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Free activities in North Carolina

From waterfalls and lighthouses to basketball North Carolina-style, check out the surprising line up of outings that require zero dollars but add up to loads of good times.

Photo of Looking Glass Trail. Photo credit: Alyssandra Barnes


One of North Carolina’s greatest assets, its beaches, is free to residents and visitors alike, and all the beaches here are open to the public. Here you can climb the largest sand dune on the East Coast, Jockey’s Ridge, which is also great for kite flying. And you can scale to the tippy-top of several lighthouses, or try your hand at windsurfing or traditional surfing. Or perhaps sculpting a sandcastle or napping on a beach towel is more your speed.


Hiking and waterfalls

The western portion of North Carolina is home to dozens of waterfalls in spots like Transylvania County (but so far no vampires have been spotted). Hiking to them is a wonderful family activity, so pack a lunch and make a day of it. Looking Glass Trail is in Pisgah National Forest near the town of Brevard. This hike is roughly six miles round trip, and while strenuous in places, the trail offers many natural resting areas. The trail ends in a breathtaking summit overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. This trip would be perfect for families with dogs, too. Many winding mountain roads are bordered by waterfalls, some of which have turnouts for car access.


Billy Graham Library

The famous evangelical leader is honored in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Billy Graham Library. Maintained by his family, the library documents historical moments in Graham’s life, including his work with U.S. presidents and other world leaders. There are also reconstructed parts of his original family home that guests can visit. The talking animatronic cow is a favorite with kids.


North Carolina Botanical Garden

Open most days of the year, the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill offers a fragrant, fun getaway for families. Besides an incredible number of flowers and shrubbery, the garden has an education center where children can explore and learn about the surrounding environment.


State Capitol and downtown Raleigh

Whether you are a North Carolinian or simply a visitor in search of a full day of activity, downtown Raleigh is your place. Here you can visit the state capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, the North Carolina Museum of Natural History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. You can also tour the State Legislative Building where you can view democracy in action. Stroll Fayetteville street for boutiques and loads of dining options and check out the historical markers along the way, or hop on the free trolley.


North Carolina Maritime Museums

Maritime history in North Carolina is rich with tales of piracy, sea battles and shipwrecks (which is why portions of the coastline go by the label Graveyard of the Atlantic). Located in Southport, Beaufort and Hatteras, the North Carolina Maritime Museums feature shipwreck relics and information on the area’s natural flora and fauna, fishing, and historic battles. Children also have the opportunity to participate in interactive programs.


Basketball Museums

Basketball is to North Carolina what water is to fish. And the biggest rivalry in college basketball is Duke and Carolina. But you don’t have to play favorites, because both offer a glimpse at the best from their histories in free museums. The Duke Basketball Museum and Hall of Fame offers interactive videos, trophies (including the four national championship trophies), and interviews with players and iconic Blue Devils Coach Krzyzewski. The Carolina Basketball Museum in Chapel Hill likewise celebrates the Tar Heels’ winning ways (five national championships) with information on greats like Michael Jordan and prolific coaches like Dean Smith and Roy Williams.



Alyssandra Barnes contributed to this article. She is a photojournalist and assists the authors with photography, writing and research.

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