From mountains to sea, rivers to marshlands, we’ve got ways to make your heart pound – and in a good way.
My experience with outdoor thrills has come in many forms. Hang gliding off Jockey Ridge on my honeymoon. The inadvertent turn down a black diamond trail on a particularly icy morning in the North Carolina mountains. Rushing across Lake Murray, near Columbia, with half of our sailboat airborne.
And then there’s the thrill of watching our resident heron fish for breakfast every morning, and walking past twin fawns who are bouncing through the woods on very wobbly legs. Mentally thrilling, and not heart pounding.
The Carolinas have so many ways to go outside and enjoy life, and they’re not all extreme sports. Sure, we’ve got great areas to rappel down sheer cliffs, or leap from the mountain top with only a couple of thin sails to keep you aloft. Zip lines are springing up everywhere, making treetop soaring very accessible. Closer to terra firma, our bike trails can invite an adrenalin rush, while kayaking through whitewater can be invigorating, and a bit chilling.
For those so inclined, you can get your thrills from spotting an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, or perhaps a piping plover. What about finishing your first marathon, walking the Palmetto Trail, or landing a king mackerel? All thrill-inducing activities, as well.
The point is to invest in outdoor experiences – good for your mental and physical health, and great for keeping endorphins high.
We (and so many others) love the Carolinas because they offer hundreds of ways to live our best lives. Here are a few experiences to add to your to-do/bucket/I-wanna-go-there list.
There are more than 120 noted bike trails in the Carolinas, and that’s just those that have been documented, measured and judged by your bike riding peers. In this issue alone, we’ve learned that Lisa Ballesteros enjoys biking the 50 miles within her community of Nexton, in Summerville, SC, while John Pocaro feels the same way about biking through Brunswick Forest, in Leland, NC.
First, you’ve gotta consider biking portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Those who’ve been there know there’s no better way to appreciate mountain views than zooming around a curve on this most picturesque of roads. Consider beginning your ride at Julian Price Memorial Park and you’ll have a seven-mile ascent. The good news is the number of scenic overlooks along the way to give you breathing room, and the great view of Grandfather Mountain you’ll enjoy. Crossing the Viaduct feels like flying.
Other options? Hatteras Island showcases a stunning coastal bike route running about 25 miles along the only major road on the island. Water views, both sides.
Or what about a Golf Country biking tour, through North Carolina’s Sandhills, between Southern Pines and Pinehurst? Smooth cruising, beautiful homes, charming towns. We’re in!
There are more, of course, including the Cashiers Tour that will make you burn while you encounter awesome vistas at every turn of your ten-mile trek.
In South Carolina, we love the Swamp Rabbit Trail through Greenville, and over the Reedy River. The North Augusta Greenway is a mostly flat rails-to-trails ride for an easier experience. Find the spur that takes you to the Savannah River. If you’re vacationing along the Grand Strand, seek out the Bike the Neck trail in Murrells Inlet (near Myrtle Beach). It runs along U.S. 17 on the historic Waccamaw Neck, a long, narrow spit of land that is much loved by all. And what about biking the Ravenel Bridge, between Charleston and Mount Pleasant? It’s just under three miles, and along the way you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views of the Charleston Harbor. The bragging rights aren’t bad, either.
What’s SUP? Stand Up Paddleboards may be the newest way to glide along the waterways, but many devotees still swear by their kayaks and canoes. Whatever your preference, there are plenty of areas to use paddle power to traverse ribbons of water.
Check out the Charleston Paddleboard Company, where you can take a wildlife tour (and hope to be joined by a curious dolphin or two) or a moonlight SUP tour for two hours of thrilling serenity.
Carolina Paddleboard takes you around Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, NC, offering a different view of this most scenic area with wildlife glimpses all but guaranteed.
Kayakers, canoeists, listen up. How do river names like French Broad, Nolichucky, Tuckaseegee, Ocoee, Nantahala, and Watauga sound? With monikers influenced by the Cherokee, the rivers have been transportation pathways for hundreds of years. Today, they’re sites for recreation. You decide. Thrills and chills, or languid relaxation?
Every river is unique, although all promise beautiful scenery, wildlife encounters and good times away from it all. Take the family, your significant other, or the guys and girls from the office. Maybe you’ll get a bit of whitewater, just to speed up your ride.
Further south, more adventurous souls will want to check out sea kayaking, or blackwater rambles where you may find a turtle sunning along the bank as you glide by.
Did you know that North Carolina has more zip lines than anywhere in the East? It’s the terrain that invites treetop views, and the speed that makes you feel as if you’re flying. This relatively new sport has been embraced by families and thrill-seekers of all ages and fitness levels, and you can find a zip line from mountains to shore. Think Sky Valley in Blowing Rock, or the Adventure Center in Asheville. The Gorge, in the gorgeous Green River Gorge near Saluda, garners five stars from Trip Advisor and says it’s the fastest, steepest zip line in the world. Looking over 10,000 acres as you fly by isn’t bad, either. We did say thrills, after all.
Toward the beach, Hilton Head Island offers a two-hour canopy eco-adventure tour through live oaks and looking out over the water. This adventure includes eight zip lines, soaring 75 feet up, plus swinging bridges and an aerial staircase. (Going with friends? The ending includes a dual cable zip line adventure finale – two of you, racing to the finish. It’s not a quiet glide.)
For something a bit different, try their Aerial Adventure Hilton Head, with 50 in-the-tree challenge activities on six courses, ranging from easy to hard as you cross swinging bridges, zip on a skateboard zip line, jump through hoops, and climb many invigorating obstacles. It’s self-guided and appropriate for five and up, but don’t be fooled. No matter your age, you’ll enjoy the challenges.
I like my trophies on the wall, in a frame. We’ve got one wall in our home covered in photos and soon, we’ll be expanding. We’ve been known to sit and simply admire our handiwork. The images are thrilling – if only to us. With the varying terrain and wildlife found in the Carolinas, a photo safari offers a great experience, where you’ll learn techniques that will improve your “hunting” and make your photo gallery shine.
Chris Barnes founded North Carolina Photo Safaris and today, the company offers more than 100 itineraries, from two hours to long weekends. He’s been a professional photographer for more than 30 years and he caters to all skill levels. His staff is “tech-savvy, cooperative, educated, and energized.”
Down in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Eric Horan garners raves on Trip Advisor. One reviewer calls him “the most knowledgeable person I know about shore birds. He is the complete Photo Safari guide. Can identify all the birds. Knows the different habits and can place you in the position for the best photos possible.” Pretty strong stuff. If this sounds like your type of thrill, check out these folks as well as several others who seem to be the favs of budding photographers.
We’re not talking about Andy and Opie, headed toward their favorite fishing hole. This is a sport that grabs you and latches on. Our suggestions:
Check out the only fly fishing trail in the United States. The Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail can be found in Jackson County, amidst some of the best trout water to be found in the Great Smoky Mountains. Want to land brook, brown and rainbow trout? These folks tell you where to go.
Good times in the mountains. But wait. Head to the heartlands and find lakes filled with rockfish, bass, bream and catfish. (Ever tasted a true Southern catfish stew? Put it on your list. You can thank us, later.)
And then there’s our 500-mile coastline, where boats head out toward the Gulf Stream in search of mackerel, tuna, snapper and grouper. It can be quite the wild ride as you search for fish that taste even better after a one-on-one duel that is never a sure thing. If you can land a great barracuda, or a blue marlin, you’ll have thrills aplenty and bragging rights for months.
I know whereof I speak on this subject, having wrecked a glider as an updraft turned a lark-filled honeymoon excursion into a five-second spiral up, then down into the sand dunes on Jockey Ridge. No harm done (except to the ruined glider), but it was thrilling, to say the least.
Try it out at Kitty Hawk Kites’ Hang Gliding Training Center, the largest hang gliding school in the world. Note: These folks have been teaching the rest of us how to soar like birds since 1974. You don’t have to be physically fit, but you do need to want to learn.
Since John Harris became the first person to hang glide from the pinnacle of Grandfather Mountain, the sport has been associated with this remarkable area. Today, check out the Yadkin Valley for more experiences.
US NATIONAL WHITEWATER CENTER
Pick your thrill. At 700 acres, the world’s largest man-made whitewater river, and a variety of outdoor activities for all ages and skill levels, you have choices. You can enjoy whitewater rafting and kayaking, flatwater kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, rock climbing, zip lines, ropes courses, a canopy tour, and mountain biking on their 25+ mile trail system. Learn more at CarolinaLiving.com/whitewater.
US. National White Water Center Info
The U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC)
Varied terrain and a prime position along major migratory routes are just two of the reasons birdwatching is so exciting in the Carolinas. There are also protected forests and parks, marshes and swamps. And for those passionate about our feathered friends, their Life List expands with every Carolina season. Visit us online at link below and discover how the experts are “Birding in the Carolinas.”
WHAT'S YOUR PLEASURE?
We haven’t mentioned equestrian activities, that elusive hole in one, a perfect serve, hot air balloons and a hundred quirky ways to spend the day in search of your own version of an adrenalin rush. It’s all out there, and thousands of folks in the Carolinas are spending their free time having a good time. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade your bucket list.