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From the edge of the Atlantic to Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina offers the best vacation experiences ever. That’s official. We took a vote. 3 out of 3 of our friends agree that anyone looking for a quick getaway could do a lot worse than a weekend exploring the Old North State. 3 out of 3 of our friends are also broke wallet-conscious, so we know a thing or two about cramming an exceptional amount of fun and beauty into a tiny budget.
Our solution? Get up and get going with one of these five $500-and-under weekend getaways (for two!) that span the state. Wherever you’re located, we promise you’re just a short drive from at least one of them. #YoureWelcome
$475: Beaches, Brews and B&Bs in Wilmington
Craft beers. Charming waterfront. Great nightlife.
In 2014, USA Today named Wilmington the “Best American Riverfront” — and it’s no wonder. Aside from a rich Colonial history, more than a dozen entries in the National Registry of Historic Places, and being next-door neighbors to beautiful NC beaches, The Port City’s thriving craft beer scene means the edge of the Cape Fear River comes alive at night.
This charming town offers equally charming hospitality. Check out C.W. Worth House, an 1893 mansion turned modern Victorian B&B three blocks from the heart of Wilmington’s waterfront. As of this writing rooms start at $160 a night, and inn’s hearty complimentary continental breakfast — prepared daily by the chef — means you’ll have some cash left over to wander the waterfront enjoying fresh-caught North Carolina seafood and a little of those aforementioned local brews.
$0: The Forgotten Mountains of Uhwarrie National Forest
Hiking, camping and boating. Ancient mountain range. Close to everywhere.
Think you have to drive all the way to Asheville for a good weekend hike? Think again. Uhwarrie National Forest is an overlooked but stunning range of ancient, now-miniature crags (think 600-900 feet) in south-central North Carolina. Spanning 51,000 acres in Montgomery, Randolph, and Davidson Counties, the park offers hiking, camping, boating, and annual events like the Uhwarrie Mountain Run.
Your Uwharrie adventure awaits just an hour from Charlotte, about that from the Triad, and under two from the Triangle. And if you’re anywhere near Fayetteville, it’s in your backyard. So get out of town and get a little bit lost, right in the middle of the state. Better yet? Do it for free. Aside from the price of your gear, camping in Uhwarrie will cost you exactly $0, all year ‘round.
$15: Back Roads and Great Barbecue
Beautiful back roads. Barbecue...the real kind. Living history.
Crunched for time? Then forget the weekend. In North Carolina, there are many excuses to just make a day of it, and barbecue is one of them. So head out in search of some local joint somewhere you’ve never been, and join the great barbecue debate: Eastern, or Western? (We’ve got an opinion on the matter. But we’re not telling.)
There’s pretty much no end to the amazing eateries out there, but here’s one recommendation: head to Ayden, home of Skylight Inn Barbecue. Known to the locals as Pete Jones’ BBQ, Skylight has been an institution since 1947, when they began cooking whole hogs the real way: over wood. They’ve been featured by National Geographic, the James Beard awards, and Southern Living, to name just a few. After seventy years in business, they’re still family-owned, and all the fame hasn’t gone to their heads; you can get a pound of barbecue plus slaw and bread for $13. That plus some tea is all you need for two.
One of the best things about the place is that I-40 won’t take you there. Do yourself a favor and make your way to either NC 11 or NC 102, and spend a few hours traveling the back roads through North Carolina’s gorgeous farmland. It’s good for the soul.
$250-$450: Elegant Elizabeth City and the Magic of Merchants Millpond
Thriving arts scene. Choose luxury or roughing it. Living history.
For some quirky Southern culture, head to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina, right on the Pasquotank River. Besides being as charming and vibrant as its waterfront cousin Wilmington, Elizabeth City is home to a burgeoning arts scene anchored by the Arts of the Albemarle Center. Located in a historic 1895 department store, the Center houses more than 250 working artists of all kinds, a performance space, and a school for the arts.
You could try staying at the intimate Pond House Inn, right on...you’ve got it...a picturesque pond near the river. Rooms rates are comparable to what you’ll find in Wilmington: about $160 per weekend night as of this writing, which includes a hearty home-cooked breakfast. That plus some cash for lunch and dinner, and maybe for some coastal souvenirs, will get you to $250 or so.
You could hang out all weekend soaking up the charms of Elizabeth City for a bit more money, or go with our recommendation: a short jaunt up U.S. Route 17 to Merchants Millpond State Park, where you’ll kayak or canoe through some of the only swampland in the state. Merchants Millpond is no mere bog; you’ll paddle past beautiful beech groves and drift under ancient cypress trees adorned with beards of Spanish moss, and they’ll make you feel positively young. Campground reservations start at $10.
$0: Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Old-growth forest. Easy hiking. Campgrounds with perks.
Do you recognize those lines? They’re from the poem “Trees,” and North Carolina’s living memorial to the poet is a national treasure. Nestled right here in Western North Carolina, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of the only old-growth forests left in the U.S. That means some of its trees beat this country’s birthday by more than 150 years. Go check out a 100-foot-tall, 20-foot-around tulip poplar, and then see if you’re still stressed out by work. We dare you!
It will cost you nothing to get into Joyce Kilmer, but you can’t camp there; it’s a two-mile hike looped hike through the old woods, and then out you go to stay elsewhere in the surrounding Nantahala National Forest. One close year-round option is Horse Cove Campground, about 13 miles north of Robbinsville. It’s also free, but don’t forget to make reservations! You’ll find running water there and easy access to other hiking. A great group option is Rattler Ford Group Campground; they’ve got hot showers!
What’s the best NC vacation you’ve ever had? We want to hear! Comment and tell us all about it. Maybe you’ll inspire us to get out of dodge — and to remember why we love being North Carolinians.