Highway 64: North Carolina
Highlight: North Carolina Zoological Park
Hidden Treasure: Waterfall road
Manteo to Murphy
All North Carolina public-school student study state history in the fourth grade, and one thing they learn is that their state stretches from the mountains to the sea, “from Murphy to Manteo, Manteo to Murphy.” It so happens that these two M-named towns lie at opposite ends of U.S. 64’s route through the state.
64 starts on the history-rich Outer Banks, home of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Wright Brothers National Monument, and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, home of the Lost Colony. A scenic flatness dominates the road at least through Rocky Mount, where 64’s intersection with Interstate 95 marks the easternmost reach of the faster-paced, more modern lifestyle of the North Carolina Piedmont.
Around Raleigh, the road officially follows the Inner Beltline, one of two bypasses around the urban center. But tourists will want to head downtown to visit several quality museums, including the state’s Museum of Natural Sciences and Museum of History, and the private Exploris.
West of Raleigh, the road winds through prime North Carolina dairy country. It has lost some of its scenic charm in recent years to widening and the addition of a bypass around Pittsboro. The little towns remain accessible, though. Drive downtown in places like Ramseur and Siler City to see the extent and influence of Hispanic immigration to the Piedmont.
The big attraction on this part of the road is the North Carolina Zoological Park. Built in phases, the massive park sacrifices a measure of visitor convenience in order to provide an authentic environment for its creatures. Visitors don’t stand nose-to-tail with the elephants; they use binoculars to seek them out as they wander an expanse of North America that does a decent job of substituting for the African savannah. Two enclosures, an aviary and an African pavilion, provide the best opportunity to spot multiple critters in one place.
As it skirts the Piedmont Triad metropolitan area, 64 passes through Lexington, capital of one of North Carolina’s several strains of barbecue. From here on, the highway becomes a foothills road, veering wildly north and south, but always staying out of reach of the mountains. Scenic Morganton, home of the late Senator Sam Ervin Jr., bears many traces of the senator’s knack for bringing money home from Washington.
From then on, 64 is pure scenery. Poet Carl Sandburg made his home in Flat Rock, outside Hendersonville. It’s now a National Historic Site. Sandburg’s leftist books still line the shelves, and the descendants of his wife’s prizewinning milk goats still wander the grounds.
The portion of 64 west of Brevard has been nicknamed “the waterfall road.” Bridal Veil Falls and Dry Falls are two of the most famous cascades along this stretch of highway. It’s possible to spend a lifetime on this part of 64 — or at least part of a lifetime, as many retirees are determined to find out.