By Laura Simon

When I volunteered to take a day trip to Chimney Rock State Park, I only knew that it featured a series of steps to a large rock outcropping that looks – appropriately – like the mountain’s chimney. I planned our trip for a day when I was flying solo with all three kids, figuring that we’d climb the steps, take a few photos, and stop for ice cream on our way back to the Triad.

I really should have done a little more research, because Chimney Rock State Park, along with the town at the base of the mountain, could keep you busy for days. In fact, if you only hike the chimney, you’ll be missing out.

To reach the Chimney itself, you can either start at the base of the mountain and hike for several hours, or you can drive to an upper parking lot and start your climb there. I opted to drive because even twenty minutes uphill with three kids can be challenging enough. Right next to the parking lot, we found a gift shop, clean restrooms, a nice area with picnic tables and panoramic views…and a long tunnel leading to an elevator. Wait…what? That’s right, you can take a (free) elevator almost all the way to the top.

We didn’t take the elevator because I needed to wear my children out. Instead, we climbed all 500 steps to the chimney. It was not primitive hiking. The steps were well-constructed and relatively new, with good, high railings to keep kids contained. The path itself was a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, only it was choose-your-way-to-the-chimney. My kids loved this – and also argued over every single choice. The steps are more than just steps. There’s a grotto, a tunnel under a cave, an actual cave, and one little passageway that had me crawling on my hands and knees. Had it just been steps, I think we would have had tears halfway up. Instead, my kids thought they were in a real, live Minecraft game.

The chimney itself is surrounded by fencing, so young kids can safely take in the views – and the views are incredible. You can see all the surrounding mountains and all of stunning Lake Lure just below. (If you don’t know, Lake Lure is where they filmed the movie Dirty Dancing and it looks every bit like a perfect movie set.) There’s no shade up on the rock, and we went on a hot day, so we were dripping by the time we came down the first flight of steps. But guess what? There’s a little deli/ice cream store at the top of the mountain, along with picnic tables (and umbrellas) where you can enjoy the view. Ice cream has never tasted so good.

While we ate, I decided to read the park literature, and that’s when I realized that the Hickory Nut Trail, which starts at the base of the stairs, leads to the waterfall where they filmed The Last of the Mohicans. The trail is just shy of a mile and a half round trip, and advertised itself as appropriate for families with children. I just had to see that waterfall, and I can tell you, it was worth the hike.

We were worn out after that trail, but there was a lot more we could have done. Chimney Rock features a whole network of trails, all clearly marked and well-maintained. They vary in difficulty level from strenuous to easy, and include a Great Woodland Adventure trail with learning activities for young children.

If you decide to visit with your family, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The park is a good 2.5 to 3 hours from the Triad, so I recommend leaving early and planning to come home late. Alternately, there are many cabins, bed and breakfasts, and lake houses in the area. Next time, I’ll plan to spend the night.
  • While it’s a state park, there is an entrance fee. Once I saw the facilities and how well-maintained everything was, I understood the cost. Children under 5 are free, and they offer military discounts. But you’ll want to give yourself time to get your money’s worth.
  • This isn’t really a stroller-friendly park. Almost all the trails – even the ones that are child-friendly – feature a ton of steps. If you have a little one, a carrier is your best bet. Also, these trails are on the side of a mountain, so you might want some sort of restraint for toddlers who like to run wild.
  • The village of Chimney Rock sits at the base of the mountain and contains a mini-golf course, gem mining, and a variety of quaint little stores and restaurants. A river runs behind the business district, and you can walk the boardwalk and even play in the water. The town itself doesn’t have consistent sidewalks and could be challenging to navigate with young children during busy season, but you could easily get around using the boardwalk instead.
  • Nearby Lake Lure also features a business district, along with a public beach. These are tourist areas and can be busy on summer weekends, so plan accordingly.

If you haven’t visited Chimney Rock with your family, be sure to add it to your summer bucket list. It’s worth the drive.

See more Day Trip ideas here!

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