Best Things to Do on a Johnston County NC Road Trip

Julie Diebolt Price Avatar
The Benson in Johnson County NC.

What do the Civil War, Ava Gardner, pork, tobacco, and moonshine have in common? Johnston County (JoCo), North Carolina, is the common denominator with a rich history dating to the 1700s. During a recent road trip, I discovered that JoCo is an exciting destination for history buffs, BBQ lovers, craft beer and wine enthusiasts, antique hunters, and outdoor activity fans. The relaxed atmosphere, friendly people, and picturesque main streets are attractive and memorable.

Johnston County History

Named after Samuel Johnston, the governor of North Carolina in the late 1700s, Johnston County played a major role in the American Revolution, with many battles taking place in the region. Today, visitors can explore historic sites like the Bentonville Battlefield, the location of the largest Civil War battle in North Carolina.

The county is also home to charming towns like Smithfield, the oldest city in Johnston County. Visitors can learn about the Smithfield’s history through museums and historic buildings. The Ava Gardner Museum is dedicated to the famous American actress Ava Gardner, born in Smithfield.

Johnston County is known for its historical sites and agricultural history, particularly tobacco farming. The county is also famous for its annual Ham & Yam Festival, celebrating the local pork and sweet potatoes.

The Johnston County Visitors Bureau hosted me, but all opinions are my own.

Where is Johnston County

Johnston County, North Carolina, is 30 miles southeast of Raleigh, the state capital. The area is also known as the Research Triangle, or simply The Triangle.

Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, the three largest cities in North Carolina, earned The Triangle nickname because of their close location to three significant research institutions: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and Duke University.

The Research Triangle is also the central hub for biotech firms and technology.

Attractions in Johnston County

While I didn’t visit every attraction in Johnston County, I’m sharing highlights I’m sure you will find interesting.

Fishing

Johnston County is a paradise for fishing enthusiasts. With its numerous lakes, rivers, and ponds, fishing is one of the country’s most popular outdoor leisure activities.

Golf Courses

In Johnston County, there are six public golf courses to choose from. Golfing enthusiasts can enjoy the Clayton area’s challenging rolling hills or opt for the tree-lined courses and wide fairways along I-95 in Four Oaks, Smithfield, and Pine Level.

You can enjoy a weekend escape by playing one or more golf courses or make a quick stop for fun on the links if you’re traveling on I-95 or I-40.

Benson

Benson, North Carolina, is known as the “Crossroads of the Carolinas” because Interstates 95 and 40 intersect there.

Benson is also known for the annual Mule Days festival, held on the fourth Saturday of September for more than 70 years. Benson also prides itself on having the largest parade in North Carolina.

Galot Motorsports Park

Galot Motorsports Park in Benson is a first-class racing facility with stadium seating for 9,000 spectators and 70 RV electrical hook-ups. The park’s certified flat racing surface allows drivers to achieve maximum performance.

Clayton

Clayton River Walk on the Neuse

A 10-foot-wide, four-mile paved trail along the Neuse River, Clayton River Walk, begins at the Johnston and Wake County line. It’s part of the 1,000-mile-long Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which connects North Carolina’s Great Smokey Mountains National Park to the coast.

Clayton River Walk is also part of the 2,500-mile East Coast Greenway that extends from Florida to Maine, linking every state on the eastern seaboard.

Multiple trailhead/parking areas along the trail make it easy for hikers and bikers to access the trail and downtown Clayton.

The Greenways

A greenway is a linear park that provides recreation, fitness, and transportation. It connects people and places for economic benefit, and everyone can enjoy it. Greenways are designed for non-motorized users, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Greenway access points in Johnston County include:

  • Bailey and Sarah Williamson Nature Preserve
  • Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site
  • Bob Wallace Jaycee Kiddie Park
  • Buffalo Creek Greenway
  • Clayton Riverwalk of the Neuse
  • East Clayton Community Park
  • Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center at Johnston Community College
  • Sam’s Branch Greenway Access
  • Smithfield Community Park
  • Smithfield Town Commons Park

Clemmons Educational State Forest

Clemmons, the first Educational State Forest in North Carolina, was established in Johnston County in 1976. You can explore trails on your own, view displays, or attend classes taught by Rangers. This forest is a great place to learn and experience interesting and fun things for your mind and senses.

Four Oaks

Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site

The Battle of Bentonville, which took place from March 19 to 21, 1865, marked the final major offensive by the Confederates during the Civil War. It was the most significant battle fought in North Carolina. It served as the principal attempt to halt General William T. Sherman’s Union forces in their campaign across the Carolinas that spring. The Bentonville Battlefield is in Four Oaks.

Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center

Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center is a 2,800-acre natural resource offering excellent educational experiences and many opportunities for visitors to practice environmental stewardship.

On the spring day when I visited the Center, it was quiet. However, I was impressed with the building and expansive grounds, which await student learning experiences like birdwatching, educational programs, hiking trails, horseback and bike trails, camping, picnicking, geocaching, hunting, and fishing. Several ponds of various sizes and a 70+-acre lake provide access to the Neuse River and Hannah and Mill Creeks for recreational fishing.

Some activities require reservations and an activity fee. Three-season hunting for local wildlife and fishing requires a North Carolina license and permits.

Kenly

Tobacco Farm Life Museum

The Tobacco Farm Life Museum, open on Fridays and Saturdays in Kenly, offers general tours of the Museum, including a 15-minute film and a self-guided tour of the 6,000-square-foot gallery and seven buildings on the grounds.

The Gallery and bathrooms are wheelchair and walker accessible. The historic buildings have three to five steps at the entry and may not accommodate handicapped needs.

Smithfield

Smithfield is the oldest town in Johnston County. It was established in 1777 during the colonial era and is the county seat, where county government offices and the courthouse are located.

Smithfield is the home of the world’s largest pork processing plant, operated by Smithfield Foods.

Downtown Smithfield Walking Tour

Between Caswell to Church Streets and Front to Fourth Streets, there are 19 stops on the Downtown Smithfield Walking Tour.

Begin the tour at the Johnston County Heritage Center, a library and Museum where local citizens and visitors from across the nation come to research genealogy and local history.

Incredibly impactful was the “Vestiges of Slavery” exhibit with photographs of an anklet and bracelet worn by an enslaved woman. The description of how the anklet was attached at a young age and became irremovable was heart-wrenching.

Exhibits showing the tools and equipment used to harvest cotton and tobacco and the careers of bootleggers and moonshiners were enlightening.

After my in-depth tour of the Johnston County Heritage Center, I visited the Freedmen’s Schoolhouse and First Missionary Baptist Church. These buildings are among Smithfield’s most historically significant landmarks and are the last stops on the Downtown Smithfield Walking Tour.

Check out the first Missionary Baptist Church, 150th Anniversary 1866 - 2016 in Johnson County NC.
First Missionary Baptist Church, 150th Anniversary 1866 – 2016. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

The Freedmen’s Schoolhouse was originally a two-room building constructed by the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau in 1869. It was built for the New York-based American Missionary Association on the adjacent corner lot of First Missionary Baptist Church. It was moved to its present location in 1887 and continued to serve as a public school for African Americans until 1912.

The Freedmen’s School 1868 in Johnson County NC.
Freedmen’s School 1868. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Ava Gardner Museum

One of the most famous Hollywood movie starlets is from Johnston County, NC. The Ava Gardner Museum is well-curated and features personal effects, costumes, scripts, letters, and rotating exhibits.

Visit the Ava Gardner Museum while in Johnson County NC
Ava Gardner Museum entrance. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price
The Ava Gardner Museum Mural in Smithfield in Johnson County NC.
Ava Gardner Museum Mural in Smithfield. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

During my visit, I saw exquisite dresses worn by Ava, which were exhibited on loan from generous collectors.

Check out the Ava Gardner Museum, Red Gown by Adrian in Johnson City NC.
Ava Gardner Museum, Red Gown by Adrian. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Lavish dress by designer Adrian, loaned to the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, in 2023 for the Ava Gardner Centennial Celebration—loan courtesy of collector Mary Strauss, St. Louis, MO.

Ava loved her hometown, and the residents loved her.

Neuse Little Theatre

Neuse Little Theatre, a community performing arts theater in downtown Smithfield, is celebrating 50 years of hosting comedies, dramas, musicals, and kid’s camps. The riverfront log cabin, which used to house the American Legion Hut, overlooks the Neuse River.

Carolina Premium Outlets

Carolina Premium Outlets is a well-known shopping destination in Eastern North Carolina, located in Smithfield. It features over 80 stores offering a variety of items, including designer brands and name-brand outlets like Adidas, American Eagle, and Polo Ralph Lauren.

Visitors can expect to find discounts ranging from 25% to 65%. The outlet provides an outdoor shopping experience with dining options like Auntie Anne’s and Dairy Queen and is conveniently situated just off I-95.

A Mural of Children Playing, on 100 West Anderson Street, Selma. Johnson County NC.
Children Playing Mural, 100 West Anderson Street, Selma. Photo credit Julie Diebolt Price

Selma

Strolling Downtown Selma, you’ll discover vintage variety, antique stores, and the delightful JoCo Mural Trail.

Selma Train Station. Photo credit in Johnson County NC.
Selma train station. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Selma is known as a railroad town. It’s home to Mitchener Station, built in 1855, and is considered the oldest surviving train station in North Carolina. Amtrak still serves the Selma station.

The clean Downtown Selma at Raiford and Anderson Streets in Johnson County.
Downtown Selma at Raiford and Anderson Streets. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Wineries, Breweries, and Distilleries in Johnston County

Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail

The Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail is the first of its kind in North Carolina. If you’re a collector like me, you can collect stamps along the way at participating businesses and win some cool merch.

Deep River Brewing

Deep River Brewing Company in Clayton features taproom exclusives, 12 beers on tap, with food trucks and live music on the weekends.

Double Barley Brewing, where I had the perfectly sized samples and my first beer growler, is now closed.

Try out some beers while in Johnson County NC.
Beer samples. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price.

Hinnant Family Vineyards

Hinnant Family Vineyards in Pine Level produces award-winning wines and is the state’s largest and oldest muscadine vineyard. Established in 1972, the Hinnant Family owns and runs 100 acres of fresh market grapes.

Head to the Hinnant Family Vineyards & Winery for some wine while in Johnson County NC.
Hinnant Family Vineyards & Winery. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price.

Two bars and outdoor patio seating overlook the vineyard, making it a great setting for wine tasting with snacks and sandwiches.

The Hinnant Family Vineyards Interior Bar in Johnson County NC.
Hinnant Family Vineyards Interior Bar. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price.

Broadslab Distillery

Broadslab Distillery in Benson is an exciting destination for learning about moonshine and the distilling business. Jeremy Norris is the Owner and Master Distiller. He carries on the five-generation tradition of distilling grain grown on the property using the family recipe.

Check out the Broadslab Distillery while in Johnson County NC.
Broadslab Distillery Entrance. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price.

Tours on Friday and Saturday show you how they create handcrafted, premium spirits from dirt-to-bottle and feature a food truck specialist from the area.

Tours and Premium Spirits in Johnson County NC.
Tours and Premium Spirits. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

The centerpiece of the operation is a 500-gallon all-copper still that sits gleaming in the center of the distillery.

The Broadslab Distillery made of 500-gallon Copper Still in Johnson County NC.
Broadslab Distillery, 500-gallon copper still. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

At Broadslab Distillery, The Barn is the event venue where they host weddings and other gatherings. The Baccer Barn is available for delightful overnight stays. (See below.)

Where to Eat in JoCo

Cornerstone Café

Big, fluffy, and delicious Belgian waffles aren’t just for breakfast at Cornerstone Café on Main Street in Benson. They are available all day, every day.

Have some meals at the Cornerstone Café, Main Street in Benson in Johnson County NC.
Cornerstone Café, Main Street in Benson. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

While I was very tempted by the waffles, I chose the Turkey & Avocado sandwich on fresh, marbled rye bread. The Golden Corn Pudding was a homemade side that reminded me of Grandma’s!

Enjoy delicious meals at Cornerstone Café Turkey and Avocado Sandwich and Golden Corn Pudding in Johnson County NC.
Cornerstone Café Turkey and Avocado Sandwich and Golden Corn Pudding. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

JP’s Pastry

When you think of pastries, you might not think of gluten-free. However, JP’s Pastry is renowned in the Southeast region as a gluten-free paradise.

Hot cross buns were in the oven when I was in Benson around Easter. I was so fortunate to meet Joe, the owner, who let me taste one of the delectable fresh buns. Joe’s mission was to design recipes that most people could not tell were gluten-free. He achieved his goal!

As I usually can’t resist chocolate, I brought home the Gluten-Free Chocolate Challah Bread. It was moist and flavorful, and I made it last a few days throughout my road trip.

A Johnson County NC's JP’s Pastry Chocolate Challah Bread.
JP’s Pastry Chocolate Challah Bread. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

The great news is that they now ship nationwide.

Redneck BBQ Lab

Brian, the Customer Relations Expert, greeted me and made me feel at home when I entered Redneck BBQ Lab. He introduced me to the Kansas City-style barbecue they produce, which includes a variety of meats that other styles don’t.

Another thing that distinguishes east from west in North Carolina barbecue is the sauce. It’s a vinegar-based sauce with many different spices. You pour it on your pulled pork, potato, or bun and let it soak in. I highly recommend that you try it. I liked it so much that I ordered several jars from their online store to have at home.

Enjoy the Redneck BBQ Lab Sampler Platter in Johnson County NC
The Redneck BBQ Lab sampler platter. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price.

The Redneck BBQ Lab is owned and operated by Redneck Scientific Competition BBQ team members Jerry Stephenson and his sister Roxanne Manly. I met the General Manager, Mike Horrall, and we talked about how the business started, how they got into competition and their success. What began as a simple backyard BBQ developed into a championship Kansas City Barbecue Society winning team. A massive collection of trophies is proudly displayed in the restaurant that used to be a Dairy Queen.

Dine at the Redneck BBQ Lab in Johnson County NC.
The Redneck BBQ Lab. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

You’re on the Red Hot Dog Trail when you dine at Redneck BBQ Lab. However, red hot dogs are for kids, and you will want to take advantage of all the specialty selections on the menu.

Old North State Food Hall

The Old North State Food Hall includes a full bar called the Long Leaf Tavern and ten locally owned food vendors offering world cuisines, from Jamaican and Indian to Cuban and more.

Dine at the Old North State Food Hall and Longleaf Tavern in Johnson County NC.
Old North State Food Hall and Longleaf Tavern entrance. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

I ordered a unique avocado blended beverage with Lychee Popping Boba from Bowl Bubble Café. It was delicious!

Dine at the Old North State Food Hall Interior in Johnson County NC.
Old North State Food Hall interior. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Farmer’s Markets and Fresh Produce

Clayton Farm & Community Market

The Clayton Farm & Community Market is the largest market in the county and has a variety of vendors. Still, you will find farm stands at area farms and several free-standing markets to find produce, local jams, honey, baked goods, meats, and more!

Get some fresh produce from Smith’s Nursery in Johnson County NC.
Smith’s Nursery entrance. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Smith’s Nursery

Smith’s Nursery is a family-owned farm in the McGees Crossroads area near Benson. They cultivate a variety of produce, including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, greenhouse tomatoes, cantaloupes, pumpkins, and others.

Smith’s offers pick-your-own strawberries and blueberries in the spring and summer and a pumpkin patch and hayrides in the fall. The farm also has a roadside produce market stocked with local fresh produce. It also offers fresh ice cream, a coffee bar, and dairy products.

A fresh strawberry picked from Smith’s Nursery in Johnson County NC.
Smith’s Nursery fresh picked strawberry. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

My mouth was watering so much in anticipation of tasting the red gems of cherry tomatoes that I couldn’t resist popping one into my mouth at the checkout stand. I made it to my car before indulging in the sweet, succulent flavor of the strawberry picked just for me.

Visit the Baccer Barn in Johnson County NC.
Baccer Barn. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Where to Stay in JoCo

Baccer Barn

If you are looking for an unusual place to stay in JoCo, the Baccer Barn, a former tobacco barn, is nestled amongst the trees at Broadslab Distillery and The Barn at Broadslab. The Baccer Barn is conveniently located near I-40 and I-95 in Benson.

Check out the Broadslab Distillery in Johnson County NC.
A barn at Broadslab Distillery. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

The setting is wooded farmland, which produces the grain for the distillery. A still is a few steps away, hidden amongst the trees. It demonstrates how moonshine was made in the past. I enjoyed exploring the woods around the Baccer Barn and swinging on the porch swing.

Check out the Broadslab Distillery in Johnson County, that is still in the Woods.
Broadslab distillery still in the woods. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

While it’s listed as a rustic gem, the 512-square-foot interior is modern and comfortable. The bedroom is upstairs, and there is a full bathroom, and the kitchenette is downstairs.

The Johnson County NC's Baccer Barn Upstairs Bedroom.
Baccer Barn upstairs bedroom. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price
A kitchenette in the Baccer Barn in Johnson County NC.
Baccer Barn kitchenette. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

When the owner, Jeremy Norris, built out the Baccer Barn for guests, they made the stair railing from the original wooden slats from the tobacco drying process. The exterior is made from terracotta tile, the material they used in the days of his grandfather. The terracotta tile holds the heat well, and the Baccer Barn is cozy and comfortable.

A Stairway Made from Tobacco Barn Drying Slats in Baccer Barn in Johnson County.
Baccer Barn stairway made from tobacco barn drying slats. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Annual Events and Festivals in Johnston County

I love a good festival and JoCo hosts many throughout the year. Foodies will savor the tastes of the South during the Ham & Yam Festival in May. Bargain hunters should mark their calendars for the dates of the 301 Endless Yard Sale that stretches for 100 miles! And, if you love Christmas lights and decorations, JoCo has several magical holiday events.

Read More: 12 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Western North Carolina

Polar Bear Run – January

The Polar Bear 5K run supports Bailey’s Human Rescue, a local organization on a mission to eradicate the unnecessary overpopulation and euthanasia of domesticated animals.

Black History Month – February

Johnston County Heritage Center hosts Black History programs.

Live @ The Rudy

Scheduled throughout the year, the Rudy Theatre offers four unique, seasonal, family-friendly shows with music, comedy, and more.

Bentonville Battlefield Anniversary – March

Bentonville commemorates the 159th anniversary of the largest battle on North Carolina soil, fought March 19-21, 1865.

Classic Antique Power Farm Heritage Days – April

Classic antique tractors are displayed at the Benson Chamber Park.

Beach Fest – April

The Farm Entertainment venue in Selma celebrates a unique regional musical genre.

Ham & Yam Festival – May

The annual Ham & Yam Festival celebrates with ham biscuits, barbecue pork, sweet potatoes, and more.

East Coast Truckers Jamboree – May

This three-day truck and car show features big rigs and muscle cars at the Kenly 95 Petro travel center.

301 Endless Yard Sale – June

Johnston County and its towns along US 301 host the “Endless Yard Sale” the third weekend of June. Communities join with deals, antiques, and collectibles along the 100-mile stretch of highway between Roanoke Rapids and Dunn, North Carolina.

State Singing Convention – June

The oldest national Southern gospel convention is held at the Singing Grove in Benson. This year, it celebrates its 103rd anniversary.

Bentonville Battlefield Heavy Thunder – June

Civil War reenactors demonstrate how soldiers loaded and fired weapons during the war, hear the roar of cannons, and historical discussions. Family activities occur throughout the day, and food trucks are onsite.

Four Oaks Acorn Festival – September

Every year, downtown Four Oaks comes alive with family entertainment, including a BBQ competition and more.

Benson Mule Days – September

Benson Mules Days is a four-day event that has been going on for over 70 years. Activities include rodeos, carnival rides, arts and crafts, street dances, concerts, and, of course, mule competition events.

Railroad Days Festival – October

Selma celebrates its railroad heritage Downtown with live entertainment, food, rides, vendors, and a parade.

Sonlight Farms – October

Corn mazes, hayrides, giant slides, pumpkins, a climbing wall, peddle carts, and farm animals provide entertainment on Saturdays throughout the month at this locally-owned farm.

Clayton Fear Farm – October

“Scream Park” at Clayton Fear Farm is known all over the state for its haunted attraction, which offers more than ten unique scary experiences. It is not for the faint of heart!

Historic Downtown Smithfield Ghost Walk – October

The cemetery is the scene for guided, small-group walks, during which costumed reenactors tell stories about famous (and infamous) residents who are buried there.

Clayton Harvest Festival – October

The Clayton Harvest Festival is one of the largest festivals in Johnston County and dates to 1951. It includes rides, games, food, a vendor fair, a classic car show, tractor and bike shows, and local performances.

Bentonville Battlefield Fall Festival – October

Demonstrations of historic trades and activities like wagon rides, old-timey kid’s games, crafts, and community groups provide exciting family fun things to do. Visitors are encouraged to bring a blanket or chair and listen to live music.

Meadow Lights – November and December

Meadow Lights is the oldest and largest Christmas light display in Eastern North Carolina. This family-owned and operated event began over 40 years ago with lights on more than 30 acres, a train ride through 10+ acres, a carousel, and an old-fashioned candy store.

Lights on the Neuse – November and December

A winter wonderland overtakes Boyette’s Farm with Christmas lights viewing by hayride, a visit with Santa in the 3D Christmas barn, and a fire to warm up and roast marshmallows for s’mores.

Christmas Lights on the Farm – November and December

A newcomer to the family farm’s holiday events, Christmas Lights on the Farm offers a hayride through Christmas Town to the Field of Lights display, a visit with Santa and his friends, concessions, and music.

Bentonville Christmas Open House – December

The Harper House tour offers an experience as a family residence during a Civil War Christmas, complete with the glow of candlelight.

Johnston County Visitors Bureau provided event and festival dates.

How to Get to Johnston County

Fly

Raleigh-Durham (RDU) Airport is about 36 miles from Smithfield. Other airports in the vicinity are Greensboro/High Point (GSO), which is 99 miles away; Wilmington (ILM), which is 90 miles away; and Fayetteville Municipal (FAY), which is 50 miles away. Taxis, hotel shuttles, rental cars, and bus and rail services serve RDU.

Drive

North Carolina is an excellent state for a road trip. Because of convenient non-stop flights from my Arizona home, I flew into Charlotte, North Carolina. With a rental car, I drove to the far western part of the state at the Tennessee border to slay the dragon on the Tail of the Dragon. To the east, I made stops in Asheville and Winston-Salem, then south to the Neuse River near New Bern, and returned north to Johnston County.

Interstate 95 and Interstate 40 intersect at Benson. Highway 70 is a direct connection between Raleigh and Smithfield.

Train

The Amtrak Carolinian stops in Selma, North Carolina, daily.

Final Thoughts

There are many reasons to visit Johnston County. The small town atmosphere, great food, historical sites, and easy access make this North Carolina destination a must-see.

Julie Diebolt Price is an award-winning professional photographer, educator, author, and travel writer. She writes about two things – photography and travel (along with a little food and beverage). Julie educates and mentors aspiring photographers. As a journalist who loves to travel, she creates memorable experiences and shares them with words and pictures.
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One response


  1. We visited Johnston County in 2022, and you’ve done a masterful job telling its story! Didn’t that BBQ sauce rock?

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