A Guide To the Best Mellow Adventure + Beer Pairings Across North Carolina
Everywhere you look in North Carolina there’s a brewery, a bottleshop, or a growler-toting beardo ready to elucidate on his current favorite. To sip your way across the state would be a feat fit only for Wade Boggs (who, legend has it, drank 64 beers on a cross-country flight) or Andre The Giant (who once drank 156 beers in a night and, incidentally, lived in North Carolina). That’s a lot of empty calories we’re talking about. But what if you earned them? What if you worked them off before you bellied up to the bar?
So, here’s 12 places where you can hike, bike, paddle or otherwise earn your booze. Call it what you will-The 12 Pack, The Thirsty Dozen, a Road Trip Blueprint — just call an Uber to get you home.
Just outside of Boone at Milepost 294 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 30-odd miles of trails crawl across Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, the former mountain estate of an insurance magnate. Go for a short stroll around Bass Lake or a longer one connecting two or three trails, just hike to your heart’s content, and enjoy the scenery as you drive back to Boone. When you’re back in town, it’s time for a pizza pie and a pint of beer at either Appalachian Mountain Brewery or Lost Province Brewing Co. Appalachian Mountain has their own wood-fired pizza food truck, plus live music and a hopping college scene, where Lost Province is more your typical restaurant-brewery, but run by twins (one’s the chef, one’s the brewer).
All around Durham you can see evidence of the town’s tobacco past. A Lucky Strike smokestack rises from American Tobacco Campus where cigarettes were rolled by the millions. Brightleaf Square’s shops are in old tobacco warehouses. Even upscale apartments fill the interior of former tobacco factories. Hop on a bike and hit the American Tobacco Trail, a rails-to-trails project that can carry you out of Durham and across three counties. This 23 mile ride is lovely and long, so when you get back to town you’ll be ready for some grub from Bull City Burger & Brewery. They make everything in house except the ketchup, so expect a super-fresh burger on to-die-for buns and pair it with a pint of beer brewed 40 feet from the taps. Order the Secret Burger (it’s not on the menu, it’s a secret, see)—it’s topped with an egg and duck fat fries—and impress your friends.
Work up a sweat hiking the trails at Umstead State Park, just a few minutes west of downtown Raleigh. There’s a marathon’s worth of trails in this park, so you won’t have a hard time working up a sweat as you soak up some nature. It’s not a big park and it’s sandwiched between Raleigh and an International Airport, but still you can get lost in this spiderweb of trails. In that way it feels a little like The Village, except you should be able to pull up a trail map on your phone in just a few taps. After you’ve wandered the woods, make your way to Trophy Brewing Company where they pour pints of some of the most refreshing beers in town. If you feel indecisive, go to Raleigh Beer Garden where you’ll find a monstrous number of beers on draft. Seriously, they have the Guinness-Certified World’s Largest Draft Beer Selection with close to a million beers (not really, but they’re closing in on 400).
When you go to the Outer Banks you can surf, fish, just beachcomb, or fly a hang glider. Kitty Hawk Kites takes folks out to the tallest dune in Jockey’s Ridge State Park (site of the tallest active dune in the Eastern US) and teaches them how to fly. Once you strap yourself to a glider, you pick it up, run down the dune and launch yourself into the sky. Now, you don’t fly sky-high, but you do get up there and you do fly and land (or try to land) your hang glider all by yourself. It’s hot on Jockey’s Ridge and there’s sand everywhere (take note: everywhere) and you’ll need a couple of brews to wash it all away. Outer Banks Brewing Station has the cure and it involves hops and water and comes served in pint glasses.
Head to Lake James State Park and make your choice: water or land. If it’s water, go for a nice long paddle on this manmade reservoir. If it’s land, grab your mountain bike and head out for a day of singletrack riding around the lake’s edge. Either way, you’re coming in hot, tired, and thirsty, and that’s where beer comes in. Morganton’s a small town, but they have three impressive beer joints in town. Start with Catawba Brewing where the White Zombie White Ale will wash the dust out of your mouth. On foot, make your way to Brown Mountain Bottleworks, a bottle shop only two blocks away where they keep the taps flowing and a selection of cold bottled brews to drink right there. After that, it’s another two-block trek to Fonta Flora Brewery to wrap up your night.
Get high in Greensboro (not that kind of high) at SKYWILD, an aerial obstacle course that challenges everything from your grip to your nerve as you try to make your way, squirrel-like, across tightropes and swinging bridges and swaying platforms 50’ in the air. It’s tough, but man is it fun. At the end, your heart will race, your hands will ache, and you’ll be ready for a beer, so head to Pig Pounder Brewery for a drink or three. Ask them about the name, I’m not sure it’s a story for here.
Bring your kayak to Wilmington or make it easy on yourself and join a guided trip through blackwater creeks and swamps where the Creature From the Black Lagoon would feel right at home. Outfitters like Mahanaim Adventures run trips on Towne Creek and through the Three Sisters Swamp on the regular, putting you on the water for a full day of paddling. After that, you’ll deserve a pint or two. Head into Wilmington to Flytrap Brewing, which gets its name from the carnivorous plant indigenous to this area, for some Belgian-style beers and a nice Sour list; or head to Waterline Brewing Company and have a pint of their stout, a beer as dark as the water you paddled.
Out in the mountains slip into some hip waders (not hip waders, they aren’t that cool, but hip waders, so you don’t get wet) and let Alex Bell of AB Fly Fishing teach you the art fly fishing. He’s co-creator of the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail and knows how to find a trophy trout. When you’ve had your fill of casting and catching, or when you’ve hit your daily limit, head over to Innovation Brewing in downtown Sylva. This tiny brewery serves some big brews (and may just be one of the best breweries in the state) and their Midnight Rye-der Black IPA, Spaceman Pale Ale and even the zero-alcohol gingerale (it’s spicy) go down smooth. If you’re hungry, the miniscule food truck Cosmic Carry Out serves a mean cheeseburger.
Brevard sits in the heart of Transylvania County, a steep, waterfall-filled terrain. There are incredible hikes in DuPont State Recreational Forest, with six distinct waterfalls which you may have seen in movies like Last of the Mohicans or The Hunger Games. Hiking in is easy, but seeing all six makes for a long and thirsty day. Once you’ve had your fill, go back to Brevard and stop in at Brevard Brewing Company for their White Squirrel Wit, a Belgian white ale named for the town’s famous white squirrels.
Remember to bring your cooler to Asheville so you can stop by Tasty Beverage and load up on beer (in cans) before heading to Zen Tubing and an afternoon floating down the French Broad River. Spring for the cooler float and bring your icy brews on the trip with you. Once you get in the river, link your tubes together (making what we like to call a “tube amoeba”), crack a brew and float. Reapply sunscreen a couple of times, stop to swim, try not to drop your phone or keys or shoe(s), and enjoy. When you’re done, Zen picks you up and takes you right back to your car. Now that it’s evening and you’re sunburnt, cool off at Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium, a sour and wild-ale brewery on Asheville’s South Slope. There are snacks if you’re hungry, but if you’re really hungry, get on over to Buxton Hall Barbecue just a block away.
At Beech Mountain Ski Resort there’s snow on the ground for skiing much of the winter thanks to some monster snow making machines, but the rest of the year the mountain’s open for mountain biking, hiking, disc golf and for spectacular panoramic views from 5506’ Skybar, a mountaintop snack shack and bar. Strap on your helmet, put your bike on the ski lift and follow it to the top, then ride down. Repeat. When you need refreshment — or something to calm the nerves — sit down at Skybar and enjoy those views along with a pint from Beech Mountain Brewing Company before riding back down. Or wait till you are back at the ski village and visit their tasting room where you can safely hoist one pint or two without having to worry about riding down a mountain.
In the Queen City (that’s what they call Charlotte in case you’ve been enjoying a few NC brews while you’re reading this and are a little confused), it’s time for a fast adventure with NASCAR Racing Experience. Charlotte and the surrounding towns are the heart of auto racing and if you head over to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, you can do a ride-along around the track in a real race car with a real driver. If you feel up to it, you can drive the car yourself and see if you have the nerve to take the car to its limits, or out of third gear. After a couple of laps you’ll be hot and juiced to the gills on adrenaline, so head over to Free Range Brewing for a little something to calm your nerves. This brewery is a happening spot and their beers are on point, so don’t be surprised if there’s a crowd.