No-Cost Family Fun in the Tar Heel State
A one-of-a-kind Christmas celebration, summers at the beach and history on the Piedmont make lasting memories for families in North Carolina. Free and very low-cost attractions make the state an economical destination.
Christmas at the Grove Park Inn
Asheville’s Grove Park Inn (290 Macon Ave., Asheville, NC), a stone masterpiece set against the mountains, is a luxury hotel with rooms named for famous visitors. At Christmastime, its doors open to the public, free of charge, for caroling and visits with Santa. The inn hosts the National Gingerbread Competition, and the delightful houses are on display from late November to early January. Some holiday events, like Major Bear’s Holiday Party, are not free, and the inn charges parking fees for non-guests visiting the gingerbread house display, later donating the fees to local charities.
Budget Fun at the Beach
Almost all of North Carolina’s Outer Banks beaches are free and open to the public. Summer rentals, however, can be expensive if you plan to spend the night. If your family is into camping, try one of the campgrounds on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC). Inexpensive campsites are just across the dunes from the Atlantic Ocean, and lifeguards are on duty at Bodie Island, Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island.
Kids 15 and under enjoy free admission at the Wright Brothers National Memorial (1000 N. Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills, NC) in Kill Devil Hills, but adults have to pay an entrance fee unless they have a National Parks pass. Walk the flight line where the Wright Brothers first flew, visit the museum and tour the buildings where the brothers and their crews lived.
History Near Charlotte
If you and your kids love watching airplanes, pack a picnic and grab a spot at the Charlotte Douglas Airport overlook (4355 Airport Overlook Drive, Charlotte, NC). Depending on the flight schedule for the time of day you’re there, you may see as many as 15 planes take off or land in an hour.
The President James K. Polk State Historic Site (12031 Lancaster Highway, Pineville, NC) is about 15 miles south of downtown Charlotte. A museum shows a film about the 11th president’s life, and a log home, kitchen building and barn recreate 19th-century life at this free historical site.
Gold was first discovered in the United States at the Reed Gold Mine (9621 Reed Mine Road,
Midland, NC) in Midland, 33 miles east of Charlotte. You can tour the grounds and the mine on your own, or take one of the guided tours for more insight into the mine’s operations, for free. For a nominal fee, you and your children can pan for gold.
A Few Tips
Most of North Carolina’s weather is moderate, but winters in the western mountains can be chilly and wet. If you’re considering a drive along the state’s section of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway (199 Hemphill Knob Road, Asheville, NC), check the National Park Service road closure website for sections that are closed due to snow or rock slides. It gets windy on the Outer Banks, so if you’re camping, bring extra-long tent stakes or you might come back to the campground and find that your tent has tumbled away in the wind.
- The Omni Grove Park Inn
- Asheville.com: Major Bear’s Holiday Party
- The Omni Grove Park Inn: The National Gingerbread House Competition
- TripAdvisor: Christmas Time at Grove Park Inn
- National Park Service: Cape Hatteras National Seashore-Campgrounds
- National Park Service: Cape Hatteras National Seashore-Water Activities
- National Park Service: Wright Brothers National Memorial-Fees & Passes
- TripAdvisor: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
- TripAdvisor: Charlotte Douglas Airport Overlook
- TripAdvisor: Reed Gold Mine
Meg Jernigan has been writing for more than 30 years. She specializes in travel, cooking and interior decorating. Her offline credits include copy editing full-length books and creating marketing copy for nonprofit organizations. Jernigan attended George Washington University, majoring in speech and drama.