Mountains, Rivers, Beaches & More: Things to Do in North Carolina With Kids

Terri Marshall Avatar
North Carolina's Chimney Rock is one of the things to do in North Carolina with kids.

From the hiking trails of the Appalachian mountain range and whitewater rafting to iconic amusement parks, there are many things to do in North Carolina with kids.

A year-round destination, North Carolina serves up a smorgasbord of fun things to do on your family vacation. This southeast gem features varied landscapes and a wide range of indoor and outdoor activities ensuring fun for the whole family. Check out some of the best things to do in North Carolina with kids!

Waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the things to do in North Carolina with kids.
Waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

North America’s most visited park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sees 12-million visitors each year. Overlapping the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the park offers an abundance of hiking trails for all fitness levels. Along the way, historic sites share the stories of the area’s human history.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park serves as a natural habitat for 62 species of mammals. These include black bears, bobcats, coyotes, red wolves and an estimated 200 elk. In addition, it’s home to more than 67 varieties of fish, 234 species of birds and dozens of species of salamanders. In fact, the park has been called the “Salamander Capital of the World.” As you can see, there’s plenty to discover in this treasured park.

Read More: Discover the Jewel of Robbinsville, the Historic Tapoco Lodge

Venture to New Heights at Mount Mitchell State Park

Located along North Carolina’s scenic Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 355.4, Mount Mitchell State Park is a great option for a day trip. Towering 6,684 feet above the surrounding forest, Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. Popular activities here include hiking and birding. Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars to watch for rare species as you trek the hiking trails.

Mt. Mitchell State Park also includes picnic spots and an observation deck with 360-degree views. From May through October visitors can enjoy the onsite Natural History Museum, restaurant, gift shop, and camping.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’re flying in and out of CLT, here’s where to find the best Charlotte airport food.

Swing Across Grandfather Mountain

Also located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain earned its name from the “face” of an old man scene in one of the cliffs. An iconic North Carolina attraction, Grandfather Mountain rises 5,946 feet above sea level providing stellar views as far as the Charlotte skyline (90 miles away) on a clear day.

Perhaps the most famous feature of Grandfather Mountain, a walk across the Mile High Swinging Bridge challenges visitors with a fear of heights. When your knees stop shaking, spend some time checking out the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery.

Discover North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest

The beautiful Pisgah National Forest spans more than 500,000 acres. Within the forest, hundreds of miles of hiking trails lead to natural wonders such as rock formations, scenic overlooks, and powerful waterfalls.

Situated within the Pisgah National Forest, the Linville Gorge Wilderness is formed by Jonas Ridge on the east and Linville Mountain on the west. Bisected by the Linville River, the gorge drops 2,000 feet into the valleys below. The steep rugged terrain’s recreation options include hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, fishing and hunting.

Chimney Rock State Park

Spanning 6,807 acres Chimney Rock State Park is home to the 1,000-acre Chimney Rock — a must-see natural attraction in North Carolina. If you’re up for the challenge, take the Skyline Trail to the top for a panoramic view of the surrounding North Carolina mountains. With an elevation of 2,480 feet, hiking isn’t for everyone.

An elevator ride also whisks you and the kiddos to the top. Other highlights at Chimney Rock State Park include the Animal Discovery Den where you’ll meet Mufasa the Eastern King Snake, Petunia  the Snapping Turtle, and Ossie the Opossum. The park also features a Butterfly Garden and Outdoor Groundhog Habitat.

Nearby, the Chimney Rock Mini Golf Adventure offers a naturally landscaped mini golf course for a little family-friendly competition. Play your best game while taking in views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.

More Western North Carolina Adventures

For a thrilling zipline experience, head to The Gorge Zipline in Western North Carolina. Offering zipline tours year-round, The Gorge features 11 steep, fast zip lines guaranteed to delight thrill-seekers. Best of all, the zipline braking systems are operated by highly trained Canopy Guides so you can relax and enjoy the ride as you soar across the treetops!

Slide down a waterfall at Sliding Rock. Located in the Pisgah National Forest, this sliding rock has you sliding down the small waterfall landing in a plunge pool.

Experience a North Carolina classic at Tweetsie Railroad. Located between Boone and Blowing Rock, this family-oriented heritage railroad and Wild West amusement park offers a ton of family fun. The centerpiece of the park is a 3-mile train ride pulled by one of Tweetsie Railroad’s two historic narrow-gauge steam locomotives. The amusement park also features live entertainment, deer park zoo, dining and shops.

City and country – and mountains – in Asheville, NC. Photo credit: Explore Asheville

Experience Asheville

Asheville ranks as one of North Carolina’s best cities for family vacations. While the grown-ups appreciate the craft beer and foodie scene, the kids enjoy the fun atmosphere and plenty of other kid-friendly highlights.

One attraction will certainly get the kids’ attention. Just minutes from downtown Asheville, the Asheville Treetops Adventure Park is comprised of over 77 unique climbing, rolling, walking, jumping, swinging, ziplining and rappelling challenges on seven aerial trails anchored to over 30 trees.

At the Hickory Nut Gap Farm, a self-guided tour brings you up close with baby animals. Autumn brings plenty of seasonal activities including a corn maze and pumpkin patch. And the farm store is open year-round for picking up tasty treats.

More Must-See Attractions

Also in Asheville, the legendary Biltmore Estate is a must-see. Even if the kids aren’t into architecture, a visit to the family-friendly Biltmore Estate offers plenty of engaging activities for the whole family. Guided tours of the historic site reveal a basement bowling alley, pool and oversized children’s nursery. Older kids may enjoy the audio tour narrated by Cedric, the Vanderbilt family’s Saint Bernard.

In Antler Hill Village, the Pisgah Playground, Biltmore Farmyard and scheduled demonstrations keep the kids engaged. Gardens and hiking trails winding through the property also keep the kids engaged.

Carowinds: A Place for Theme-Park Fans

Located in Charlotte, North Carolina, the 407-acre amusement park, Carowinds features over 60 thrill rides, family rides and roller coasters stretching from boundary to boundary. Included with admission, Carolina Harbor is the largest water park in North Carolina featuring extreme water slides, wave pools, cabanas and a three-acre children’s area.

Feel the Speed at the Nascar Hall of Fame

Also in Charlotte, the Nascar Hall of Fame celebrates the world of Nascar as a shrine to the history, heritage and future of the sport. Uncover new stories and get in on the action with more than 50 interactive experiences. See if you have what it takes to make the team in the Pit Crew Challenge or show off your skills behind the wheel of an iRacing simulator.

A view of the Riverwalk in Wilmington, one of the best places to visit in North Carolina.
The Riverwalk in Wilmington, North Carolina is in the downtown historic district. Photo credit: Sarah Ricks

Highlights of Wilmington

Boasting three island beaches and a vibrant riverfront district downtown, Wilmington has entertainment for the whole family. Shop til you drop at locally owned boutiques, explore a variety of museums or head to the beaches to enjoy the sun and sand.

Don’t miss a visit to Battleship NORTH CAROLINA. Considered to be the world’s greatest sea weapon when she was commissioned in 1941, the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific Ocean during WWII earning 15 battle stars. Today, visitors can explore the historic vessel on a self-guided tour, or reserve a guided tour online.

The Children’s Museum of Wilmington encourages the celebration of the joys of childhood through magical and playful experiences for children of all ages. Exploring everything from art and science to cooking and conversation, the museum offers a wide variety of educational programs.

More Wilmington Highlights

The Wilmington Railroad Museum displays more than 20 model trains in action. The museum also houses a life-size caboose and a 100-year-old steam locomotive. The oldest history museum in North Carolina, Cape Fear Museum of History and Science exhibits a collection of more than 57,000 items dedicated to the rich history, science and cultures of the region. In the hands-on Space Place section, kids can try on an astronaut suit

Spanning seven acres, the New Hanover County Arboretum includes paved pathways leading to beautiful seasonal gardens and a water garden filled with colorful Koi. In the arboretum’s Japanese Garden, you’ll find an authentic tea house, cozy cottage and a children’s garden with a play area.

When you’re ready for some beach time, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach are all located within an easy 20- to 30-minute drive of Wilmington.

Explore the Outer Banks of North Carolina

North Carolina’s Outer Banks provide a plethora of outdoor activities for the whole family. Each town dotting North Carolina’s Outer Banks offers its own unique vibe. Whether you prefer an action-packed family vacation filled with outdoor adventures or a laid-back day at the beach, you’ll find plenty of family fun in the Outer Banks.

For water sports fans, most Outer Banks beaches offer kayak and paddleboard rentals. And lifeguards are on duty seasonally at many of the beaches.Bike rentals are also available for biking through these picturesque barrier islands.

Check out the Dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park

In the Outer Banks town of Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge State Park covers 427 acres and includes the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern USA.  Kitty Hawk Kites has been “Teaching the World to Fly” at Jockey’s Ridge for over 45 years with adrenaline pumping hang gliding lessons. Prefer to keep your feet on the ground?  Jockey’s Ridge is also a fantastic place to fly a kite, go sand boarding or catch a famous Outer Banks Sunset.

Kitty Hawk Adventures

Birthday parties for children remain one of the best-kept secrets of the Outer Banks. At Kitty Hawk Water Sports, the party starts with the birthday kid’s name on the marquee. Activities include bumper boats,a water war on the lawn and birthday cake in the sail loft. For older kids, the dolphin tour boat makes a great birthday party adventure.

Also in Kitty Hawk, Outer Banks Kayak Adventures offers an abbreviated kayak tour through the Kitty Hawk Maritime Forest. Lasting about an hour, the kayak tour is ideal for little ones  (and adults) with short attention spans.

Wright Brothers National Memorial, one of the things to do in North Carolina with kids.
Wright Brothers National Memorial. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Celebrate Flight at the Wright Brothers National Memorial

Located in the Outer Banks town of Kill Devil, the Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates the first successful flight. Pay tribute to Wilbur and Orville Wright as you see reproductions of the brothers’ 1903 camp buildings. Be sure to climb Big Kill Devil Hill to see the national monument commemorating the Wright Brothers’ historic achievement.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, one of the things to do in North Carolina with kids.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Photo credit: Terri Marshall

Hatteras: An Intersection of Nature and History

Extending more than 70 miles from South Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet, Cape Hatteras National Seashore covers 30,000 acres. The first national seashore in the country, Cape Hatteras National Seashore includes natural and historic sites.

Of course, no Hatteras Island visit is complete without a visit to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Energetic kids and parents can burn off excess energy while making the steep trek up 257 steps to the top. The lighthouse is open for climbing from April until October. The National Park Service also offers special, nighttime Full Moon climbs, which offer an eerie but awe-worthy new way to experience the historic site.

At the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge miles of small hiking trails wind through the refuge’s sand dunes. Start your explorations at the Visitors Center which features an informational kiosk, public restrooms and the trailheads to two of the refuge’s most popular hiking trails.

At Hatteras Village’s Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum the stories behind some of the island’s most treacherous shipwrecks enthrall the whole family. The museum also features regular programs for kids including storytelling and multi-media programs.

Search for Wild Horses

There’s nothing more beautiful than wild horses running along a sandy beach. At the northern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, wild mustangs roam the area in the warmer months. Wild Horse Adventure Tours helps you track these equine beauties with 4×4 off-road vehicles as you discover some of the most unique sights in the Outer Banks.

Make the Most of a Rainy Day

An ideal rainy day adventure, the 68,000 square-foot North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island covers all aspects of Outer Banks aquatic life, from endangered sea turtles to common horseshoe crabs and stingrays.

There are so many things to do in North Carolina with kids you may need to return year after year for your family vacation!

Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, road trips, soft-adventure, camping, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru to road-tripping through the jungles of Belize, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Drop her into a landscape filled with mountains, towering evergreens, waterfalls and a glacier or two and she’ll be in heaven. But what thrills her most of all is traveling with her teenage grandkids. Terri serves on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA). She also serves as the First Vice-Chair of the Eastern Chapter for the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Terri’s publication credits include AARP, Island Soul, Girl Camper Magazine, A Girls Guide to Cars, CHILLED, World Footprints, North Hills Monthly, Alaska Business Monthly, Alaska Contractor and more. Follow her on Instagram at TrippingWithTerri.
Read full bio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *