- Lesli Peterson for The AJC
While there is always much to do in Atlanta, sometimes you have to get away for the weekend. If you’re looking for a vacation within five hours of the city, the options are vast. Here are 10 favorite family fun spots that cover terrain from the mountains to the shore, each guaranteed to bring lasting memories.
Blue Ridge, GA (1-2 hours) Don’t miss a ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway or a pick-your-own adventure at Mercier Orchard. An easy waterfall hike at Fall Branch Falls, or a swinging bridge adventure over the Toccoa demonstrates the beauty of this mountain town. The kids will also love gem mining, fishing, and mini golf at Lilly Pad Village. Spend your evenings in an affordable Mountain Top Cabin Rental, with spectacular views, a fireplace and hot tub and an outdoor fire pit perfect for roasting marshmallows. www.blueridgemountains.com.
Chattanooga, TN (1-2 hours) Family fun just over the state line includes the Chattanooga Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum. Visit the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, where kids can canoe in the lake or sit in a life-size eagle’s nest. Explore the Chattanooga Zoo, or take a spin on the carousel at Coolidge Park. Train lovers will enjoy a history lesson at Chattanooga Choo Choo or a stop at the Tennesee Valley Railroad Museum. www.chattanoogafun.com.
Greenville, SC (2-3 hours) You can’t visit this bohemian city without a stop at Falls Park on the Reedy river and a walk across the suspension bridge. Rent bikes from Reedy Rides, and take the Swamp Rabbit Trail toward the colorful children’s garden, Linky Stone Park. Kids will cherish a visit to the intimate Greenville Zoo. Need more? Try the Children’s Museum of the Upstate and Roper Mountain Science Center. www.visitgreenvillesc.com.
Albany, GA (2-3 hours) The Parks at Chehaw fills an entire day with fun for the whole family. Designed and supervised by Jim Fowler (Remember Wild Kingdom?) the park resembles a natural habitat. Feed the two-hump camel, or take an African Veldt ride. Learn about blue holes at the Flint Riverquarium, and see the albino alligator. A stop at Thronateeska Heritage Center provides science fun, a train adventure and a planetarium movie – all under one roof. Stay at Merry Acres Inn, where spacious rooms, a mineral spring pool and easy dining make the perfect family respite. visitalbanyga.com.
Maggie Valley, NC (3-4 hours) In winter, families fill the day with skiing at Cataloochee Ski Area, and tubing at Tube World. Without snow, visit Mingus Mill, a 19th century grist mill, or drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway to its highest point (6,023 feet). Bike-lovers enjoy Wheels Through Time, a collection of 300 of America’s classic motorcycles. Finally, don’t skip a hike at Soco Falls or Waterrock Knob, both novice climbs along the Blue Ridge Parkway. maggievalley.org.
Huntsville, AL (3-4 hours) Create memories to last a lifetime at the US Space and Rocket Center. EarlyWorks is a great kiddo museum, with numerous hands-on exhibits. Spend time outside hiking Monte Sano Nature Preserve, or exploring the playground and trails at Hays Nature Preserve. www.huntsville.org.
Asheville, NC (3-4 hours) Get active at Asheville TreeTops Adventure Park, zipping through the trees. Climb stairs to the top of Chimney Rock for unparalleled views. Hike the forest made famous in Hunger Games at DuPont State Forest, and feel the water’s chill at Sliding Rock in Pisgah National Forest. No matter your kid’s age, there is something for everyone at Biltmore Estates, from a scavenger hunt to a river float trip to exploring the playground. www.exploreasheville.com.
Gatlinburg, TN (3-4 hours) Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park features skiing, tubing, and ice skating in the cold months, and amusement attractions for warmer weather. Explore Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, and the aquatic spin-off, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Plan to spend an entire day or more at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tour by car, bike, horseback or on foot. You’ll find waterfalls on almost every stream, spectacular wildflower displays and elk, deer and black bear roaming the woodlands. www.gatlinburg.com.
Hilton Head Island, SC (4-5 hours) Most people vacation on Hilton Head for the beach. The waters are calm, and starfish, sand dollars and sea turtles are abundant. Ride bikes, take out a kayak or go on a Blue Crab Discovery Tour at the Coastal Discovery Museum. Walk the trails at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge or head indoors to The Sandbox, an interactive children’s museum. Play mini golf, see fireworks in summer, pick up seashells at nearby Hunting Island State Park, or take a turtle tour. Families will enjoy the amenities at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, named a Top 25 World’s Best Family Resort by Travel+Leisure. www.hiltonheadisland.org.
The Golden Isles, GA (4-5 hours) On St. Simons Island, climb the lighthouse, frolic on the beaches and take a trolley tour to learn more about the planters and slaves of the past. Head to Jekyll Island for a tram tour of the island’s ostentatious history, or enjoy the turtles at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Don’t skip Driftwood Beach for a peaceful escape. Go shrimpin’ on the Lady Jane out of Brunswick or glimpse dolphins with Cap Fendig off St. Simons. There are bikes, geocaches, mini golf and seriously yummy eats. www.goldenisles.com.