Best things to do in North Carolina with kids.
By Mark Newsome of About Southern Girl
Sunrise in Outer Banks, North Carolina (Flickr: Karen Blaha)
Lighthouses, beaches, barbeque, sky-high peaks, white water rafting, world-class fishing, cool small towns – from the mountains, through the Piedmont, and down to the coast, North Carolina has it all.
With the State’s southern hospitality and welcoming attitude, families and kids will feel right at home in North Carolina. Why? Because North Carolina has the perfect combination of people, scenery, history, food, and fun. Families will find something to love in the majestic peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the big-city sites of Charlotte and Raleigh, or on the hundreds of miles of beaches and blue water along the coast. Entire families, but kids especially, will be enthralled by all North Carolina has to offer.
1. It all starts with variety. As the natives say: North Carolina stretches from Murphy to Manteo. Murphy is a small town in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina deep in the State’s beautiful mountains, while Manteo is nearly 550 miles away along North Carolina’s coastal Outer Banks. While those are the extremes, families can actually enjoy both the mountains and the beach in a single day with a less-than-5-hour drive from Boone in western North Carolina’s Watagua County – home of Appalachian State University to the coast’s Wrightsville Beach just outside Wilmington.
(MORE: Find wonderful kid-friendly hotels to stay in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.)
2. North Carolina has weather the whole family will love. Normal winters avoid the bitter cold of the north, and average summers don’t see the oppressive heat of the Deep South. Every year is different, but occasional 60 to 70 degree days are to be expected in winter. Parents might just get to see the kids with toes in the ocean on New Year’s Day (and not have to spring for airfare to the Caribbean).
Barbecue at Lexington BBQ (Flickr: Southern Foodways Alliance)
3. In North Carolina, barbeque is a noun and not a verb, as it is in most of the rest of the country. North Carolina has wonderful restaurants, but barbeque is the native cuisine. It’s perfect for kids as a little mess is just fine. It differs slightly from east to west, but North Carolina barbeque is slow roasted pork – always pork, never beef – with a vinegar-based sauce. In the western portions of the state, that sauce will include a little tomato and be just a bit sweeter. Some North Carolina barbeque restaurants for families not to miss include (from west to east):
- 12 Bones in Asheville
- Lexington BBQ in none other than Lexington, western North Carolina’s barbeque capital
- Stamey’s in Greensboro
- Hursey’s in Burlington
- Clyde Cooper’s in Raleigh
- Wilber’s in Goldsboro
- King’s in Kinston
Every North Carolinian has his favorite barbeque place, and nearly every town has a local restaurant. Don’t hesitate to ask a native’s opinion on the State’s best barbeque!
4. North Carolina has an extensive system of State Parks, most of which come with free admission. The system includes over 40 parks scattered across North Carolina. Some family favorites include western North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain State Park and its mile-high swinging bridge, which some kids really love! Just a few miles from the hustle of downtown Durham and Duke University is the Eno River State Park – a sanctuary for hikers and great for families visiting the area. Fort Macon State Park is another family draw along the State’s Southern Outer Banks (see number 12). The park has several miles of pristine beach and an 18th century fort that will bring out the 10-year-old boy in us all. Check here for a comprehensive list of all North Carolina State Parks.
5. North Carolina is a fishing paradise! From 1972 until 1996, North Carolina TV station WRAL ran a series called the Southern Sportsman. The show featured hunting and fishing trips across the State and White ended every show with the line: “Do yourself a favor and take a kid fishing.”
Nearly two generations of kids in WRAL’s viewing area bugged dads to death with that plea to take a kid fishing. While fishing across the State is excellent, fishing in North Carolina reaches its peak down on the coast. Morehead City may just be North Carolina’s fishing capital. It’s home to the Big Rock Marlin Tournament held each year in June – a great time to boat watch or see the catch that the pros haul in.
Check out Chasin’ Tails Outdoors on the Causeway between Morehead City and Atlantic Beach for all the details. The kids will love a day surf fishing on the nearby beaches – and if the fish aren’t biting there’s plenty of sand castles to be built and shells to be collected. If your family is dying to try deep sea fishing, check out boats like the Bill Collector or Sensation Sportfishing.
6. Cool Small Towns: North Carolina has a number of small towns and communities that are simply cool and make for leisurely family visits. Top of the list is the town voted the Coolest Small Town in America by Budget Travel Magazine: Beaufort, North Carolina. Not to be confused with Beaufort, South Carolina (the North Carolina town is pronounced Bow-fort and South Carolina town is pronounced Bew-fort), Beaufort is one of the most pedestrian-friendly towns in North Carolina – dad can park the van and never have to drive until it’s time to leave. Kids are welcomed all over town. Don’t miss a trip to Sand Dollar Island, where, as the name indicates, Sand Dollars can be found by the dozen. Your family can reach Sand Dollar Island with Island Ferry Adventures ferry service. It’s about a 10-minute trip, but call ahead (252-728-7555) because it’s a popular spot that you can only visit at low tide.
Beaufort is a perfect place to let older kids wander a bit, and an ice cream at Front Street’s General Store is always a great choice. Don’t miss lunch on the water at the Dockhouse or at Finz Grill, along with a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum and a stroll along the boardwalk. For the best sunsets, try an evening drink on the lower deck at the Front Street Grill’s Rhum Bar – kids are welcome and they make a great Shirley Temples (along with a few other things for parents – try the painkillers!).
Other small places that families can enjoy include Hillsborough, with historic homes dating back to the 18th century, and Alamance County’s Saxapahaw, a former mill village that has reinvented itself as a destination all its own. Saxapahaw has been featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post as an example of rural renaissance done right. Saturdays in Saxapahaw festivals are not to be missed. They include live music, games, crafts, and vendors of all types. A meal on the deck at the Eddy Pub is a perfect break for both kids and parents. Saxapahaw is about a 15-minute drive off interstate 40/85 between Durham and Greensboro.
7. Ghost stories are pretty popular these days, and North Carolina has plenty to provide the kids with spooky adventures. Each area of the State has its share. Some of the most popular include the Brown Mountain Lights of the mountains, the Ghost of Seven Hearths in the piedmont, and the Grey Man of Hatteras along the coast.
Lighthouse on the Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina (Flickr: bobistraveling)Doug Butchy
8. North Carolina has a total of 7 lighthouses along its coast stretching from Currituck Beach in the north to Oak Island in the south. Most of the 7 are easily accessible by car, but for more of an adventure (still easy even for families with small children) try a visit to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on the Cape Lookout National Seashore near Beaufort. Check the National Seashore’s site for ferry options or better yet enjoy a 6-hour cruise from Beaufort’s Lookout Cruises. They sail to Lookout nearly every good weather day spring, summer, and fall. Using a resort-style catamaran they sail along Shackleford Banks where you’re almost certain to see wild horses that are believed to be the descendants of shipwrecked horses from centuries ago. You’ll get lots of time to roam the beach, search for shells, and visit the Lighthouse. You’ll also enjoy a lunch from the Beaufort Grocery Company on board.
9. Stretching from the Virginia line to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a State treasure. It allows families to enjoy some of North Carolina’s remote mountain wilderness. Easily accessible from towns like Boone and Blowing Rock, and cities like Asheville, travel on the Parkway is free. South of Asheville is the Pisgah Inn with reasonable rates and wonderful summertime weather. Make sure to hike to the top of Mount Pisgah, and don’t miss sights like Graveyard Fields and the Devil’s Courthouse. Near Asheville, the Parkway travels close to the former estate of George Vanderbilt. Though a bit pricey, a visit to the Biltmore Estate can serve as the cornerstone of a long weekend in western North Carolina.
10. North Carolina has some of the best white water rafting on the east coast, and many of the guides across western North Carolina tailor the experience to families. In the Smoky Mountains, look for Carolina Outfitters in Topton. Asheville’s Blue Heron Whitewater is also a great choice for family trips on French Broad River near Asheville.
If you like to be a little closer to the big city, a short drive from Charlotte is the U.S. National Whitewater Center. In the center’s own words, it is dedicated to the “promotion of the active, outdoor lifestyle.” You can take the whole family whitewater rafting, on canopy tour through the trees, zip lining, rock climbing, and a host of other activities – all within a short drive from Charlotte. The grounds of the center, along with the constructed white water rapids, are quite impressive, too.
11. The Outer Banks are one of North Carolina’s most popular and appealing family getaways. The Outer Banks stretch from the Virginia line south and east along a string of narrow barrier islands to Cape Hatteras, and then south and slightly west down to Cape Lookout. There are number of lighthouses (see number 8) to see along with miles and miles of beaches. Man’s first powered flight took place on the Outer Banks at Kitty Hawk and is now immortalized at the Wright Brother’s National Memorial, always a favorite of families on summer break. Jockey’s Ridge State Park, near Nags Head, is the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States, and you can hike, hang glide or sand board. Another family favorite is Roanoke Island‘s Lost Colony outdoor drama, which tells the story of the original English settlers to the area, and often features world-renowned actors, directors, and theater folk. Show times and ticket prices vary.
(MORE: Find more kid-friendly attractions in and near Cape Hatteras.)
12. From Cape Lookout, the North Carolina coastline turns due west for 20 plus miles. Folks refer to this area as the Southern Outer Banks. It includes Beaufort, Morehead City, Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Salter Path and Indian Beach, Emerald Isle, and the often-missed small town of Swansboro. Families can vacation in this area – also known as the Crystal Coast – for a lifetime. When you’re there, consider checking out Hammocks Beach State Park. There’s a small fee to transport you over to Bear Island, an uninhabited barrier island and a quick and easy way to enjoy what will seem like your family’s own private island.
13. Near the geographic center of the state, just outside Asheboro and about a 30 minute drive south of Greensboro, is the North Carolina Zoo. The Zoo is nearly unique in being one of two state-owned zoos in the nation, and is the largest walk-through zoo in the world at over 2000 acres. Because of the size, animals have much more open space to roam and appear in settings much closer to natural habitats. Children’s favorites include the polar bears of the North American exhibit and the elephants of the African exhibit. Admission is reasonable, but families of 5 or more should consider purchasing a membership, which will also get you admission to the North Carolina Aquariums, as well as discounts at other attractions including some of the children’s museums around the state (see number 15).
14. North Carolina has three state aquariums on Roanoke Island, in Pine Knoll Shores along the Crystal Coast, and at Fort Fisher near Wilmington. Each location features tons of exhibits including tremendous aquariums and interactive exhibits where kids can touch marine life like skates, rays, and sharks. Each aquarium has a host of summer programs that the kids will love including behind the scenes tours, fish feeding, surfing, fishing, clamming, and a wide range of educational features. Check the sites for specific offerings, prices, and times.
15. North Carolina now has a number of hands-on Children’s Museums that have become favorites of families across the state. Down in Charlotte, the Discovery Place has become a draw for many families. Folks on points along Amtrak’s popular North Carolina route with stops in Raleigh, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, among others, are taking advantage of the kids ride for just $5 offer for travel to Charlotte. Greensboro has the Greensboro Science Center and its popular SciQuarium. Durham has the Life and Science Museum, and Raleigh has the Marbles Kid Museum. Duke University in Durham has the Duke Lemur Center. While it is primarily a research facility, tours can be fun for the kids. Check times and details though as research comes first, and tours are timed to fit the needs of scientists and students.
16. A few of North Carolina’s most unusual place names will keep your kids laughing. Lizard Lick is a crossroads in Wake County near Raleigh where Lizard Lick Road meets NC 97. Bat Cave is not far from Asheville and Henderson near Chimney Rock State Park. There’s Chocowinity near the coast in Beaufort County (not to be confused with the town of Beaufort in Carteret County). You could keep the kids occupied on a road trip just trying to pronounce Chocowinity. Also close to the coast is Old Trap in Camden County. Legend has it that the name was given by Colonial era women who were annoyed by husbands who got trapped hanging out too long at a local store. Toast, North Carolina is located in Surry County, not far from the home of Andy Griffith, Mt. Airy – the town that Andy based his famous Mayberry on. The town still has many Mayberry attractions that will interest kids as well as nostalgic parents who entertain with old dvds of the Andy Griffith Show.
Tryon Palace in New Bern, North Carolina (Photo: Will Conkwright)
17. Great Historic Sites: North Carolina was one of the original 13 colonies, and holds the earliest of English settlements in the new world. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site protects and preserves the known portions of England’s first settlements dating from 1584 to 1590 (take that you Plymouth Rock 1620 late-comers). Tryon Palace in New Bern was the Royal Governor’s residence. As the first permanent capital of North Carolina, the Palace has been lovingly preserved and restored. Don’t forget to enjoy a little bit of New Bern. The city was the site of action during the War Between the States and a brochure outlining a Civil War self -guided tour can be found here.
The Moore’s Creek National Battlefield, just north of Wilmington along US 421, is a fun one for history-buff families as it contains the site of the battle of Moore’s Creek from the American War for Independence. This battle was a decisive win for the colonists and marked the end of British rule in North Carolina. Not far from Saxapahaw (see number 6) is the Alamance Battleground, a State Historic site commemorating a precursor to the Revolutionary War: a 1771 armed rebellion of farmers known as the Regulators that was crushed by the royal government. The surviving Regulators were hanged in nearby Hillsborough. The site holds a number of living history events throughout the year.
18. Not to be missed when visiting Beaufort is the Rachel Carson Reserve. The reserve is accessible by a small ferry and includes a collection of islands, sand bars, and marshes within a large estuary system. The Reserve’s Bird Shoal is a perfect spot to spend an afternoon at the beach and is a favorite of locals. The Reserve is home to wild horses similar to those on Shackleford Banks. You can also paddle the short distance to the reserve across Taylor’s Creek. Kayaks and standup paddleboards can be rented at Beaufort Inlet Watersports.
19. Highest Mountain East of the Mississippi: North Carolina’s rugged Black Mountains just east of Asheville hold the country’s highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Mount Mitchell State Park is easily accessible most of the year via the Blue Ridge Parkway about 30 miles northeast of Asheville. With a parking lot close to the summit, kids can easily get to the top of Mount Mitchell’s 6,683-foot peak. Trails leading from the parking area to adjacent peaks can quickly get your family out of earshot of crowds. Check weather conditions before you go, though, as conditions near the peak can be quite different from the rest of the State.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Flickr: Anne Hornyak)
20. North Carolina has only one official national park, but it is the most visited of all the National Parks in the U.S: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. North Carolina has many other National Park Service properties to see, but one not to miss is the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Many miles from the mainland along the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras is nearly as close to the island of Bermuda as it is to towns in North Carolina’s mountains (651 miles to Bermuda, 595 miles to Murphy). Three of North Carolina’s lighthouses are within the Seashore: Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke Island. There are miles of beach to wander and kids can even become a Junior Ranger!
(MORE: Find wonderful kid-friendly hotels near the Great Smoky Mountains..)
21. Morehead Planetarium: near the heart of the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill is a spot that many of the State’s school children grow up visiting, the Morehead Planetarium. The Planetarium is complete with a 68-foot-tall full dome planetarium, exhibits and classrooms, 24-inch Cassegrain reflecting telescope, and observation decks. They have regular shows that the kids will love that change with the seasons. They are closed on Mondays and admission is under $10 for adults and children. Plus, a visit will take you within an easy walk of the shops and restaurants in downtown Chapel Hill.