A Bunch of Free, or Nearly Free, Activities for North Carolina Kids This Summer

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By Sarah Ovaska

June 16, 2021

We get it. You need something cheap to do with your kids this summer. Here’s a list of activities only a short drive away from every corner of North Carolina.

Summer is here, school is out. Kids are rejoicing and grown-ups are … scrambling to find things to do.

We wanted to make it a bit easier on you this summer, so we came up with this list of North Carolina activities and places to visit with your kids. We also know kids aren’t cheap, so we kept it focused on things that are free, or nearly free.

Get a State Parks Passport

Mountains, beaches, swamps, rivers, and more await in North Carolina’s 41 state parks, recreation areas, and natural areas. Most locations offer a free passport at park information offices where your kids can get a stamp to mark which of the 34 state parks they’ve visited. Make it a goal to visit as many in your area. Can’t wait for your passport? You can email [email protected] with your mailing address.

Then go and make your list of spots to visit, and get a stamp at each one!

Some gems to visit include Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County and Hammocks Beach State Park in Swansboro where you can take a ferry to an undeveloped barrier island for a day of splashing around.

Get a Jump Start on College Tours

There are lots of things to be proud of in this state, and our public higher education systems are among them.

We have 16 public universities, and 58 community colleges, not to mention a whole bunch of private colleges and universities across the state. And did you know North Carolina has more public historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) than other state?

These are all places that your child may want to pursue, and no better time to get them thinking about life after high school than with a college tour this summer. If you’re nervous about costs, know that three campuses—Elizabeth City State University, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Western Carolina University—are in the NC Promise program, where tuition has been reduced to $500 per semester for in-state students. And the Biden administration is hoping its proposal in the American Families Plan to offer two years of free community college is backed by Congress. 

Pro tip: If you tour NC State University, make sure you stop at the Howling Cow ice cream store, all made with milk from the college’s very own cows.

Learn About NC’s Coastal History

Multiple locations make up the North Carolina Maritime Museums, which makes sense given what a long and varied coastline we have. Even better, all three locations of the state maritime museums in Hatteras, Beaufort and Southport are free to visit.

The Atlantic Hatteras has scavenger hunts for adults and kids alike to check off as everyone learns about the shipwrecks, while the Beaufort location has events and information about sailing and more. The Maritime Museum of Southport has exhibits about North Carolina’s indigenous mariners and tribes that made Lower Cape Fear home as well as the military history of this part of the coast.

All promise air conditioning and learning, a double bonus for adults looking to entertain children on a hot or rainy day. And we did mention the free part, right?

Botanical Gardens to Visit

Our state is rich with outdoor spots to wander around and soak in the beauty of flowers and native plants.  

The NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill features a children’s garden complete with a fairy mailbox and, for those kids who may not get all that excited about plants, there’s a carnivorous plant section featuring Venus fly traps, which are native to the coastal area of North Carolina.

Over in Charlotte, the botanical gardens at UNC-Charlotte offer a nice change of scenery in the Queen City. Polly’s Garden, named after a UNC-Charlotte education student who died in 2018, is a sensory garden with interactive elements perfect for young ones to make noise on outdoor musical equipment and more.

And in Wilmington, the New Hanover Arboretum is open daily and has a koi pond, story walks, and a children’s area to entertain your kids.

Image via Getty

Striking Gold  

Here’s a fact your kids will enjoy: North Carolina was the first documented discovery of gold in the United States. And, it was a 12-year-old who stumbled on a 17-pound nugget in a creek back in 1799. Following that, we had our gold rush, and North Carolina led the nation in gold production until 1848 until California came on the scenes.

Today, you can visit the underground Reed Gold Mine, in Cabarrus County’s Midland outside of Charlotte, where that nugget of gold was first found. Considered a historical site, you can tour the mines and, for $3 per person, pan for gold yourself. Gold panning happens on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from April through October and slots are first-come, first-served. There are also three miles of walking trails, the ability to walk through underground tunnels and a shaded picnic area.

Stargazing and More in Kinston

This Lenoir County city has its own nature center and planetarium and this cost-effective Eastern North Carolina option is open throughout the summer.   

The Ellis Planetarium, Health and Sciences Museum offers daily planetarium shows Tuesdays through Sunday and is free for the rest of June. The planetarium will begin charging for its shows starting in July, but at $1 for those 3 and above, it won’t break the bank.  

Kinston’s Neuseway Nature Park offers a playground, nature center, and miniature railroad that costs $1 per person to ride. The Exchange Nature Center has exhibits of indigenous North Carolina animals. You can also hike, fish or rent canoes or kayaks on the Neuse River.


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