21 Places in North Carolina to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up

What’s your most memorable childhood vacation? Was it when your toes first touched the ocean? Eating a sundae the size of your head? Going on your first upside-down roller coaster?

The things that bind these experiences are the thrills and joys that come with doing something new. In that spirit, here are 21 awe-inspiring North Carolina destinations and experiences where you can create lasting memories with your kids, whether they’re elementary-school age or home for summer or holiday break from college.

1 Whitewater Rafting on the Nantahala River

1 Whitewater Rafting on the Nantahala River

Bryson CitySee on mapSee on map

For the family that likes a bit of an adrenaline rush, there’s nothing like whitewater rafting, and the teamwork aspect bonds parents and children in a special way. Nantahala Outdoor Center and other local outfitters offer half-day excursions, or full-day trips with lunch. After conquering the river, grab street tacos and other mouth-watering Mexican fare on Big Wesser's patio.


Best when kids are: tweens and up

 

2 Wild Horses at Shackleford Banks

Wild horses on the Shackleford Banks as boat float by on sunny day

2 Wild Horses at Shackleford Banks

Shackleford BanksSee on mapSee on map

Take the exuberant reaction your kids have to visiting a zoo and multiply it several times over – that’s what you get when your little ones see animals in the wild. The adventure begins with the ferry ride to the Crystal Coast island of Shackleford Banks, the southernmost barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore. More than 100 wild horses roam free here, just as they have for the past 500 years. Get an in-depth experience by taking a guided tour from Shackleford Wild Horse and Shelling Safari.


Best when kids are: any age

 

3 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum

3 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum

Fort BraggSee on mapSee on map

Visits to museums have long been ways for kids to learn history outside of the classroom and textbooks. Plus, at this museum, there are some really cool planes spread throughout the grounds for them to ooh and ahh over. It’s also the only museum in America to showcase the history from World War I to the present of the 82nd Airborne Division, and it’s all free.


Best when kids are: preschool and up

 

4 Tweetsie Railroad

Tweetsie Railroad train in middle of fall foliage on train tracks
photo: Tweetsie Railroad

4 Tweetsie Railroad

Blowing RockSee on mapSee on map

The popularity of trains among kids has lasted through generations of toy trends. In Blowing Rock, parents can bring the fantasy to life aboard the 3-mile Tweetsie Railroad ride. To make the experience even more special, plan your visit during one of the park's special events such as Day Out With Thomas or Tweetsie Christmas.


Best when kids are: toddlers to elementary age

 

5 Canoeing in the Dismal Swamp

Serene Great Dismal Swamp with building on shore and fall foliage

5 Canoeing in the Dismal Swamp

South MillsSee on mapSee on map

Being on the water is a thrill regardless of age or vehicle, so a kayak outing is sure to deliver smiles and a sense of accomplishment, too. Kayak and canoe rentals are available from the park, and if you'd rather stay on land, bike rentals are an option, too.


Best when kids are: tween and up

 

6 Museum of Life + Science

Child playing on outdoor playground at Museum of Life + Science

6 Museum of Life + Science

DurhamSee on mapSee on map

Although some of us grow out of loving science as we age, when we’re kids, science is undeniably fascinating. The museum’s more than 80 acres include an outdoor playground, animal exhibits and interactive stations where kids can build flying objects, conduct lab experiments or play astronaut.


Best when kids are: any age

 

7 Sliding Rock and the Land of Waterfalls

Kids going down Sliding Rock natural water slide in Brevard
photo: Transylvania County TDA

7 Sliding Rock and the Land of Waterfalls

BrevardSee on mapSee on map

If you think kids love plastic slip-and-slides, wait until you see their faces light up as they slide down an all-natural one – and you’ll get to feel like a kid again, too. Of course, kids will want to wear their swimsuits, but shorts and sneakers are recommended for a ride down this 60-foot waterslide into the 7-feet-deep swimming hole (lifeguards are on duty).


Best when kids are: elementary age and up

 

8 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse against against blue morning sky

8 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

BuxtonSee on mapSee on map

Lighthouses scream adventure for kids because these landmarks are tied to the sea, which is the home of explorers they’ve learned about in school and the pirates they’ve wanted to be (or defeat) on TV. This monument also happens to be North America's tallest brick lighthouse, which means you should only attempt to climb with your kids once they can handle going up 257 steps on their own. Make a day of it by packing lunches and adding a stop to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which features information and artifacts from shipwrecks.


Best when kids are: preschool and up

 

9 North Carolina Zoo

Small child feeding giraffe at North Carolina Zoo

9 North Carolina Zoo

AsheboroSee on mapSee on map

A trip to the zoo as a child is a prerequisite for adulthood. Developing an awareness and appreciation for nature in your own cubs encourages them to be more compassionate and concerned for wildlife as adults. The North Carolina Zoo, the largest natural habitat zoo in the country, is divided into four parts: Africa, Aviary, Desert and North America. Plus, it includes plenty of other attractions such as a Giraffe Deck, Cypress Swamp and The Prairie Geyser.


Best when kids are: any age

 

10Unto These Hills

10Unto These Hills

CherokeeSee on mapSee on map

On paper, this outdoor drama is a history lesson. But in reality, the chance to see and hear from Native Americans will bring to life stories your kids have likely read in textbooks or watched in movies. Enjoy performances six nights a week (in season, which runs from late May to mid-August), and parents can feel good knowing they’re sharing an important part of American history in a fun, unique way with their youngsters. Performances run about 2 hours, and since temperatures from day to night vary in the mountains, bring jackets or blankets just in case.


Best when kids are: preschool and up

 

11 Battleship  North Carolina

Battleship North Carolina vessel at sunset in Wilmington

11 Battleship  North Carolina

WilmingtonSee on mapSee on map

Be sure to add a visit to Wilmington on your vacation plans to step aboard this massive vessel. Let your kids play captain by steering the ship and firing guns. While you’re in the area, why not visit The Little Dipper, named by OpenTable as one of the top 100 restaurants in the USA. Your family will have a blast dipping fondue and deciding between dessert options such as milk and cookies, s’mores and fluffernutter. Adults can enjoy the optional beer or wine pairings with each course.


Best when kids are: preschooler and up

 

12 Uwharrie National Forest

Person fishing and tent in foreground against bare trees at sunrise

12 Uwharrie National Forest

TroySee on mapSee on map

Here in one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America, you’ll find horseback riding, camping, boating and swimming, plus lake, pond, river and stream fishing, which means families can make a day, weekend or week out of their visit. A Boy Scout even created a QR-coded trail that unlocks information about the forest's history along the way.


Best when kids are: any age

 

13 Linville Caverns, Linville Falls & Gorge, and Grandfather Mountain

Linville Falls with rocks and moss

13 Linville Caverns, Linville Falls & Gorge, and Grandfather Mountain

Marion, LinvilleSee on mapSee on map

Visiting a cavern for the first time will astonish your little ones, who may have never realized such natural beauty existed underground. Experiences such as this are what often lead to kids proclaiming they want to be an archaeologist when they grow up. Your trip here can also include exploring Linville Gorge and crossing the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain.


Best when kids are: preschool and up

 

14 Bike Ride from Duck to the Sanderling

14 Bike Ride from Duck to the Sanderling

DuckSee on mapSee on map

There’s something about a family bike ride that makes time stand still. And your children will love the feeling of independently transporting themselves while you get to unplug and just enjoy the moment. This bike-friendly path is only 5 miles long and provides views of beautiful Currituck Sound. Get up early and hit Duck Donuts first, rated the best food in Duck, with your choice of coatings and toppings.


Best when kids are: elementary age and up

 

15 North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Dinosaur and visitors at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

15 North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

RaleighSee on mapSee on map

Yes, the rumors are true: General admission is free to this natural sciences museum, which is the largest of its kind in the Southeast. Your family will enjoy unlocking some of the mysteries of the universe – not to mention that dinosaurs are just, well, awesome. And your kids will be wowed beginning with the walk from the parking lot, as they approach the massive, three-story world globe, known as the Daily Planet. It’s the centerpiece of the Nature Research Center, an 80,000-square-foot wing of the museum that opened in 2012 with the goal of inspiring a new generation of young scientists.


Best when kids are: preschool and up

 

16 Chimney Rock State Park

Distant view of Chimney Rock peak with green valley and river in distance

16 Chimney Rock State Park

Chimney RockSee on mapSee on map

The 360-degree view at the top of Chimney Rock makes each step worth it. Your kids will feel as if they’re flying high above the treetops when standing atop this 1,200-foot monolith, and you’ll be the one to thank for giving them this superpower. The 0.6-mile Great Woodland Adventure Trail was designed for kids, with 12 discovery stations and oversized animal sculptures along the way. Note: Strollers are not recommended for this trail.


Best when kids are: elementary age and up

 

17 Fishing at Lake Mattamuskeet

17 Fishing at Lake Mattamuskeet

Swan QuarterSee on mapSee on map

Fishing for many families is a rite of passage. Baiting your first hook and reeling in your first catch makes you walk a little taller with the knowledge that you can, in fact, fend for yourself (even if it’s just a momentary illusion). This lake doubles as a national wildlife refuge, and it’s the largest natural lake in North Carolina. Parents can also relax since fast boats and jet skis aren’t permitted, guaranteeing a peaceful day on the water.


Best when kids are: any age

 

18 ACC Hall of Champions

18 ACC Hall of Champions

GreensboroSee on mapSee on map

Your budding athlete – or enthusiastic fan – will get a kick out of walking the hall dedicated to this perennial powerhouse college sports conference. You all can pledge your allegiance to the Blue Devils, Demon Deacons, Tar Heels, Wolfpack and others (or realize there’s an in-family rivalry), and share stories with your kids of how you watched some of these legendary ACC games and players live.


Best when kids are: elementary and up

 

19 Camping at Mount Mitchell State Park

19 Camping at Mount Mitchell State Park

BurnsvilleSee on mapSee on map

Not just any mountain, Mount Mitchell is the tallest peak in the East, and that fact will make your kids feel like young kings and queens of the world. Nine tent-only campsites are available here, each equipped with a grill and picnic table. Don’t forget supplies for the unofficial dessert of childhood: s’mores.


Best when kids are: any age

 

20 Wright Brothers National Memorial

Monument at Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills at dusk

20 Wright Brothers National Memorial

Kill Devil HillsSee on mapSee on map

You know how dads often throw their kids in the air, while moms hold their breath? Perhaps those tosses are to blame for our fascination with flying, but whatever the reason, defying gravity is a national pastime. So, learning about the legendary Wright Brothers will give your kids a thrill and perhaps spark their own desire to soar to new heights as they learn about the first successful powered flights that happened in the town of Kitty Hawk. Kite-building and flying also take place on the grounds.


Best when kids are: preschool and up

 

21 Carowinds

21 Carowinds

CharlotteSee on mapSee on map

Amusement parks were designed for kids, but the adrenaline rush that comes with a roller coaster ride doesn’t discriminate by age. And the pride that comes with “surviving” a ride at Carowinds rewards the courage it took your child to go on it – a great recipe for future acts of bravery. Chances are, your kids have heard about the record-breaking Fury 325 coaster. Bonus: Carolina Harbor is also full of water slides, wave pools and a 3-acre kids' area.


Best when kids are: preschool-age and up

 

 

Updated June 4, 2020
About the Author
Shawndra Russell

Shawndra Russell

Shawndra Russell, a travel writer and novelist based in Asheville, loves North Carolina for its craft beer and abundance of outdoor adventures. She's written for Forbes Travel Guide, BeerAdvocate and Travel + Leisure.

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