The world’s first modern flight wasn’t pretty. On a windy December morning in 1903, Orville Wright released the wire that tethered his wood-and-fabric flying machine to the sand flats of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. As his brother Wilbur steadied the wing, Orville piloted forward. The plane lurched up, bucked into the wind and then stayed airborne...for 12 world-changing seconds. Today, the First in Flight State celebrates its sky-chasing heritage with a slew of airborne adventures. Hold tight!
Glide over a sand dune
Rising up to 100ft from a narrow perch between the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound, Jockey's Ridge in Nags Head is the tallest active sand dune on the East Coast. With its consistent coastal winds and a sandy-soft base for landings, this gentle giant – comprised of 30 million tons of sand – is a natural place to learn to hang glide. Long-running Kitty Hawk Kites offers a 3-hour beginner lesson that includes five flights. Not sure? Hike up the dune and scope out the action. As you’ll see, soaring is simple. Strap in, grab the glider and run – the wind takes care of the rest! For an historic ride, try the company’s 1902 Wright Glider Experience. Lying prone across the lower wing, you’ll soar above the sands in a reproduction Wright Brothers glider. It’s the only trip like it in the world.
A zip liner soaring above the treetops on Nantahala Outdoor Center's Mountaintop Zipline Tour © Image courtesy of Nantahala Outdoor Center
Barnstorm in a biplane
The Golden Age of Flight stretched across the 1920s and 1930s, a time between world wars when adventurous pilots thrilled the masses with daredevil stunts, long-distance solo flights and cross-country races. OBX Air Tour Adventures lets you relive those heady days on a flight over the coast in a 1990 Waco YMF-5, which is Waco’s modern incarnation of its classic 1930s barnstormer. Bring your flying scarf – the passenger seat and cockpit are open-air. And adrenaline junkies, sorry to dash your dreams, but you won’t be wing walking on this flight - although for an extra $79 you can hold tight for a couple of loops. Flights depart Dare County Airport in Manteo then swoop over famous shipwrecks and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Scan for turtles, dolphins and whales along the coast.
Kiteboarding off the coast
Due to its strong winds, one of the best kiteboarding spots on the East Coast is Hatteras Island, where boarders and their colorful kites fly high – sometimes up to 20 feet. Here you’ll see boarders skimming across the ocean and nearby Pamlico Sound. The better of these two spots depends on prevailing winds. Beginners appreciate the sound’s shallow waters, which stretch far from shore. The high season, May through August, is the best time to visit when the winds are particularly strong. Kitty Hawk Kites runs Waves Village, a kiteboarding condo-resort with beginner classes as well as instruction for experienced kitesurfers looking to hone their skills. A smaller Hatteras company offering lessons and rentals is Radikal Kiteboarding. Outfitters also dot the Crystal Coast to the south.
A biplane flying over the Wright Brothers Monument in North Carolina © Ray Matthews, image courtesy of OBX Biplanes/OBX Air Tour Adventures
Skydive to the sand
The white sands of Oak Island double as a drop zone on beach dives with Sky Dive Coastal Carolinas. This unique adventure – for experienced divers only – is a bucket-list jump for thrill-seekers from across the country. Beginners can sign up for a tandem dive, an adventure that begins at 11,000 or 13,000ft (depending on the plane) and includes a 120mph freefall. On clear days, look for the Oak Island Lighthouse on your way down. The company’s dive center is in Southport, about thirty miles south of Wilmington.
Fly in a wind tunnel
Who says you have to go outside to get airborne? At Paraclete XP Indoor Skydiving near Fayetteville, flyers soar inside a five-story wind tunnel – the largest vertical wind tunnel in America. During introductory Earn Your Wings flights, flyers as young as three can suit up and enjoy a float – just lean forward from the door and whoosh! You’re airborne. Repeat flyers can practice challenging bodyflight maneuvers, cranking up the thrills with flips, turns and altitude changes. Your buddies can cheer you on – or mock you roundly – from the big-windowed observation deck. So what’s keeping you afloat? Four enormous fans churning winds at 541 horsepower each.
Balloon through blue skies
Are the skies above the Tarheel State really Carolina blue? You can decide for yourself on a hot air balloon ride during the annual Carolina BalloonFest in Statesville, forty miles north of Charlotte. During this three-day festival, colorful balloons rise with the sun and float toward the clouds. It’s a beautiful sight. Tethered rides are available for those who want to soar – but also want to know where they’re landing! For balloon rides near Raleigh, climb aboard with Carolina High Hot Air Balloon Company, launching from Benson. Or look for Mt Mitchell – the highest peak east of the Mississippi – on a trip with Asheville Hot Air Balloons in western North Carolina.
A hot air balloon floating through the blue sky during the Carolina Balloon Festival © Garytog / Getty
Zipline between mountains
Buckle up, hold tight, take a step and…wheeee! The Mega-Zip is a half-mile soar above the treetops – a one-minute romp with mountain views so big you’ll forget the ground is an impressive 350ft below. The Mega-Zip is the heart-stopping highlight of the two-mile Mountaintop Zipline Tour at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), whisking riders from mountaintop to mountaintop. You’ll soak up views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and miles and miles of trees. On moonlight zips, riders glide with glowsticks, breaking the darkness with a mesmerizing light show. Tucked in the Nantahala Gorge in western North Carolina, NOC has long been known for its whitewater rafting trips on the Nantahala River. The Appalachian Trail rolls right across the grounds. If you like outdoor adventure, this 500-acre property might just be heaven.
Teeter across treetops
The Whoopsie Daisy. The Devil’s Steps. The Tarzan Swing. Back in the day, elements were the names of chemicals listed on periodic tables. At the Asheville Treetops Adventure Park, an element is one of 60 adventure challenges spread across more than 30 soaring trees and poles. Here, after clipping onto the safety system, climbers hop across flimsy bridges, scamper up rope ladders and glide down slides on six separate trails of varying heights and difficulty. Each trail is tied to a different age group. The park is 2.5 miles from downtown Asheville. Or at a higher elevation, High Gravity Adventures in Blowing Rock features more than 75 elements on a tricked-out jungle gym – one that looks like it’s had waaaay too much coffee. Close the day with a 45ft drop on the Giant Swing.
Lonely Planet has produced this article and video for Visit North Carolina. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.