.  Take a walk on any of park’s 21 miles of trails, visit the homestead of Dr. Francis Kron – the first medical doctor to settle and practice medicine in the southern piedmont of North Carolina, cast your line in Lake Tillery, kayak the tranquil waters of the Pee Dee River, or climb Morrow Mountain and explore the history and ecology of piedmont monadnock forests.

Other nearby venues include:

Piedmont Triad Area
Before heading farther north from the Uwharrie Mountains, take a quick trip east and shop for pottery in Sea Grove. Visitors can explore the rural landscape by back roads and visit the potters in their workshops and studios, to witness the Seagrove potters continuing the tradition of making pots.

Located just north of Seagrove and only an hour from Raleigh, the North Carolina Zoo is seated on a 2,200-acre tract of land in Asheboro.  Approximately 500 acres of this property have been developed into one of the largest “natural habitat” zoos in the United States.  Discover the North American and African continents right here in North Carolina!  You won’t find cages made of steel and concrete here!  Be sure to bring the kids and enjoy the zoo any day in October from 9am-5pm.

Take a trip to Greensboro, only one hour west of Raleigh, and visit the city’s many science centers, historical museums, and breweries.  Be sure to stop in at the Greensboro Science Center for some great family fun – the only facility in the state to offer an accredited science museum, zoological park (Animal Discovery Zoo), OmniSphere Theater and aquarium (Carolina SciQuarium) all in one destination.  Or swing by downtown Greensboro and explore the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, including their archival center, collecting museum, and teaching facility devoted to the international struggle for civil and human rights.  You will depart with a wealth of knowledge about the challenges African Americans faced in the struggle for equal rights and our country’s cultural and historical achievements.

In Winston-Salem, climb aboard a SEGWAY or a “SUP” (StandUp Paddleboard) to experience the beautiful city and its surroundings!  A variety of narrated SEGWAY & e-BIKE tours as well as PaddleFit SUP excursions scheduled daily show off the city from unique vantage points.  Hop off your SEGWAY and unwind at one of the 40+ nearby wineries.  Explore the Yadkin Valley and take a hike on one of North Carolina’s Wine Trails.  You will find that these wineries are small, with intimate wine tasting rooms which provide more access to the winemakers and owners (often one and the same).  Sample new wines and learn about the wine making process!

Experience early American history in the unique Moravian settlement of Old Salem.  Explore original structures, gardens, tours, artifacts, hands-on workshops, fun family events and shopping.  If you prefer modern and edgy, check out Bailey Park, an urban green space, located on Patterson Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Street in downtown Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter.  Enjoy dinner from a local food truck and catch part of the 2nd annual film series which runs from September-October.

The Piedmont Triad is also home to nine breweries in case you need to “wet” your appetite for some local beer, including some big name brewing companies.

For outdoor fun within a 30-minute drive of these metropolitan areas, check out Pilot Mountain State Park or Hanging Rock State Park.  Hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, camping, picnicking, swimming, mountain biking are all offered.  Both parks also provide excellent bird watching opportunities, especially for raptor and songbird migrations in October.

Other opportunities in and around Greensboro and Winston-Salem:



Northern Blue Ridge Mountains
Peak leaf season is October!  Come to the conference early or stick around for a few days after, and take a trip to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina!  In the northern mountains, you can start near Boone and travel south along the Blue Ridge Parkway for some of the most stunning scenery and unmatched ecological diversity in the world.  Boone, North Carolina, located only three hours northwest of Raleigh, is home to many splendid things – whether you are into city fun (shopping, spas, museums, or art galleries) or outdoor adventures (zip lining, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, or winter sports)!

Boone is also a hop, skip, and a jump from the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic highway stretching from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina.  Once you’re on the Parkway, you can ‘swing’ by Grandfather Mountain and check out the Mile High Swinging Bridge, America’s highest suspension footbridge spanning an 80-foot chasm to Linville Peak, where the winds play like symphonies and the 360-degree panoramic views are just magnificent.  And be sure to get out and stretch your legs in the adjacent Grandfather Mountain State Park for miles of high-alpine hiking within 2,600 acres of undeveloped back country.

Just south of the Parkway from Grandfather Mountain is Linville Gorge Wilderness – one of only two wilderness gorges in the Southern United States.  The Gorge is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians” because of its astonishing 2,000 foot drop in elevation from rim to river.  The wilderness area encompasses more than 11,000 acres within the Pisgah National Forest, and is open to the public year-round.  Enjoy easy or strenuous hikes (depending on which trail you choose) to Linville Falls, a three-tiered 150-foot waterfall cascading down through the Gorge, or majestic overlooks from Wiseman’s View and Hawksbill Mountain.  Serious rock climbers should check out the odd rock formations in the Gorge such as Table Rock, Sitting Bear, and the Chimneys, and other great climbing opportunities in the area.  In the gorge, back country camping and hiking opportunities abound, where you can escape into nowhere, gaze at the stars, and enjoy some hard-earned peace and quiet.

Nearby the gorge is Linville Caverns, North Carolina’s only show cavern located only four miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway deep inside Humpback Mountain.  These natural, active limestone caverns feature stalactite and stalagmite formations, amazing mineral colors, and an underground stream with native trout.  Because they stay a comfortable 52 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, these caverns serve as excellent hibernacula for several species of bats in North Carolina.  Take a tour, learn about the geology and history of the caverns, catch a glimpse into the Bottomless Pool, and experience total darkness!

Continue on the Parkway south and you’ll travel by Mount Mitchell State Park, home of the highest peak east of the Mississippi and North Carolina’s first state park.  Mount Mitchell’s dramatic peak stands at 6,684 feet in elevation!  On top of the mountain is an easily accessible observation deck, surrounded by miles of spruce-fir forests and unmatched views, a history museum, and a network of hiking trails.

Many other fun opportunities and vistas exist along the Blue Ridge Parkway, just waiting to be explored!

Check out these other stops along the drive:


Southern Blue Ridge Mountains
A trip to North Carolina in the fall is not complete without spending time in the western region of our state, which is a short, three-hour drive from Raleigh!  The timing of the conference “falls” right during the peak for fall leaf colors and the Blue Ridge Mountain Range has one of the longest-running autumn leaf color displays in the United States. Catch the peak colors before and/or after the conference by going to the Fall Leaf Color Forecast.  And one of the best ways to see the leaves, and find great hiking trails, waterfalls, and scenic overlooks is to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Blue Ridge Parkway goes right by Asheville, which has a lively downtown, locally-owned stores, a huge variety of restaurants, art museums and galleries, the Biltmore Estate, street performers, drum circles and BEER!  In fact, Asheville has been called the “Napa Valley of Beer” and has more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. And to help you navigate like a local in Asheville, there is an app!  Before you leave Asheville, be sure to catch the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the city by visiting the historic Grove Park Inn.

If you want to drive a bit farther west, check out the Cradle of Forestry in Brevard, the birthplace of forest conservation in the United States!  From there, continue west to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where you have a good chance of seeing fall leaf colors, black bears, and bugling elk.  Or hike a section of the Appalachian Trail – the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.  Next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation, which offers artwork, Native American culture, hiking, birding, camping, golfing, and North Carolina’s only casino.

Continue on to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, located 15 miles west of Robbinsville, North Carolina. This is one of the nation’s most impressive remnants of old-growth forest, with 100 tree species, many that are over 400 years old.

Check out these other cool spots nearby: