All that buzz about the benefits of spending time in nature may peak your interest, but it’s tough to find a weekend getaway that offers family-friendly outdoor activities, time to unplug and reconnect, plus enough adventure to get the kids excited about the trip. Guess what? You’re about to discover an unexpected destination just over an hour north of Charlotte in Burke County.
Like many North Carolina mountain towns, Morganton was, up until recently, known best for the industries that flourished then fell—textiles, lumber, and furniture-making. Now, the town is taking ownership of its Native American history and proximity to Linville Gorge, the South Mountains, Catawba River, and Lake James with trails, tours, camping, and more. Plan your visit around our top picks for family adventure in a town that’s reinventing itself around the mountains, lakes, and rivers that surround it.
1. Play at Catawba Meadows Park
Spend the day at one of Morganton’s newest parks, near downtown and right on the banks of the Catawba River. Along with picnic shelters and a playground, there’s an 18-hole disc golf course and the Beanstalk Ziplines adventure center. The high ropes course offers a climbing tower more than 40 feet high and Quickjump, a 15-foot free-fall experience. Ziplines take you through obstacles like cargo nets, suspension bridges, and five interconnected ziplines up to 520 feet long. The minimum age is four years, and tandem zipping is an option for little ones who aren’t ready to go it alone.
2. Visit the Joara Living History Center
Decades before there were early settlements at Roanoke Island, Jamestown, and Plymouth, a Spanish explorer named Juan Pardo constructed six forts across the Southeast. Fort San Juan, the first European settlement inland of the Carolina coast, was built in the late 16th century at a large Native American settlement named Joara. Kids will love interpretive tours of the thatched roof huts in Catawba Meadows Park, where guides in colonial dress demonstrate cooking, crafts, and tools.
3. Hike the Catawba River Greenway
Hike and bike along a gentle section of river on the four-mile Catawba River Greenway, which is also part of the National Park Service’s historic Overmountain Victory Trail. Walk your dog along the level, paved path to the fenced dog park or bring fishing poles to drop your line at the fishing pier. A pedestrian bridge crosses the river, providing access to grills and picnic shelters at Freedom Park. The kids can even pan for gold at the site of one of the state’s earliest gold discoveries on Silver Creek.
4. Paddle the Upper Catawba River Trail
Rent canoes and kayaks at The Outpost at CBS Sports to paddle a section of the 82-mile Upper Catawba River Trail. Flatwater sections, perfect for beginners, start in Lake James at six public access points. Boats for lake kayaking are also available for rent during the summer at Lake James State Park. Families with tweens and teens can hop on the trail below the lake to paddle Class I-II riffles as the gentle river meanders through Catawba Meadows. The Outpost also rents tubes and offers shuttle services for tubing and kayaking trips.
5. Camp Under the Stars
Go offline and back to nature at a rustic campsite in Lake James State Park. Hike less than a quarter mile from your car to 20 sites on the lakeshore at the Catawba River Access, each with a fire pit, picnic table, and access to a bathhouse with drinking water, toilets, and hot showers. Paddy’s Creek Access has 33 more drive-in sites. Wake up to hiking, mountain biking, and swimming off the beach at Paddy’s Creek.
Another option is to book a drive-in campsite at South Mountains State Park. Shady sites on the Jacob Fork River have a picnic table, fire ring, and electric hook up, with a central bathhouse nearby. Hike the River Trail from camp to the park’s main attraction, the 80-foot waterfall on the High Shoals Loop Trail.
6. Chase the Brown Mountain Lights
Let your imagination run wild on an evening drive north on Highway 181 to Wiseman’s View Overlook. The elusive Brown Mountain Lights were once believed to be the spirits of slain Cherokee and Catawba warriors. They are part myth, part legend, and 100% real, flashing unpredictably in the night sky over Linville Gorge.
7. Hire a Guide
Let the outdoor experts plan your day on a guided excursion with Hikemore Adventures. Book a half-day or full-day hike, or sign up for a waterfall tour in Pisgah National Forest with hiking gear and a knowledgeable guide to tell you about the history and geology of the area. Older kids will love one of the more specialized experiences like photography workshops, wilderness survival instruction, or a fly-fishing trip, fishing gear included.
8. Grab a Bite
As your day comes to an end, stop by JD’s Smokehouse for barbecue so popular that crowds line up all day to get a table. Only open Thursday through Saturday, JD’s serves tender ribs, lightly charred beef brisket, and pulled pork that practically melts in your mouth. The sweet potato crunch is heavenly, but don’t let it stop you from ordering the equally amazing banana pudding or cobbler for dessert.
The rest of the week, you can enjoy your barbecue on the outdoor patio at Judge’s Riverside on the Catawba Meadows Park greenway. The former fish camp has been completely remodeled but still feels like a cozy country lodge, with burgers, smoked chicken, and BBQ samplers.
Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated Media in partnership with OrthoCarolina.