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North Carolina is bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side and Atlantic-coast beaches on the other. The Tar Heel State was the site of many historical firsts, including the first professional home run by Babe Ruth, America’s first state-sponsored university (University of North Carolina) and the first manpowered flight, conducted by the Wright brothers. Fortunately for tourists, North Carolina also has natural beauty that goes toe-to-toe with its storied history.

Visitors to western North Carolina experience the awe-inspiring majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway cuts a nonintrusive path through the rocks, forming a portion of the Appalachian Mountain Range. Many opt to drive the route; the road is winding, but worth the effort. Travelers can take advantage of picturesque pull-offs and quaint picnic spots, which are especially picture-perfect in the autumn. And here, hikers access the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and traverse as far as the state’s coastline.

Nearby, tourists can explore the hip, artistic town of Asheville. Home to the University of North Carolina Asheville, this little college town is stuffed with farm-to-table restaurants, live-music venues and eclectic shops. Also nestled in this blossoming creative community is the renowned Biltmore Mansion, particularly splendid around the holidays.

Heading eastward to Charlotte, sports fans get their adrenaline pumping at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the home of NASCAR, and at the Carolina Panther’s stomping grounds, Bank of America Stadium. Also in Charlotte, the North Carolina Museum of Art houses one of the country’s premier collections of European art, as well as exhibits by American artists like Georgia O’Keeffe.

Along the coastline is the series of islands called the Outer Banks, once home of the pirate, Blackbeard. Between these barrier islands and the mainland, currents from the Gulf Stream and the Arctic converge, making the site responsible for the sinking of many nautical vessels of yesteryear, including the U.S.S. Monitor. Visitors to this area, known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, can tour the on-site museum.

Before leaving, travelers can hop a boat for Shackleford, an island between Cape Lookout and Beaufort Banks, to watch wild horses. Visitors can observe these untamed steeds from the water or by land, should they want to get a closer look.