By Carol Timblin
Summer is an ideal time to take a road trip and explore National Scenic Byways, places of natural beauty that offer wildlife encounters, interesting roadside stops, opportunities to meet locals and maybe an unexpected surprise.
North Carolina has three national byways – the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway, Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway and Cherohala Skyway, a byway that is shared with Tennessee.
Outer Banks National Scenic Byway
The Outer Banks National Scenic Byway begins at Whalebone Junction, in Nags Head, in Dare County and ends at Beaufort in Carteret County, passing through 21 coastal villages along the route, also known as Highway 12. Water and wind have shaped and reshaped the nine barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks, flanked on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by six large bodies of water called “sounds.” The journey involves two ferry crossings – from Hatteras to Ocracoke and from Ocracoke to Cedar Island. The drive over the 145.5-mile stretch takes 6.5 hours without stops. However, it’s advisable to plan some breaks because you might miss a historic site, a bird sanctuary, a local character or something else. Pack water, insect repellent, a flashlight and appropriate clothing – and perhaps a picnic — for the journey.
When you cross onto Bodie Island, you’ll be in the 30,000-acre Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which extends 70 miles south and includes Hatteras Island. Bodie is home to a 156-foot tall lighthouse by the same name that dates to 1872 and is distinguished by its black-and-white horizontal stripes. Bonner Bridge travels over Oregon Inlet onto Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge where the bird watching is phenomenal! The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum (1874-1954) at Rodanthe, the largest and most complete U.S. life-saving station, recalls the days when life-saving crews rescued ships in peril. The 208-foot, black-and-white candy cane-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Buxton, the easternmost point of the state, is the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. The National Park Services offers seasonal tours of the structure. Some Frisco and Hatteras residents, affectionately called “hoi toiders” because of their unusual pronunciations that are said to be related to Elizabethan English, still make their living by fishing in the area.
The free ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island is a 60-minute ride, during which time you may see wild herds of Banker ponies, said to be descendants of Spanish mustangs. The 65-foot white Ocracoke Island Lighthouse dates to 1823 and is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the country. It was in this area that the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, met his demise in 1718.
The toll ferry for Ocracoke to Cedar Island takes a little over two hours (reservations suggested). On a clear day you can see Portsmouth Island, once a thriving port and fishing town during the 1750s and now a ghost town. It is located in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 56-mile area of the Southern Outer Banks encompassing North Core Banks, South Core Banks and Shackelford Banks, also a habitat for wild ponies. The 163-foot Cape Lookout Lighthouse, built in 1859, is painted in a black-and-white diamond pattern.
Cedar Island is the home of the National Wildlife Refuge, a stopover for waterfowl during their winter migration. Several miles south of the ferry terminal, Highway 12 becomes Highway 70. From this point, you may detour off the main highway in several directions for more sightseeing. The Old Cedar Island Road, SR 1387, begins the nine-mile Atlantic and Sea Level Loop, an area known for its waterfowl carvers. SR 1347 at Smyrna marks the beginning of the 22-mile Harkers Island, Straits and Gloucester Loop. You may take a private ferry from Harkers Island to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse or view the lighthouse from the tower of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. The museum is dedicated to decoy carving and boat-building. Hiking trails connect the museum with the Harkers Island Visitor Center, offering exhibits and picnicking.
The National Scenic Byway ends at North River but Highway 70 (a designated state byway from that point) continues on to Beaufort. The charming seaport town (1723) offers a number of restaurants, inns and attractions. The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort houses artifacts from Queen Anne’s Revenge, one of Blackbeard’s ships.
Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway
A drive along the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway in western North Carolina takes about two hours, but more time is needed for interesting stops on the way. This byway, which begins near Brevard at the junction of US 276 and includes NC 215, passes through the state’s rich, verdant forestland. Stone pillars mark the entrance to the one million-acre Pisgah National Forest, established in 1916. Not far past the pillars is the Forest Service information center where you can pick up information on the places you are going to explore.
Along the way to the spectacular 85-foot Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock, both recommended stops, is the forest’s fish hatchery where mountain trout are raised. You might snap a few photos and selfies at the falls and then head to Sliding Rock for an exciting plunge into the natural pool at the bottom. So popular is the place that lifeguards are stationed there during the summer. There’s a bathhouse for changing (though old jeans work just fine), plus viewing platforms.
After a few thrills on the rock, continue your journey to the Cradle of Forestry, where Dr. Carl A. Schenck, who worked for the Vanderbilts, started America’s first forestry school in America in 1898. Nearby is the entrance to the Pink Beds with its rhododendron and mountain laurel – spectacular in blooming season. Shining Rock Wilderness, accessed only by foot trails, is located near Wagon Road Gap, where the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses the byway. You will pass several mountain villages and the upper East Fork of the Pigeon River while traveling north on U.S. 276 for 14 miles. Also on this route are the villages of Bethel and Woodrow, named for President Wilson.
After turning onto NC 215, you’ll follow the West Fork of the river for 18 miles, passing by Lake Logan and the community of Sunburst with views of Cold Mountain before the Blue Ridge Parkway crosses the byway at Beech Gap Road. Beyond this point lie Balsam Grove and Balsam Lake. You’ll travel parallel to the North Fork of the French Broad River the last eight miles of the journey, and at the intersection of NC 215 and US 64 near Rosman. If you want to see more waterfalls, take US 64 west or the U.S. Forest Service byway north to Brevard.
Constructed at a cost of $100 million and opened in 1996, the Cherohala Skyway derives its name from two national forests — the Cherokee in Tennessee and the Nantahala in North Carolina (Chero + hala.) Beginning at NC 143 at Robbinsville, NC, and continuing via TN 165 after crossing the state line, it ends at Tellico Plains, TN, where there is a very nice visitor center. The 43-mile Skyway is called “A Drive above the Clouds” because it passes through elevations ranging from 900 feet on the Tellico River to over 5,400 feet at Haw Knob on the state line.
Except for peak travel season, the byways might be considered “roads less traveled,” offering journeys and experiences that are unique to each person.
National Park Service Centennial Events
A special exhibit, “Explore Your Outer Banks Parks: Celebrating a Century of the National Park Service,” highlighting the parks’ history and resources, continues through the end of 2016 at the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo, N.C.
• On May 27, opening night of “The Lost Colony” drama at Fort Raleigh, the Roanoke Island Historical Association will dedicate the season to the National Park Service and kick off a variety of special activities, ranging from extended hours to Junior Ranger programs to providing passport stamps and centennial stamps at the box office.
• National Aviation Day will be celebrated at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on Aug. 19, and the 113th anniversary of controlled powered flight will be observed at the same site on Dec. 17.
• The public is invited to celebrate NPS Founders Day with an evening of stargazing and interpretation, “Starry, Starry Night,” at the Ocracoke Day Use Area on Aug. 25, 8:30-10 pm.