Time for a little fresh air! From state parks to picnics to playgrounds, North Carolina offers plenty of opportunities for great outdoor fun with your kids. Here are nine family outings across the state that are worth checking out.
Forget the plastic slides and chlorine at the water park — take the kids on a slippery ride down Sliding Rock in Pisgah National Forest outside of Brevard. Every minute, about 11,000 gallons of water rush down the smooth rock face of this 60-foot, all-natural waterslide, propelling the adventurous into an eight-foot-deep pool. Lifeguards keep a lookout from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and personal flotation devices can be purchased if you need them. Make sure you get to this natural attraction early in the morning, as parking is limited and fills up fast — and be prepared for chilly water.
Taking a ride down Sliding Rock is a North Carolina rite of passage. photograph by "Sliding Rock - North Carolina" by Dougtone is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Raft the French Broad
Explore the French Broad River on a white-water rafting trip with French Broad Adventures in Marshall. Even if you aren’t up for any rapids, kids as young as 4 can still get out on the water for a calm float trip. Grab a paddle and get your adrenaline pumping. And if you’d prefer to stay dry, French Broad Adventures also offers zip-line tours.
Set up your tent and make some s’mores at New River State Park in Laurel Springs — you can even paddle up to a campsite, if you came prepared with a canoe or kayak. But even if you aren’t staying the night, the park makes for a great day trip: Enjoy a picnic at one of the shelters, learn about the New River’s history — it’s one of the oldest rivers in the United States — in the exhibit hall at the visitor center, and go swimming and enjoy the beach area at the Elk Shoals access.
See polar bears, otters, elephants, lions, and numerous other creatures at the world’s largest natural-habitat zoo in Asheboro. It boasts five miles of trails and walkways, which can take visitors four to six hours to complete, so make sure to plan ahead. Check animal feeding times and keeper talks on the animal status boards close to the front entrance. And if the kids need a break from all the walking, explore the Kaleidoscope Butterfly Garden, or navigate the Air Hike Ropes Course — little kids will love the Treehouse Trek.
Feed giraffes at the North Carolina Zoo’s Acacia Station Giraffe Deck. photograph by Kali9/Getty Images
Play at Saxapahaw Island Park
Take a short drive over the bridge from Saxapahaw, and you’ll find an island in the Haw River that’s made for exploring with kids. Push them on a swing set, watch them slide out of a 45-foot-long wooden fish or ascend the spider climber, and help them put their creative side to work at the fort creation station. There are also plenty of natural features for both kids and adults to take advantage of here, including an easy walking loop around the island, a meadow, and several river access points.
For an urban escape, explore West Point on the Eno in Durham. At this 404-acre park located along a two-mile stretch of the Eno River, you can take an easy hike on a flat riverside trail, wade in the cool water, grill out, and even explore a reconstructed gristmill, which operated from 1778 until 1942. If you’re lucky, you could see chipmunks, otters, or even a bobcat.
Cool off at West Point on the Eno — and bookmark Eno River State Park for further exploration in the future. photograph by Licec/Getty Images
Track wild horses and collect shells on the beach
On this wild horse and shelling safari, you’ll take a quick ferry ride from Beaufort to Shackleford Banks to see one of the last isolated groups of wild horses in the country. You’ll have at least two hours to explore and gather sand dollars, Scotch bonnets, olive shells, and more. After touring horse-inhabited areas, you can enjoy a picnic lunch and go fishing and swimming before the ferry returns to pick you up.
Spend a day searching for Shackleford Banks’ famous wild horses. photograph by NikonShutterman/Getty Images
Kayak or paddleboard at Hammocks Beach State Park
Explore the marshes surrounding Bear Island by kayak and get a closer look at the wildlife that inhabits Hammocks Beach State Park. The park offers five paddle trails that visitors can navigate in their own kayaks or paddleboards, or in ones rented from Paddle NC’s Hammocks Beach location. Paddle NC also offers tours and lessons to park visitors. Keep an eye out for bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead turtles, and ospreys, which have been known to make an appearance.
Pick one (or more) of five trails to explore at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park in Seven Springs. The trails vary in length — from half a mile to eight miles — and in difficulty, so there are plenty of options for families. Take a break and enjoy a beautiful view of the Neuse River from the park’s cliffs, or cast a line in one of the fishing spots along the water. Visitors can also swim or take a boat out on the 11-acre lake nearby.