Family travel guide to the North Carolina outdoors
Some 300 years ago, Blackbeard commanded a stretch of wild waters off the coast of North Carolina. Roughly 50 years later, Daniel Boone trailblazed over the state’s hills. Fast forward another century and a half, and the Wright Brothers took flight at Kitty Hawk. Clearly, North Carolina’s greatest tales have always featured some manner of outdoor adventure — and they still do.
From the highest point east of the Mississippi River to impossibly tall sand dunes and national seashores — and the waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and forests in between — North Carolina can pack a lot into a family vacation. Add in a well-stocked Airstream, and a trip into the glorious outdoors is possible whenever, wherever.
Just remember that, while it’s clear the landscapes here are worth exploring, they’re also worth honoring and respecting. Should you visit, please visit responsibly: Pack your mask, social distance, and always Leave No Trace. The next generation deserves a North Carolina as wild and beautiful as today’s, with incredible outdoor adventures — like those you’ll find below — of their own.
The Appalachian Mountains used to be as high as the Himalayas, cloud-topped peaks stretching from Newfoundland to Alabama. They’ve mellowed a bit since then, but North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell still reaches for the sky. It’s the highest point in the Eastern US, hitting 6,684 feet, and from up here you might as well be king of the world.
You can drive straight to the top for a wind-blown view stretching 85 miles, or hike six miles up the mountain’s flanks to the summit (about an eight-hour round trip). Pay attention to the weather and opt for a clear day for the best family photos at the viewpoints.
For a different kind of height, head toward the coast. Jockey’s Ridge State Park, home to the tallest sand dunes on the Atlantic, is a dizzying 427-acre sandbox. Hang glide from the ridges — some dunes rise to 80 feet — walk the boardwalk, play in the sand, and definitely bring closed-toed shoes.
Note: In high season, these two spots can be pretty popular. If you’re wanting more space for you and the fam, scope out Kings Mountain, the highest point in Uwharrie National Forest. The 26-mile Uwharrie Trail connects to its summit — you can hike as little as two to reach the top — with 800 feet in elevation gain making for a solid afternoon adventure.
North Carolina provides a masterclass in ecological diversity, mountain streams transforming into ancient rivers that flow into salty marshes and bogs and — finally — the sea. You could stay here for months and be on the water every day.
In other words, deciding on a place to launch your canoe or kayak could take a while. Let’s start you off with a few ideas:
- The New River — actually one of the oldest rivers in the world — is great for beginners, with gentle currents flowing alongside meadows and mountains in New River State Park. You can put in at the Kings Creek Access at river mile 7.
- Paddling Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge takes you into the wide-open waters — and pelican territory — of Pamlico Sound and Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
- Merchants Millpond State Park, where massive bald cypress trees, beech groves, and Spanish moss mingle between hardwood forest and swamp, has miles of paddling trails and even canoe-in campgrounds.
Time in the outdoors — even with littler ones — doesn’t have to start and stop with daylight. Going beyond s’mores around the campfire, North Carolina has a few ways to mix up your family’s dark-sky adventures:
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore enjoys some of the darkest skies on the coast. There are four campgrounds — Oregon Inlet has heated showers and RV hook-ups — where you can set up for the night, get the fire roaring, and wait for the show.
- The Mayland Earth to Sky Park in Burnsville was and is the first certified Dark Sky Park in the Southeast. It’s home to the Bare Dark Sky Observatory, tons of gardens and hiking trails, and great views from the Bob and Wanda Proffitt Viewing Terrace.
- In Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, it’s not just the skies that light up at night. Usually occurring around the first week of June, rare blue ghost fireflies illuminate the forest in a synchronous firework display, usually lasting on and off — quick as a lightswitch — from dark to 11pm. (Hint: Bring a flashlight covered in red or blue cellophane to get around without disturbing the scene.)
- Or let the fireflies simply act as inspiration. At ZipQuest in Fayetteville, nighttime ziplining whooshes you (and your headlamp) across a forest canopy and — should you choose the Waterfall Expedition — along a waterfall illuminated by the moon. Safe to say, the kids will remember this one well after you get home.
Mountain sunset, lake sunrise, seashore sunrise and sunset — take your pick. Golden hour makes North Carolina’s landscapes even more jaw-dropping, especially with any midday crowds long gone.
For sunset with a view, check out Waterrock Knob in Maggie Valley. This is the last hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway before Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a quick-but-steep 0.6 miles takes you to the top for nearly 360º panoramas at 6,292 feet. (The picnic tables in the parking area — at 5,719 feet — offer great views as well.)
For early risers, there’s no better spot than Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, just west of Raleigh and south of Durham. Catch the sky turn from indigo to pink to blue, and then go for a stroll on one of the nature trails, listening for the birds’ morning chatter.
For those who can’t decide, head to Cape Lookout National Seashore, where south-facing beaches mean you get front-row views of both sunrise and sunset. You’ll have to leave the RV back on solid ground, but you’re welcome to primitive camp right on the sand, waves putting you to sleep at night and morning rays starting your day.
- The “riverside platforms” of Roanoke River are an undersell: They’re literal platforms elevated directly above the water, with privies, fire pits, and, in a few cases, screens. You’ll just have to kayak or canoe to get there.
- Deep in Nantahala National Forest, you’ll find Fires Creek Recreation Area, a remote, backcountry experience great for fishing, picnicking, hiking, and camping. The 25-mile Rim Trail traverses this section of the forest, and the campground sits near the base of Leatherwood Falls.
- It takes some effort to get there (via boat or ferry), but considering Portsmouth Island feels like a trip back in time, that’s understandable. There’s almost zero development, but even RV campers are welcome to set up shop on the island’s 13 miles of beaches and dunes, right next to the water.
Note: It’s doubly important when you’re somewhere truly wild to leave no trace. Always pack in what you pack out, and leave any campsite the way you found it.
It’s difficult to get stuck in a crowd when you’re zooming away on two wheels. From mountains to beaches, from kid-friendly, paved rail trails to rugged treks through the forest, North Carolina is neither wanting for scenery nor trail diversity. Here are a few ideas:
- Fonta Flora State Trail — which will eventually connect Morganton to Asheville — zooms through Lake James State Park, a section of Pisgah National Forest, and Fonta Flora County Park. It also provides access to the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail.
- Over 22 miles of old railroad tracks have been converted into the American Tobacco Trail, through and out of Durham. It’s a healthy mixture of city scenes, rural vistas, and dense pine forests.
- Rent beach cruisers for the kids and take to the sand at Ocean Isle Beach, near the state’s southern border. Consider it a lower-key Myrtle Beach, with far fewer crowds.
In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are — on average — two black bears per square mile. If you’re lucky, you might also spot otters, elk, falcons, and woodchucks, amongst hundreds of other species.
Then, of course, there are the famous wild horses of Corolla. You could drive up NC-12 until the road ends to spot the majestic creatures (and then continue onto the sand if you have 4WD), but a more rewarding option is to take a 4×4 jeep tour and go with the pros.
Meanwhile, at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, no, you probably won’t spot an alligator. But you might catch a glimpse of black bears, white-tailed deer, red wolves, and — if your eyes are peeled — several species of marsh birds.
But anywhere you go, any hike you take, any park you visit, you’re in some pretty wild company. Just be sure to keep a healthy distance, and never disturb the animals. They’re sharing the tremendous landscapes of North Carolina with you — pay them back with a dose of respectful gratitude.