15 Trips Over Two Hours Away
My family and I came up for a visit to North Carolina when our oldest son was just six months old. We fell in love with the sheer diversity of landscapes, rich history, wide range of attractions, and temperate climate. We were so enamored that we decided to relocate to the crowning jewel of the state’s Central Piedmont Region, Charlotte.
Having called the Queen City home for over a decade, it’s been the perfect place to raise a family. It’s also been an ideal home base for exploring the Carolinas and taking day trips with kids. We can easily reach the majestic mountains, the lovely lakes, or the state’s larger cities for world-class culture and entertainment – and make it home by bed-time!
We have built up quite the cache of fond memories over the years exploring. We’ve created this list of our favorite family day trips from Charlotte or anyone seeking to explore the sister states of North and South Carolina.
The following fifteen day trips with kids are located 2-3.5 hours away from downtown Charlotte, NC. For a list of fifteen day trips located under 2 hours away from Charlotte, check out The Commoner.
Check out the map below for a regional view of thirty day trips from Charlotte.
Travel Time: 02:00
The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro is the world’s largest natural habitat zoo and is a day trip with kids like no other. Home to more than 1,600 animals and 52,000 plants, great care has been taken to give you the best possible view while also providing expansive enclosures for the animals.
The zoo is divided into two main sections. We prefer to start our day in the 500-acre Africa region. Here antelope graze on an open plain and giraffes tower at tree-top level, while zebras and elephants get up close and personal. In this portion of the park you also get the chance to look massive gorillas in the eye and muse at the antics of the chimpanzees.
The North American Region, with more than 200 acres, covers everything from deserts to swamps to the American prairie. You’ll see bears, bison, elk, and wolves. We like to watch sea lions and polar bears in the newly expanded Rocky Coast habitat. This area also features a touch and learn center, where you can pet a Shetland pony, sheep, goats, and more. You will also find other attractions throughout the park to keep the kids busy, like a 4D theater, paddle boats, a carousel, ropes course, and a wide selection of restaurants and snacks stands.
Plan on two to three hours each to tour the North America and Africa regions as major exhibits are about eight minutes apart. Comfortable walking shoes and strollers for little ones are a must. While there is a lot of walking there is a tram available to take you between park sections. You can also upgrade your tickets to take a guided safari tour in an open-air jeep through the 40-acre Watani Grassland exhibit.
Travel Time: 02:00
From Charlotte, the city of Greensboro is one of the most accessible day trips with kids and has a lot to explore.
The leading attraction in Greensboro is the Greensboro Science Center. Part aquarium, part zoo, part museum – all for one admission price. Indoors you’ll find exhibits about dinosaurs, health and the human body, and the weather. SciPlay Bay an interactive children’s play space is perfect for young explorers. An array of shows are offered at the OmniSphere and Adventure theaters. Visit the recent expansion of the Wiseman Aquarium, showcasing an exotic array of sea life. Outside, you can see Nile crocodiles sunning themselves or watch gibbons swinging across their exhibit. Marvel at the meerkats standing watch or get up close and pet the animals in the farmhouse. If you are feeling brave, give the Skywild tree-top adventure a try.
Afterward, spend the afternoon at Country Park, immediately adjacent to the science center. The park offers fishing with two stocked lakes, as well as paddleboats, playgrounds, and trails for hiking. It’s also a great place to enjoy a picnic.
If your kids are older we recommend spending some time at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Many aspects of the civil rights movement are represented here including the actual Woolworth’s lunch counter where the Greensboro sit-in protests took place.
Chimney Rock, NC
Travel Time: 02:00
Some of the best scenery North Carolina has to offer can be enjoyed at Chimney Rock State Park. From native wildlife and diverse vegetation, to educational trails and exquisite views, this post-card worthy park inspires and delivers at every turn. The signature 315’ spire overlooking Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure is the highlight of the park and the best way to begin your visit. A unique elevator installed inside the rock will take up the equivalent of twenty-six stories to the top. Or you can enjoy the Outcroppings Trail, a more challenging, yet rewardingly scenic staircase hike to the summit. On a clear day, you can see almost seventy-five miles into the northeastern horizon from the top of Chimney Rock.
The Devil’s Head balancing rock is another must-do for visitors. Kids and kids-at-heart will also love the Great Woodlands Adventure trail featuring twelve discovery stations with large handcrafted sculptures by local artists. Be sure to stop by the Animal Discovery Den, which contains exhibits and live critters.
Finally, don’t miss the short hike to Hickory Nut Falls. This showstopper waterfall cascades 404 feet off a cliff making it one of the highest falls east of the Mississippi. We enjoy being able to take our shoes off and climb around the rocks at the base of the falls to experience it up close. Be sure to pack a lunch. Or pick one up at the Old Rock Café or the Sky Lounge Deli, and recharge at one of the scenic picnic spots.
Lake Lure, NC
Travel Time: 02:00
There is no doubt that Lake Lure is one of the most idyllic places to visit in North Carolina and is one of the best day trips with kids. Indeed, this charming town has served as a popular filming destination for Hollywood, with movies such as Thunder Road and Dirty Dancing being shot in this upscale resort area.
The 27-mile long lake provides ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, and boating, or simply to relax and unwind in the calm cool waters. Take the kids to the Beach at Lake Lure where they will have a blast at the water park or enjoy a guided tour of the sights and history from Lake Lure Tours at Rumbling Bald Resort. If you are looking to kick it up another notch, Lake Lure Adventure Company offers everything on the water from water skiing to wake-boarding to tubing. This makes it ideal for day trips with kids.
Boone, NC & Blowing Rock, NC
Travel Time: 02:00
The mountain towns of Boone and Blowing Rock are only ten minutes apart and make for a great family road trip together. Begin at Blowing Rock, known as North Carolina’s oldest travel attraction. This immense rock cliff overhanging Johns River Gorge is buffeted by near-constant winds, fluming up from the valley below. These northwest winds sweep with such force that it returns light objects cast over the void. According to the Legend of the Blowing Rock, these strong winds carried a Cherokee brave back from the valley below into the arms of his beloved, a Chickasaw maiden. This maiden was waiting on the rock, as she prayed to the Great Spirit for three days for the brave’s return. Today, the Blowing Rock is a special place to experience the winds, in a place of legend, surrounded by spectacular views.
Continue your adventures with a trip back in time care of the Tweetsie Railroad. Running between Boone and Blowing Rock, the Tweetsie Railroad is a Wild West adventure-theme park offering families a fun day out with old-fashioned charm. Tweetsie Railroad’s biggest attraction is old Number 12, a steam locomotive that takes you on a 3-mile journey though the North Carolina mountains. You never know when robbers or other unsavoriness may hop on board so stay alert!
Stroll down Tweetsie’s Main Street to visit the shops and eateries, or catch a stage show complete with Can-Can dancers and toe tapping music. Ride the chair lift up Miner’s Mountain and try your hand at panning for gold at the Gem Mine. Ride the Mouse Mine train and visit the critters at the Deer Park petting zoo, or delight in one of the many fun amusement rides at the County Fair. Just be sure and say “howdy” to any of the many costumed characters around the park. Some might even be outlaws!
End your day in downtown Boone with dinner at the Dan’l Boone Inn. For over 50 years this longtime favorite has been serving homecooked meals just like you remember at Grandma’s house. The all-you-can-eat, family style dinner offers fried chicken, Salisbury steak, country ham, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and an array of vegetables. Just be sure to save some room for dessert! It’s a perfect end to fun day trips with kids!
Photo by Gavin Candish
Travel Time: 02:15
Venture a few miles off of the Blue Ridge Parkway to Linville Caverns for a unique view of nature at work within the mountains. Informative half-hour guided tours leave just minutes apart throughout the day. Tours offer visitors an opportunity to walk beside an underground stream full of blind trout, get a close-up view of stalactites and stalagmites, and observe other natural formations. You’ll even get to experience what it’s like to be in total darkness. Don’t worry, guides turn the lights back on quickly. The 52-degree year-round temperature inside the caverns is more than welcome during a humid North Carolina summer.
Afterwards, take a short drive southward to Linville Falls. Here there are a number of trails you can hike for various views of the falls and of the Linville River, which descends more than 2,000 feet in only twelve miles. The upper part of the falls rolls over fifty feet and disappears into the mountain. The lower falls drops another sixty feet. You can hike down the trails bordering the falls and wade in the cool waters.
Travel Time: 02:15
Ashville is western North Carolina’s biggest city, and has become a cultural and educational center for the region. Yet its mountainous beauty still remains its biggest draw. There’s no finer place to take in the beauty of the region than from its most remarkable attraction: the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate.
Completed in 1895, George Vanderbilt’s 250-room chateau is as impressive today as it was more than a century ago. Truly a wonder of architecture and artistry, it took a total of one million hours of labor to complete. Although no longer occupied by the family, the home includes more than 50,000 works of art, furnishings, and antiques which Vanderbilt spent years collecting in Europe and Asia. Highlights include the magnificent banquet hall with it’s seven story ceiling, the Library with thousands of books, the massive indoor swimming pool, and bowling alley. You also won’t want to miss taking a stroll around the exquisite forty-acre gardens and pools designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the nation’s father of landscape architecture.
A trip to the Estate won’t be complete without a visit to the winery, where award-winning sparkling red, white, and rosé wines are produced in a converted dairy barn. Enjoy a complimentary tour of the winery and tasting afterwards. There is even free grape-juice for the youngsters. We recommend grabbing a bite to eat at Cedric’s in the adjacent Antler Hill Village followed by ice-cream at the Creamery to top off your day.
Seven Devils, NC
Travel Time: 02:20
While we do most of our day trips in the summer months, winter in North Carolina offers the opportunity for one of our favorite family seasonal activities: snowtubing! With more than thirty lanes ranging in length from 400-1,000 feet, Hawksnest in Seven Devils, NC is one of the largest and longest snow tubing parks on the east coast. Here you’ll find four different areas of terrain to satisfy every type of snow tuber; from tots riding with their parents to teens looking for thrill and speed. Two conveyor belt lifts are available to take you back to the top of the hill to make it easy to ride again and again.
The lodge offers restroom facilities, a nice café, and observation area. Sessions take place in two-hour increments. It’s a good idea to purchase your tickets ahead of time online and complete the liability waivers, so you and your kids can jump right into enjoying all that fresh powdery snow.
Travel Time: 02:25
Nestled up against the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of South Carolina’s Upcountry, Greenville is more than a little charming. The newly revived and now thriving downtown is full of fun things to see and do.
Falls Park on the Reedy, right off Main Street, is our favorite place to explore with its mesmerizing waterfalls, romantic rockwork, and impressive Liberty suspension bridge. From here you can have a picnic on the grassy knolls or grab a bite to eat at one of the quaint side-walk cafés.
Take your outdoor adventures further and rent bikes from Reedy Rides. Head out on the novice-friendly GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail or check out one of Greenville’s great museums. Those interested in local history will love the Upcountry History Museum while creatives will enjoy the Greenville County Museum of Art or the Carolina Music Museum. Little ones will love the nearby Children’s Museum of the Upstate.
Banner Elk, NC
Travel Time: 02:25
Just 95 miles northwest of Charlotte you’ll find what is arguably the top scenic attraction in the North Carolina mountains — Grandfather Mountain. The 5,945’ peak was named for its profile as it appears from about seven miles north. As the name suggests, from this vantage point the mountain looks like a bearded grandfather. The park offers a nature museum and many miles of unique trails but is best known for its Mile-High Swinging Bridge. The bridge extends majestically over a natural gorge filled with hard-wood trees and rhododendron. It is known as the swinging bridge due to its tendency to sway in high winds. Those brave enough to venture onto the bridge are rewarded with one of the best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. An audio CD that comes with your admission ticket is particularly great as it describes the many wondrous things you are seeing as you drive through the park. Reinforced learning such as this is complementary to any day trips with kids.
Just a short drive from Banner Elk is the small town of Valle Crucis, home to the original Mast General Store & Annex. Opened in 1883, the Mast General Store quickly grew in reputation for carrying everything from “cradles to caskets.” Even today, you’ll find shelves filled with vintage items and unique gear. Take some time to wander each room, listening to the old creaky floors, and see advertising posters untouched since Mr. Mast hung them decades ago. Discover toys you loved as a child or housewares your great grandmother might have used. Let the kids pick a few pieces of candy from the overflowing barrels then stand at a counter where locals once bartered to pay. From past to present this mercantile really is a delight for all generations.
Sliding Rock, NC
Travel Time: 02:30
A day trip to Sliding Rock is perfect for families looking for a little adventure. This naturally occurring 60’ waterslide has been developed by the U.S. Forest Service into a recreation area. It’s an exhilarating blast as you speed down the huge rocks along with 11,000 gallons per minute of 60-degree water, flowing into a 7’ deep pool. Make sure any kids participating in the slide are strong swimmers. You can walk smaller children down the rocks a bit and let them have a short slide.
There is a small fee to enter the recreation area. The park is open year-round but the bathrooms and changing rooms are only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Lifeguards are on duty during that time as well. If you aren’t brave enough to try the natural waterslide, it’s just as much fun to stand on the viewing platform and watch the daredevils.
After you slide, stop by Looking Glass Falls. The 60’ waterfall is named after Looking Glass Rock, believed to be the largest single piece of granite in the southern Appalachians. This stunning roadside waterfall is easily accessible; you can park at the side and walk down to the bottom of the falls.
Travel Time: 02:35
If you are looking for day trips with kids that stand apart from the ordinary, make your way on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Burnsville. Here Mount Mitchell rises dramatically to 6,684’ – the highest point east of the Mississippi River in one of the nation’s oldest state parks (1915). You can drive your vehicle all the way up to the summit. From the parking area, walk up a quarter mile paved trail to the observation deck for 360-degree unmatched views of Mount Mitchell State Park’s spruce-fir forest.
Most days, the summit is covered in clouds of fog so watch the weather and try to visit when skies are clear. Even with the fog the hiking trails are still some of the most spectacular we have ever experienced. Choose between a short stroll from the summit, perfect for families, or longer more extensive trails for seasoned adventurers. We recommend with Balsam Nature Trail which has the feel of an epic Canadian Redwood forest right in the middle of North Carolina.
Enjoy a relaxing meal in the restaurant within the park, located about halfway between the park entrance and the summit. Open May through October, it has a casual menu and spectacular views. There’s also a shady picnic area located at the north entrance of the summit parking lot. Picnic tables, stone-built grills, and drinking water are all available for use. There is also a small museum that explains the cultural and natural history of Mount Mitchell that is free for visitors to enjoy.
Travel Time: 02:40
Perhaps most famous for Duke University and the Durham Bulls baseball team, this cute college town also has a lot to offer for families. At the Museum of Life + Science you’ll find wonder among a wide range of exhibits. Start your visit outdoors in Hideaway Woods, a two-acre discovery environment. Splash in the man-made stream and explore the eight hand-crafted treehouses that are connected by rope bridges. Animal lovers can watch lemurs climb trees or pet goats and alpacas. Then take a walk through the dinosaur garden.
Make sure to stop by the Magic Wings Butterfly House, one of the largest butterfly houses on the East Coast. Inside this gorgeous glass conservatory, you’ll be surrounded by lush tropical plants and butterflies from Central America to the Philippines. One might even land on your finger!
Grab lunch at Sprout Café and then head inside to explore the aerospace exhibit. Here you can climb inside a command module and explore a satellite mapping table. Included is a display of the Apollo 15 and Enos, the first U.S. spacecraft to orbit the earth. Then embrace your inner Einstein at The Lab, an interactive experimentation station.
Travel Time: 02:50
Founded in 1792, Raleigh is the oldest state capital to have been planned and established by a state as the seat of government. Raleigh today both gleams with 21st century innovation and holds dear its history. Often dubbed the “Smithsonian of the South,” Raleigh has an abundance of high-quality, free museums and historic attractions all within a few within a few city blocks. This makes it ideal for day trips with kids.
Begin your day with a tour of the Capital. Learn how this landmark building factored into Civil War history in Raleigh. Explore the Gothic architectural style, stately Library Room, historic house and senate chambers, and the gorgeous rotunda.
Keep the history lesson going at the North Carolina Museum of History. More than 14,000 years of N.C. history, from earliest inhabitants through the 20th century is featured through 150,000 fascinating artifacts, multimedia presentations, and interactive exhibits for all ages. The permanent exhibit, The Story of North Carolina is a must-see and even includes a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer.
Finish your day with a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The Southeast’s largest natural science museum offers seven floors of immersive exhibits plus live animals, 3D movies, a three-story multimedia theater housed inside a 70-foot globe, working research labs, and hands-on investigate labs. Don’t miss the neighboring Nature Research Center, which houses a veterinary clinic with a public viewing window and two-way intercom, so guests can ask questions.
Travel Time: 03:00
On the western edge of North Carolina, nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the western end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ll find the town of Cherokee. Located within the Qualla Boundary – commonly referred to as the Cherokee Indian Reservation – Cherokee is the cultural center of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Here in this nation-within-a-nation, on a remnant of their once vast homeland, about 8,000 members of the tribe live and work.
The best place to begin exploring is at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The museum gives you an introduction to the Cherokee heritage, history, and culture through the use of computer generated imagery, special effects, and audiovisual shows. These elements tell the story of the Cherokee and their ancestors from 12,000 years ago through to the present day.
One of the most enlightening places to visit and see Cherokee history come alive is at the Oconaluftee Indian Village. The village is an authentic recreation of an 18th century Cherokee Indian community. Meet tribal members and watch as they hull canoes, make pottery and baskets, shoot blowguns, and do beadwork. You can also visit the seven-sided Council House to learn how the Cherokee tribes functioned.
Take some time to hike the stunning waterfalls of the Qualla Boundary. Five miles off Big Cove Road from Saunooke Village you’ll find Mingo Falls with its impressive 120’ cascade. Further east on US19 isSoco Falls. A short walk leads you to a viewing platform. Or you can brave the steep trek to the base where you will be rewarded with beautiful views of the double waterfall from below.
Charlotte is the perfect base for day trips with kids throughout the Carolinas! Explore diverse landscapes, rich history, attractions, & temperate climate. Whether you’re here for a day or two, or here for much longer, there’s a wide range of activities for the whole family.
If you enjoyed this article and want to get the scoop on day trips located less than 2 hours away from Charlotte, check out The Commoner.
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