Whether you simply live nearby or are an Asheville local, sometimes the best thing for you, your friends, or your family is to get out of the city and see something new. The good news is that North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina boast a variety of great parks where you can affordably explore nature, learn history, get great exercise, and enjoy the beauty of this part of the world.
Consider how some of these parks could factor into your next weekend away, summer road trip, or even just be a pit stop on a road trip to see family!
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State Parks Near Asheville
There are so many state parks in the states around Asheville that I focused on the ones available in North Carolina, but don’t let that stop you – these are just a sampling, and many more can be part of your journeys around the state!
1. Go Biking and Horseback Riding at Gorges State Park
A short drive out of Asheville will bring you to Sapphire, NC, and Gorges State Park, a great place to get out and play in nature. There are bike and bridle trails for those who love to ride a mountain bike or a horse, and there are great spots for picnics, bird-watching, and fishing in the park.
Gorges features waterfalls and hiking trails, as well as a variety of electric and non-electric camping sites, making it a good option if you want a weekend trip. There are even a couple of rentable cabins. Make the most of the outdoors with your family at Gorges State Park.
Location: 976 Grassy Ridge Road, Sapphire, NC.
2. Make It a Grand Adventure at Lake James State Park
Less than an hour from Asheville proper is the beautiful lakeside locale of Lake James State Park. With many miles of hiking and biking trails and lots of picnicking spots, you’ll get plenty of natural beauty, but the real attraction is the lake. With swimming, fishing, and paddling, you can explore the ecosystem and relax with family and friends.
While there are camping sites for tents, there are also a few primitive camping sites accessible by paddling, an adventure sure to excite young ones who will feel like intrepid explorers as they go to find their spot. There’s seasonal beach access as well as on-site boat rentals and boat ramps to round out the many options available at Lake James.
Location: 7321 NC-126 Nebo, NC.
3. Feel the Breeze From the Bridge at Grandfather Mountain State Park
Known for its mile-high bridge and impressively challenging Profile Trail, Grandfather Mountain State Park is an exciting destination for hiking. The Mile High Swinging Bridge is an incredible spot for 360-degree views of the mountains (or, on the day I visited, totally enveloping fog! It’s another sensation, but equally memorable.)
The suspension bridge isn’t truly a “swinging bridge” since it is now made with steel and springs to keep it fairly steady. The Profile Trail and other trails in the park offer hiking paths, ladders, and more to help you scale the mountain that, from far away, looks like a person’s face – the Grandfather!
Be aware that the price at the door varies based on demand – higher prices are reserved for holidays and days near them, as well as peak leaf-color days and a few other high-demand times of year. If you happen to be traveling in April and will be going to Grandfather Mountain with locals, there may be available “Dollar Days” tickets that are substantially discounted. Check the website for details.
Location: 9872 Highway 105 South, Banner Elk, NC.
4. Explore the Dome at Stone Mountain State Park
Stone Mountain State Park is known for its iconic 600-foot granite dome, a designated National Natural Landmark. This park offers tent camping and RV sites where you can hook up to electric and water, as well as group tent sites.
During your visit, you can organize for a horseback ride on the bridle trails, hiking adventures on 20 miles of dedicated trails, or rock climbing and fishing. The historic Hutchinson Homestead offers a glimpse into mid-19th-century farming life, and if you’re interested in a long trek, the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail runs through this park. Waterfalls are also a beautiful part of this park, so make sure to go hunting for them!
Location: 3042 Frank Parkway, Roaring Gap, NC.
5. Take Mountain Biking to the Extreme at Lake Norman State Park
The larger community around Lake Norman offers a wide variety of boating, swimming, and other lakeside activities, but the state park itself is a great destination for outdoor endeavors, too. It offers a 30+ mile single-track mountain biking trail network, making it a great place for exploring on bicycle.
Lake Norman is connected to Park Lake by a dam, and this separate space offers both paddling and fishing opportunities that are a little less crowded with big boats than the main lake. Lake Norman State Park is also a great place to reserve a tent, RV, or trailer campsite, and there are plenty of hiking trails if mountain biking isn’t your go-to sport.
Location: 759 State Park Road, Troutman, NC.
6. Take in Magnificent Views at Hanging Rock State Park
I first went to Hanging Rock State Park as a teen for an excursion to hike for a day, and even then, I knew how special the rocky outcroppings and mountain caves were – I still think these spots are some of the most beautiful in NC on a clear day.
To make a weekend getaway out of Hanging Rock State Park, rent a vacation cabin or pull up to a camping site (no hookups are offered for electric and water – just be aware). There are some biking and horseback trails, but the main attractions are the 48 miles of hiking trails, enough to keep even avid adventurers busy for multiple days.
When you feel like relaxing a bit, plan to paddle a bit on the Dan River or do some swimming, and don’t forget to pack a picnic lunch for eating at the peak of Hanging Rock Trail (or wherever you get hungry on the dozens of other blazed trails around the park!).
7. Experience Nature Near the State Capitol at Umstead State Park
If you have a trip to Raleigh planned anyway, a great break from your big-city sojourn is to head for William B. Umstead State Park. This park offers many of the wilderness amenities you expect from a state park, like tent camping, hiking, biking, and horseback riding, but only minutes from the city.
A trail connects Umstead to the campus of the North Carolina Art Museum, which features additional trails that have huge sculptures all along the routes for an exciting change of pace compared to other nature trails. Manmade lakes in and near the park offer fishing areas, and Maple Hill Lodge offers a historic open-room building where campers can bring sleeping bags for group events – make some memories here!
Location: 8801 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC.
8. Long Weekend? Head for Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Now, I know most people won’t take a 7-hour drive to go to a state park on the weekend, but for long weekends, I have a special place in my heart for Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Most of us know that the sand dunes along a beachside area are a haven for a variety of species, as well as simply an interesting and compelling landscape.
Jockey’s Ridge features some of the highest sand dunes on the Atlantic Coast and is a beautiful place to find the breezy weather to fly kites and the gorgeous views of the sunset over the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My personal connection to it is that there is a hang gliding school there.
Unlike the extremes of hang gliding over wooded areas, the hang gliding school at Jockey’s Ridge offers lessons where you learn how to leap off tall sand dunes and glide through the air before landing safely on the dunes themselves – still thrilling, but not quite the same thing as being hundreds of feet in the air.
There are also areas of the state park that offer swimming, kiteboarding, paddling, and windsurfing in Roanoke Sound, as well as wetland habitats where you can learn about the unique ecosystems of the Outer Banks.
Location: 300 W Carolista Drive, Nags Head, NC.
National Parks Near Asheville
The National Parks Service manages so much more than just raw wilderness with some hiking trails: many of the NC, TN, and SC national parks are actually monuments, memorials, battlefields, and other sites of historical significance.
For kiddos that haven’t quite gotten into their history textbooks yet, one of the best ways to help history matter to them is to let them see the actual places where history happened, including restored buildings that help them literally walk through what the area looked like more than a hundred years ago.
1. Fire Up the Muskets at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was a major skirmish in the Revolutionary War in 1781, a living history spotlight on what life was like in military conflict when the United States was working to establish independence from Great Britain.
When you visit the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, you’ll find a visitor’s center where you can learn about the site. And multiple times each year, there are commemoration events where reenactors showcase the music, weaponry, and battle style of this era in military history.
For kids who are interested in getting context before they visit, there is a Virtual Junior Ranger program where they explore an online version of the Guilford Courthouse museum and learn details that make the experience of living on a 1700s battlefield real to them.
Location: 2332 New Garden Road, Greensboro, NC.
2. Take Flight at the Wright Brothers National Memorial
For families with at least one person who loves airplanes, the Wright Brothers National Memorial gives context to the huge leap forward that was the creation of the first airplane back in 1903.
The hands-on exhibits will help families and individuals to see what the two brothers had to move through to create their flying machine and how the mechanics of getting a machine off the ground in the early 20th century were truly impressive. Located on the Outer Banks, this memorial is a hike from Asheville, but when combined with a trip to the beach or to Jockey’s Ridge, it’s a wonderful dive into history while getting your summer sunshine in.
3. Find Historic Archaeology at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Not far from Wright Brothers National Memorial and Jockey’s Ridge is the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Complete your Outer Banks adventure with a stop here to learn about the significance of this fortification, where evidence of the 1580s “lost colony” is preserved. Watch “The Lost Colony,” the longest-running outdoor drama, and explore all that archeologists have discovered by carefully assessing artifacts from this site.
Because no one truly knows what happened to the colonists who arrived in the 1580s and settled here, children and adults alike will find an intriguing mystery at the heart of this historic site and will see why archeologists have to use so many clues and so much background to reconstruct histories where no written record exists.
Location: 1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC
4. Learn About Colonial Life at Moores Creek National Battlefield
If you have a trip planned to the Wilmington area, consider a stop at the Moores Creek National Battlefield. As you’ve probably learned, North Carolina was a major hub of Revolutionary War battles, and the Moores Creek Bridge was a significant site as one of the first significant victories in the American Revolution.
The site is home to information about the battle itself but also to exhibits regarding colonial life in eastern NC, helping visitors envision what it was like to be slowly changing identities from colonists to independent citizens of a new country.
Location: 40 Patriots Hall Drive, Currie, NC.
5. See Incredible Wetlands Diversity in Congaree National Park
Protected due to its confluence of nutrients, biodiversity, and sheer beauty, the Congaree National Park covers wetlands, waterways, and one of the oldest and tallest forests still standing east of the Mississippi River.
Families gather to camp at night and spend the days hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Rangers lead guided hikes to see some of the most impressive trees in the forest, to look for owls at dusk, or to simply learn more about the natural variety in the park.
Exploring on the boardwalk trail keeps you nice and dry and allows you to observe animals (including turtles and alligators) without disturbing them. From beneath the shade of the incredible cypress trees, you can enjoy the impressive history of this area.
Location: 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC.
6. See How Science Changes the World at Manhattan Project National Historical Park
In the small and otherwise unassuming town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the development of the atomic bomb began at the Manhattan Project facility. The facilities here were used for enriching Uranium, a key ingredient in the atomic bombs dropped during World War II, and to this day, the US Department of Energy has secure nuclear research facilities in this city, and it is also home to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Within the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge is the Oak Ridge Visitor’s Center, a place to learn about the Manhattan Project’s legacy as well as its influence on this town, and you can get details on visiting various spots in the city that were key to the history of atomic development.
Location: 461 W Outer Drive, Oak Ridge, TN.
7. Explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
While it is right here in our backyard, the spectacular natural beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes it feel a world apart from downtown Asheville or suburban Arden and Weaverville. This is a truly expansive park, with four different visitor’s centers at Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Clingmans Dome, and Sugarlands, so a good first stop when you arrive is the visitor’s center closest to where you’re planning to spend time.
There are various waterfalls, impressive mountain peaks, and even the Cataloochee Valley, home to historic buildings from the last 200 years that have weathered the changing world of the Great Smoky Mountains. Stop by the Mountain Farm Museum to show children how homesteads were built and run in the past, or simply take in breathtaking views along the Foothills Parkway.
Between flora and fauna, natural beauty, and a wide variety of options for camping or lodging, you can chart your own course and get to know this well-preserved area of lovely wilderness on your own schedule.
Various locations; library is located at 8440 TN-73, Townsend, TN.
Tips for Making the Most of State and National Park Visits
- Find out about costs and accommodations ahead of time. While some parks feature camping or have free admission, this varies widely based on the park itself. Most state and national parks with on-site camping do have a way to reserve spots online, so your best bet is to reserve those spots as early as possible – holidays tend to sell out of spots. Don’t assume you have to rough it either – many state and national parks have some kind of cabins or lodges that allow you to stay in a bit more comfort.
- Pet policies vary between parks, so if you intend to bring Fido along, make sure that you respect the leash requirements and know the options for bringing your pup buddy to the park. In parks with larger wildlife living in them, pets may not be allowed for their own safety.
- Depending on what part of the season you are traveling in, remember that trails do close due to impassable conditions after large rains or other weather. Especially in the winter but also all year long, rangers opt to close spaces that need a rest from human visitors, so know what’s actually open before you go – you can usually find advisories and updates on the website.
- The NPS offers a great trip-planning guide that you can use to help your kids understand what is going to happen on the trip while also developing their critical thinking and planning skills. It includes plans for if family members get separated, getting permits or reservations ahead of time, and choosing activities that fit the limits of all people visiting, which are great conversations to have.
- The national parks, in particular, offer a variety of passes that help defray the costs of visiting national parks – while most aren’t the right fit if you just intend to visit a couple parks a year, if you and your family want to see more of the country, consider whether any of you qualify for the Senior, Military, Disability Access, or Federal Lands Volunteer passes. There’s also an $80 annual pass for adults and a free pass for children in the 4th grade, making that year a particularly good time to go on a national parks road trip!
- While we mentioned a few of the state parks in this list, North Carolina has far more state parks, many of which are small but mighty and can offer a great break in the middle of a road trip or a chance to get out in nature when the rest of the trip is to a city. Check out this great directory of the parks and see if your next trip will take you past a state park!