Ranked as the #1 Best Family Beach Vacation in the USA by U.S. News & World Report, the Outer Banks can provide hours of free fun along North Carolina’s stunning coast, which also has swampland, islands where only wild horses live and millpond state parks that can make for fun day trips.
While North Carolina’s chain of barrier islands is a wonderful family vacation destination, the coastline of the state also offers some fabulous experiences that include plenty of free hikes and beach time but also the chance to visit the North Carolina Aquarium and learn about some of the most famous shipwrecks in the area.
This area has it all – majestic waterfalls and hikes, the affordable Linville Caverns and an abundance of lodging options from camping for free at primitive spots within the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area to casual mountain lodges. It also abuts Grandfather Mountain, which has its own plethora of fun activities, including the Mile High Swinging Bridge. This area turns into a winter wonderland during snowfalls, with several wallet-friendly ski areas nearby, too.
As one of North Carolina’s most popular cities, Asheville has a reputation for excellent food at all price points, family-friendly craft breweries and a great home base for tons of fun (and mostly free!) outdoor adventures that only require sturdy walking shoes. Take a drive along the super-close Blue Ridge Parkway – with plenty of pull-offs for picnic and hiking opportunities – or take a self-guided stroll through downtown following along the artistic Urban Trail, which winds between bronze sculptures and plaques revealing the Land of the Sky’s historic milestones and legendary Ashevillians. Choose from nearby camping at KOAs, affordable vacation rentals or a range of hotel options.
If your family is filled with animal and cultural lovers, then a trip to Durham might just be a great choice. Start at the Duke Lemur Center, home to the world’s largest lemur collection, then hit up the Museum of Life + Science filled with hands-on exhibits. There’s also amazing galleries, an educational botanical garden and all kinds of happenings downtown and on Duke’s campus that won’t break the bank.
Another small town that packs a lot of value into its tiny stature is Bryson City, located at the mouth of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This town features excellent places to go river tubing with mild to wild rides and lots of campgrounds. For train lovers, budgeting in funds for an epic train ride aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad might be worth the splurge, plus they offer different packages that combine several experiences, such as a jeep excursion, rafting and zip-lining with a train ride. They’ve also partnered with several area hotels to offer ride-and-stay packages.
For families with small kids, a chance to slip down Sliding Rock should be on the agenda. Located in the 500,000-mile large Pisgah National Park, this natural water slide attracts thousands of families every year and has a lifeguard on duty. Plus, the drive to and from the beloved attraction will be memorable, too, as you wind through sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Add stops at Looking Glass Falls and DuPont State Park to witness some of the state’s most popular waterfalls, too.