10 Great Family Vacations in North Carolina if You're on a Budget
Wiseman's View at Grandfather Mountain | © Michael Sprague / Flickr
North Carolina makes a great affordable family vacation destination, thanks to its abundance of natural resources including millions of acres of national forest (and acres of free primitive camping), tons of waterfalls sure to wow kids of any age and several classic beach communities that have managed to keep prices reasonable. Add several urban getaways with tons of educational opportunities the whole family will enjoy and lots of chances to interact with wildlife, and you’ll have a tough time choosing where to go. Here are 10 great family vacations in North Carolina if you’re on a budget to help you decide.
Ocean fun on the Outer Banks
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.
Outdoor fun in Linville
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.
The Land of Sky
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.
Discovery Place Science
Looking for an urban getaway and all the amenities of a big city? Charlotte fits the bill with tons of community events, public transportation and greenways and tons of awesome museums, like Discovery Place Science, that provide lots of interactive elements to keep all your family members engaged. Plus, summertime fun awaits at the nearby Carolina Harbor water park, which was expanded in 2016.
North Carolina Zoo
In the small town of Asheboro, you’ll find affordable nightly hotel rates within easy access to some great area attractions like the North Carolina Zoo, the largest walk-through zoo in the entire world. After strolling with the animals, venture to the Uwharrie National Forest, which is filled with cute little towns that have lots of unique art and souvenirs.
All aboard in Bryson City
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.
Falling for Brevard
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.
Chimney Rock State Park
Hiking Trail, Natural Feature, Park
Last but not least, a family photo atop the massive (and slightly intimidating!) Chimney Rock will be fit for any holiday card. Views from the top reveal sparkling Lake Lure, another great spot to visit during your stay in the area with a nominal admission fee that includes access to the on-site waterpark and waterslide.
These recommendations were updated on June 14, 2018 to keep your travel plans fresh.