With so many things to do in North Carolina, you can make a day trip or weekend of it all year long. From outdoor adventures to historical landmarks, and from top tourist attractions to weird and unusual sites North Carolina is a vacationers dreamland. Mountains or beaches, take your pick…just get to North Carolina and have some fun!
One of our most memorable family vacations was in Onslow County, NC. Stay on the river in Swansboro, enjoying everything from a Family Picnic Cruise with Bayonet Enterprises to a half-day sand dollar/whelk/shark teeth excursion with Marsh Cruises. Try kayaking or paddleboarding, and shrimping and crabbing, too.
Or take a more relaxed coastal vacation in North Topsail Beach (pictured above.) Stay in the St Regis Resort or Villa Capriani – both right on the beach and ideal for families.
Finally – follow our lead and go back a second time for back-country camping on the beach at Hammocks Beach State Park.
Main Attractions Worth The Hype
Biltmore Estate is one of the most well-known attractions in North Carolina. With opportunities for you to learn more about the estate by walking around the house and gardens or taking a tour of the winery, and a number of outdoor activities to choose from (horseback riding, paddle boarding, fly-fishing and biking, to name a few) you’ll find that this is the perfect place to bring the family for the weekend.
Whether you’re looking for an athletic adventure or want to take a stroll on a nature trail, Chimney Rock has an option for you. Book yourself a rock climbing expedition for a full day, half-day, or a few hours and be prepared to work your body as you learn to climb. Have experiencing rock climbing? Fox Mountain Guides have options for beginners and experienced climbers. Children aged seven and up can participate, making this very family-friendly. Want to take a break and grab a bite to eat? Head to the restaurant in Chimney Rock Village and fill your bellies before heading out again.
An indoor water park that covers over 80,000 square feet? Great Wolf Lodge offers incredible accommodations on-site with kid-friendly rooms and suites big enough for an extended family vacation. But this is not just a water park. With attractions like mini-golf and bowling, arcades and a rope course, you and the kids won’t have a minute to be bored. Find some time to slip away and head to the spa, or bring your little one with you for some mommy and me pampering.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is, of course, located in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Take a train ride and enjoy a tour of this incredible area. Decide between a diesel or a steam powered experience, each with a number of options for you to choose from. There are family adventures and even an adults-only moonshine experience. Order boxed lunches in advance and save yourself the trouble of packing something or picking up snacks. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, have a look at their zip and rail packages, with ziplining options for the entire family!
Are you a fan of The Hunger Games? If you are then you probably already know that the movies were filmed across North Carolina. There are so many locations you can visit! From Charlotte to Asheville to DuPont State Recreational Forest in Henderson, you’ll experience nature in a way that the characters did, minus the stress of survival! Prefer to have someone lead the way than to find these locations on your own? Consider signing up for one of these Unofficial Hunger Games Tours.
Exploring the Outdoors
Pullen Park is best known for its Holiday Express event, which takes place every December and turns the park into a winter wonderland filled with holiday decorations and activities. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there the rest of the year. With their carousel, mini-train and pedal boats, spring and summer are the perfect time to head to the park and enjoy the warmer weather.
Follow the Blue Ridge Parkway and catch some of the most beautiful views you’ll find in North Carolina. Known for its fall foliage, you’ll find plenty of information encouraging you to take the drive in the months of September (late month) and October. With options for camping, hiking, fishing, biking and even golfing, there’s so much more to do along the Parkway than just looking at the leaves, flowers and wildlife.
Grandfather Mountain offers some of the best hiking trails in the south and America’s highest suspension footbridge. Looking to become one with nature? Take a simple walk on their in-park nature trails. Want something more intense? Tackle their Backcountry Hiking Trails where you’ll find yourself climbing rope ladders and cables off cliffs. Not up for a long walk? Stop at the Nature Museum or have a look at some of the Wildlife Habitats. And be sure to stop at The Fudge Shop before you leave!
Linville Gorge is recognized as the third largest wilderness area in North Carolina. As you would imagine, this makes it one of the most incredible locations for hiking and backpacking. But be sure to do so carefully, as Linville Gorge’s designation as a National Wilderness Area leaves visitors without very well-marked or cleared trails. This doesn’t mean it isn’t safe, it’s just important for you to educate yourself before you go. Best bet? Get yourself a map of the area to ensure that when you do take on one of the very intense trails that you’ll know a bit of what to expect in advance.
All you need to know about Sliding Rock is that it is a 60-foot natural water slide. A 60-foot natural water slide. That ends in a pool of water about 7-8 feet deep. Requirements are that you know how to swim. Or if your children are going to participate that they know how to swim. And if you don’t want to take the plunge be sure and check the rules. Children under the age of seven must be accompanied by an adult, so if you think your little one is going to be able to go alone - guess again. Coast guard approved flotation devices are permitted and there are two platforms on-site if you just want to watch while another adult goes slip sliding with the kids.
Often seen during the summer months at the DuPont State Recreational Forest, the blue ghost fireflies are breathtakingly beautiful, but can be very difficult to find. While the forest is open daily from 5 a.m. - 10 p.m., the fireflies are best seen during the dusk or nighttime hours. Recently there have been limitations placed on opportunities to look for them due to firefly endangerment. Your best bet is to contact the forest staff before heading out to ensure that the timing is right to stop by and see them.
Jordan Lake is, simply put, a beautiful lake. The entire area offers spectacular views and an opportunity to see them on land or on water. You can head out there to hike, camp, boat or fish. But many people go there to watch for bald eagles. Jordan Lake offers free activities introducing you to the bald eagles and other birds, hosted by their park rangers and completely free to you. They also work with the Morehead Planetarium to offer Skywatching events in which you’ll spend some time learning about the night sky.
At the highest point of the Great Smoky Mountains at 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is a very popular park that falls in both, North Carolina and Tennessee. A beautiful location for hiking, the Dome offers some of the most beautiful views you’ll ever see, with an observation tower that offers a well-rounded view of the entire area. The trail to the observation tower is extremely steep and runs about 0.75 miles long. Also, while you're in the area, be sure to also visit the miles of hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Located at NC State University in Raleigh, the JC Raulston Arboretum is open every day and completely free to all guests. With over a dozen gardens, featuring a variety of plants and flowers, from perennial plants to berries and trees, you’ll find anything that interests you in the world of horticulture. Find yourself fascinated with Maples? They have them. Love Magnolias? Have them, too. Looking to find a moment of zen? Head to the Japanese garden. And don’t forget to stop at the Rose Garden and the Butterfly Garden, both favorites of Arboretum visitors.
Looking to plan a beach weekend for the whole family? The beaches of the Outer Banks offer everything you could possibly dream of. Head to Paradise Fun Park on Kill Devil Hills and ride the bumper cars or Go Kartz. Play mini-golf. Go surfing or paddleboarding in Duck. Take a dolphin tour on Manteo. Or just head directly to the beach in any of these towns and hit the water. You and your kids will have a blast. And be sure to stop in at Duck Donuts before you leave the area. You’ll thank me later. Don't skip the chance to go all the way down to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, also, to see the lighthouse
Looking for something to do in Raleigh that keeps you outside for much of the day? Consider tackling the Capital Area Greenway Trail System. This system offers over 100 miles of interconnected trails for you to explore. You can walk, jog, ride your bike, take the kids in a wagon or stroller and enjoy a bit of nature tucked away inside our capital city.
With a number of mountain resorts offering you guaranteed snow, no matter the weather, skiing and snowtubing isn’t out of the question for southerners these days! Whether you decide to hit the slopes at Sugar Mountain or head to Beech Mountain for higher elevation, you’re bound to have an incredible time. But if your preference is to stay off skis and avoid standing up at all on snowy terrain, snow tubing is the choice for you.
You’ll find plenty of history and culture in Old Salem. You’ll also find an incredible bakery, and that’s important. You have to do a bit of walking to get to it, but it’s well worth the stroll. Before the bakery, though, you’ll find several historic buildings filled with artifacts from the 1800s.
The Carolinas Aviation Museum offers a wealth of information to its visitors. Including commercial, civil and military aircrafts in their exhibits, the museum does its best to preserve aviation history. With a library on-site, you’ll find an opportunity to read up on decades of aircraft history and review decades worth of artifacts.
Looking to learn about every aspect of North Carolina history? The NC Museum of History is the place for you. You’ll find the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame here. Founded in 1962, the NC Hall of Fame offers over 200 pieces of sports memorabilia for you to see. With numerous galleries and an events calendar offering up a number of cultural festivities, the museum is the place to be. And if you’re worried the kids might get bored, consider downloading a copy of their scavenger hunt sheet. They’re sure to love the idea of hunting down information when you get there.
You’ll be able to learn all about Wilbur and Orville Wright at their National Memorial. Have a look at exactly where they first took flight and see the national commemorative monument recognizing their success! Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for the kids and have them learn all about the park and how to protect it. They’ll get a fun badge after they complete all of their ranger assignments. (You can only get this on-site - no downloading for this one!)
Work to build the Battleship North Carolina began in 1937. It had been 16 years since the last battleship had been built. It was not until 1941 that she took to the water. An authentically restored WWII battleship, the North Carolina is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. You can take a self-guided tour, or decide to participate in a behind-the-scenes tour of the not yet restored areas of the ship. Whatever you decide you’re bound to have a wonderful experience and learn so much about this incredible ship.
Looking to take in some history and escape the every day for a while? Book yourself some time at the Grove Park Inn. As its name indicates, the inn is a location with rooms available on-site. There are several restaurants, spas and activities to do there, as well. But the history buffs out there should be sure and attend one of the history tours. The 45 minute tours are free to guests. Learn more about the history of the resort, which has been open to guests for over a century. Find out about some of their most memorable guests and enjoy a look at how things used to be when they first opened.
Once the location of the largest plantation in Wake County, Mordecai Historic Park is filled with history. Filled with historic buildings, structures and landscaping, this area captures a true feeling of what life was like so many years ago. If you’re looking to experience more than just the historical aspects of this location, consider attending Sacred Heart Sundays on the fourth Sunday of every month at St. Mark’s Chapel where you’ll find the Triangle Shape Note singers performing a capella.
Tweetsie Railroad made Blowing Rock its home in 1957. Engine No. 12, the primary steam engine on-site, has been in commission since 1919. With live entertainment, from magic shows to dancing performances, and a number of kid and family-friendly rides, Tweetsie Railroad is a hit to anyone who visits. The park is open to the public from April through October, with their Tweetsie Christmas event taking place from late November through December.
The site of the first documented gold find in the United States, Reed Gold Mine is a fun and free place to visit. Take a guided tour of the underground tunnels, have a look at some very old mining equipment exhibits, or spend a few dollars and have the family pan for gold themselves. Learn all about the history of gold and how North Carolina was one of the top producers of gold until the California Gold Rush of 1849!
At the International Civil Rights Center and Museum many aspects of the civil rights movement are represented. This educational center offers a number of historical images and information to teach its visitors about the fight for civil rights African-American have faced throughout the years. From voting rights to ‘separate but unequal’ education and a constant battle for equal rights. Consider participating in an active guided tour or attend a weekly children’s story hour Saturday mornings.
Established in the 1830s as a cottage and estate for the Hampton family to carve some time away from the summer heat at their low country home, the High Hampton Inn now offers the same to vacationers from all over the U.S.. With cottages and multi-bedroom homes to choose from, visitors rent lodging nearby and enjoy access to the lake for fishing and swimming. Throughout the summer there are several children’s programs to consider, offering options for kids of all ages. One of their most unique activities on-site is an opportunity to take a hike with a llama, which just might be something you cannot pass up.
Opened in 1960, The Elizabethan Gardens offers educational opportunities that go as far back as the early colonies. With over 500 different species of plants and flowers, the 10 and a half acres of land offers something beautiful for everyone. Horticultural history abounds, from roses in the rose garden to an ancient live oak tree that dates as far back as approximately 1585. Peruse the seasonal flower beds or stroll along the great lawn and enjoy the beauty of gardens like no other.
If you’re a history buff the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park is the perfect place for you to visit. With colonial exhibits featuring old looms and a water wheel, and a museum of Revolutionary War artifacts, you won’t be bored. You can also take some time to explore the grounds and take in some of the history by walking the battlefield trails on your own. Enjoy the many monuments documenting the history of these grounds as you go. The Guilford Council National Military Park also has a Junior Ranger program for the kids that they’ll earn a badge and certificate upon completing.
Zoos, Museums and More
Marbles Kids Museum offers entertainment for children aged 10 and under. With opportunities to be creative, to learn and to play, Marbles offers your children a chance to learn through hands-on discovery with exhibits like Art Loft and IdeaWorks where they’re able to let their imaginations run free. The Power2Play exhibit gets your kids moving, jumping and bouncing - getting out all of their excess energy while still playing indoors. Located in Downtown Raleigh, Marbles has been a favorite in our house for years.
Quench your thirst for scientific discovery with one or more of the 14 planetarium shows available at the Morehead Planetarium. They offer ‘live’ star shows that incorporate the current night sky, along with several multimedia show options to choose from. The Science Stage shows offer live science demonstrations where the audience participates and interacts with the presenters. These are completely free to attendees. With a range of shows to choose from there is something that will interest everyone here.
Recognized as one of the largest natural habitat zoos in the United States, the North Carolina Zoo offers you an opportunity to see exhibits featuring animals from North America to Africa, including an aviary section that displays thousands of tropical plants and dozens of exotic birds. It will take several hours to see the entire zoo, so it is recommended that you consider mapping out your day before you go. Take some breaks from walking about to grab lunch on-site and take the kids on a carousel ride, or hop on the tram to ensure you get to see both sides of the zoo before day’s end.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is the perfect destination for the NASCAR fan. Honoring NASCAR’s history, heritage and icons with interactive exhibits and information, you’ll learn more than you ever imagined about the sport here. And most importantly, you’ll be able to visit the Hall of Honor to find out all about the NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees. Located in Uptown Charlotte, the Hall is surrounded by great restaurants and hotels, and is about 20 minutes away from our next attraction!
Dubbed ‘The Greatest Place to See the Race,’ Charlotte Motor Speedway is the perfect destination for those looking to catch some excitement and fast action firsthand. With a number of events and tours available, you’re going to want to be sure to check their calendar and book your tickets in advance so you can plan your adventure. From the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race to monster trucks, this is a destination racing fans will not want to miss.
With touch tanks and behind-the-scene tours the Fort Fisher location is the perfect place to head for an interactive and educational experience. Tired of just looking and want to catch yourself a fish or two? Head to Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. Have a toddler in the family? The Aqua Tots program at the Roanoke Island location is perfect for them. Or considering checking out the turtles or going surf fishing at Pine Knoll Shores. Whichever location you choose you’re sure to have an incredible time.
So much to see and do at the Museum of Natural Sciences! Where should you begin? Be sure to get yourself a copy of the museum guide once you’re on-site, or consider downloading their app in advance so you can map out your visit. With exhibits covering prehistoric NC, to the deep sea and ever-changing ocean floor, your perspective on the natural world will shift tremendously. Be sure to stop in at the Living Conservatory on the fourth floor to experience an incredible journey to a Central American dry forest without stepping off the museum grounds.
With a number of locomotive exhibits and an actual train ride, the Transportation Museum is the perfect stop for your little (or big!) train fanatic. Learn about North Carolina’s mass transit history, from streetcars to airlines. Take a ride on an antique diesel train and consider upgrading to ride with the engineer. The Transportation Museum offers two very well-known special events each year, so be sure to look into the Day Out With Thomas or The Polar Express Train Ride (holiday scheduling).
The Museum of Life and Science will keep your family busy all day. Start off inside with their weather and aerospace exhibits, and make your way outside to check out the farmyard and the animals in their explore the wild exhibits. Their Magic Wings Butterfly House is one of the largest butterfly houses on the East Coast. With a variety of birds, insects, flowers and butterflies, it will easily be one of your favorite exhibits at the museum. And if you stay really still you just might coax one into landing on you. (More in Durham here.)
Weird, But Awesome
Land of Oz isn’t quite as active as it’s been in years gone by, but at least twice a year the Emerald City perks up and is filled with people. Whether it’s Autumn At Oz or their Journey With Dorothy, if you’re a Wizard of Oz fan this quirky little ‘anti-theme park’ is the perfect place for you.
The Road To Nowhere is exactly what it sounds like. An unfinished road represented by a highway up in the Great Smoky Mountains. But where it goes is why it has this special nickname, as it stops at the mouth of a tunnel. Several decades after work on it began it remains unfinished. Referenced as a “broken promise” by residents of the area, the road was to exist to ensure that they had access to old family cemeteries on the other side. Visitors can take the 6-mile highway into the park and the tunnel itself is open for those intrigued enough to walk through it, just make sure to bring a flashlight so you can find your way to the other side!
Featuring the endangered species of the Venus Flytrap, the official carnivorous plant of NC, the carnivorous plant garden is a fascinating spot to visit. It is, indeed, weird but awesome. As the Venus Flytrap plant is native to North and South Carolina, this is one of the few places in the U.S. that you can find them and see them in their natural environment. But be sure and wear closed-toed shoes when you go as you don’t want one of the plants thinking you’re on the menu!
Covering 2 acres, Whirligig Park currently houses 16 whirligigs. What are whirligigs, you ask? Whirligigs are the creations of Vollis Simpson, a master at his craft. At age 65, after retirement, Simpson began creating whirligigs out of scrap metal and other ‘junk’ that he had collected over the years. In 2013, North Carolina named Simpson’s whirligigs the official folk art of the state. The park itself offers a farmers market, an amphitheater and plenty of place for you to enjoy these fun creations on display, and become one with nature. Those supporting Whirligig Park have a plan in place to display all 31 of Simpson’s whirligigs.
Located at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Cloud Chamber is on the museum’s sculpture trail. A small shelter built with one door and a small opening at the top, the cloud chamber offers a bit of an upside-down perspective, one where instead of looking up and out to see the trees and clouds, visitors look down at the ground and see an inverted projection.
A unique miniature village made completely of stone? Can you picture it? Well, you don’t have to. Henry Warren was about 75 years old when he started working on his tiny creations. It took him nine years to craft the entire thing, from a motel to a church, a school and a library and even a small stone bathroom. A quirky little spot to stop and enjoy on your way through town, the Shangri-La Stone Village will delight the kids, but won’t keep you for more than a short visit.
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