Was it swimming out until you could no longer touch the sandy ocean floor, or riding your first roller coaster? Maybe it was spending your allowance inside a buzzy arcade, flying your first kite or chomping into sprinkles-topped ice cream. Whatever your favorite memories of being young, experiencing the thrill and wonder of all things new — that’s the joy of being a kid. Here are several ways to create lasting, local memories with your little ones.
Ride the Nantahala rapids
For the active family in search of an adrenaline rush, hit the rapids of the Nantahala River in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, near Bryson City. Working together and encouraging each other along the way — and helping you back in the raft if you spill out — is a great test of family teamwork. The Nantahala Outdoor Center offers self- or professionally guided trips that cover roughly eight miles in about two to three hours (ages 7+). Once you’ve braved the river wild, treat yourselves to some savory barbecue (and a cold brew for the adults) at Big Wesser riverside pub, as you watch others finish the run. AAA Members receive $5 off on activities and a 10 percent discount on lodging. (Discounts must be applied over the phone.)
Watch wild horses in the Southern Outer Banks
Gorgeous little ponies grazing in the wild will surely drop the jaws of your youngest family members. First, though, you’ll hop aboard the ferry from either Beaufort or Harkers Island (both offering casual fare lunch spots) to Shackleford Banks, the southernmost barrier island on the iconic Cape Lookout National Seashore. For some 500 years, dozens of wild horses have roamed free here. Just wait until your little ones spot them!
Look out for bandits aboard Tweetsie Railroad
All aboard! Tucked into the mountainside near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, parents can bring the Wild West to life on a three-mile Tweetsie Railroad ride, complete with a real-life steam locomotive. The park also offers music and magic shows, fun rides, gold panning and even a zoo! Special events include Day Out with Thomas and Tweetsie Christmas. AAA Members receive $3 off admission.
Take a natural thrill ride at Sliding Rock
Deep in the woods of North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, you’ll discover a 60-foot natural thrill ride that will make the kids go nuts. It’s not an amusement park, and admission won’t break the bank, but Sliding Rock calls for kids and adults alike to take the plunge down a natural slide as 11,000 gallons of water splashes over the rock to the 8-foot-deep swimming hole below. Lifeguards are on duty (and admission is charged) from Memorial Day through Labor Day and during weekends until Nov. 1.
See the light at Cape Hatteras
Climb the 257 steps to the top of North America’s tallest brick lighthouse and prepare to be wowed — and a little breathless. The lighthouse is open from late April to October. Make a full day of it, and pack lunches to tide you over as you head to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, packed with artifacts from coastal shipwrecks.
Experience historic outdoor theater
Don’t think theater is for your kids? Think again. All across North Carolina, you’ll find engaging outdoor drama experiences. Each company brings history to life with vivid costumes and music. “Unto These Hills” tells the stories of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, while “From This Day Forward” shares the journey of the Waldensians, a Northern Italian Christian sect that made Valdese home. “Horn in the West” explores the days of Daniel Boone and other Appalachian pioneers. And, across the state in the Outer Banks, “The Lost Colony” digs into an original unsolved mystery of English colonists who vanished after making Roanoke Island home.
Engage with science, art and history in Columbia
Located along the banks of the Congaree River in downtown Columbia, you’ll find the South Carolina State Museum. If your kids scoff at museums, seal the deal with mention of the planetarium and 4D interactive theater. Enjoy a rocking laser-light show to the tunes of the Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd and more, and see exciting astronomy shows, as well as other historical and art-focused exhibits. This four-story behemoth is the state’s largest museum and offers no shortage of wow-worthy experiences.
Discover underground wonders at Linville Caverns
The only caverns open to the public in North Carolina, Linville Caverns brings a snooze-worthy textbook geology lesson to life, as kids discover how much natural beauty exists — underground. Bring your sweatshirts, though, the caverns stay a cool 52 degrees year round. While you’re in the Linville area, make a weekend of it and brave your way across the mile-high swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain.
Have some fun at Myrtle Beach
From Lulu’s Beach Arcade and Ropes Course to camping at Huntington Beach State Park, the Myrtle Beach area offers enormous variety, including the shopping and entertainment hub of Broadway at the Beach, as well as coastlines and parks for those seeking something a little more natural. Share the games of your youth with your kids at the Myrtle Beach Pinball Museum, filled with games from the 1970s through the present. And of course, there’s always the beach itself. Surf’s up!