A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

From their seats aboard Lookout Lady IV, travelers aboard the 49-passenger ferry spot the sea oat-covered sand dunes bordering the Keepers’ Quarters Museum, located on Cape Lookout. Some are from

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

From their seats aboard Lookout Lady IV, travelers aboard the 49-passenger ferry spot the sea oat-covered sand dunes bordering the Keepers’ Quarters Museum, located on Cape Lookout. Some are from

3 Destinations to Experience North Carolina History

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse at Cape Lookout, NC.

From their seats aboard Lookout Lady IV, travelers aboard the 49-passenger ferry spot the sea oat-covered sand dunes bordering the Keepers’ Quarters Museum, located on Cape Lookout. Some are from Raleigh and Durham; others flew to North Carolina from Belgium and New Zealand. Many have never encountered the 1873 duplex, the second of three lighthouse keepers’ homes built over the past 200 years, and they marvel at the historic site before them. “Cape Lookout has several places that are powerful reminders of history,” says Nate Toering, chief of interpretation and education at Cape Lookout National Seashore. “It’s amazing to watch people connect to it.”

Across the state, you can travel to destinations like this that offer a portal into the past. Hungry to explore? Set your sight on these three North Carolina destinations.


Crystal Coast

Cape Lookout

No Crystal Coast visit is complete without a visit to the iconic, 163-foot-high Cape Lookout Lighthouse, positioned on Cape Lookout National Seashore. The lighthouse, affectionately known as our Diamond Lady, has been a beacon on the shores of Cape Lookout for more than 200 years. While it is currently closed for renovation, you can still soak in views from the base.

For even more adventure, Toering recommends heading to the Shackleford Banks, south of Beaufort and Harkers Island — the stomping grounds for more than 100 wild horses whose ancestors have roamed the shoreline for almost 500 years. “There’s something magical about being on the beach and seeing a herd of wild horses walking past you,” he says. “It’s truly an amazing place.”

NC History is alive at Fort Macon State Park in Carteret County.

Mosey through the restored Civil War-era tunnels and climb to the overlook at Fort Macon State Park.   Photography courtesy of The Crystal Coast

Fort Macon State Park

To trace the historic roots of North Carolina’s southern coast, start at Fort Macon State Park, a restored Civil War-era fort at Atlantic Beach, built to protect the Beaufort Inlet. The fort has since been restored and turned into a 389-acre state park. Traverse through tunnels, get the lay of the land on a guided tour, or watch a small arms demonstration — involving muskets, flintlocks, or rifles — to learn what a soldier stationed at Fort Macon would have carried and used.

Historic Beaufort
People ride bikes in historic Beaufort, NC.

Explore Historic Beaufort’s homes, gardens, and churches on a self-guided tour completed by foot or by bike. Photography courtesy of The Crystal Coast

Established in 1709 and incorporated in 1723, this seaside town is the third oldest in North Carolina. Escape to simpler times at the two-acre Beaufort Historic Site, home to 10 buildings (six authentically restored) that depict what life was like in 18th and 19th century coastal North Carolina. History lovers can take part in a guided tour of the historic buildings on site, the Old Burying Grounds, or join a 45-minute site tour on a 1967 English double-decker bus. Along the way, local narrators highlight Beaufort’s long and colorful history with tales of pirates, invaders, Confederate spies, and star-crossed lovers.

Tip: Mark your calendar for the annual Old Homes Tour from June 28 to 29. This self-guided walking tour leads you to private historic homes, hidden gardens, churches, and more. “The tour is the best way, and only way, to get inside some of these amazing historic homes. It shows our visitors what Southern hospitality is all about,” says Patricia Suggs, executive director of Beaufort Historic Site. Festivities include a tour after-party, Southern brunch at the Beaufort Hotel, and book signing with local writer Kristy Woodson Harvey, whose book A Happier Life, comes out the week of the tour.



North Wilkesboro Speedway

The storied North Wilkesboro Speedway closed in 1996 and reopened in 2023 to host the NASCAR All-Star Race. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR

Immerse yourself in Wilkesboro’s stock car racing roots at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Once a hub for racing culture, the track sat deserted off U.S. Highway 421 for more than a decade. But even before the track’s revitalization in 2023, current director of operations Ronald Queen understood its allure to race fans in Wilkes County. His late-uncle Paul Call was the caretaker of North Wilkesboro Speedway for more than six decades — including during its deserted years — and lived on the property, where he greeted visiting fans with stories about its history. “He was here for the very first race in 1947,” Queen says. “To see him witness the restoration before he passed was very gratifying.”

You can’t talk about Wilkesboro’s motorsports without acknowledging its moonshining history: For a taste, make your way to the speedway’s grandstands, where Checkered Past Speakeasy serves up moonshine cocktails made with spirits from Call Family Distillers — named the official moonshine of North Wilkesboro Speedway.

MerleFest and Music Venues

In late April, head to MerleFest held on the campus of Wilkes Community College. Anchored in the “traditional plus” music performed and admired by its late, Grammy-award winning co-founder Doc Watson, MerleFest started in 1988 as a one-time benefit to raise money for the gardens at the campus. Today, the four-day, twelve-stage festival continues to enliven music lovers with the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of Appalachia. “We have a history of some very famous folks getting their start here on our stages,” says Wes Whitson, festival director, “including The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show.”

Exploring Wilkesboro’s musical traditions doesn’t have to end here: MerleFest has sparked other concerts happening throughout the year, including FaithFest in the fall, which brings in award-winning Christian musicians and bands, and regular concert series downtown with Key City Sessions. “Music is a big part of our community,” Whitson says. “I love the fact that just about on any given Friday or Saturday night, you can find one or two different venues to enjoy it live.”

Hand-crafted ceramic animals made and sold at Wilkes Art Gallery.

Pick up locally made crafts at Wilkes Art Gallery, one of the stops along the Blue Ridge Craft Trail. Photography courtesy of Blue Ridge National Heritage Area

Wilkes County Craft Trail

Situated in an isolated swathe of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Wilkes County’s location sparked a spirit of self-reliance that led to a flourishing of craftsmanship that has been passed down from generation to generation. Today, Wilkesboro is home to a rich community of artisans, such as Made in NC award winner Keegan Watson, and many sell their creations along the Blue Ridge Craft Trail. One such place is Wilkes Art Gallery, founded in 1962 and home to 12 annual exhibitions. Down the street, Wilkes County Hardware prides itself on offering a rotating selection of locally sourced goods, from handmade pottery and baskets to woodworking, made by local creatives carrying on the town’s artistic legacy.



Museum of the Southeast American Indian

For a history lesson on the Coastal Plains, drive southeast to Lumberton, the ancestral homeland of the Lumbee Indian tribe. The Museum of the Southeast American Indian, located at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, engages visitors with the vibrant cultures and rich histories of Southeastern Native peoples. Visitors can view contemporary Native artworks, shop hand-crafted items made by Southeastern Native people, and see attractions like a 1,100-year-old dugout canoe that was found about 10 miles from the campus. “The Southeastern Native Americans shaped their canoes using a burnout method, which involved using stone tools to burn and scrape large pine logs,” says Nancy Fields, the museum’s director and curator. “It’s a beautiful example of the tradition of canoe-making in our region.”

Mural on the side of the Firestone auto store in Historic Downtown Lumberton, NC.

In between visiting museums and paddling along the Lumber River, stretch your legs as you check out the murals adorning the buildings in Historic Downtown Lumberton. Photography courtesy of Luberton Visitors Bureau

Robeson County History Museum

Another nearby destination? Robeson County History Museum. Housed in a former railway express station along the banks of the Lumber River, this museum has captured the rich history of Lumberton residents since 1986. Collectables include World War II artifacts, paintings, and military uniforms of local men and women who have served. In tribute to Lumberton’s maritime heritage, a collection of megalodon shark teeth remain on full display, including one just shy of five inches. Take a tour to catch a peek of the pre-historic wonder, as well as regional artifacts, photography, and artwork that have helped shape the city’s history.

Lumber River State Park

After visiting museums, end your day at Lumber River State Park. The free-flowing river that runs through the park was once an 18th-century hub for harvesting and transporting timber. Today, the 115-mile stretch of river — meandering through Scotland, Hoke, Robeson, and Columbus counties — is the only blackwater river in North Carolina to earn federal designation as a National Wild and Scenic River. The park is sectioned into three parts: scenic, recreational, and natural, all varying in public accessibility. Watch the river flow backwards at Griffin’s Whirl, kayak at the Princess Ann and Chalk Bank Access, or cast a line in these historic waters.

No need to be a history buff or plan an elaborate trip: In North Carolina, a simple beach weekend, music festival, raceway, or paddle trip are all you need to dive into our state’s past.

This story was published on Mar 27, 2024

Tamiya Anderson

Tamiya Anderson is a Concord-based writer and former Our State intern who is proud to call The Tar Heel State home.