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These Are North Carolina’s Most Adrenaline-Pumping Adventures

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Visit North Carolina

Thrill seekers, look no further than the Tar Heel State.

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

North Carolina is home to big adventures that will suit even the most hardcore thrill seeker. On the western end of the state, visitors can rock climb or hike to new heights in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while on the eastern side they can take to the water for river camping, paddling and diving. In between, adrenaline seekers will love getting behind the wheel for off-roading in a national forest or test-driving a NASCAR race car.

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Along the Coast

Paddle to the Roanoke River Platforms: The Roanoke River State Trail runs from the small town of Weldon into the Albemarle Sound. The area is rich with bald cypress trees and tupelos and home to black bear, otter, bobcat and more than 200 bird species. The Roanoke River State Trail connects more than 20 riverside camping platforms, and dozens of access points, making it the perfect destination for a multi-day backcountry paddle. If you only have one night to spend, aim for the Cypress Cathedral, a platform between Jamesville and Plymouth that’s surrounded by massive cypress. 

Learn to Hang Glide: Kitty Hawk Kites operates the largest hang gliding school in the world, successfully teaching more than 400,000 newbies (from ages 4 – 92) to pilot their own glider off the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, in the Outer Banks. Jockey’s Ridge is home to the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast, some rising 100 feet, which make for the perfect launching point. “We’re here for the same reason the Wright Brothers came here,” says Billy Vaughn, co-manager of Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding Training Center. “We have wind for good flights and soft sand for landings.” Take a beginner’s lesson and you’ll learn to launch off the dunes, then soar up to 15 feet off the ground before landing on your feet. The training center also teaches adaptive athletes how to glide (From $129).

Dive the Graveyard of the Atlantic: There are supposedly thousands of shipwrecks in the depths of the Atlantic just off the coast of North Carolina, some of which date back to the 1500s — the area is even dubbed as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.” You can see artifacts from sunken ships in the museum of the same name in Hatteras, but you can also see the wrecks by diving below the surface. A number of professional outfitters can help you get dive-certified and will lead you on bucket-list dives to sites from the Outer Banks down to Wilmington. See a German U-boat nearly 110 feet below the surface, or a luxury passenger ship that sank in 1918. 

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The Central Piedmont Region

Drive a NASCAR Race Car: The Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord is home to some of the most beloved NASCAR races, but the track isn’t just reserved for professional racers. Sign up for the NASCAR Racing Experience (from $216) and you can drive a race vehicle on the 1.5-mile oval track for a timed racing session. You’ll get one-on-one instruction from a spotter car during your track time and even have the chance to pass slower cars (from $500). Need more time behind the wheel? Head over to the NASCAR Hall of Fame to learn about the sport’s history and log time in an iRacing simulator — which is a wheel-chair accessible experience.

Climb Moore’s Wall in Hanging Rock State Park: Moore’s Wall is a 200-foot-tall quartzite cliff in Hanging Rock State Park, a short drive from Winston-Salem. The cliff has hundreds of traditional climbing routes, including some of the most legendary climbs in the entire state. “It’s the most accessible traditional climbing in the Piedmont, and it has beginner routes that get people hooked,” says Bryce Mahoney, the area representative for the Carolina Climbers Coalition. Zoo View is the signature route, but you’ll find a range of easy to difficult grades, and the bouldering might even be better. Grab the Carolina Rocks Guide guidebook, or hire a pro at Yadkin Valley Adventure to lead you. 

Off-Road in Uwharrie National Forest: The Uwharrie National Forest manages the only public off-highway vehicle (OHV) trail system in the Piedmont region, with the Badin Lake OHV Trail Complex open for a variety of vehicles from dirt bikes to full-sized, four-wheel-drive trucks. There are nine trails with access to 17 miles of trail. Buy a trail day pass ($5), and if you’re new to off-roading, start with Wolf Den, a beginner-friendly, 1.3-mile-long trail with just enough stream crossings and deep ruts to keep things interesting (Open from April to mid-December).

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In the Mountains

Rappel a Waterfall With Green River Adventures: Big Bradley Falls is a sight to see, dropping 200 feet into the Cove Creek Gorge. It’s even more impressive when you’re rappelling down the edge of the cliff, feeling the falls’s spray against your face. Green River Adventures leads you on this epic descent that drops into one of the most scenic swimming holes in the South (from $129/person). From there, you can tack on a full-day canyoneering adventure that will have you scrambling, leaping and swimming your way down Cove Creek (from $189/person).

Climb Looking Glass Rock: While most of the surrounding rock formations are shrouded in a thick hardwood forest, Looking Glass is a solid granite dome, rising 600 feet in the Pisgah National Forest. It’s been a popular climbing area for decades, with the Nose being the most iconic — this four-pitch line rises 400 feet, offering unlimited exposure throughout. If you’re new to climbing, get the pros at Fox Mountain Guides to lead the way for you.

Hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Mountains-to-Sea Trail stretches nearly 1,200 miles across the entire state, from the border of Tennessee to the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a 47-mile section on the western end of the state that passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering some of the most pristine hiking in the Southeast. It’s strenuous and remote, but backpackers are rewarded with views from 6,000-foot peaks and lush, dense forests miles from the nearest road.