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North Carolina’s Best Mid-Sized Thrills

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Visit North Carolina

If your preferred flavor of adventure sits somewhere between tame and hair-raising, you’ve come to the right place.

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

You’ll find welcoming excitement across North Carolina from surfing along the coast to ziplining in the mountains. These adventures hit the sweet spot: they’re no walk in the park, but they won’t stretch you too far out of your comfort zone, either. 

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Along the Coast

Learn to Surf at Wrightsville Beach: Wrightsville Beach is one of the most-beloved surf towns on the East Coast, with a consistent beach break that’s ideal for beginners looking to catch their first wave. Choose an experience based on your skills and style; the beach town is home to surf schools that offer everything from hour-long private lessons to multi-day surf camps. The veteran school, WB Surf Camp has been teaching lessons for more than 22 years, while Mermaid Surf School offers lessons and camps exclusively for females. There are even opportunities for people living with autism through Surfers Healing NC’s annual camp.

Go to Kiteboarding School in the Outer Banks: The barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks have long been known as a surfing destination, but the sound’s steady winds and calm, shallow waters have turned the islands into a hotbed for kiteboarding, where athletes strapped to boards use kites and wind power to rip across the Pamlico Sound. Kiteboarding might look intimidating, but the pros at REAL Watersports developed an educational system called “Zero 2 Hero” that will get you up and riding in just a few lessons (From $450 for a half-day, semi-private lesson).

Paddle to an Island State Park: Hammocks Beach State Park protects a large swath of the mainland coast, including three barrier islands near the mouth of the White Oak River. The park is known for its pristine beaches, wild dunes and ocean-side camping. Bear Island, a four-mile-long barrier island, is the gem of the area, with an expansive, undeveloped beach facing the Atlantic. Most people reach Bear Island by the seasonal passenger ferry, but you can paddle there too. Rent kayaks from Paddle NC, which has a shop at the Hammocks Beach Visitor Center, and paddle the moderate, 2.6-mile-long Bear Island Trail, looking for dolphins and endangered leatherback sea turtles along the way. 

Play 18 at Oyster Bay Golf Links: This Legends Resorts course makes the most of the coastal terrain, with Bermuda grass fairways weaving through maritime forest and marshland along the Calabash River. It’s a par 70 course (plays just under 6,700 yards), but don’t let the short yardage fool you; bunkers are often in play, there are two island greens and the par fours will test the limits of your driver. Plus, you’ll likely spot alligators soaking in the marshy water off the fairway.

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The Central Piedmont Region

Traverse Rapids at the US National Whitewater Center: The US National Whitewater Center is an expansive outdoor playground with 1,300 acres of mountain bike trails, rock climbing walls, ziplines, walking paths and more. At the center of this adventure hub is the largest man-made whitewater river in the world, where a recirculating current feeds a series of Class II – IV rapids. Take your pick of guided rafting trips ranging from the mild Family Rafting trip (rafters must be at least eight years old), which is confined to Class II – III rapids, to the Adventure Rafting trip (rafters must be at least 11 years old), which will put you and your family through the biggest Class IVs (From $59/person). 

Challenge Yourself at SKYWILD Treetop Adventure Center at the Greensboro Science Center: Greensboro’s Science Center might be best known for its zoo, but families should look skyward for even more fun; SKYWILD is an aerial adventure park perched above the zoo that puts you and your family through animal-themed challenges. There are different courses to accommodate different skill levels, and participants work through rope challenges, balance beams, bridges and ziplines, all while moving through a lush forest canopy ($43 for kids ages 8 – 13; $46 for adults).

Soar to New Heights on a Hot Air Balloon Ride in Statesville: Statesville is the ballooning capital of the East, with more than 15 local pilots taking to the skies — many of whom offer passenger flights twice per day. You’ll spend the first few minutes of your flight hovering at treetop level before ascending to 2,000 feet above the ground. Pilots then navigate various layers of wind to travel up to 7 miles before landing safely in a field. Most flights take place at sunrise or sunset, when the wind is the most calm, and last an hour. On a clear day, you can see for 50 miles, all the way to Charlotte and Winston-Salem (Prices vary). 

Visit North Carolina

In the Mountains

Ride the Gateway Trails in Pisgah National Forest: The former manufacturing town of Old Fort is one of the hottest mountain bike destinations in the state, thanks to the Gateway Trails, which offers 6 miles of flow trail on the edge of town. “These trails are designed so that bikers of all skill levels can enjoy them,” says Jason MacDougal, founder of G5 Trail Collective, the organization responsible for building the trails.

A large parking area with restrooms and clearly marked signage makes Gateway more approachable than backcountry singletrack. Trail markers indicate required riding levels for each trail, and a relatively easy gravel road climb to the top makes it easy to repeat laps. Beginners should start by riding Foundation, a 1.2-mile doubletrack path, then work your way up to Oak Hollow and Forager, which combine for nearly 1.5 miles of fast berms and jumps.

Zipline the Gorge: There are plenty of ziplines in North Carolina, but there’s nothing quite like The Gorge, which drops 1,100 vertical feet as you tackle 11 steep and fast ziplines, traverse a heart-pounding sky bridge and descend three dramatic rappels. Your backdrop is the Green River Gorge, a deep canyon shrouded in a lush hardwood forest near Hendersonville. It’s a three-hour adventure that covers more than a mile as you move through the treetops (From $129/person). 

Surf the Wake in Lake Lure: Think you can only surf in the ocean? Think again. Lake Lure Adventure Company offers excursions on scenic Lake Lure, a 720-acre body of water surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to traditional pursuits like water skiing and tubing, you can go on a wakesurfing trip where you surf the deep wake delivered by their MasterCraft X2 ($250/hour, for up to eight people).