From Snowshoeing to Birding: 4 Budget-Friendly NC Winter Adventures

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (Image via Getty)

By jenniferbringle

November 17, 2021

These outdoor getaways will let you explore North Carolina without breaking the bank.

While many think of the warmer months as best for outdoor adventure, winter in North Carolina offers ample opportunity to get outside and enjoy nature. Whether you’re into active pursuits like hiking and boating, or more interested in an afternoon of bird watching or reading on the porch of a historic inn, these destinations deliver. Even better? These spots promise overnight trips for around $100 or less (lodging and activities).

Carolina Beach State Park, Carolina Beach 

During winter, Carolina Beach State Park hosts Biological Wonderland Hikes led by rangers to explore what the park’s natural habitats, plants and animals are like during colder months. According to the park’s website, this includes unique carnivorous plants, pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews and butterworts, and the Venus flytrap! The nearby beach is fun to explore even in colder months and the waters of the Cape Fear River and Snow’s Cut afford plenty of boating opportunities. The park’s marina has slips that can be rented and two public boat ramps—the boat launching fee is $7, and overnight dockage is $30. Local business Paddle NC also offers stand-up paddle board and kayak rentals, as well as guided tours.  Looking for indoor fun? Head down the road to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, to come face-to-face with an albino alligator or witness the beauty of sea turtles gliding through the water. Tickets are $12.95 for adults, $10.95 kids ages 3-12, and free for those under 3. 

Where to Stay: Carolina Beach State Park offers a variety of camping experiences, including four cozy log cabins outfitted with electricity, heating and air conditioning. The cabins sleep six in two rooms, and the Centennial Cabin is wheelchair accessible. Outside each cabin, charcoal grills and fire pits extend the fun after dark. A bath facility located nearby provides drinking water, restrooms and hot showers. Fees range from $23 per night for non-electric campsites to $55 for cabins. Camping not your bag? Score off-season rates at nearby hotels such as the Beach House Inn and Suites and Dolphin Lane Motel

Elk Knob State Park, Todd

Whether it’s snowy or not, Elk Knob State Park’s trails promise winter fun. The park is one of the only state parks offering cross-country skiing and snowshoeing when Mother Nature offers up snow (check the park’s website for current weather conditions). The park has an extensive trail system that includes the Maple Run Trail, which according to the park’s website is specifically designed in an easy-to-traverse loop for cross-country skiing. Need gear? Outfitters like Sky Country Sports in Boone offer rentals. Hiking trails meander through hardwood forests of sugar maple, yellow birch, yellow buckeye and American beech, offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, as Elk Knob is one of the highest peaks in Watauga County. And the Beech Tree Trail—and easy one-mile loop—is part of the Kids in Parks initiative, a program that rewards kids with prizes for completing hikes in participating parks.

Where to Stay: While the park offers primitive camping (no electricity, running water, etc.) sites for $15 per night, those seeking more amenities head to nearby Blue Bear Mountain Camp in Todd, which offers tent camping ($35 per night), RV camping with hookups ($35-$40 per night) and teepee camping complete with queen-sized beds, electric blankets and fire pits ($90 per night). Cabins also are available, but a bit pricier at $125 per night.

Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge, Swan Quarter

Thousands of tundra swans descend upon Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge each November to hang out for the winter, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Migrating from chillier area in the upper North America, the birds winter around Lake Mattamuskeet, feeding on easily accessible aquatic plants in the lake’s shallow waters. The swans are often joined by ducks, Canada geese and snow geese. Birders can get a good view of the visiting fowl from the refuge’s observation deck, along the Highway 94 Causeway. The refuge also offers guided and self-guided tours that feature the birds, other animals and natural vegetation in the park. Free, self-guided auto tours begin on Entrance Road and Wildlife Drive, or call 252-926-4021 for more tour info. And Swan Day—December 7 this year—offers tram tours for an even closer look.

Where to Stay: Soak up a little local history at the Magnolia Inn Bed and Breakfast in downtown Swan Quarter. The circa 1900 home overlooks Main Street, with three cozy bedrooms, as well as a wide front porch with rockers perfect for enjoying coffee on a crisp winter morning. Rooms at the inn are $80 per night and include breakfast.

Cliffs of Neuse State Park, Seven Springs

Overlooking the gently flowing waters of the Neuse River, Cliffs of Neuse State Park in Wayne County offers ample opportunity to connect with nature in winter. According to the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, Cliffs of Neuse park boasts eight trails, among them a paddle trail on the river, and another—the 350 Yard Trail—offering a stunning overlook of the river below from 90 feet above. Migratory fowl flock to the park during winter, joining native birds like the prothonotary warbler and the northern parula, which nests in the Spanish moss that hangs from many of the park’s trees.

Where to stay: The park offers several camping options, from primitive sites ($23 per night) to sites with electric hookups ($30 per night), to cabins with electricity, heating and air conditioning ($55 per night). Nearby hotels, such as the Sleep Inn in Mount Olive and the Holiday Inn Express in Goldsboro offer nightly rates at or below $100.


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