Piedmont Perfection

| May 26, 2012

One of the best advantages of living in the central Piedmont of North Carolina is its close proximity to the mountains in the West and the beaches in the East. Either way, in just three hours by car, you have the choice of hiking up to the sky or dipping your feet in the ocean.

When opening a business, buying a home, or even choosing where to retire, it has often been said that the three most important things to consider are location, location, location. Fortunately for those of us who live in the Chapel Hill, N.C. area, we are situated in one of the most favorable locations in the heart of North Carolina’s Piedmont. The rolling hills, the temperate climate, and access to both urban and rural surroundings in a matter of minutes are all advantages of living in this area. But being equidistant to the breath-taking Blue Ridge Mountains and to the curling Atlantic ocean waves is the biggest benefit of all.


The Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian Mountain Chain that spans from central Alabama all the way to Northern Canada, is just a three hour drive due west of Chapel Hill, N.C. Right outside of Boone, N.C. is the closest access point to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a winding and twisting 469-mile mountain road that offers numerous scenic overlook pull-offs. The Blue Ridge Parkway was built to connect Shenandoah National Park in northwest Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in southwest North Carolina, and took over 52 years to complete. It is the most visited attraction in the United States National Park System, and the views are truly spectacular any time of year.

Grandfather Mountain is one of my favorite climbs to the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I have been hiking it since I was about seven years old. It is an easy walk up, on a wide path, and one of the most rewarding vistas greets you at the summit. Hang gliders frequently jump off from here, which is an amazing feat to witness. Nearby, is the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, which is exciting to cross, but might prove challenging for anyone who has a fear of heights. Tweetsie Railroad is another great stop, especially if you have children with you. It is just a short drive west down Highway 321 from Boone, and it has come a long way from when I was little and there was only a small train to ride. Now it is a full-fledged amusement park offering rides for all ages, and a place called Miner’s Mountain where you can pan for gold and gems, visit the Deer Park petting zoo, and play at the playground.

Further south lies the quaint town of Asheville, N.C. which is home to an interesting mix of artists, musicians, and native mountain folk. Just outside of Asheville lies Pisgah National Forest. It is one of the most lush and beautiful spots for camping in the area. Be sure to bring wet weather gear, since it is one of the few temperate rain forests in the eastern U.S. and it is often raining there. The French Broad River runs through the town of Asheville, and is perfect for a white-water rafting trip in the summer months. During the winter, skiing and snow-boarding can be found a little further west at several ski resorts, including my two favorites: Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain. The slopes are gentle for beginners, though there are some advanced trails available as well, and the ground cover is usually powdery instead of icy. Mountain biking is also a popular summer activity, and these two resorts in particular each offer 20 miles of fantastic mountain biking trails.

The month of October brings the most tourists to the North Carolina mountains due to the brilliantly colored fall foliage. If you are planning a visit around the week that it peaks, usually mid-October, I highly recommend you book your stay well in advance, because accommodations fill up quickly. However, thanks to the close proximity of the mountains to Chapel Hill, you can easily make it a day trip. If you leave in the morning, you can arrive in Boone or Asheville for lunch, drive the Blue Ridge Parkway for a few hours to witness the breath-taking red, yellow and orange leaves, and be home in time for dinner. I have in fact done this several times, and it is a wonderful way to spend the day!


The Carolina coast makes the state of North Carolina one of the top beach destinations for tourists and residents alike. The Outer Banks is a 200-mile long string of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina and is home to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in America. It is only a four-hour drive from Chapel Hill, and because development has not yet touched these pristine sandy beaches, it truly feels like a remote getaway to a distant land when you visit there. Nevertheless, there is a lot to do and see here, and the history of the Outer Banks is fascinating — including the mysterious disappearance of The Lost Colony and the death of the famous pirate Blackbeard. My favorite activity when I visited the Outer Banks as a child was to roll down Kill Devil Hill — a 100′ high steep, sandy dune where on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took the first powered flight in an airplane. They have since covered the sand with hearty grasses in order to preserve the hill, so no more rolling is allowed. Nevertheless, it is still worth a trip there to visit the Wright Brothers’ Memorial. Water enthusiasts can swim, sail, kayak, surf and windsurf here. SCUBA diving is especially popular because of the many shipwrecks that occurred in what is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Moving inland, my two favorite beaches are Emerald Isle and neighboring Atlantic Beach. These are the beaches with which I am the most familiar, simply because growing up, they were the closest ones to Chapel Hill — just a three hour drive due east. When Interstate 40 was completed to span all the way to Wilmington, N.C. in the late 1980’s, Chapel Hillians could hit the highway and be on the beach in a mere 2.5 hours. I took advantage of this new express route often in my college days at UNC-Chapel Hill, by hopping in the car around 4:00 am so I could be on the coast by sunrise, and then driving back just in time to make it to my 10:00 am class. I soon became more familiar with Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Topsail Island, Holden Beach and Kure Beach (pronounced “Curry”), which are all wonderful small beach town destinations for some rest, relaxation and fun in the sun. The city of Wilmington, N.C. is easily accessible from all of these beaches for evenings out, making for a perfect mix of nature and nightlife. For a more remote getaway, I highly recommend planning a trip to Bald Head Island. By taking a 20-minute ferry-ride from historic Southport, N.C., you can experience the truly peaceful, simple life. Leave your car on the mainland, since transportation here is strictly limited to golf carts, bikes, or your own two feet, so you do not have to worry about getting hit by a dune buggy while relaxing on one of their many gorgeous beaches. As you can imagine, this island has not been build up at all, but there is still a lot do here, including golf, hiking, kayaking, sailing, paddleboarding and geocaching.


Whether you are a beach person or a mountain person, both ends of the state are perfect vacation spots. The best part about these two regions is the lack of commercial development. The North Carolina tourism industry has done a wonderful job preserving the natural beauty to be found in both locations. Yet there are plenty of great places to eat, comfortable accommodations for very reasonable rates, convenient shopping for amenities and gifts alike, and plenty of activities for families, friends, couples and seniors, ranging from leisurely to adventuresome. Every season has something new to offer and festivals are frequent throughout the year. I suggest selecting a lodging in which to store your luggage and spend the night, and then head out to explore the entire region. The country roads that lead through small towns in the mountains are extremely picturesque, and at the beach, the walk-a-bouts to the pier and back, splashing in the shoreline as you go, are a time-honored tradition. How fortunate we are to have these two beautiful destinations right in our own backyard, and I can’t think of a better place in the Piedmont to jump to them from than Chapel Hill!

Feel free to comment below and tell us your favorite places to visit in the mountains and at the coast. We would love to hear from you!

Category: Places

Comments are closed.