Explore North Carolina settings and film locations from The Longest Ride, the Nicholas Sparks novel-turned-feature film. This extended trip, framed by natural beauty and inspired artistry, takes you from the mountains to the coast, visiting several places you’ll likely recognize from the book and movie.
Day 1: Asheville
Ruth and Ira, the older couple in Nicholas Sparks’ story, honeymooned in Asheville. With their unerring taste, they booked a room at the The Omni Grove Park Inn, as famous for the notables in the guest book as for the grand stone structure and majestic mountain views. Stay elsewhere, if you like, but come to dine or enjoy a sunset cocktail and you’ll understand its enduring appeal.
Frame your stay with a city tour aboard a purple LaZoom bus. Zany though it is, this comedy-show-on-wheels is good for more than laughs. Among bits of imparted history, guides often mention what compelled Ruth and Ira’s annual visits: Black Mountain College, an experimental school with a short life and a long legacy in nearby Black Mountain.
For more literal views of the college’s creative sweep, visit the Asheville Art Museum, whose Black Mountain College Collection includes works by Elaine de Kooning, Ken Noland, Ray Johnson, and others in Ruth and Ira’s catalog, and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, an exhibit space and resource center downtown. Or skip ahead to the lively River Arts District, where more than 180 working studios are housed in former factories and historic buildings along the French Broad River.
It’s impossible to see it all in a day, yet it’s equally hard to go wrong on a stroll through the River Arts community. Meet artists, see them at work, view their creations and buy what inspires you – just as Ruth and Ira did. Heed the impulse to stop at one of the dozen neighborhood restaurants, such as 12 Bones Smokehouse and White Duck Taco Shop, and to sample the craftsmanship at Wedge Brewery.
No need to call it a night. Asheville stays open as late as you like.
Day 2: Black Mountain and the Yadkin River Valley
From Asheville, follow Interstate 40 to Old U.S. Highway 70 and approach the Black Mountain College campus as Ruth and Ira would have done. Edwin Grove, who built the Grove Park Inn, originally developed Lake Eden and several buildings that remain to this day. After the college closed in 1956, the Camp Rockmont era began. Though the lake is visible from the road and worth a drive-by, the best time to see the grounds is during the Lake Eden Arts Festival, a twice-a-year event that channels the old college spirit with an expansive celebration of arts worldwide.
Continue on Interstate 40 to Interstate 77 to reach landscapes at the heart of the Sophia and Luke story. This is the northern portion of the Yadkin River Valley, North Carolina’s largest wine-producing region, where rolling woodlands meet the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every romance-inspiring activity can be paired with a tasting at a picture-perfect winery.
Drive to Pilot Mountain State Park, whose centerpiece is a U.S. National Natural Landmark, a dome rising nearly half a mile above the landscape below. Even the easy 0.1-mile Little Pinnacle Overlook Trail is rewarding, though Luke and Sophia probably chose one of the longer, more strenuous routes to the summit. To channel the novel’s equestrian theme, explore the park or nearby trails on horseback. Bregmans Trail Riding will saddle your ride and guide you through the quiet beauty with as sure a hand as Luke’s.
Overnight in a cabin at a winery or in the countryside, or check in at the Hampton Inn at Shelton Vineyards in Dobson or the honeymoon chateau at JOLO Winery & Vineyards in Pilot Mountain. More romantic yet: Rent the Mitchell River House outside Dobson. This three-bedroom farmhouse served as Luke’s residence in the movie.
Day 3: Winston-Salem
To connect with places in the novel, drive through King and Pinnacle on your way to Winston-Salem, home of Wake Forest University (notable faculty and alumni include Maya Angelou, Arnold Palmer and Tim Duncan). Sophia attended this private university on scholarship and majored in art history.
A brief campus visit covers references from the novel and film, but take care not to shortchange the resonant stories on either side of Winston-Salem’s hyphen. Old Salem Museums & Gardens, a Moravian settlement that embraced the arts and education, warrants a leisurely exploration of food, gardens and traditional arts such as Scherenschnitte. On the Winston side, the Downton Abbey-era Reynolda House Museum of American Art is full of compelling drama as well as exquisite art. And the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem and the Weatherspoon Art Museum in nearby Greensboro match Ruth and Ira in adventurous artistic spirit.
Unique accommodations include the Brookstown Inn, The Zevely Inn and Graylyn International Conference Center. Travelers need not look far for indulgent dining, though Longest Ride pilgrims will undoubtedly opt for sushi at Sakura or the seasonally changing menu at Spring House.
If you’re around on a Saturday night, you might be able to catch bull-riding action at the American Legion complex in King.
Day 4: Wilmington Area
Now comes the longest drive, a three-and-a-half-hour trek to the center of the cinematic action: Wilmington. The city is known as Hollywood East for extensive film, TV and commercial credits earned during the past three decades. Filmmakers also find their way to neighboring communities.
Around the three-hour mark, take exit 384 from Interstate 40 and drive to downtown Wallace. Like other eastern North Carolina towns that sprang up along rail lines, Wallace takes a star turn portraying another place – in this case downtown Greensboro from earlier days. Sharp eyes will spot Ira's father's haberdashery, the soda shop, bus station and newsstand.
The games begin in earnest once you reach Wilmington’s historic riverfront district, home to destination dining, shops and galleries. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride or wander on your own, and score points for spotting locations from hundreds of film and TV projects, from Blue Velvet to Iron Man 3 and multiple Sparks titles.
For The Longest Ride, look for Temple of Israel, the Union Station Building, St. Mary’s Catholic School and homes in historic neighborhoods fanning out from the riverfront. Browse the galleries at the Cameron Art Museum for their own sake while noting that they represent multiple museums in the movie. And book a stay at Graystone Inn, where the party was filmed, for an inside look at the Meryl Streep of Wilmington accommodations.
Complete the trip with a drive to Caswell Beach, the seaside stand-in for the Outer Banks, where Ruth’s family spent the summer. It’s just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Southport, the undisputed star of Safe Haven. You’ll want to stay as long as time allows, or at least start planning a return visit.