10 healthy ways to have fun in North Carolina on a budget
Looking for some free and low-cost ways your family can get a healthy dose of fun this summer while staying close to home? You’re in the perfect place – North Carolina!
We are fortunate to have so many recreational opportunities and resources in our backyard. Here’s just a sampling of places across the state to give you ideas of various things you can do. These are activities that my family enjoys, and I think you will, too.
Hike (or Walk) a trail at a state park
If I had to pick one, my top favorite activity in North Carolina is to hit one of our beautiful trails for a scenic hike with family or friends.
Two of my favorite day-trip places with scenic views are Hanging Rock State Park (with waterfalls!) and Pilot Mountain State Park, not far from Winston-Salem. Both have free admission and parking.
Our Explore NC section has many ideas on places to go. Also, the State of North Carolina has published a guide to all the trails in state parks, with information on which ones offer hiking, biking, horseback riding and kayaking. Download the booklet here.
Explore historic towns with a walking tour
North Carolina’s small towns offer charm and history galore. With so much to see and do in our state, you could visit a different town every week and never run out of new places to explore. It’s relaxing to get lost for a few hours browsing antique shops, vintage markets, and bookstores – and you’ll be getting a nice walk in at the same time.
Many towns offer guided or self-paced walking tours of their historic district. I absolutely love doing this, and I find it well worth the time. It’s so interesting! You learn so much about an area and the people who lived there.
It’s also a great activity if you have out-of-town company and you’re looking for something to do. When my dad was visiting us, we took him to Mount Airy (Mayberry), in Surry County. As a fan of the Andy Griffith Show, he loved visiting Floyd’s Barbershop, Snappy Lunch, the Andy Griffith Museum, the quaint shops, and seeing a replica of Sheriff Taylor’s police car cruising downtown. What a fun and memorable day!
Photo credit: Downtown Mount Airy, CC BY-SA 4.0
Go to the beach
Is there anything better than a day at the beach? With 300 miles of beautiful coastline, North Carolina’s beaches are second to none. Pick one – you can’t go wrong.
One of my favorite beaches to take the family is Fort Fisher State Recreation Area in Kure Beach, not far from Wilmington. It’s free, has good parking, a clean restroom and changing facility, and shaded picnic tables and grills. It’s also located by a Civil War museum with artifacts from the fort’s battle (free admission), and the fantastic North Carolina Aquarium. Both are engaging stops to make while you’re there.
Sightsee in the mountains
The Blue Ridge Parkway is free to use, and the perfect way to take in breathtaking high-up views of stunning mountains and valleys.
Access is provided at various points, including Boone and Asheville. On our last visit, we enjoyed stopping at mile marker 294, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park for a walk around the grounds, the artisan craft shop, and on the trails. Admission is free.
Make a splash at a municipal pool, sprayground or lake
Swimming at a municipal pool means no expensive club membership is needed. For example, daily admission to the outdoor pools operated by the City of Greensboro is just $1 for ages 12 and under, and $2 for 13 and older.
Some towns have spraygrounds at their parks – always a hit with the little ones. In Alamance County, a new splash pad just opened at the Mebane Community Park. The kids will have a ball and cool off, for free!
And don’t forget about North Carolina’s numerous parks with beautiful swimming lakes. Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, located in Chatham and Durham counties, boasts six sandy swimming beaches to cool off in ($6 per car per day; $4 age 62 and over). Combine your visit with a picnic, and make a day of it.
Photo: Mebane Community Park, Mebane Recreation and Parks Department
Kayak, canoe, or tube down a river
You don’t have to own a boat to enjoy one. Many towns and parks located on waterways have canoe and kayak rentals available. And you’ll get exercise disguised as fun, providing the paddle power. At Lake Norman State Park near Charlotte, boat rentals are $7 per hour to enjoy the largest man-made lake in North Carolina by canoe, kayak, paddleboat or paddle board. Lazy tubing down a river is a wonderful, relaxing experience! You can rent a tube for about $6 a day at Deep Creek in the Smoky Mountains’ Bryson City.
Enjoy learning (and walking) at zoos and museums
We have many wonderful museums and zoos in our state, and it’s the perfect way to spend a day with your kids. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh is the largest of its kind in the southeastern United States, and it’s our state’s most visited museum. Admission is free.
Located in the central part of the state, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro is the nation’s largest walk-through, natural habitat zoo. There are five miles of walkways amid 500 acres of African and North American animal habitats. The zoo charges admission, but parking is free.
Have a fitness tracker? You can rack up some major step counts while visiting zoos and museums. For example, three hours of leisurely walking at the zoo could mean five miles/10,000 steps. That’s around 756 calories burned (180 lb. person).
Money-saving tip: The public libraries of Alamance (Burlington), Forsyth (Winston-Salem) and Buncombe (Asheville) Counties offer a Zoom Pass program, where library cardholders can reserve free passes to select museums, zoos, pools and other activities. Check with the library for availability.
Go strawberry and blueberry picking
Berry picking at a u-pick farm is a healthy outdoor activity the whole family can enjoy. Kids especially love it! Find farms here.
If you haven’t been berry picking before, give it a try — the time and effort are worth it. Freshness makes a huge difference! There’s no comparison between just-picked local berries and what you find in the grocery store. The seasons don’t last long, so be sure to get some fresh berries while you can. And since you’re buying straight from the farm, you’ll be saving some dough.
See my tips and video on how to pick blueberries and how to pick strawberries.
Enjoy fresh and healthy local food from farmer’s markets
For many of us here in North Carolina, a Saturday morning wouldn’t be complete without a stroll at the farmer’s market. Support small family farms and enjoy the freshest food possible by shopping there, and save because you’re buying directly from the source.
For a comprehensive listing of farmer’s markets searchable by county, visit NC Farm Fresh.
Grab your bike and go
North Carolina has many trails, parks and other areas perfect for bike riding. Whether you’re looking for a flat, easy ride or a challenging climb up a mountain, you can find it here.
For a ride that’s ideal for families, we like The American Tobacco Trail, which is mostly flat and paved. Built on a former railroad corridor, this trail crosses through Durham, Chatham, and Wake counties for a total of 22 miles. Entry points are located throughout. There you can bike, walk, run or horseback ride, without having to worry about traffic.
If you love to ride on the open roads, North Carolina has so much to offer. Check out this list from the state tourism office of 10 popular scenic bike routes.
No bike? No problem. Bike rentals are available in a number of towns around the state. It’s a perfect way to explore an area while you get some exercise. Search Google with the phrase “bike rentals near me” for a list of places.
Get out there and enjoy all NC has to offer
There are so many amazing things you can do in North Carolina on a budget! Creating fun and low-cost adventure once a week this summer could lead to happy memories that will last a lifetime. By trying new things and embracing a Live Fearless attitude, you never know what you might find. Check out our Explore NC section for great ideas on places to go.