Located in some of North Carolina’s highest terrain, the Interstate 26 Scenic Highway in Madison County takes motorists straight through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains and offers stunning views, as well as engineering and environmental wonders. This Scenic Byway begins after the Mars Hill exit (Exit 9) on U.S. 19/23 North (also designated as Future I-26). Two miles farther is the first of two scenic overlooks along the highway offering sweeping views of the Madison County landscape. Continuing westward, the highway passes a N.C. Welcome Center, which was constructed to resemble a typical mountain farmstead and offers exhibits related to mountain life and culture. A second scenic overlook is also located at the welcome center featuring views of Mount Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi River), Black Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Passing the welcome center, the highway climbs until it reaches its highest point, Buckner Gap. At nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, this is the highest elevation on any interstate in North Carolina. At mile marker three, the highway crosses the Laurel River near the Wolf Laurel community, known for its winter ski resorts. The Appalachian Trail runs under the highway through an underpass at the state line. A small parking lot was constructed here for trail hikers.
Length: 9 miles
Drive Time: 15 minutes
For a detailed driving route and map, download the NC Department of Transportation’s Scenic Byways guide.