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:
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:
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.
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:
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.