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Approachable Adventures in North Carolina

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Visit North Carolina

Bring the whole family along to explore all that this incredibly diverse state has to offer.

Welcome to All the Levels of Adventure, a field guide to North Carolina’s top outdoor and culinary attractions.

Adventures don’t always have to be risky, and in North Carolina you’ll find lots of unique experiences that open your eyes to the vast world around, without pushing your limits. And thanks to the state’s diverse geography, there are plenty of destinations to choose from for family fun. From shelling to river tubbing (not to be confused with tubing; more on that later), these activities will hold the whole family’s attention without going overboard.

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Along the Coast

Spot Wild Horses and Shells: Shackleford Banks, an undeveloped eight-mile-long barrier island within the Cape Lookout National Seashore, is known for two things: its population of wild horses and the bevy of intact shells, from large conchs to scotch bonnets, that wash onto the beach with every tide. A 25-minute ferry from Beaufort takes you to the island, which you can explore on your own. Or you can sign up for the Shackleford Wild Horse and Shelling Safari (from $35) where a guide helps you track the horses and locate the best shells. 

Paddle Cypress of the Shallows: Tucked into the “inner banks” just west of the Atlantic Coast is a stand of ancient bald cypress trees whose knotty “knees” rise from the dark waters of the Albemarle Sound. A two-hour, family-friendly paddle along protected waters from Mackey’s Landing on Kendrick Creek in Roper, North Carolina, delivers you to the grove, while also giving you the chance to see herons, cormorant, eagles and aquatic life. Native Girl Kayaking offers kayak rentals (from $15/hour) and guided trips if you want to be led by an expert (from $55). 

Climb Bodie Island Lighthouse: See the Outer Banks and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge from a different perspective — a top the famous Bodie Island Lighthouse. The lighthouse is open from mid-April to mid-October for self-guided climbs, and if you’re visiting during a full moon, you can even book a special nighttime climb. All climbers need to purchase tickets on the day of the intended climb on — ticket sales open at 7 a.m. and cost $10 for adults, and $5 for seniors and children under 11 years old. This adventure is approachable, but visitors need to be able to comfortably climb more than 200 stairs, or the equivalent of a 10-story building. Trust us, the views are absolutely worth the effort.

There are also two other lighthouses located in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (climbing is currently closed due to renovations but the outdoor area is open) and Ocracoke Island Lighthouse (not open for climbing, but its base is periodically open for viewing). Along North Carolina’s coast you can find seven lighthouses to explore.

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The Central Piedmont Region

Bike the Neuse River Greenway: The 33-mile Neuse River Greenway Trail follows the Neuse River through farmland, forest and wetlands east of Raleigh, forming the crown jewel of the city’s Capital Area Greenway system. It’s also the perfect adventure for families as the terrain is relatively flat, shaded and void of traffic. Experienced cyclists often ride the full trail as an out and back, but beginners should look to the eight-mile section from Falls Lake Dam to Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve for smooth, shaded miles with views of the Neuse and an opportunity to spot wildlife in the forest. In June and July, the trail is lined with sunflower blooms — they’re planted to help the nitrogen-rich soil from washing into streams, rivers and watersheds.

Paddle the Deep River: The Deep River flows 125 miles from its source near High Point to its confluence with the Haw River, where the two combine to create the Cape Fear River. There’s a particularly great 37-mile stretch of the Deep in Chatham, Lee and Moore Counties with 3,000 acres of protected land and multiple access points making it ideal for a day trip. First-timers should paddle the nearly six-mile stretch from McIver Landing to Deep River Park, where the occasional Class I rapid provides just the right amount of excitement as you cruise between steep river banks surrounded by hardwood forest. Frog Hollow Outdoors offers rentals and guided trips if you’re looking for an outfitter. 

Swim at Shacktown Falls: This might be the perfect swimming hole, especially for families headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 10-foot-tall waterfall spans the entire length of North Deep Creek with a broad, shallow pool at its base that’s ideal for a dip on a hot summer day. Shacktown sits within Shore-Styers Mill Park, near Yadkinville, just a short walk from the trailhead, making this an easy adventure even with the smallest children in tow. 

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In the Mountains

Take Your Kids on a Guided Fly Fishing Excursion: The knots, the terrain, the flies themselves … fly fishing can be intimidating for beginners, but kids are surprisingly adept at picking up the skills. “Kids are so ready to learn that it’s actually easy to put them on fish,” says David Stelling, with High Country Guide Service, in Boone. His company specializes in introducing true beginners to fly fishing, leading trips throughout the High Country. A guide helps mitigate some of the difficulty of the sport, from tying the knots to locating the fish, allowing you and your children to focus on the joy of the adventure. 

Other fly fishing hotspots in North Carolina include further west, in Bryson City and the Smokies, where you can cast a line in rivers, creeks, and even Fontana Lake. The area’s waterways are home to a diverse fishing habitat with bass, trout, crappie, walleye, and muskie.

Snorkel Mountain Streams: The newly created Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail highlights 10 sites across the mountains of Western North Carolina. Bring your snorkel and mask to see brightly colored fish, mussels, crayfish, snails and salamanders. Each site is known for different species; you’ll see darter fish in Mills River Park and trout in the East Prong Roaring River at Stone Mountain State Park. Visit the sites during the summer for the clearest water and most colorful fish.

Go Tubbing: Tubing is a common summer pastime in the mountains, but “tubbing” adds a more social element; instead of floating the Yadkin River in individual tubes, Foothills Outdoor Adventures rents “river tubs,” giant plastic vessels that hold up to eight people (from $100/tub). Sit in lawn chairs, fill a cooler with beverages, and fish and float your way down the calm Yadkin with the whole family in a single tub. Bonus: You can even bring your dog.