Oak Island Lighthouse
Oak Island Lighthouse was the last lighthouse built in NC. Courtesy of NC Brunswick Islands

These spots are perfect for a day trip—no cash required.

With the holidays quickly approaching, we wanted to share this important reminder: You don’t have to spend money on things you and others don’t need. (That ugly sweater can only be regifted so many times, if you know what I mean.) 

Instead, plan an experience, spend time with loved ones, and learn something new about our state. Here are 12 free activities in North Carolina to keep you busy this season. 

Arboretum of New Hanover County, Wilmington 

Find out what’s blooming within 14 specialty gardens including Camellia, Japanese, and native plant gardens. Visit during Art in the Park or the Camellia Fall Show & Sale, special events in November. 6206 Oleander Drive, Wilmington

Beech Mountain Youth Sledding Hill, Beech Mountain

Courtesy of Beech Mountain TDA

Bring a plastic sled to the Beech Mountain Youth Sledding Hill for an hour of good cold fun. It’s open from December through early March for children 12 and under when snow is in the air (and on the ground). Need a sled for the day? Rent one from the Beech Meadows Ski Shop or White Wolf Lodge. 403 Beech Mountain Parkway, Beech Mountain

Brunswick Town / Fort Anderson, Winnabow

This North Carolina State Historic Site preserves American history among live oaks and Spanish moss on the western bank of the Cape Fear River. Explore what remains of old Brunswick, a pre-Revolutionary port and Fort Anderson, the Civil War fort that was constructed on the old town grounds. 8884 St. Philip’s Road SE, Winnabow

Carolina Basketball Museum, Chapel Hill

Photo by Jeffrey Camarti

Treat the basketball fans in your group to the Carolina Basketball Museum. See exhibits on Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, Roy Williams, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s head coach Hubert Davis. The 8,000-square-foot museum showcases the history of UNC’s basketball with artifacts, game videos, and photo displays. 450 Skipper Bowles Drive, Chapel Hill

Carolina Bronze Sculpture Gardens and Foundry, Seagrove

Carolina Bronze pours bronze sculptures for museums, private collections, and public areas all over the world. Free tours, by appointment, are offered during business hours. Guests are welcome to walk the loop trail around the pond in the Carolina Bronze Sculpture Garden. Large sculptures mixed with benches, a picnic area, and native plants provide a contemplative place for walking and exercise. It’s a Certified NC Native Plant Habitat and includes information about native NC plants on the free audio tour available in the garden. 6108 Maple Springs Road, Seagrove

Festival of Lights at Chetola Resort, Blowing Rock

Courtesy of Chetola Resort

Chetola Resort celebrates the holidays with its annual Festival of Lights from Nov. 25 through Jan. 29. The display includes almost 30,000 lights on the 78-acre resort, including figures of carolers, ice skaters and a train. Enjoy the lights by car or park and take a leisurely stroll around Chetola Lake. 185 Chetola Lake Drive, Blowing Rock

Island of Lights Christmas Parade & Flotilla , Carolina Beach 

Celebrate the season at the Island of Lights Christmas Parade on Dec. 2 and the Island of Lights Christmas Flotilla on Dec. 3. Carolina Beach Boardwalk and Carolina Beach Lake are decorated with holiday lights, displays, and special events throughout the month of December.

Lejeune Memorial Gardens, Jacksonville

Azalea-lined paths connect visitors to several memorials including the Beirut Memorial, Montford Point Marine Memorial, and the Onslow Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A beam from the Twin Towers is displayed at the 9/11 Memorial because Camp Lejeune Marines were the first to strike back after the 9/11 attacks. The Freedom Fountain is across the street. 109 Montford Point Landing Road, Jacksonville

North Carolina Holiday Flotilla, Wrightsville Beach 

The 39th annual North Carolina Holiday Flotilla on Nov. 26 begins with a “Day in the Park” with arts, crafts, food vendors, kids’ activities, and a car show. The lighted boat parade cruises along Banks Channel and finishes with a fireworks display over the water. 

Oak Island Lighthouse, Caswell Beach

As the last lighthouse to be built in NC, it features ship ladders, rather than a traditional spiral staircase. It’s 131 steps to the gallery level and outside balcony. Tours are available all year for climbers 9 years of age and older. Make an appointment here. 300 Caswell Beach Road, Caswell Beach 

Southport North Carolina Maritime Museum, Southport

Dive into this state-sponsored museum with its hands-on exhibits. Learn about shipwrecks, piracy, the Civil War, and other nautical adventures. 204 E. Moore St., Southport

Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas, Brevard

Courtesy of Veterans History Museum

The museum covers World War I through Afghanistan, including the Cold War and War on Terror. View one-of-a-kind artifacts, uniforms, weaponry and themed exhibits, and learn about people who served. The World War II Willys Jeep exhibit includes a World War II Harley-Davidson motorcycle. 21 East Main St., Brevard