North Carolina is a land of contrasts, ranging from miles and miles of coastal bliss to the rolling hills of central Piedmont to the towering peaks of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains at its western border – including 6,684ft Mt Mitchell, the tallest peak in the eastern US.
Because of the topographical variations, temperatures can vary on the same day by 20°F or more from border to coast. As you can imagine, there are seasonal and regional differences to consider when planning a trip. So when should you go?
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The most popular time is summer, when crowds come from far and wide to stake their umbrellas at the beach and stay for a week (or more). The warmer months are also a popular time to hike, camp, swim and fish in the mountains. Autumn leaf-peeping around Asheville and along the Blue Ridge Parkway also draws crowds – and needs advance planning.
But the off-season has its perks too, including snow-driven fun in the winter (yes, it snows in North Carolina!) and spectacular spring flora along hiking trails and scenic drives.
The lively tri-city region of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill offers year-round arts, entertainment and sports. And any time of year, hidden corners exist to explore, whether it’s small mountain towns, waterfall-laced hiking trails, quiet coves or the best BBQ joints.
The height of summer is beach time, and North Carolina has plenty of options to choose from © Getty Images / iStockphoto
The best time to hit the beach is in high season, between June and August
The height of summer is beach time, and with 322 miles of ocean shoreline reaching from the Outer Banks in the north to the South Carolina border in the south (and 12,000 miles of estuarine coastline along the way), North Carolina has plenty of beaches to choose from. The Outer Banks is the primo destination, with fun attractions, festivals and restaurants open only during the high season.
A popular activity is to rent a beach house – many have a vast number of bedrooms, ideal for multigenerational families or groups of friends. They’re most expensive in summer, and most are booked up to a year in advance, so you may lose out if you don’t plan ahead.
Note: hurricane season hits June through November, with August, September and October being the most active months. You should be fine if you pay attention to weather forecasts.
Summer is also a great time to camp, fish or hike in the Great Smoky Mountains or the Blue Ridge. Road trippers can take a scenic drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway or along some of the state’s country and mountain roads, dotted with small towns to stop and explore.
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To see North Carolina’s foliage change colors, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an iconic driving destination © Getty Images / iStockphoto
Take a scenic drive during shoulder season, from September to November and April to May
Temperatures throughout the state begin to drop at the end of October and don’t warm up again until April into May. In early fall, the beaches are still warm and most restaurants and attractions remain open, but the crowds have gone and accommodations are less expensive.
Late spring is a good beach option too, with warm weather, fewer crowds and less expensive rates, though the water remains chilly.
Fall is leaf-peeping season in the mountains, drawing crowds to Asheville and around. This is a fantastic time for camping, cycling or hiking in North Carolina’s wild areas, especially Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wine and beer festivals are also in full swing in autumn.
The eastern part of the state offers kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding in creeks, rivers, and swamps. Spring in the mountains can be chilly into May, though spring blooms, including redbuds, azaleas and rhododendron, highlight the understory.
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Avoid the crowds from December to March in the cooler temps of low season
North Carolina’s low season brings on smaller crowds and cooler temps with brief cold spells. The mountains can see up to 10in of snow between November and March, while the capital region of Raleigh and around receives closer to 7.5in annually, and the coastal regions see less than 2in.
Some find the solitude of winter beaches appealing, while winter-sports enthusiasts enjoy skiing and tubing in the mountains.
December is the high point, with holiday festivities including historic house tours, Christmas tree lightings and gingerbread house contests. Many festivities linger into the first week of January or longer.
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Enjoy the snow in January
January is the coldest month, with nighttime temperatures reaching as low as 20°F in the western mountain region. It’s also the snowiest month, with an annual snowfall of 1.8in. The most snow falls in the mountains and the central capital region, while the coastal plain and beaches see very little.
Some holdover holiday festivities add excitement through at least the first week of the new year. All North Carolina state parks hold a series of First Day hikes (many guided).
The Blue Ridge Parkway is closed until April or so due to inclement weather; check the NPS road closures page for specifics. Likewise, some secondary roads, campsites and visitor facilities at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are also closed in winter.
Key Events: Christmas at Biltmore; WinterLights at Manteo; Blowing Rock WinterFest (including a polar plunge)
Celebrate Black History month in February
The cold weather continues, including the continued possibility of snow in the western and central regions. Black History Month festivities unfurl across the state. Ephemeral flowers emerge in the Great Smoky Mountains, including trillium, lady slipper orchids, crested dwarf iris and bleeding heart, blooming through late April.
Key Events: Carolina Jazz Festival in Chapel Hill; North Carolina Jazz Festival in Wilmington; Wilmington Wine and Chocolate Festival; NC MLK/Black History Month Parade and Block Party in Durham; African American Cultural Celebration in Raleigh
The state’s gardens, including Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, present vivid spring displays through May © Getty Images / iStockphoto
Head to the botanical gardens in March
As winter transitions into spring, the temps are still cool – even at the beach, the daily average is 65°F. But that doesn’t stop spring-breakers from heading to the Outer Banks (note that some beaches aren’t fully open until April).
Gardens, including North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, Sarah P Duke Gardens in Durham and the Biltmore’s gardens in Asheville, present vivid spring displays through May.
Key Events: Green River Revival at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte; North Carolina Rice Festival in Leland
Smell the azaleas in April
Spring officially arrives, with several blissful weeks of mild temperatures, sunshine and beautiful blooms. The North Carolina Azalea Festival in Wilmington is the state’s largest spring festival. Minor league baseball’s season opens – the Charlotte Knights promise a fun afternoon at the ballpark.
By the end of the month, coastal waters start warming up, and bathers, stand-up paddleboarders and surfers dot the surf and sounds along the coast.
Key Events: MerleFest in Wilksboro; NC Azalea Festival in Wilmington; Piratefest in Greenville; Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Hit the hiking trails in May
Warming temps and lots of sunshine make May one of the state’s most pleasant months. Azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurels bloom at higher elevations, making May (into June) a glorious time to hike trails at Hanging Rock State Park, Grandfather Mountain and Pisgah National Forest (as well as at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of course).
The entire month is North Carolina Wine Month, showcasing the state’s nearly 200 wineries, ranging from 6,000ft in elevation in the western part of the state to sea level in the east. It’s the birthplace of the scuppernong grape and home to one of the most visited wineries in the US – Biltmore Estate.
Key Events: North Carolina Brewers and Music Festival in Huntersville; U.S. National Whitewater Center’s River Jam Lineup; Carolina Blues Festival in Greensboro
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Head to the beach in June
Temperatures and humidity continue to rise, making late June perfect beach weather – averaging 83°F during the day in the Outer Banks; beach house rentals are more affordable (and easier to find) than in July and August.
Blueberry picking starts in mid-June and goes on through August; check this map for farms. Pride Month headlines a plethora of Pride events, including the capital’s Out! Raleigh Pride.
Key Events: North Carolina Trail Days in Elkin; NC Gold Festival at Vein Mountain; Art in the Park in Blowing Rock
Marvel at fireworks in July
July is the hottest and most humid month, with an average high of 88°F and hotter. This is beach weather – though if you haven’t made reservations for a beach rental up to a year in advance, you may be scrambling for accommodations.
Nearly every small town and beach community has Fourth of July events, including concerts, parades and of course fireworks. The North Carolina Fourth of July Festival in Southport and Oak Island has been celebrated since 1792.
Peaches, watermelon and cantaloupe overflow in roadside market stands. Summer hiking, camping, waterfall searching and paddling are popular in the mountains.
Key Events: Grandfather Mountain Highland Games; NC Peach Festival in Candor
Embrace the outdoors in August
The hot and humid temps continue into August, making the cities uncomfortable – and the beach an excellent choice. Outdoorsy activities are popular in the mountains.
Key Events: State of Origin Craft Beer Festival in Morganton
Go apple picking in September
As summer moves into fall, September brings relief from the hot and humid weather, an ideal time to enjoy the outdoors. The beach is still warm, and less crowded.
It’s also harvest season in this top apple-producing destination. Many pick-your-own orchards offer kids activities, including apple cannons, train or wagon rides, corn mazes and pumpkin patches.
Key Events: Labor Day weekend’s NC Apple Festival in Hendersonville; Mayberry Days in Mt Airy; Happy Valley Fiddler’s Convention in Lenoir; NC Mountain State Fair in Fletcher
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October is prime leaf-peeping time
The nice weather continues into October, and with average daily temps around 65°F, it’s prime time for leaf-peeping. The vibrant autumn spectacle spreads east from the mountains and across the Piedmont’s rolling foothills beginning mid-October – and the crowds follow.
To see the foliage change colors, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an iconic driving destination, while trails at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are popular among hikers. Different towns have fall foliage celebrations, including the Cashiers Valley Leaf Festival in Cashiers and Autumn Leaves Festival in Mt Airy.
A bounty of food festivals is held statewide, and it’s also NC Beer Month, with breweries hosting special events throughout the month. Corn mazes and pumpkin patches continue at farms throughout the state, including Briley’s Farm Market in Greenville.
Key Events: World of Bluegrass in Raleigh; Carolina Balloonfest in Statesville; Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk; Barbecue Festival in Lexington; NC Oyster Week along the NC Oyster Trails; Outer Banks Seafood Festival in Nags Head
Avoid the crowds in November
As the temperatures drop and the last leaves tumble to the ground, tourism drops off markedly. Toward the end of the month, holiday festivities commence, including floating parades along the coast and at Lake Norman.
Key Events: NC Holiday Flotilla at Wrightsville Beach; NC Whirligig Festival in Wilson; Piedmont Craftsmen’s Fair in Winston-Salem; Pottery Festival in Seagrove
Ring in the holidays in December
December is officially the first month of winter in most parts of North Carolina, with temps occasionally cracking the freezing mark.
The holiday season brings gingerbread contests, tours of ornately decorated historic houses and festivities (and lights) in small towns. Expect crowds and high prices in the holiday hubs.
Ski resorts open in late November or December, including Appalachian Ski Mountain, Beech Mountain Resort and Sugar Mountain Resort.
Key Events: Christmas at Biltmore; National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville; Christmas Town USA in McAdenville; Tweetsie Christmas and the Festival of Lights in Blowing Rock; WinterLights in Manteo