Located an hour from Asheville, North Carolina, the city of Morganton and its surrounding area in Burke County has a lot to offer for families and outdoor adventurers, which is why it’s known as “Nature’s Playground.”
It might not be as well known to out-of-towners, but we found the area to be really charming and worth more attention.
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We visited Morganton for two nights as part of our 2-week road trip on our way back home after a visit to the Outer Banks.
The drive was about 6.5 hours from the OBX and it’s about 6.5 hours from where we live on the Kentucky side of the Cincinnati Metro, making it the perfect halfway point if you are trying to break up your drive.
Things to Do in Burke County, NC
This area offers a lot of outdoor recreation options from hiking, biking, fishing, and water sports with gorgeous mountain views at every turn including the impressive formation Table Rock. I’m sharing more about things that you can do during your visit that are fun for families.
Go Kayaking at Lake James State Park
7321 NC Hwy. 126, Nebo, NC
A visit to Lake James State Park is the perfect blend of beautiful scenery, outdoor adventure, and relaxation. You can rent kayaks or canoes at Paddy’s Creek Recreation Area from May- September or you can just enjoy time swimming and hanging out on the beach.
Paddy’s Creek Recreation Area also has a concession stand and a large bathhouse with lockers available a short walk from the beach area.
There is no fee to enter the park but there is a fee to use the swimming area when lifeguards are on duty, otherwise, it’s free. The swimming area is open every day from 10 am-6 pm from May 1 through September 30.
We started our visit to the lake by choosing to go kayaking first. The water was really calm and the experience was really peaceful minus the occasional banter between brothers.
We traveled back toward the bridge that we passed on the way into the park and then paddled back toward the beach. Lake James is 6,812-acres, so you can easily spend hours exploring all of the coves around the lake if you want to.
There were a few sections of the lake that had trees sticking out of the middle of the water but they were easy to spot and it made the paddle more interesting.
The boys really enjoyed swimming in the beach area. If we had more time we would have probably stayed at the lake most of the day.
I would suggest packing beach chairs or an air lounger if you are tight on trunk space so that you are more comfortable during your beach time. Giant pool floats would also be really fun on this lake.
We also brought our inflatable stand-up paddleboard (SUP) to use at the lake. Ironically this was the only stop of our two-week road trip where we really had a chance to take our SUP out on the water.
It didn’t work out timing-wise with our schedule when we were at the OBX and it was so nice to finally use it. The conditions at the lake were PERFECT for a SUP.
If you have always wanted to try an adventure stand up paddleboarding, there are a few available for rent at the concession stand.
If you don’t feel comfortable standing up, you can always paddle on a SUP from your knees. My husband has knee issues from football and even likes to ride laying on his stomach almost like a surfboard.
Surrounding the lake, there are 25 miles of trail and 15 of those you can also use a mountain bike on. There are also 3 campgrounds at the Lake James State Park, ranging from drive-to-sites, to boat-in-campgrounds.
Go on a Beanstalk Zip Line Journey at Catawba Meadows Park
701 Sanford Dr, Morganton
Beanstalk Zip line Journey is a kid-friendly aerial course that’s still fun for teens AND adults.
The course begins with a climb up a cargo net rope tunnel to the tower followed by swaying suspension bridges.
If you are already comfortable with heights, you can challenge yourself a little more by trying to cross the bridge without using your hands to balance you on the side ropes. If you are facing your fear of heights, my biggest tip is to TRUST the equipment.
Our zipline instructors Sarah and Cassidy led us through the course. They were in charge of our braking so the only thing we had to do was enjoy the zipline ride and be ready once we reached the platform on the other side.
If you are nervous they will set your mind at ease with their safety precautions and experience with participants of all comfort levels.
There are 5 ziplines on the course ending with the 520 ft long Megazip, where you will be encouraged to hold a tight cannonball position until the end.
The tours last 1-2 hours depending on the group size. The 3 of us went through the course in about an hour because we had previous ziplining experience and a small group.
The park also has a 50 ft Climbing Tower that looked like a lot of fun and you also have the option to try the QUICKjump at the end of your zipline tour that gives you a feeling of a short freefall before the line safely rappels you down to the ground for an additional fee.
If you have younger family members this course is also a perfect one for them to try and build confidence. Guests as young as 4 years old can do the course. They have the option to zipline solo or they can even try tandem ziplining as long as the combined weight of the two people zipping is less than 250 pounds.
It’s worth mentioning that Catawba Meadows Park also has a nice playground if your kids need to burn off extra energy before or after your zipline tour.
Take a Community Bike Ride with Overmountain Cycles
313 N Green St, Morganton, NC
During our visit, we joined a community bike ride in downtown Morganton, led by Michael Lowther, the owner of Overmountain Cycles.
The community event philosophy by Overmountain Cycles says it all:
1. You’re joining a community – not a club.
2. We believe that we can go further together.
Our community bike ride was a great mix of kids, teens, families, couples, and singles of all ages and fitness levels.
It was a nice way to see more of the city from the perspective of a local and also connect with other locals.
The ride got a little challenging at times but there was “no man left behind” policy so that slower riders and kids could catch up. Safety as a priority as we crossed intersections together or before we took on THE BIG HILL.
Get a Bird’s Eye View with Thermal Valley Hang Gliding
4085 Old Amherst Rd, Lenoir, NC
Did you know that you can go tandem hang gliding an hour from Asheville, NC???!!
This was an adventure that I was equal parts EXCITED/ a little nervous about. After meeting our instructor/ owner Craig Pearson and his family, I felt 100% comfortable with this adventure.
At Thermal Valley Hang Gliding you can fly with a USHPA Certified aero-tow tandem instructor that takes you 1500-2000 ft in the sky.
We were scheduled for a tandem hang glide for the morning that we were leaving the area but the winds were not safe enough to fly so we just did a photo opp instead and took a tour. The hang glider harnesses felt very secure and was also REALLY comfortable.
I appreciated that our instructor prioritized our safety that day even though I so was bummed that we didn’t get to go!
*If you are in town for a few days you might want to schedule your flight for your first day so that you can reschedule another day during your visit if the weather doesn’t cooperate on your first try.
The gorgeous mountain views from the ground of the airport really help you visualize how incredible the views are for the flyers from over 1500+ feet up in the sky.
During our tour, I also learned that both the hang glider and the tow plane each have an emergency parachute. Thankfully they have never had to use them and have a perfect record without any incidents.
The tandem hang gliding season is typically March-October and the tandem rig can support a combined weight of 500 pounds and flights typically last between 8-12 minutes. Flyers can be ages 8 and up. (They’ve had senior citizens try it so you can’t use age as an excuse)
It’s unfortunate that our schedule didn’t have more time to stay another day to try again but I definitely plan on coming back to cross this adventure off my list!
Take a Hike to Linville Falls
Blue Ridge Parkway, Mile Marker 316
Linville Falls, NC
No visit to the region is complete without a visit to Linville Falls!
Linville Falls has bragging rights as one of the most photographed and most popular waterfalls in the state and it has the highest water volume of any major falls along the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
You have two main hiking trail options as you pass the visitor center, the Erwins View Trail and Linville Gorge Trail.
For an easier trail to the Falls, your best bet is to take Erwins View Trail at 1.6 miles round trip.
The Chimney View and Erwins View Overlook along the trail are definitely worth taking for the different perspectives of the upper and lower falls.
GPS signal and cell signal isn’t that great in near the falls so HIGHLY suggest planing your route to and from the falls ahead of time. We didn’t think about that until it was too late.
Thankfully the park ranger had some general directions printed to help us get in the general direction that we needed to go next until we found a cell signal. Stop by the visitor center if you have any questions about the hikes, the general area or you need directions.
There is a small campground nearby that is very popular that has both tent and RV sites. Make sure that you call ahead for more information (828) 765-6082.
Stop by Burke County Visitor Center
110 E Meeting St, Morganton, NC
If I have extra time at a destination I always like to swing by the local visitor center. The staff and volunteers are always a great resource for the best places to eat and some of the hidden gems that you might not be aware of.
We stopped by the Burke County Visitor Center before we headed to Lake James and we learned more about a few specific menu items to check out from the staff and we also saw a picture in the office that captured a sighting of a mysterious orb known as the Brown Mountain Lights.
Visit a Hunger Games Filming Location
Hunger Games’ fans will also want to check out some of the filming locations in Burke County including the bakery from District 12 on an Unofficial Hunger Games Fan Tour. If we would have been in town longer I definitely would have checked this out.
Great Places to Eat Around Morganton, NC
Morganton has lots of great places to eat that are both family and budget-friendly.
315 Sanford Dr, Morganton, NC
Located along the bike trail with scenic views from the banks of the Catawba River, Friday Friends offers guests great dining views of the river both inside and outside.
We opted for the outdoor seating during our visit because it was such a beautiful day.
We started with an order of nachos to share as an appetizer. A few of our favorite entrees were the Beekeeper salmon, Firebird burger, and the Pasta Alfredo.
The restaurant is filled with quotes about friendship which is appropriate because the name was formed out of a gathering of friends on a Friday night who dreamed up a restaurant that focused on great food and southern hospitality.
831 W Union St, Morganton, NC
THE place to go in town for pizza.
Moon Dog Pizza has great appetizers along with AMAZING pizza.
We started with the garlic knots, house hummus, and the fried mozzarella.
For our pizza, I would have loved to have tried some of the more creative combinations on the menu but our boys wanted something more familiar so we ordered the “Moondoggery” (red sauce base, mozzarella, gorgonzola, salami, caramelized onions, roasted garlic).
This is a very popular place but I promise that the pizza is worth the wait.
128 Greenlee Ford Rd, Morganton, NC
Located near the Catawba River Greenway, Judge’s Riverside Restaurant offers seating for guests both inside and out.
As you enter the parking lot, you might notice signs for the Crossing of the Catawba historic event that look place at the river.
We opted for the outside dining because it was such a beautiful evening. For starters, we ordered the Signature Mozzarella Sticks which came highly recommeded by several people that we met during our visit.
and the chicken tenders affectionaly known as “World’s Best Chicken Tenders” by Ed Phillips Director of Tourism for Burke County. I’ll have to agree that they were prettty fantastic.
My boys enjoyed the Charbroiled wings with a side of mac n’ cheese.
For dessert, we shared two classics, the Banana pudding and the brownie sundae which was a sweet ending to our last dinner in Morganton.
Before or after your meal, I encourage you to the walk down by the river to take in a few more of the views. There is also a wooden carving of a heart that says “I love you” that makes for a fun photo op.
317 N Green St
Morganton, NC 28655
The perfect spot pre or post bike ride…or if you just want an excuse to stop for a craft beer.
Fonta Flora Brewery has options for beer fans and non-beer fans.
My husband opted for Double Hop Beard IPA (he LOVED it) and I ordered the strawberry rhubarb kombucha which was delicious.
If you have your family with you, there is seating both inside and out and it’s the type of laid-back environment and seating set up that you will feel totally comfortable, if you want to order drinks that make both the adults and kids happy.
Where We Stayed
During our visit, we stayed at the Comfort Inn located at 1273 Burkemont Ave, Morganton. You can find deals on hotels in Morganton here. The hotel offers a complimentary breakfast that has a large selection of hot and cold items. I was really impressed with the variety. They even had a flavored waffle option. The location was conveniently located within a short drive of most of the places that we visited during our stay.
We really enjoyed our visit to Morganton and I can’t wait to come back to cross tandem hang gliding off my list along with a few more adventures!
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