Our research is editorially independent but we may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
We all love going on vacation, but sometimes our schedules or our budgets won’t allow a long, leisurely trip. But if you’re still itching to get away, check out these top North Carolina cities, which offer easy access to some of the state’s most popular attractions. They’re close by, affordable and easy to do in a day trip. No hotel required!
North Carolina Zoo, Asheboro
Did you know that North Carolina is home to the world’s largest natural habitat zoo? Well, you do now! And it’s just waiting for you to explore. With over five miles of trails winding through two habitat regions, North America and Africa, you can easily spend five or six hours just visiting with the animals at the zoo. You’ll see elephants, lions, giraffes and zebras from the African plain, more than 3,000 tropical plants and birds in the Aviary, and everything from grizzly bears to honeybees in the North American exhibit. But there’s so much more to see here besides just the animals. Art in the Park is the zoo’s art collection that includes over 40 handmade pieces including bronze statues, painted murals and unique sculptures made from recycled materials. You can also try your skill on a ropes course, take a ride in a paddle boat, or listen to some live music.
U.S. National Whitewater Center, Charlotte
For those who love being outdoors and staying active, the U.S. National Whitewater Center is like a giant playground, considered one of the city’s most popular attractions. Spread out over 1,300 acres, the center has a variety of activities for visitors of all ages and abilities. The main attraction, of course, is the world’s largest man-made whitewater river, where guests can take on the class II-IV rapids by kayak or whitewater raft. Choose between a more relaxed family experience or a more exciting adventure raft experience on the man-made river, or take a more scenic ride in a flatwater kayak tour along the Catawba River. For those that would rather stay on land, there’s a rock climbing wall, several rope courses, a zipline experience, hiking and biking trails, and for the truly adventurous, high jumps that go as high as 100 feet. Plus, you will find a variety of delicious food and beverage options right on site, including the Pump House Biergarten with made-to-order food and sixty craft beers on tap.
If roller coasters and thrill rides are more your speed, you’ll definitely want to take a trip to Carowinds, a 398-acre amusement park located in Charlotte. One of the best family-friendly attractions in Charlotte, you’ll find plenty of fun for both children and adults, with a few must-see attractions like the Intimidator, a 232-foot hyper coaster named for NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt Sr. It’s also home to one of the top ten tallest steel roller coasters in the country, and the Windseeker, the second tallest ride in the park that takes passengers up a 301 foot pole and swings them outward at a 45 degree angle, giving them the sense of weightlessness and a great view of the whole Charlotte region. Of course, there are also plenty of kid-friendly rides, great shows and yummy concessions to try too while you are there.
Sliding Rock, Brevard
If you’re looking to day trip in the summer or get one last trip in before winter rolls around, you’ll want to check out Sliding Rock, located in the Pisgah National Forest in Brevard. Just like it sounds, the rock is a 60-foot flat boulder that slopes downward with over 11,000 gallons of water flowing down it each minute, making it the ultimate natural waterslide. Visitors to this popular spot line up along the side and take turns riding down the rock, where they splash land in an eight-foot-deep pool and jump out to do it all over again. Although the lifeguards are only on duty from May to September (as well as weekends in early October), you can still visit and slide anytime all year long during daytime hours.
North Carolina Aquarium - Nags Head, Kure Beach, Pine Knoll Shores and Mantea
With four locations in North Carolina, there is sure to be an aquarium location near you that would make for a great, family-friendly day trip. At each one, you’ll have the chance to get up close and personal with all kinds of sea life including stingrays, alligators, sea turtles, sharks and eels. Kids can also dig for fossils, touch horseshoe crabs and talk to scuba divers about swimming with sharks. Choose from a regular self-guided visit or add some more adventure to your visit by scheduling a behind the scenes tour, an apprentice experience or go fishing, crabbing or canoeing with a trained instructor.