Top 10 Family Activities in North Carolina
Read about North Carolina resorts too.
North Carolina has a lot to do! It’s bigger and has far more different geography and activities than I ever would have imagined. I went to a North Carolina media event this winter to learn more about the state and it’s tourism centers—and boy did I learn a lot!
In no particular order, here are ten cool things to do in North Carolina with kids. it’s a good mix of culture, nature and the unexpected. These are by far not the only things to do in their towns or counties, but they are enough to get you started planning a trip.
1. See Lemurs in Durham
Sure, the city is known for its Bulls, but it also has the Duke Lemur Center, which is home to the world’s largest and most diverse collection of lemurs– outside of Madagascar. Learn about these cute and very endangered creatures. Tours, which are recommended for ages 7 and up (though smaller kids are welcome) will introduce you to ten different species.
2. Floor it To Cabarrus County
Cabarrus County is home to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which hosts races throughout the year. But auto-racing fans will find plenty to engage them beyond the track. 90% of NASCAR race shops are located here. Visitors can walk passed the shops and get a behind-the scenes peek at racing crews at work. Visit smaller tracks like Roush Fenway, where crews test new cars and drivers practice, then try your hand at driving a NASCAR racecar. Still want more? Pop over to nearby Charlotte to visit the NASCAR hall of fame.
3. Raft like an Olympian on The Nantahala
North Carolina’s rivers routinely provide training and practice ground for US Olympic white water rafters and kayakers. The Nantahala Outdoor Center, run by Olympic gold medalist Joe Jacobi, has helped to train more than two-dozen of them. Based in the Nantahala Gorge in the Southwest corner of the state, the company takes families on rafting trips on the Nantahala as well as other rivers in the Southeast. The family trips, typically on class-2 rapids, might not be as adventurous as the athletes’ training runs, but they sure look fun.
4. Take Flight in the Outer Banks
Wilber and Orville Wright headed to this beach community to try to get their early planes off the ground. In Kitty Hawk, A nicely done National Park Site explores their early work and experiments and commemorates their first success. Explore the museum, hear a Ranger’s dramatic retelling of that first flight, then walk the length of the field that marks 12 world-changing seconds of history. A large scale sculpture that recreates the scene is worth stopping by on your way out.
If you’re feeling inspired to earn your own wings, head to nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where giant sloping sand dunes provide the runway for hang gliding classes taught by Kitty Hawk Kites.
5. Celebrate World Music in Greensboro
The National Folk Festival in September offers three days of music from around the world. Hear jigs from Canada followed guitars from Mexico or sitars from India, followed after by American blues or country.
The free event features music on seven stages plus family activities, a marketplace and food stalls offering regional and international food.
6. Horse around in Mill Spring
In an effort to make equestrian events and competitions more mainstream, the town of Mill Spring built the Tryon International Equestrian Center. It offers horse-related competitions and shows in the spring, summer and fall, and most are free. There’s a selection of casual dining options from pizza to sushi and shopping, too. To entice families there’s a free carousel and frequent free ice cream socials on the weekends in season and a Christmas market in December.
7. Combine Artisanal work and local beer in Asheville
The Lexington Glassworks is glass-blowing studio iwith an open-door policy. Stop by whenever they are open to watch the glass-blowing process from beginning to end. If you’re lucky you’ll drop by when their house taps are flowing—always with local beer. Enjoy a pint while your kids watch blobs of glass turn into graceful pieces of art.
8. Celebrate Ava Gardner in Smithfield
Ava Gardner was born in Smithfield, NC. Classic movie buffs can visit the Ava Gardner Museum and follow a heritage trail to spots around town related to her life. In the fall, an eponymous festival features the actress’s films, special exhibits and often guest visits from people involved in the movies she made, such as screenwriter John Huston.
9. See a museum in Raleigh
All of the museums in Raleigh are free (the one exception is the Children’s Museum). And the selection is impressive. Check the Rodin’s at the North Carolina Museem of Art or the rotating exhibits at the Contemporary Art Museum. At the Museum of Natural History you can see scientists at work in their behind-the-scenes offices and labs.
10. Look for fireflies in Transylvania
This county is home to unique ghost fireflies who emit a steady blue glow when trying to attract a mate. They shine for about two weeks in May and June as they fly around Dupont State Recreational Forest. In recent years, though park rangers have asked visitors to stick to a prescribed trail to make sure the fireflies have the space they need to do their thing.
If you miss the fireflies, you can still visit for the 250 waterfalls withing a few miles of each other. The falls might be as high as 400 feet or might be gentle enough to create (no doubt chilly) pools for wading in on a hot summer day.
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