It takes about five hours to reach Pamlico Sound on the N.C. coast. If mountains are more to your liking, a similar-length drive up I-77 takes you through Virginia and West Virginia to the Ohio River.
You reach mountain terrain just shy of the Virginia line, then pass near or through these cool places: Galax, Va., just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, is home of the impressive Blue Ridge Music Center (www.blueridgemusiccenter.com), which offers free and small-fee music and dance workshops and events throughout the warm season (Grayson Highlands State Park, about 40 minutes west of I-77 in Volney, Va. Great mountain terrain makes for exciting hiking.
New River State Park holds a 57-mile trail that starts in downtown Galax (www.visitgalax.com). thats great for mountain biking, hiking or horseback riding. Youre along the ancient New River for more than half the distance. (Va. park info: www.dcr.virginia.gov). A quarter-hour west of I-77 from Bluefield, W.Va., is Bramwell, a well-preserved town from the days when coal millionaires lived there (www.mccvb.com). Bluefield is one end of the states Coal Heritage Trail, 56 miles through small mountain towns and mine country; Beckleys on the other (www.coalheritage.org). Beckleys Exhibition Coal Mine ($20, $12 for kids; www.beckleymine.com) gives a feel for what miners endured. Guides who take you underground are retired miners.
Dart east from Beckley on I-64 to reach a prime slice of the New River around Hinton, W.Va. Enjoy a state park and Class I-V whitewater action (www.nps.gov/neri). The New River Gorge Bridge at Fayetteville, has drama for your camera. Take the sternwheeler to reach Blennerhasset State Park on an Ohio River island and near I-77. Explore the 1798 mansion/grounds where Aaron Burr allegedly conspired to start his own empire (various prices; www.blennerhassettislandstatepark.com).