Gathering around a crackling campfire. Skipping stones across a lake at sunrise. Splashing through a bracing mountain creek. Some of the best childhood memories are created in nature, when family travels take you out of your daily routine, allowing you to reconnect with each other and the world around you. There are many benefits to family travel—-unplugging, encouraging environmental stewardship, and watching the kids gain confidence and self-reliance, just to name a few. With its growing greenway network, lakes, rivers, and mountain peaks, Charlotte offers unique outdoor adventures for all ages and interests, making it an ideal destination for a family trip. So, grab your backpacks and paddles, gather the kids, and take your pick from our list of the top family-friendly outings in the Queen City.
Pedal the Greenways
Take a stroll on one of the trike-friendly and bike-friendly greenways that wind through downtown Charlotte. If you don’t have a bike, pick up one at a B-Cycle station to pedal the rolling Little Sugar Creek Greenway for more than 6 miles from Dilworth to Uptown. For a shorter ride, bike the lakefront loop around Freedom Park, and then stake your claim to one of the many shaded picnic tables along the way. If you ride the Rail Trail through South End, you’ll want to take breaks to seesaw on Fowler Porch and beat the drums at the Rail Trail Symphony.
Hike the Trails
From mountains to meadows, Charlotte’s hiking trails are just challenging enough to keep your tweens and teens on their toes, with plenty of options for the stroller crowd too. For families with little ones, Reedy Creek Preserve is your best bet. Trails lead to two ponds, a nature center, playground, and a dog park for a full day’s worth of activities. School-aged kids are going to love Latta Preserve’s hiking trails along Mountain Island Lake, with stops to see the owls, hawks, and eagles at the Carolina Raptor Center. For a serious vertical challenge, take your teens to Crowders Mountain State Park to climb Kings Pinnacle and the Crowders summit.
Starting with strawberry season in May, there’s a non-stop line-up of fresh fruits and vegetables available at the u-pick farms around Charlotte. Spend your morning picking peaches and blackberries at Black’s Peaches over the state line in York, S.C. Visit Carrigan Farms in Mooresville for strawberries, apples, pumpkins, and hayrides, and then cool off with a swim at their beach and quarry.
Take a Swim
Who knew you could spend a day at the beach without ever leaving Charlotte? Ramsey Creek Park and Lake Norman State Park have sandy beaches beside shallow water for the sandcastle crowd. If your kids are ready for more, team up to power through Class I-III rapids on a two-hour rafting trip at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
Pitch a Tent
Spend a weekend close to home but a world away at McDowell Nature Preserve or Cane Creek Park. You can make setting up camp a family project, and then hike, fish, paddle, and play ‘til sundown. Campsites come with fire rings, grills, and picnic tables, and both parks offer several miles of hiking trails and flatwater paddling. If you’re not quite ready for tent camping, rent a cabin with beds, a refrigerator, and electricity at Cane Creek.
Try Mountain Biking
If everyone’s mastered the greenways, take on a new challenge on the beginner mountain biking trails at the Whitewater Center. More than 10 miles of smooth and flowy novice trails provide the perfect introduction to mostly flat, non-technical terrain. The center also offers beginner clinics and group rides. When you’re ready for more, get on the Carolina Thread Trail at Long Creek Preserve, Mountain Island Park, Seven Oaks Preserve, and along the South Fork of the Catawba River in McAdenville.
Paddle the Flatwater
Rent sit-on-top kayaks and SUP boards at the Whitewater Center's dock on the Catawba River to explore the undeveloped shoreline above Lake Wylie. An island just offshore divides the river into two channels for hours of paddle practice on calm water that’s sheltered from motorboat traffic. Take your kayak upriver to explore shady Long Creek, or stay close to the dock for a kayak or SUP lesson with a certified instructor.
Spend a half or full day with your teens on the Mountain Island section of the Catawba River Blueway. Put in at the Neck Road Access to paddle up to 12 miles out and back along protected shoreline to the Riverbend Boat Ramp. Paddle in the early morning or at dusk for your best chance to see deer, wild turkeys, and foxes in the forest, heron and bald eagles overhead, and several species of turtles and water snakes along the shoreline.
There’s a climbing challenge for every age and skill level at the USNWC. Start off at the bouldering area, where younger kids can safely scramble over the rocks to learn the basics, while spectators in the family hang out in the shade of the River Center and cheer them on. Right next door, older kids will spend hours choosing routes on the outdoor climbing center’s 46-foot spire and 30-foot wall.
Leave the ropes and harnesses behind for Deep Water Solo, a five-tower free-climbing challenge with 25- to 45-foot high routes arching over a pool of water. Designed for teens and adults, the climb is only half the challenge as you pick your route, climb as high as you dare, then take a free-fall plunge into the 20-foot-deep pool below.