You’ve turned off the cell phone, put the home renovations on hold, and are ready to head into the woods. The snacks are packed, the kids are loaded in the car, but where are you gonna go? From the best car camping spots to easy-going hiking and whitewater, we’ve got you covered with beta on the best kid-friendly destinations in the Southeast.
“As long as they’re old enough to walk, they can climb easy stuff,” says Mark Rineer, a climbing guide and instructor at Brevard Rock Gym who specializes in introducing kids to rock. “And they usually pick it up right away because they’re interested and have high energy.”
Rineer adds that getting an experienced guide who knows how to instruct children is key and top roping is the best way to introduce a kid (or adult) to the sport. Once you get them on the rock, keep them one rope length from the ground and everything should be kosher. Here are a couple of kid friendly crags worth checking out.
Great Falls Park, Washington, D.C.
Just a few miles from the capital, there are more than 100 routes inside Great Falls Park rated 5.5 to 5.8, making it a budding climber’s paradise. The climbing takes place in a picturesque river gorge cut by the Potomac River, and it’s all top roping, which only adds to the beginner friendly atmosphere.
Head to the Sand Box, a crag boasting a cornucopia of beginner routes, including The Corner, a 5.4 route that many say is the best beginner line in the park. The base of all Sand Box climbs is covered with deep sand, so if the youngster gets bored with sending routes, they can build sand castles. www.nps.gov/gwmp.
Crowders Mountain, Charlotte, N.C.
Crowders is known for short routes with access trails at the top and bottom, perfect for top roping. The mountain pops out of the Piedmont like a prairie dog, and offers flatlanders in Charlotte a much needed mountain retreat (thus the nickname Crowded Mountain). Check out Gastonia Crack (5.4) on the Practice Wall. It’s got the reputation as “everyone’s first top rope climb” so your kids will feel right at home. www.crowdersmountain.com.
Big Bend Campground, Monongahela National Forest, W.Va.
Tucked inside the Smoke Hole Canyon along the South Branch of the Potomac, the campsites of Big Bend are located on a peninsula surrounded by the river on three sides. Tree-lined cliffs rise above the site forming a deep, green gorge, and trails start from the campground.
Diversion: Tubing. The easy-going South Branch makes a large loop around the campground allowing tubers to put in and take out at virtually the same spot after an hour-long trip through ripples. www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf.
Standing Indian Campground, Nantahala National Forest, N.C.
Pick your adventure at this campground. The Standing Indian is a stone’s throw from Fontana Lak, the Nantahala River and the Appalachian Trail. The campground itself? Fifty high country sites with all the developed amenities your family needs within a remote, forested setting. And Standing Indian has some of the best waterfall hiking around. The impressive Mooney Falls and Laurel Falls are just short hikes away.
Diversion: Ghost stories. According to Cherokee legend, Standing Indian Mountain is the remains of a mighty warrior who was turned to stone by the Great Spirit during a battle with a flying monster. www.forestcamping.com.
Desoto Falls Campground, Chattahoochee National Forest, Ga.
There’s private camp sites and then there’s Desoto Falls Campground. Twenty four sites are split between two creek-side loops offering one of the most private campground experiences in the South. The A.T. is nearby, as well as Raven Cliffs Wilderness, but the real treat is easy access to Desoto Falls, a series of falls highlighted by a 200-foot slide.
Diversion: Waterfall hikes. Three distinct falls along Frogtown Creek comprise Desoto Falls, all of which are accessed by an easy trail starting at the campground (Desoto Falls Trail). The waterfall earned its name when early settlers found a piece of armor at the base of one of the falls that was supposedly left behind by Hernando de Soto during his quest for gold. www.fs.fed.us/conf/desotocp.htm.
Big Meadows Campground, Shenandoah National Park, Va.
Big Meadows is close to a number of major attractions within Shenandoah, but you won’t want to leave the campground. The 640-acre grassy meadow is the largest treeless area in the park and hosts a number of hiking trails stemming from its borders. Three waterfalls are within easy walking distance, and the ranger station at mile marker 51 holds regular interpretive programs for kids. Check out the Junior Ranger Program, which allows your kid to see the park from the inside out, or the Birds of Prey exhibition where you’ll get to meet and greet live raptors.
Diversion: Star gazing. Big Meadows sits at 3,500 feet in elevation and boasts a horizon bigger than your kid’s imagination. Low light pollution and the big night sky means more stars than a Hollywood premier. www.nps.gov/shen.
Hunting Island State Park, Beaufort, S.C.
It’s never hard to convince a kid to go to the beach, but add sleeping on the beach to the equation and you’ll have one enthusiastic camper. South Carolina’s most popular state park has 200 ocean front camp sites only a few steps from a pristine, state protected beach. You can body surf the waves, march to the top of the historic lighthouse (167 steps from bottom to top), hike through a blissfully flat live oak/palm forest, or collect starfish and sea shells.
Diversion: Hanging out with Loggerhead Turtles. The state park operates a hatchery watch program where you and your family can protect baby turtles from their natural predators as they make their way back into the ocean. www.huntingisland.com.
Rock Creek Campground, Cherokee National Forest
The 36 sites of Rock Creek are located at the foot of Unaka Mountain inside a beautiful cove. Even though you’re only three miles from the nearest town, the only noise you’ll hear from your tent is the babbling of Rock Creek. Take a 1.5-mile one-way hike along Rock Creek culminating in a tiered falls that drops 50 feet. Finish off the day with a swim in the crystal clear creek next to your tent.
Diversion: Biking. The .84-mile Rock Creek Bike Trail is wide, smooth, and easy going, the perfect path to introduce your youngsters to the joys of mountain biking. www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/cherokee.
You probably don’t want to send your six year old on a solo down the Green, but you also shouldn’t let whitewater’s “extreme” reputation keep you and your family away from the rivers.
“The primary concern for parents is safety. They’re worried about little Johnny falling in the water or getting hurt, which is understandable,” says Bob Mattingly of Rafting with Kids, a guide service on North Carolina’s kid-friendly Tuckasegee River. “But if you pick the right river and do it at a kid’s pace, you’ll have a good time.”
Tuckasegee River, Dillsboro, N.C.
The whitewater tops out at class II, which means there’s plenty of excitement for younger kids, but nothing that you can’t swim out of in a tight spot. But the real joy of running the Tuck is the temperature. The water stays in the 60s and 70s during peak summer weeks, so nobody’s going to suffer from hypothermia. www.raftingwithkids.com.
Shenandoah River, Luray, Va.
You can take a four hour canoe trip down the majestic Shenandoah, or you can do what your kids really want to do: the three mile tubing trip with just enough ripples to keep things fast and interesting. www.shenandoahriver.com.
Broad River, Athens, Ga.
There are 70 miles of water to choose from on the Broad, but your best bet is the 6.5-mile section known simply as “the Broad.” It features several class II ledges and sloughs that are perfect for introducing an older kid to the wonderful world of canoeing. 706-795-3242. ﻿www.broadriveroutpost.com.
Glade Creek Trail, New River Gorge National Recreation Area, W.Va.
The entire six-mile out and back trail meanders along Glade Creek through a scenic gorge as the stream makes its way toward the New River. The scenery is for the adults, the multiple swimming holes are for the kids. You’ll pass one small waterfall after the other on this well-developed trail, which means the kids will probably never dry off. www.nps.gov/neri/home.
Riley Moore Falls Trail, Sumter National Forest, S.C.
Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the journey but the destination that matters. At least that’s the case with Riley Moore Falls Trail. The footpath itself is fine and dandy, but the only reason anyone really hikes the one-mile long easy trail is to get to Riley Moore Falls, a 15 foot high, 50 foot wide waterfall on the Chauga River with a primo swimming hole at its base. The sandy beach and gradual entry into the deep end is just a bonus for families. www.fs.fed.us.r8/fms/.
Cheatham Hill Trail, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Ga.
It’s hard to believe this oasis exists in the middle of busy metro Atlanta. You’ve got 16 miles to choose from within the system, and the main thoroughfare connecting all trails is a wide, dirt path perfect for strollers. Singletrack branches off in every direction for the older kids and if you’re bold, head up Pigeon Hill, which caps off with an outcropping of boulders that give the summit a moon-like feel. The boulders are just the right size for scrambling if you’re a kid (or kid at heart). www.nps.gov/kemo.
Lakeside and Laurel Trail, Bays Mountain Park, Tenn.
Bays Mountain is a 3,000 acre-mountain park only six miles from Kingsport and the Tri-Cities hustle and bustle that acts as a refuge for a variety of animal and plant species. Interpretive displays are scattered throughout the park’s 25 miles of trails, so a hike in Bays can be a learning experience for kids. Combine Lakeside and Laurel Trail for a 2.5-mile hike with excellent scenery, a floating bridge, a fossil worm tube display, and an otter habitat. www.baysmountain.com.
Bradley Trail, Falls Ridge Preserve, Va.
Owned by the Nature Conservancy, the 665-acre Falls Ridge Preserve is a small pocket of forest that packs a lot of splendor into a tiny package. Located near Roanoke, the Salem Fault runs beneath the land giving the woods a diversity of geological and ecological species. Hike the easy two-mile Bradley Trail loop and you'll encounter an 80-foot waterfall and numerous small caves-enough to keep even the most ADD riddled kid interested throughout the hike. www.nature.org.
Hiking with Beasts
Llamas can carry 50-120 pounds of gear, have minimal impact on the environment, love hiking, and look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s a recipe for success when kids are involved. Domesticated 6000 years ago when the Incans started using them as pack animals in the Andes mountains, llamas are gentle, soft, extremely personable, and have found a job at many mountain guide services as hike companions. For parents, hiking with llamas is like summitting a mountain with a pack mule, entertainer, and baby sitter all in one.
Check out one of these llama trekking companies in the Southern Appalachians.
English Mountain Llama Treks: Hot Springs, N.C. Choose from day hikes with a picnic or longer multi-day backpacking trips. 828-622-9686. ﻿www.hikinginthesmokies.com.
Smoky Mountain Llama Treks: Sevierville, Tenn. SMLT specializes in excursions on ridgeline trails near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 865-428-4606. ﻿www.smokymountainllamatreks.com.
Twin Creeks Llamas: Browntown, Va. Mountain treks through the Shenandoah Valley of the George Washington State Forest and the Shenandoah State Park. ﻿www.twincreeksllamas.com