With the summer heat just around the corner, it's never too early to make plans for cooling off. North and South Carolina are filled with natural and man-made wonders where you can swim, splash and slide away the hot summer temperatures. Grab your towels, sunscreen and water shoes, and enjoy some cool relief at these destinations.
Kayaking in the Cape Fear Region
Paddling down the river in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina is a great way to catch a glimpse of local wildlife and enjoy the area's gorgeous coastal scenery. Children of all ages are welcome to kayak with Don Harty of Mahanaim Adventures in Wilmington. Kids ages 10 and under can ride in Harty's tandem kayaks with a parent. The kayaks glide through quiet, shaded river waters, and it's not uncommon to see a great blue heron or a beaver. Trips last several hours, and kayakers stop for a picnic lunch and a swim on a river sandbar.
Tip: If you're hankering for a yummy treat after hours of paddling, stop by Britts Donuts on the Carolina Beach boardwalk, 315 Cape Fear Blvd., for a local specialty. And don't worry that there are no sprinkles. These donuts are tasty just the way they are.
In and around Wilmington
Rafting the Chattooga River
Long Creek, S.C.
Kids love the thrill of rafting down the natural flowing Chattooga River, which follows the South Carolina/Georgia state line. Wildwater Ltd. Rafting takes children as young as 8 on trips down section three of the river, which includes a mix of flat water and rapids.
"Kids love it," says Erin McKergow, group sales coordinator. "You're out in the woods, and sometimes in flat water, they can jump out and swim around." Guides keep kids' attention with games and facts about what they are seeing along the river.
Tip: If you're looking for an affordable place to stay, Wildwater Ltd. just built several yurt bunkhouses. Great pizza is just down the road at Humble Pie Pizza in Long Creek, where you can enjoy live banjo music.
Chattooga Rafting Center
P.O. Box 309
Long Creek, S.C.
Tubing the Green River
Floating down the Green River in Saluda is all about relaxing. Green River Cove Tubing supplies the tubes and a ride to the drop-off point, and tubers drift 3 miles down river back to the Green River campground. Your cooler can float down the river in its own tube, so you can enjoy lunch on the water. The water averages about waist deep, and there are plenty of places to get out and swim. You can tube all day for $10, and co-owner Jackie Gillespie suggests everyone bring a life jacket and sunscreen.
Tip: If you're up for a little exercise afterward, ask for a map of nearby hiking trails at the Green River Cove Tubing convenience store. The trailhead for one shaded hike is just across the road.
Green River Cove Tubing
5200 Green River Cove Road, Saluda
Family Fun in Elizabethtown
A visit to White Lake in Elizabethtown is a decades-old tradition for many families. The lake, which is fed by subterranean springs and is known for its white sandy bottom, is a popular place to swim, water ski, boat and ride jet skis, which you can rent there. The edge of the lake looks like a beach, and the water is safe for swimming because there are no currents, tides or big waves. Kids love the nearby White Lake Water Park, which has a 2,000-square-foot swimming pool, a huge wading pool and tall water slides.
Tip: When you get hungry, head over to Melvin's Hamburgers & Hot Dogs, 133 W. Broad St. in Elizabethtown, for what many locals consider the area's best burgers. And if you're looking for a tech-free vacation, check in at Lasley's Motel, where the cabins have no phones or televisions.
Exploring Linville Caverns
You'll cool off before you even step foot in Linville Caverns, as the naturally 52-degree air inside keeps the entrance to the caves chilly, too. A guided tour of the caves lasts about 40 minutes, and visitors can view stunning stalagmites and stalactites. The guide will turn out the lights at the deepest point of the cave to let visitors experience true darkness, but if your child is afraid of the dark, let the guide know and he or she will flip the lights right back on, says Sarah Davis, the caverns manager.
The walk through the caves is mostly level, but strollers and baby backpacks aren't allowed. Be sure to wear a hooded jacket to fend off the "cave kisses," drips of groundwater leaking through the cave's ceiling.
Tip: Three miles north of the caverns is Spears BBQ & Grill, which has a great kids' menu and excellent barbecue.
19929 U.S. 221 North, Marion
Splashing at Dan Nicholas Park
Kids of all ages can't resist Dan Nicholas Park's splash pad, a large concrete slab with jets of refreshing water shooting out of the ground. For parents who would rather watch than get wet, benches line the outside of the pad. Make sure that non-potty-trained kids wear swim diapers, and bring towels.
The whole family will enjoy a paddleboat ride on the lake, whether you choose a swan, dragon or regular boat. Park entrance and the splash pad are free; paddleboat rides are $2.
Tip: Drive by High Rock Lake on your way home for a gorgeous view of one of the area's most popular fishing spots.
Dan Nicholas Park
6800 Bringle Ferry Road, Salisbury
Shelling at the Shore
Edisto Beach, S.C.
When the tide rolls out at Edisto Beach, it leaves layers of shells on the sand that can provide hours of treasure-hunting fun for all ages. Sometimes the shells are 2 to 3 inches deep, and sharp eyes can find conch shells, sand dollars and starfish. The best time to look for shells is between half-tide and low tide, and tide tables are available at any store along the beach. A good place to park for the day is Edisto Beach State Park, which has public beach access with restrooms.
Tip: If you're on the hunt for something live, pick up a string and a chicken neck at a beachfront store and dangle it in the water. You'll likely catch a crab for dinner!
Edisto Beach State Park
8377 State Cabin Road
Edisto Island, S.C.
Picnicking and Swimming at Horseshoe Falls
After enjoying a picnic by the beautiful cascades of Horseshoe Falls on Cedar Shoals Creek, children can cool off in the large shaded pool at the base of the falls. The falls are about 500 feet from the parking area at Musgrove Mill State Historic Site, which is an easy walk for kids. The best place for kids to swim and wade is in the large pool at the base of the falls, where the water is between knee- and thigh-high depth.
Pets are welcome on leashes, but be sure to pack out any pet waste and picnic trash.
Tip: On your way home, take in some Civil War history at Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site about 25 minutes away. It's the former home of S.C. Governor William Gist, who led the cries for South Carolina to succeed from the Federal Union.
Musgrove Mill State Historic Site
398 State Park Road
Clinton, S.C. 29325
Breathtaking Splash at Sliding Rock
Sliding Rock in the North Carolina mountains rivals any water park with its thrilling 60-foot slide down a natural rock formation into a 6-foot-deep pool of cool water. Children age 7 and older can slide alone, and younger kids can ride on a parent's lap. The slide is fast, so the littlest ones may have more fun playing in the shallow water near the bottom of the slide. Lifeguards are on duty in the summer, and restroom and changing facilities are available.
Tip: For another fun outing, stop by Crab Creek Catfish Farm in Hendersonville, where children under age 12 can fish all day for free with a paying adult. Take your catch home for $3 a pound.
Along U.S. 276, about 7.5 miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway (or a little more than 7 miles north off of U.S. 280 in Brevard
Pisgah Forest near Brevard
Playing in Boomerang Bay at Carowinds
Whether you're swimming, sliding or riding a wave, Carowinds' Boomerang Bay water park offers a plethora of ways to cool off. The 20-acre park features a huge wave pool, 11 water slides and a long lazy river. Younger children will enjoy the three-level water jungle gym at Jackaroo Landing, and older ones may be brave enough to try water sliding in total darkness in the Awesome Aussie Twisters. Food is available at the park, but you can also eat a picnic lunch at tables outside the park.
Tip: After a day at the park, treat yourself to a cupcake or cake pop at the Cupcrazed Bakery in Baxter Village, 936 Market St., Suite 103, in nearby Fort Mill, S.C.
14523 Carowinds Blvd., Charlotte
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer based in Charlotte and the mother of two young children.