Best free family activities in North Carolina

North Carolina offers so much for families to do at no cost. From the extensive coast to the expansive mountains, a family can find endless hours of free — yes, free — activities for a day trip or a dream vacation.

North Carolina Beaches

1North Carolina Beaches

People from around the world come to visit the North Carolina coast. Stretching hundreds of miles, these windswept sands hold history and deliver enough entertainment to fill a book.

  • At the north are the Outer Banks, with villages such as Corolla, Duck, Nags Head, Rodanthe, Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Island.
  • The Crystal Coast has Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Emerald Isle, Beaufort and Morehead City.
  • The Topsail area includes North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach.
  • To the south are Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure Beaches in the Wilmington and Cape Fear area. Brunswick County beaches include Caswell, Holden, Oak Island, Ocean Isle, Sunset and Bald Head Island.

All of North Carolina’s beaches are free and offer swimming, fishing, sunbathing and watersports. Here, you can:

  • View any of the six lighthouses.
  • Spend the day in a small town such as Manteo, Southport or Calabash.
  • See wild horses roaming the dunes.
  • Take a car-ferry ride to a neighboring island.
  • Fly a kite, hang-glide or climb on Jockey’s Ridge, the largest natural sand dune on the East Coast.
  • Tour Fort Fisher at Kure Beach or Fort Macon at Atlantic Beach.

Phone: 800.VISITNC

2Blue Ridge Mountains ParkwayNorth Carolina Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains make the western part of North Carolina a prime destination for tourists looking for outdoor activities and beautiful scenery any time of the year — but particularly during autumn, when the verdant vistas of deciduous trees show their fall colors.

The mountain chain encompasses the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, and the views are free. Especially notable:

  • Hundreds of waterfalls from small to large
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway, billed as America’s Favorite Drive
  • The Appalachian Trail
  • Cold, clear mountain lakes
  • The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • The 6,684-foot-high Mount Mitchell State Park, North Carolina’s first state park and the highest point east of the Mississippi River
  • Delightful small towns, each with a story to tell
  • Bohemian cities such as Asheville, where structures such as the Biltmore Estate — America’s largest private home — and Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa testify to the mountains’ special attraction to visitors of yesteryear and today

3North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Step right up and see Acrocanthosaurus, the Terror of the South, which stands 40 feet long and 13 feet high. Nicknamed “Acro,” this menacing dino skeleton dominates the third-story glass dome in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. The state’s most visited museum and the largest of its kind in the Southeast, the museum holds approximately 1.8 million specimens focusing on zoology, geology and paleontology of the southeastern United States. Real crowd-pleasers are Willo (the first dinosaur ever found with a fossilized heart), whale skeletons, a 20-foot indoor waterfall with fish below, and a live snake wall.

11 West Jones Street
Raleigh, North Carolina 27601
Phone: 919-733-7450
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Admission: Free (donations accepted)

4North Carolina Maritime Museums

North Carolina is rich in maritime history, which is celebrated in all three North Carolina maritime museums: The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort and the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport. Each has displays, exhibits and programs addressing topics such as shipwrecks and recovered relics, piracy, creatures of the ocean and sound, boatbuilding, life-saving stations, wartime battles, lighthouses and more that appeal to all ages. For the pirate lover, the museum in Beaufort recently opened Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge exhibit showing artifacts from the notorious pirate’s recently discovered flagship.

North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort
315 Front Street
Beaufort, North Carolina 28516
Phone: 252-728-7317
Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.
Admission: Free (donations accepted)

Hatteras Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
59200 Museum Drive
Hatteras, North Carolina 27943
Phone: 252-986-2995
Hours: April through October — Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; November through March — Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: Free (donations accepted)

North Carolina Maritime Museum in Southport
204 East Moore Street
Southport, North Carolina 28461
Phone: 910-457-0003
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Free (donations accepted)

5Billy Graham Library

The famed evangelist from North Carolina has traveled the globe, advised presidents and met with world leaders. Some of those moments and many more are depicted at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.

The Graham family maintains that the library is neither memorial nor museum, but a ministry intended to carry the message of Jesus Christ to all who visit. In actuality, it conveys the great work of the man called “America’s pastor” by millions.

The atmosphere is full of Southern charm and hospitality. A talking Bessie the Cow gives an intro to the library, and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar serves up food such as Mother Graham’s chicken salad and the Billy Frank hot dog in booths that look like barn stalls, with cow-print tablecloths, antique milk cans and family photos. Also on site are reconstructed parts of the Grahams’ original home.

4330 Westmont Drive
Charlotte, North Carolina 28217
Phone: 704-401-3200
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sundays
Admission: Free

6Blue Ridge Mountains Frescoes

Ashe County in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern North Carolina has two tiny churches that visitors seek for their frescoes. The art is some of the first that Ben Long IV produced after returning from his eight-year apprenticeship in Italy, where he studied fresco painting (which is done on wet plaster walls).

Long has completed 13 frescoes in North Carolina, but the originals in Ashe County remain special. In 1976, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, Long painted a three-panel triptych featuring John the Baptist in The Mystery of Faith. In 1980, at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Glendale Springs, Long — along with 20 young artists studying with him — painted The Last Supper. In each church are audio recordings that share insight into the frescoes and windows at the churches.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
400 Beaver Creek School
West Jefferson, North Carolina 28694

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
120 Glendale School Road
Glendale Springs, North Carolina 28694

Reach either church by phone at 336-982-3076.
Hours: 24 hours a day, seven days a week
Admission: Free (donations accepted)

Need more ideas? Check For free maps, schedules and guides, visit the North Carolina Department of Transportation.


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