North Carolina Outdoor Adventures
Take a walk on the wild side with this list of unusual activities.
Cataloochee Ranch packs busy days and memorable nights with outdoor fun. Horseback rides and hikes explore adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hearty home cooking fuels mountain biking, trout fishing, wildflower spotting, bird-watching, horseshoe pitching, swimming, and (in winter) skiing and snowboarding. Add wagon rides, bonfires, marshmallow roasts, storytelling, mountain music and square dancing, and you see why generations of families have returned for nearly 80 years to enjoy unusually great vacations at Cataloochee.
Wild Horses on the Coast
Seeing wild horses on the Coast is always a picturesque surprise. The small Banker ponies descend from Spanish mustangs that got loose when ships ran aground here 400 years ago. They graze dunes, wander beaches and splash through shallow water between islands. Find them near Corolla on the northern Outer Banks, Shackleford Banks in Cape Lookout National Seashore and roadside on Ocracoke Island. Don’t get too close though, because they’re unpredictable and potentially dangerous (plus feeding or encroaching within 50 feet of a wild horse is illegal).
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Rock Climbing & Rappelling
An abundance of quartzite cliffs and exposed granite provides countless climbing opportunities. There’s bouldering (without ropes) at Hound Ears, friction climbing (using special shoes on steep slopes) at Stone Mountain, free (with ropes, in case of falls) and aid (using attached devices) climbing at Looking Glass Rock, rappelling (descending on a fixed rope) at Chimney Rock, ice climbing on frozen waterfalls around Brevard and more. Indoor gyms bring the thrill to cities and flatlands, too.
Singletree Gun & Plough
This small rustic hideaway sets the stage for big outdoor adventure in the Piedmont. Featuring a seven-bedroom lodge and four smaller cabins on 1,000 wooded acres adjacent to Hanging Rock State Park in Westfield, Singletree encourages guests to rise before dawn for fly-fishing on the Dan River or turkey and deer hunting on largely undisturbed property. Singletree days bring horseback riding, kayaking, hiking, swimming, ziplining and watching glorious sunsets beyond cliff-rimmed Hanging Rock and the Blue Ridge.
More than 40 gem-mining attractions dot North Carolina, inviting treasure hunters to discover gold, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, garnets, quartz, aquamarines and other colorful semi-precious stones. Learn to operate a mining sluice, grab a shovel and dig, or go creekin’ by wading into streams and poking under rocks, looking for shiny finds. Only one – Emerald Hollow Mine in Hiddenite – offers the tantalizing prospect of finding emeralds, as it’s the only place in the United States where you can mine for these green gemstones.
Wear old sneakers and cutoff jeans or a swimsuit you don't care much about when you visit Sliding Rock in Pisgah Forest. Nature provides a thin sheet of clear mountain water that streams down a 60-foot slope of smooth rock and ends with a splash in a seven-foot-deep pool that’s always a shiver-inducing 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the heat of summer. There’s a viewing platform for folks who would prefer to watch others take the plunge.
Whether for leisurely afternoons or ambitious weekends, kayakers and canoeists dip paddles in a variety of coastal waters: salt marshes, tidal rivers, Outer Banks inlets, broad Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, and natural areas around Kitty Hawk Woods, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Island, Merchants Millpond and others. Camping platforms, such as those at Holladay’s Island near Edenton, involve paddling to raised 16-by-24-foot decks, pitching tents, hanging lanterns, cooking out and stargazing from just above moored vessels.
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As fall leaves begin to color the forests, majestic Monarch butterflies add their own orange-and-black beauty to the highlands. For several weeks starting in mid-September, thousands of them flit about in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, gathering energy for their long migration to Mexico. Especially good places to enjoy the flying show are at Wagon Road Gap and Cherry Cover Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, south of Asheville.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Steady winds off the ocean pile sand onto Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest dune system in the eastern United States. Located on the Outer Banks at Nags Head, it’s a great place to fly kites, scan the Atlantic and Roanoke Sound on opposite sides and run laughing down the constantly replenished sand slopes. In the spirit of the Wright Brothers, who famously experimented with manned flight nearby, hang gliding is popular at Jockey’s Ridge, too.